Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Screen time madness

I consider myself "everything in moderation" type of person.  Yet, when it comes to young children, I am very much anti-TV and anti-electronics. I understand that there are excellent educational programs/games available.  There is time (and place) for everything, including computer games, movies, cartoons and whatever the wonders of technology throw our way.  I just don't feel they are all that important for our children's development or well-being.  So, I have been limiting the kids "screen" time very harshly (compared to other families we know). Here are a few reasons.

1. My kids turn into zombies - truly, a frightening sight.

2. My son (who is 5) watches movies/cartoons at his daycare. I hate this - because I have no control over what has been shown to him. I've brought this up with the teacher, but she says "oh, they are educational videos... and sometimes we have movie days" sounds fine, but that's not the story I get from my son (who, by now, is familiar with all things Disney).

3. *Disclaimer: I know Disney has some excellent movies/animation films for kids.  This is just a vent.*
I hate Disney. It is an evil empire. They are not interested in producing high quality, artistic films for children. They are interested in making money. It is all about what can (or cannot) make profit.  I hate the annoying side-kicks they put into almost all of their films.  I hate the princesses.  I hate the dumbing down of the classic stories (kids are perceptive and smart!  don't treat them like idiots!).  I hate the liberties they take with certain fairy tales ("The little mermaid" with a happy end?  Really????).

4. I love watching my kids play. I love how they can use their imagination. Why put them in front of TV (or hand them a tablet) when they can pretend the table is a carriage... or a house... or a rocket... Way more valuable than anything they can learn from the screen.

5. My kids are young (5 and 3). There will be plenty of time for electronics when they are older.

6. I don't want them to miss out on exploring and experimenting - with blocks, pots, sticks. I want them to know - there is a whole world outside, amazing and beautiful, and it is THEIRS.

Here is what we do and what we get:
Friday is our movie night.  Kids get to pick a video/cartoon to watch (they have to agree on something).  My husband and I try to join them at least for a little bit (usually, I spend this time making dinner).  This is it.  The kids know the drill.  They look forward to Friday night and discuss what movie or cartoon they want to watch.  If our daughter starts asking to see a movie on any other day, our son tells her "Today is not Friday!".  The rest of the week, the kids are content playing, dancing, listening to music and reading books.

Their grandparents are a lot more lenient when it comes to screen time and are usually happy to let the kids snuggle on the sofa and watch some movies.  I am ok with that, but guess what happens...  the moment the kids get inside the grandparents house, they start begging for TV...  Toys, cousins, snow outside - nothing can compete with the magic of the screen.  When we go back to our house - it is back to our normal routine and kids are back to their wonderful, happy, self-sufficient selves.

Sometimes I wonder if we are over-doing it.  Perhaps, if we would let them watch their fill at home, they wouldn't be as screen-crazy...  Maybe, by denying them a "Dora" DVD, we are turning it into a "forbidden fruit" and making it all the more enticing and wonderful...  I guess, like with most parenting issues, there is no right or wrong path and I just have to do my best and follow my intuition.  The intuition screams "TURN THE TV OFF!!!"

Once our third child is born (yes, we are expecting another baby!!!!), I will be staying home with all three kids for a few months.  I have a sneaky feeling the kids will be getting significantly more than one hour a week of movies...  Is there a way to keep two preschoolers occupied and happy all day long without resorting to plunking them in front of a screen... while staying relatively sane and taking care of a newborn? You know, all this electronic stuff is so recent....  Our great-grandmothers managed without computers and TV's (and often had a lot more than 3 kids...).

So, how do you do it?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Not-so-natural parenting

I never expected parenting to be this hard. And I don't mean the physical vigors - the sleepless nights, the never ending colds that the kids pass on to me, the running-after-the-toddler, the brute strength that's required to move a tantrum-throwing 3-year old from the road to a sidewalk. All that I can deal with. What is hard for me? Let's see, first would be the sheer weight of the responsibility for the well-being of my children. Then add the constant need to change, adjust and improve the parenting skills to try to catch up with growing and changing kids. Finally, throw into the mix the talking/explaining/teaching - I'll clarify what I mean in a minute.

 The hardest part - the responsibility - involves the decisions that I am required to make - and knowing that these decisions are likely to affect my children's future. Choosing a school district (does it have to be the absolute best? or would something slightly less stellar but with more affordable housing be better for our family long-term?); deciding whether or not the kids should take music/dance/art/sports lessons and finding the teacher; deciding whether or not we should make our kids work hard on music/dance/art/sports even when they don't feel like it or just let them quit; choosing daycare (more affordable but not exactly what I want or the Montessori preschool that I love and that will cost my entire monthly income); to continue limiting movies/computer to the point my kids think watching a cartoon or playing a game is an absolute treat or just relax and make it part of their daily routine. Part of the problem is, of course, that I feel ambivalent about some things (not TV... hate that thing!). There are all these choices that I make for my children while they are young, but I know that soon I will need to let them make their own choices. And then, should I - or should I not - let the children make mistakes?

As if all that is not enough to make my head sping, I have to react - fast! - to challenges in an appropriate, scream-free manner. I have to be consistent and follow through on my promises (and threats). I have to be a parent even when I am absolutely exhausted, sick, under stress... when all I want to do is hide under a blanket with a book and yet - there is this responsibility (or burden?) of having to be a GOOD parent, no matter what.

There is another aspect of parenting I find extremely difficult. Kids grow and change FAST. What works today will no longer work tomorrow. Yesterday's crisis is an absolute non-issue today. It seems that only last week we had a terrible time with our younger daughter biting and hitting us. Nothing seemed to help. These days? Well, she still does, occasionally, hit her brother, but other than that - NOTHING! Magically, it seems, the biting/hitting era has ended. It certainly wasn't anything we did. But does it mean things got easier? No!!!!! Because now she uses "bad" words. And I have no clue how to deal with it. Or, rather, I've tried a few things and all of them failed to one extent or another. On one hand, my mantra is "This, too, will pass". On the other hand, I feel absolutely inadequate as a parent.

Parenting just does not come naturally to me. Experience helps, to an extent. I find that each child is so different that what worked with my first-born is of absolutely no help in dealing with my second. In fact, my second child often puts me into a stupor because the challenges that arise with her weren't even part of my vocabulary with #1. I know there are some parents out there who intuitively know how to deal with many things their kids throw at them, who are intuitively good at holding infants, who intuitively know how to talk to kids...  They are just so natural... My maternal intuition must be taking an extended nap.

Parenting is hard. The kids are always changing, you are always hit with something unexpected, you are always put "on the spot" and have to be fast-thinking. How many times have I done something (punished, not punished, etc) and a few hours later it was crystal clear to me - that was the wrong thing to do! Consistency is hard. One day I might be extra-tired or in an extra-bad mood, so I tend to over-react to little things. Other days, I ignore the big things.

I know I don't talk to my kids enough - I am just not much of a talker. I love watching my kids play. I love reading to my kids. I love taking my kids out on hikes, to the library, apple picking. I love simply watching my kids, letting them do their own thing... But talking to kids non-stop, constantly running a commentary on the world around us, delving into lengthy explanations about why something is wrong or right... I just don't know if I can ever be that kind of a parent.  This is the "talking/explaining" dilemma I mentioned earlier. When other parents talk to their one-year old: " look at this pretty yellow flower! Oh, see that boy's shirt? It is orange - so bright and happy", - on one hand it makes me jealous, on the other hand it makes me cringe. Verbally describing every single object around me feels... unnatural. Perhaps, that's why my kids started talking relatively late. This is a big part why I find parenting to be so extraordinary difficult - it involves so much talking! Way more talking than what is comfortable for me. Yeah, I know, parenting is not about parental comforts :) But I do wish I could just toss some books at my kids and they'll learn the values/colors/calculus with minimal verbal input from me.

What do you struggle with the most when it comes to parenting?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On Being a Minimalist

First of all, a full disclosure: I am not a minimalist. I have STUFF. Too much STUFF. But there are many days, when I really feel like getting rid of everything, except for bare necessities. One fork per person. We can all eat from the same pot.... just think, there would be almost NO DISHES to do!!!

My minimalist wanna-be completely breaks down when it comes to books. I love books. Even though I have an e-reader that I use a lot, I can't seem to let go of physical books... shelves upon shelves of books... I hardly ever read them, they gather dust and take up space, but oh, I love them so... I have some books from my Grandmother (she brought these to the US from Ukraine back in 1995). They are good books: volumes of Pushkin and Kuprin. Yes, I can get all of these on-line for free.... but it will not be the same, you see, my Grandmother owned these books, she held them and read them (and so did my Grandfather, so so did their children). I have books that my parents and I brought with us when we immigrated in 1994... They are special: out of hundreds and hundreds of books that we had, we chose a few select ones to take with us. The rest were sold or given away. I have books from college that I remember picking out at second-hand bookstores. I have old textbooks that probably will never be used again - but I just can't throw them out... that would be too much like Fahrenheit 451. And then, there is my husband and his books. My husband, who never throws anything out... We even have some doubles. "Master and Margarita". Mine is in Russian, his is in English. Brothers Karamazovi - again, in two languages. Ulysses... both in English... we haven't agreed on whose copy is superior and gets to stay on the bookshelf.

Children's books - I have a passion for children's literature and I just keep buying more. It is like an addiction. Perhaps, I will manage to sift through the collection and donate books we never read or that we got as gifts and I happen to strongly dislike (there are some really bad baby books out there).

Books are pretty much my only weakness when it comes to worldly possessions. I don't care much for clothing, electronics or jewelry. I can happily live without fancy china or silver. I am more than happy to donate or sell all of the above if I know someone will use it and enjoy it more than I do. But books... who is going to love my books the way I do?

Do you prefer an e-reader or leafing through the pages of a physical book? Does having a large collection of books make you happy? Do you keep your old books from your childhood - and do your kids read them?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Having It All

I have been reading blogs about (and by) women with super-successful careers.  Family and children, career and money, ambitions and creativity – they have it all.  More importantly, they appear to be (or at least claim to be) happy and satisfied, having a wonderful time raising their children while pursuing their careers.

A few years ago, when my first-born son was just an infant, my mom and I had a fight.  Well, not exactly a fight, but an unpleasant disagreement.  She said something along the lines of “You can have one child and still maintain your career, but it would be impossible with two.  There is no way a woman can have an intense career and not neglect her (multiple) children.”  I was furious.  I was hoping to have another child.  I had (at the time) no desire to quit my job or to leave science.  So, I told my mother she was absolutely and irrefutably wrong.  My mother got mad.  We dropped the subject and never discussed it again. 

The seed of doubt, however, had been planted.  Could my (intelligent, well-informed, strong-willed) mother really be wrong – or was this the case of “Mama knows best”?  She is a piano teacher. Some of her students come from homes with stay-at-home moms and others come from two-income families.  So, you see, she gets a glimpse of both worlds – and the effects different arrangements have on children.   Mom claims that there is a visible difference between these types of children (and this difference does not favor the kids of career-moms). 

Since that conversation with my mom, I’ve had my second child, quit my job, stayed home for over a year and then came back to work.  As of now, I don’t have a super-ambitious career but I have a job that is rewarding and intellectually challenging while taking up, at most, 40 hours/week.  I love working and I am hoping to push my career forward in the next few years.  I have to admit, I am also semi-secretly pining for a third child (only my husband is aware of this and he is lukewarm to the idea).  I think another child would throw everything off balance, but I no longer believe another child would “destroy” any chance of a career growth or prevent me from doing things that I feel passionate about.  I do believe I will have choices – both career-related and personal.  To me, that is the ultimate freedom: the ability to make choices.     

So…. Do I “Have it All?”

No, certainly not.
There is always a price
My choices precipitate consequences.
  • The biggest one of all:  GUILT.  I feel guilt because I’d rather be working than spending all day long with my kids.  I feel guilt because I haven't been ambitious and just "go with the flow" instead of cranking out papers and advancing my career.
  • My son gets sick frequently (Daycare germs!) and has ear infections (to be fair, when I stayed home he still got sick on a regular basis…  but no ear infections)
  • Daycare:  it’s ok, but not as good as I had hoped (again, to be fair, I doubt there is any place or arrangement that would be absolutely perfect in every single way)
  • The kids go to daycare in wrinkled T-shirts/dresses (a travesty, by my mom’s and grandma’s standards) because, since going back to work, I stopped ironing.
  • They learn certain things at daycare that I don’t approve of (poop jokes, rolling eyes, spitting)
  • I am not there for them all the time
  • Weekends become days to do errands and shopping, so there is less time for fun with the family.
  • My garden is a mess full of weeds.
  • I only dust about once a month.
  • I don’t go to conferences, meetings or evening seminars because I’d rather be home with the kids.  As a result, I don’t expand my network or get exposed to new ideas.

A few years back, I heard this interesting notion that made a huge impression on me: some things in life are like a bouncy-ball.  You drop it and it comes right back, none the worse for wear.  Other things are more of a delicate crystal: drop it and it will shatter into million pieces.  At any given moment in your life, there is going to be something that you can let go and it will bounce back, while something else will be fragile and require care and dedication.  Very often, as we change and our priorities change, the bouncy-ball of yesterday becomes today’s crystal.  It used to be, the relationship with my husband was the bouncy-ball and my work was the crystal that I doted on and spent most of my energy on.  Then it was the kids that became the precious crystal.  Perhaps, there will come a day when that will change, too. 


There are no easy answers, no one-fits-all solutions.  Parenting is hard work.  Building a career is hard work.  I may not be able to "Have it All" but I am trying my best to balance the things that mean the most to me.  Finding the right balance is tricky – and it will vary drastically from person to person. What I am trying to say is this:  there is no wrong way and no right way to live your life and to balance different aspects of your life.  You have to figure out what works for you and be your own “Fiddler on the Roof” or “Scientist on the Roof” or “Mom on the Roof” – do what you have to do to keep yourself from teetering over the edge.  Just remember to take a minute to enjoy who you are and where you are.

What is the “bouncy-ball” and what is the “crystal” for you?
Any doubts about how you choose to spend most of your waking time?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Thoughts about success

I’ll start with a couple of questions.

When you wake up in the morning, are you excited about your day?  Are you looking forward to the different tasks and jobs that lie ahead?  If yes - I would say you are successful.  It doesn’t matter what your career path is or even if you have a career in the traditional sense of the word.

For me, percent wise, it’s about 70/30.  Most of the time, I feel successful – and satisfied with how my life is going.  I like my job.  I love my family.  I have the time to "smell the roses" and to daydream.  But every so often, doubt creeps in and I start thinking “If only….”
If only I stayed home with my kids, we would go to museums every week.
If only I was a stay-at-home wife and mom, our life would be more organized and less hectic
If only I put more effort into my work, I could be in a tenure-track position…
If only I was more pro-active and aggressive, I could enjoy a better-paying job in industry
If only I had a teaching job, I could have all summer off to spend as I wish.
If only I could take my kids hiking, camping, biking more often.

While  I don’t regret any choices I've made, I am at a point in my life when I begin to question (as I do every six months or so, it’s called a semi-annual identity crisis) – today, right now, am I in the right place?  Am I successful?  Perhaps, I should step it up a notch at work – change jobs even, to be in a place that is more driven and more intense.  Or, do the opposite: quit my job altogether to stay home, make amazing food and do awesome science and art projects with the kids.

My definition of success has very much evolved over the last 15 years.  When I was starting out, things seemed very simple: success meant having my own group and pursuing the scientific questions of my choosing.  Family was not a part of that equation.  Children were but a fuzzy may-be-someday concept.  That was before I went through the grind of the graduate school, before marriage, before an unexpectedly strong drive to produce offspring.  Fast-forward to 2013...  My most successful day last week was Wednesday, when I was able to finish my work in record short time and picked up the kids early at the daycare, spent an hour with them at the library sifting through the books, and then cooked a nice supper (the kids helped cut up cucumbers and tofu for the salad).  I am content to be a peg in someone else’s lab, content to pursue a direction someone else points to, and thrilled to let someone else to do the grant-hunting. 

I don’t know what another 10 or 15 years will do to my ideas about success.  Perhaps, I’ll read this entry, shrug my shoulders, and click “delete”.

What does “success” mean to you?  How has it changed over time?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

12 Things Science and Cooking Have in Common

1.     You follow a recipe/protocol

2.     Quality of ingredients is everything!  Fresh ingredients/reagents produce the best results.   Using the expired ingredients/reagents usually means trouble.  That said, sometimes you can get away with using stuff that’s 10 years old – no guarantees, though!

3.     When two different people follow the same recipe/protocol the results will always be slightly different. 

4.     Everyone has their own way of pipetting, cutting vegetables, beating eggs and splitting cells.

5.  The first time you try a completely new recipe/protocol (involving a new technique or using new Fancy Equipment) – most likely it will not work.

6.     You adjust your recipe/protocol to fit your needs.  Often, this is a direct  consequence of 5.

7.  Trouble-shooting.  This includes but not limited to figuring out which reagent went bad, fixing the food processor/centrifuge, frantically calling the company because the freezer is down, dealing with radiation safety and garbage collection and last but not least, calling your mom for advice. 

8.     There will be a day when your trusted recipe/protocol will not work even though you did everything as usual and you are 100% sure your ingredients are fine.  You blame the weather/aliens/mother-in-law/boss.

9.     You can mindlessly follow the recipe/protocol, but it is so much better if you understand the science behind it.

10.  When you get a good result – be it data that sheds new light on your project or absolutely delicious pies – it is absolutely, remarkably AWESOME and you want to share the pies – or data – with the world.

11. It is really, really INFURIATING if you can never again make your pies taste THAT good – or if you can’t replicate the data.

12.   Being persistent and not afraid to fail is the key to success.

Do you think science and cooking are similar?  Anything you can add to this list?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Grandma Anja's Borsch

My wonderful Grandmother Anja is from a small town in Belarus.  Her version of Borsch is very different from the classical Russian or Ukranian Borsch.  It is vegetarian and could easily be vegan if you skip the sour cream at the end.  This soup is super-easy to make and turns out delicious.  

Here is what you’ll need:  

2 ¾ quarts of water

One medium-size onion
¼ of sweet pepper (I prefer red, orange or yellow)
Bay leaves (2-3)
2-3 medium carrots
1 LARGE Beet (or two medium ones)
2 medium potatoes
Salt/pepper to taste
2/3 small Cabbage
¼ cup tomato sauce
            * instead of tomato sauce, you can add lemon juice – after you turn off the soup.

  1. Add whole onion, pepper and bay leaf to the boiling water, followed by the diced carrots. 
  2. After the water starts boiling again, add the shredded beets.
  3. Add salt and pepper.  Allow to cook for a couple of minutes.
  4. Add thinly sliced potatoes and parsley (fresh is best but dry is ok, too).  Bring to a boil and allow to cook for 5-6 minutes.
  5. Add the thinly cut cabbage and tomato sauce. 
  6. Cook for another 7-10 minutes.  Taste and add more salt, if needed.


Serve it with a dollop of sour cream and a slice of hearty bread.  

Now, a few things to keep in mind:  the soup tastes better if you let it sit for a day.  Don’t boil the beets too long – they will turn brown (this will not affect the flavor, but the beautiful red will be lost forever).  The order of how the vegetables are added is important (my mom just throws everything in at the same time and her Borsch tastes very different).

Friday, April 19, 2013


So.  Here is what I have done so far.

  • Went through a pile of kids toys and sorted keepers vs. creepers.  Keepers are now kept in a big box in the basement labeled “baby toys”.  That’s exactly what they are – toys my kids grew out of but I am choosing to keep (yeah, pack rat, I know) in case kid #3 happens along.

  • Went through some boxes in the basement and found unused diapers and some hand-me-down baby clothing that I totally forgot about. 
  • Went through our basement closet and pulled out 3 items I haven’t worn in 10 years.  One of these had to be trashed.
  • Went through some more boxes in the basement and found my old camera I bought in 1994 (the year I came to the US from Latvia).  That camera has been through a lot with me: high school, college, Israel, China, Italy and a portion of grad school.  It has seen my friends and family….  It has been to so many amazing places with me…. And into the garbage it went.  So it goes. 
  • My husband took a pile of things (toys, clothing, diapers, books) to a nearby shelter.  I think I can breathe a little better now.  Less stuff = more oxygen.  And I am so happy that these things that were simply taking up space in our house will be useful to someone else.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Random thoughts on Getting Rid of Stuff

Step one – get rid of stuff.
        We have too much stuff.  In our small house, too much stuff means clutter and inability to find the right thing at the right time.  It is hard to let go of things.  It is OH-SO-HARD to let go of things!  Old jackets (ugly as sin, but so comfortable!), pre-babies pants (I will, I will fit into them, I will!), boxes upon boxes of college-era notes, old lab notebooks, hand-me-downs from family you couldn’t so “no” to, old cameras, roller blades (bought them in college, used them twice).  Do you ever do that - keep things just in case some day – maybe – you’ll need them.  Even though deep down you know the chances of that are approaching zero.  We have half a bookshelf dedicated to fat old textbooks – we haven’t looked at them in years, but what if…  What if we will need them - years down the road?  (Ha!  Who needs textbooks when you have Google!)  But what can I do with a biology textbook?  A chemistry textbook?  Display it as art?  Turn it into a free-floating shelf?  Hmmm…  have to think about it. 
        Toys.  That’s a tough one – we have two young kids and the amount of toys they are accumulating is getting out of hand.  They certainly don’t play with all of them.  Some of the toys are noisy and annoying.  Others are just plain ugly.  Do I let the children decide what to donate and what to keep?  Or do I sneak into their rooms while they are asleep to snatch away a few toys and hope they don’t notice?  I would prefer to keep high-quality toys that are open-ended, can be used in different ways and have a long shelf-life (as the kids grow, they will continue to play with them).  Blocks.  Legos.  Cars.  Trains and train tracks.  Dolls.  Musical instruments and art supplies.  These are the toys our kids play with almost every day.
Things that I would love to get rid of but will not (or my kids will eat me alive): super-noisy garbage truck, half of their stuffed animals, 100 plastic dinosaurs, broken, cheap horrible “Pixar Cars” cars that can’t roll because the wheels don’t turn.  Next to the super-annoying Mater, we have some good-quality toys our kids seem to completely ignore: letter blocks, puppets, memory games…  Come on, kids this is EDUCATIONAL, GOOD-FOR-YOU stuff. I guess the best thing to do would be to hide a pile of toys in the garage and then bring them out one at a time. 
Baby toys (sorter, pyramid and the like) – I guess these we need to look through, keep the best ones for future generations and donate the rest.  We need to go through the kids’ bookshelf and donate some of the books. 
Other things that I would love to get rid of: clothing we don’t wear any more.  Old keys from old labs.  Things that are just taking up space but don’t serve any function (decorative vases, for example).  Kitchen gadgets I haven’t used in the last 5 years.  Tablecloths and placemats of hideous colors (don’t ask how I came to possess these).  Souvenirs that are like tribbles and multiply in geometric progression.
Any advice?  How do you separate junk from gems?  How do you decide what to keep and what to toss?  Do you ever regret getting rid of stuff?  
I’ll keep you posted on (any) progress.