Every day I make a list and work through it. Except some days I forget. Some urgent task will be on my mind and that’s what I’ll roll right into when I get to work. Then around 4pm I’ll check yesterday’s list and panic or not panic. On that list are things like “dissections”, “24hr virus collection”, “figure out how to get calendar to text reminders”, “blog post”, and “pump 3x” with three little boxes next to it so I can check off each session.
It wasn’t always like this. I made lists, sure, but not with the same intensity. Not with the knowledge that anything not on the list was as good as forgotten.
The other day, someone asked me about an experiment I did in June. My son was born February 25th, and I came back full time on May 1. I don’t remember anything I did in June. June is an awful blur of rushed experiments, new protocols, and poorly labeled samples. All colored by the fog of new motherhood. At that point I still thought my old systems were good enough, but I wasn’t even up to my old standards. I was in pure survival mode. Pumping three times a day for 45 minutes a session. Reading the same papers again and again. Sleeping four interrupted hours per night. I was probably still crying every day in June.
“No, I don’t remember the details of that experiment”, I say, “I’ll have to check my notes”. Internal cringe. My notes are bad.
The fog did not lift until my son started sleeping. Sleep deprivation started sometime in pregnancy, peaking immediately after the birth and remaining problematic until sleep training saved us sometime in month seven.
Did I say the fog has lifted? I shouldn’t say that. The daily lists are made out of fear of forgetting. Fear that as soon as I say fog has lifted, it’ll be back.
There are lots of new fears. Once I turned on the gas valve instead of the house vacuum and sat there trying to aspirate. Once I walked out of a special experimental animal zone with an uncovered cage. Once I forgot about my cells for three days. Plus a million other small lab mistakes. Add these to my parenting fears. Fear of missing out on sleep, public leakage, not making enough milk, daycare colds, pinkeye, rashes, and all the other anxieties motherhood.
My place in the bigger picture is gone. People whom I respect tell me it’ll come back. But I can only see what’s in front of me. In front of me are the next steps in my project, and then the PhD. I fantasize about hard money jobs. About lab manager jobs. About making more money, or working part time. I worry about school hours. Health insurance. Latchkey kids. A second baby. Everyone told me parenthood would change my priorities and could change my career plans. Intellectually, I understood why and did the mental calculations before the baby came. But I didn’t really get it.
On Thursday morning, I was sitting in my car waiting out a downpour. The day before, I’d left early and missed a 48hr time point. I was rationalizing that a 60hr time point was probably equivalent when a text came through from my labmate; I’d forgotten the last media change on a three week cell culture experiment and the cells looked bad. A cringing, sinking feeling. When I got in to lab, I saw the cells were beyond saving. I’d ruined her experiment and mine. I burst into tears.
About an hour later, after my labmates had talked me out of leaving science and run me through all the balls they’ve dropped, a scientist from another lab came by and offered me a cookie.
“Take two”, she said, “you’re a mommy.”
“Thanks, I really need this” I said, and almost cried again – but didn’t.