Sunday, June 29, 2014


One of the horrible things about divorce and splitting up is that suddenly, eight years of your life become very difficult to think of. Zoe's dad and I had a wonderful relationship, and did amazing and fun things together; we traveled a lot, we laughed a lot and we did all the mundane things such as watching television at night while drinking tea and him rubbing my arm. I loved the vast majority of the time and we have lots of pictures from our journeys around Europe that I fondly used to look at and I would go through all the good moments in my head. I remember the posh hotel in Malaga that had a slide from one floor to the next, which he took, I remember the overnight train from Berlin to Krakow where we had dinner in the dining car before trying to cuddle up in one of the bunk-beds, and I remember the way he laughed so hard at my miserable parking skills when I drove the rental van we had for the day to pick up furniture for our new home in Southern California (not that he could park better, in fact I became the master of parallel parking, so much that if he was driving and we needed to parallel park, he would drive up, without a word walk around the car and let me get in the drivers seat just to do the parking). I also remember all the flights where we got champagne because there was always something to celebrate, the first time I got upgraded because of his gold card (I since got my own), calling my mom from London Heathrow: "I got upgraded! We are going to the US on business class!", I yelled into the phone, embarrassing him because it was not a big deal to him.

My miserable parking skills, 2007
But when you split up, all these memories become painful. Every single one of them and I often try not to think to much of the positive parts of our relationship because it reminds me of how so many good things can be gone in an instant. The memories cannot be shared with the other anymore and they remind me instead of how we failed to maintain our family. I still think people get divorced or split up way too easily today without trying much at all, because relationships are tough. Nobody ever said it was easy and yet, people expect it to be easy. When things got tough for us, we tried for three months before he said he didn't want to try anymore. Three months. When I said I wasn't able to move back in right now he said that then it was over. Eight years relationship gets a three month trial. At the time I really couldn't move back in because I was emotionally messed up and very sad about my situation. So I turned to someone who were able to give me attention and who was there for me. For a short time. Six month later I was ready to, if not move back in, at least try again with Zoe's dad because he was after all the love of my life and we had a wonderful daughter who deserved a whole family, not to mention eight years of wonderful memories, but he was gone. He declined my suggestion without much thought. This was not even a year after our initial split.

Our first trip to the desert, 2007
Time flies when you are having fun. Time also flies when you are having a miserable time, it just flies differently. I try to cut out the eight years in my memory because it is so painful to think of. Last time I was in the basement of our old apartment to pick up some of my 100 books that still reside there, I saw that he had put all our old picture books down there. We used to get a picture book made for each of our holidays or events (our wedding, Zoe's first year) but apparently it was too painful for him to look at them too (I still don't understand how he can live in our old apartment with our old furniture because that would make me sad every day to think that we got all this together, created this home together). But despite me cutting out at least a big part of the last eight years in my mind (I did have an independent life with friends and work that is joyful to think of) it pops up again and again. Zoe's questions prompt a lot since she is at a stage where she is just beginning to understand that I know her dad very well and that we had a life together before here. She remembers nothing of her life before the split, she was only 2 and could hardly talk. We used to have a book that went with her, where we wrote down things she had done, said, what we had observed. Now two years later she tells me all kinds of things about what they do and how things look and it is nice to recognize his habits. Zoe gets rice with fish for dinner and he tells her the same jokes he always told me, just the kids version. She explains how she has a table with colors and paper in the corner of the living room and how her changing table is now only for storing clothes. And I have to tell her that I know, because I set up all those things. I retrofitted a coffee table and put it in the corner and bought the chair for her. And her dad and I bought the baskets for her clothes in her changing table before she was born. So I'll cherish the memories that I can at least share with her. And when she gets older I can't wait to tell her all about her parents' travels to Japan, our life in California, and all the funny and nice things her dad used to say to me. Because in fact, the only thing that really makes memories into memories is the sharing of them.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Welcome to America

When I arrived in Shanghai, China three years ago with a 10 month old Zoe strapped to my chest, I didn't stand in the immigration queue for more than a couple of minutes before a uniformed woman came to pick me up and wave me to the front. Zoe was not upset at this point (after having cried every 20th minute for the full duration of the 13 hour flight, even with the nice flight attendants had been carrying her around to calm her down) but the Chinese bureaucracy clearly didn't think it was nice for a mom with a baby to wait in line. China is unfortunately the only place where I have seen this happen so swiftly and so undramatic.

When I was standing in the visitor's immigration line (Zoe was not with me to let me go through the citizen line) the other day, on my way into New York, I watched a mirror image of myself two years ago: A mom traveling on her own had an overtired, crying 2-year old boy at her feet, trying to shuffle hand luggage and making sure he was moving with her. He was at that stage where he could only cry and scream because everything is wrong. According to his body it was 8:30pm, probably way past his bedtime. His mom tried everything but was clearly also frustrated, particularly because of all the eyes on her. The queue bent five times as a snake and moved very slowly. I could hear them coming towards me, I was one snake-line ahead. The more I listened to his tired screaming and obvious torment the more furious I grew that nobody let them in the front. When they were almost leveled with me, I pulled up the black belt divider and motioned to her: "Come in front of me", I said firmly but she hesitated. "But won't people say something?", she asked but I said in a slightly louder voice: "Nobody will say anything". She walked under, pulling her still screaming boy and thanked me. I said hello to the boy who stopped for a moment while being scared of this strange women before going back to screaming again. We were now in the front snake line, which finally resulted in a guard picking her out. "32" he said and she was whisked away to the final part of the queue. She gave me one of this looks of gratitude that means she was going to remember me forever as the one who made her immigration experience just a little less hellish. I know, because I remember every single person who has done the same for me.

As the wailing sound gradually moved away from our earshot, I overheard another mother telling her 8 year old daughter, in a joking voice "honey, can't you scream a little too?" The father chuckled and they clearly thought it was all fund and games. I wanted to scream at her, asking if she had amnesia? Did she really forget how that is like in a few 6 years time? Did she have no compassion? Did she not realize that the mother would gladly have waited another 35 minutes if her son hadn't been crying? And then I promised myself that forgetting is fine, but compassion is something you should carry with you always. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The baby penalty

As a female academic with a child, not to talk about my early and continuing perpetual desire to have a family, the discussion of academic career and children has always been relevant and worrying to me. Having read all the books (Mason, Hewlet, Hewlet and of course Sandberg) makes me acutely aware that anything I do in my professional life I have to do better, faster and more rigorously than others to get ahead. I have to keep focusing on research, papers, networking and politics without skipping a beat. I repeat to myself the age-old saying (that Charlotte Whitton has been credited with): "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men. Luckily, this is not difficult." Because I have to keep my sense of humor to get through the day. I find all these statistics and anecdotes indicating that children hurt women's career where they are an asset to men's, hugely depressing, not only for myself but also for all the other women who are not getting the most out of their life because they have to change career track and ambition level. These women are not contributing enough to society with their intellect because that is the duality of the downside: women don't get to contribute intellectually because they can't keep high level jobs and they are not happy with their lives because they had to give up careers or turn down ambition level to make ends meet. The ones who, like me, attempt to 'have it all' (like this is an unfair demand!) end up torn in half from this attempt, either compromising a career or compromising togetherness with our children.

And it is really hard to sell yourself, being someone who have made choices favoring the family for most of my career. I sometimes envision myself adding the following to my CV, right after me leaving the US and the top institution where I was, and the resent years, in the employment section and publication section: "The change of affiliation was due to family reasons and my priorities to my family took center stage for a short while, as I tried to maintain my professional contacts and publication record. The gap in my publications is in no way a reflection of a sudden lack of ambition or lack of ability, but simply a reflection of serious personal family complications. Future level of work will again reflect my true ambition level and opportunities".

I'm not sure how this would be interpreted but my big fear is always that people see my publication record and think "Oh, she had such great potential. Then something happened and she is clearly not dedicated anymore". Yes, something happened. I had a baby, got divorced and had to start all over in a new country with few potential collaborators and a scarce research resources (in Sweden, for example,  you don't 'get' PhD students, which has been detrimental to my research and career development). All in 2 years. But I am just as dedicated as I have always been, I'm as ambitious, if not more, as I always was and I still want to 'make it' in the academic system. I want to do interesting and valuable research, I want to publish and I want that solid, (semi)permanent well-payed position, no matter what the name of it is. I want the opportunity to do good work. And that's bloody difficult when you have to pick up a girl at 4:30pm and somehow feed you and her dinner while answering all the emails you didn't get to during the day, grade papers at night while the dishes are growing moldy and feeling guilty that the girl was watching an hour of TV while you were trying to review a paper.

If I were to be part of the statistics I would stay in this position, publish three workshop papers a year and never make professor. Ironically I'm already ahead of the US statistics where women stay in temporary teaching positions, get tenure much later and do too much administrative work to publish. So apparently I do have some sort of potential. I just need to find out where I can build on that because it is certainly not here. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Zoe puzzle

I find myself in Amsterdam at a conference that is peripheral to my overall field but core to my research subject. I was invited to moderate a panel and happy to accept back when June seemed like far in the future and when plane ticket prices did not enter my mind*. But as always is the case when not planning well, it turned out that Zoe's dad had arranged work travel overlapping with my trip. We were never good communicating when we were together (in fact I think that is one of the reasons our relationship broke down, he had no idea how unhappy I was and I presumed he knew) and we are even worse as divided parents. So we end up in these chaotic situations of trying to patch together care for Zoe. Luckily a close friend of ours is able to help out. He is picking her up from daycare Thursday and spending Friday (which is midsummer, the most holy of the holidays in Sweden but a workday in all other European countries) with her. I fly back Friday evening after my panel and meet up with them Saturday. Zoe will have a great time and so with my friend hopefully.

Meanwhile I miss Zoe like crazy at the conference and wish I had declined the invitation.

*Plane ticket prices means a lot in my situation because although my own business travel is covered, Zoe's ticket to Copenhagen for care taking my my family is not. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sleepless in Stockholm

Zoe and I flew back to Stockholm last night on the plane and route that we know too well. We spent an hour and a half in the lounge because it was 45 minutes delayed but we built lego towers, read three books and I read one page of a newspaper while downing a cup of coffee and Zoe played on her own in the play area. By now I have learned to ignore the suited men around us who once in a while give me the look indicating that they do not find this to be an appropriate place for kids to chase their mothers with a toy snake. I couldn't care less. In fact I find this place entirely appropriate for kids to spend the waiting time that is most often needed before a flight. And I once again forgot how far the gate is from the lounge and had to rush Zoe down there without time to look at the duty-free chocolate. Too bad for my sweet tooth, good for my waistline.

When in Denmark, I showed Zoe my old daycare
and she pressed her nose flat to see what it was
 like inside. We played a bit on the playground
outside, which to me had shrunk incredibly since
 I was there 30-something years ago.
As we walked down to the gate, Zoe noted: "We are still in Denmark, Mom". Yes, Zoe, this is Copenhagen airport, we are going back to Sweden. And likewise, when we landed and she walked very groggily from the plane insisting that she didn't sleep at all (she slept from the moment we took off, till the moment we landed) she said "This is Stockholm, I know it". Yes, Zoe, this is indeed Stockholm, the city where we live.

At home we had to wait for a friend to come over with my keys, which I had clumsily forgotten in the door as we left 10 days earlier because the taxi called while I was juggling a suitcase, two carryons, an elevator door and a 4 year old. I realized in the taxi and called panicking, asking my friend to go pick them up and as the stars would align, he didn't only have the extra 15 minutes to do that then, he was also home when we got home last night, flying to Bologna only this morning. He let us in and upon Zoe's asking for milk and my look of defeat because who has the foresight to pick up milk on the way home from the airport, he took her down to the convenience store to buy milk, while I unpacked the most necessary stuff. This is a really good friend.

Zoe decided she wanted to ride the giraffe on
her own when we went to Tivoli in Copenhagen
I woke up at 4am in the morning to the Stockholm summer brightness that I always forget until I'm actually here and it is actually June. Even in Copenhagen the white blinds had let so much light in that it felt like daytime at 4am but I had managed so I thought I was good. But Stockholm is even brighter and my body was not about to be convinced it was still night. I tossed and turned until 6am when my alarm disturbed me even more than the light. I decided to make a temporary bedroom in Zoe's room when she gets back to me on Thursday since she has blackout curtains there. I have a mattress that just fits on the floor and hopefully will give me more sleep than the partly covered windows do in my room.

So we are back in Stockholm after 10 days of fun in Copenhagen, partly holiday, partly me trying to finish two papers while my brother looked after Zoe for 3 hours a day. We seemed to succeed on both parts.