One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Monday, May 31, 2010

The disconnect between childbirth preparation and postpartum support

You spend months preparing for childbirth. For many women, the experience of first childbirth is a rite of passage: it is a pivotal, defining moment in a woman's life. It is an emergence into motherhood, if not womanhood.

You attend childbirth classes. For six to eight weeks, you schlep your growing form to the hospital or midwifery center in your town. You eye the snacks at the back of the room while trying with all your might to pay attention to the instructor. You take notes. You talk to other expectant parents. Every morsel of your mind and body is occupied with thoughts of the upcoming labor and subsequent childbirth. You are prepared.

You go to monthly, then semi-weekly, then weekly check-ups with your ob/gyn or midwife. You waddle into the office, greet the receptionists by name. You pee in the requisite cup. You get weighed. You talk to your doctor. You have no questions, except, "When is it time?"

You attend baby care classes. A nice, middle-aged lady with curly hair croons over a plastic doll while showing how to change her diaper. She shows diagrams of a breast and videos of proper breastfeeding technique. She explains how to care for the umbilical cord stump; she has you practice swaddling the plastic baby. You feel clumsy. Everyone feels clumsy.

You are prepared, but not ready.

Soon, it is time. Your labor begins and you are excited. The pivotal moment is upon you. You are doing this. You are having a baby. You are strong, womanly, powerful: you are a lioness birthing your cub.

Maybe you give birth in a hospital. Two days later, you go home. Your child is two days old, and although you have no immediate questions, you may not know what to expect. You have prepared for the baby. You know how to change a diaper, how to gently burp the baby, how to wash the baby's chin-folds. This is not the problem.

What about you?

Your bottom is sore. Your muscles are sore. Your mind is racing. You are exhausted. And your next visit to your doctor or midwife is not for another six weeks. The next one after that is your annual check-up, in one year. You wonder: is this normal? Am I normal?

Not just your body. Hormones rage through your veins. You are moody. Is this normal?

After months of support from medical professionals, you feel lost. Like they have abandoned you.

You attend new parents' support groups. But nobody asks you about your birth. It is as if it were inconsequential. It is as if it were just a stepping stone in life. A small, insignificant event. The significant event is your child, but how it got there is not important. At new parents' support group, mothers sit in a circle with their babies and discuss poop and spit-up. You wonder: why does nobody talk about their birth? Isn't that what new parents' support group is for?

People do not celebrate with you your achievement. They do not ask about your transition into motherhood --- the rite of passage that you had been waiting for, with bated breath, for forty long weeks. They do not debrief with you what happened, picking apart detail from detail, and pondering with you, the way you do alone, day after day, if you did it right.

You did, you know, do it right. By the way. But you do not know this yet.

You keep replaying it in your mind, over and over, every day. Every day for eight months you think about your birth experience; you replay it in your head. Until one day, you forget to think about it. This is when the healing begins.

This is why I asked you about your birth. Because not enough people do.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Action slips

When I was the teaching assistant for the undergraduate human-computer interaction class, the question that sparked the most discussion was about action slips. In this post, I answer the question, "What is an action slip?"

Freudian slips

This question brings us back to Freud. Remember Freudian slips? A Freudian slip is a term used to describe saying something you did not mean to say (and, of course, it is usually dirty or has sexual connections). For example, you meant to say "Let's go play in the park," but instead, you said, "Let's go kiss in the dark."

A Freudian slip is when you lay one thing and mean your mother. Er, it's when you say one thing and mean another.

Action slips

An action slip is like a Freudian slip... with your whole body. It is when you mean to do one thing, but end up doing something completely different. For example, you are emptying the coffee grinds from your coffee maker. You have to separate the grinds from their container. The container is in your right hand, the grinds are in your left hand. You mean to throw the grinds into the trash, but accidentally throw the container instead (or you throw both).

Or, you are driving on the freeway on your way to visit a friend, but take the exit to go to work, because that is what you are used to doing.

Or, you are clearing the table after dinner, and putting the leftovers into the refrigerator: butter, juice, rice, napkins, forks...

What is not an action slip

It is not an action slip when you make a typo while typing. It is not an action slip when your finger accidentally brushes against the hang-up button on your phone while you are talking. It is not an action slip when you stub your toe.

Characteristics of an action slip

An action slip must have an intended action --- something you meant to do --- and an unintended result --- something you did instead of the intended action, out of habit or incorrect muscle memory.

Anyway, just wanted to clear that up.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

On joining the ACM

I joined the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). I admit, I went back and forth on it for quite some time. When I was an undergraduate taking my most influential and self-defining class, the professor urged us all to join IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). But when a student asked the professor about ACM, he scoffed: "Oh, ACM? I let that lapse when I was a sophomore in undergrad." So, of course, I went home that night and joined the IEEE as a student member. Years later, I was elected vice-chair and served as the interim chair of our branch. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, given the amount of faculty support it received, the ACM student branch on our campus died out over a decade ago. The IEEE student branch is still active.

I joined the ACM a month ago or so because I was submitting a poster to an ACM-run student research competition. There was a requirement that, if the poster is accepted, you have to be an ACM member. But I decided I would join anyway. The student membership is relatively inexpensive, I thought, and I may as well try it out.

When I received my first Communications of the ACM (CACM) magazine, I was blown away. It was easily three times thicker than the meager IEEE Spectrum magazine. Whereas both live in my bathroom, I find the CACM has hours more reading material in it than the Spectrum. And it is interesting, and enjoyable.

Take, for example, student and faculty attitudes and beliefs about Computer Science. It is about how students' beliefs about computer science as a discipline and as a way of thinking converges with or diverges from faculty consensus. Where the students diverge from faculty, there is a (arguably) a curriculum gap that needs to be fixed.

Also, the ACM membership card is nicer, and the website is cleaner, faster, and much less buggy than the IEEE website. It is clear that the IEEE website was written by electronics engineers, not programmers!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Guard, sticky, and round

What follows is a sex joke about floating point numbers.

Irrational numbers are ones that may not terminate, or may repeat forever. For example, the number pi is irrational (because it neither terminates nor repeats), and so is the decimal representation of 5/9=0.555555... (because it repeats forever).

There is a problem. How do you represent an irrational number digitally? You have only a limited number of bits... and possibly an infinite number of digits to encode.

The IEEE-754 standard for floating point numbers defines rounding modes. These modes are used to try to shoehorn the (possibly infinitely long) number into a finite number of bits. The standard defines functionality with which you can round up, round down, truncate, and round to even.

What makes it happen are the guard, round, and sticky bits. The guard bit is the first bit that not fit into the representation. The round bit is the second bit that does not fit the representation. Finally, the sticky bit is a bitwise-OR of all the bits after the round bit.

OK, here's the joke. It's kind of a stretch, but stay with me...

Rounding is like sex.

You gotta use the guard bit.

If you don't, you get the sticky bit.

And then... well, you're round.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

May 8: 65th Anniversary of Day of Victory, and the Siege of Leningrad

The siege of Leningrad, now and previously St. Petersburg, lasted 900 days and cost one million lives to starvation alone. But the numbers don't tell the whole story: they are just a statistic.

My grandmother survived the siege of Leningrad. She lived in the city and watched her dearest relatives die during the years between 1941 and 1944. She survived the siege with her mother, who, just four years later, died of cancer in 1948. She rarely talks about it, but three times a year she brings it up: the anniversary of the beginning of the blockade, the anniversary of the end of the blockade, and the anniversary of the day victory over the German forces.

Each year, I look it up on the Internet, and listen to what little she tells me about it. Each year, I have had the same emotional response: intense, deep sadness, and a hollow feeling in my core.

But now that I have had a child, it hits me so much harder. This is not something that happened to people in Soviet Russia 65 years ago. This is something that happened to me and my family. Weeping, I watched documentary YouTube videos explaining the siege, and showing families torn apart by starvation and bombings. Bodies of children, wrapped in blankets and carried by sleds to the river. One hundred twenty-five grams of bread, half of which is made of sawdust, doled out as a daily ration. And in the videos, the streets are packed with people going somewhere. Where are they going? They go in all directions, but where? Everything is frozen; everything is dying.

My grandmother told me about the grass that grows in the spring. She said it was the most magical thing: after months and months of no food, no rations, and death (in the worst of it, 700 to 10,000 people died every day), the first sprigs of grass that sprung up were celebrated as a sign of hope and life. People would gather and look at the sprigs, and eat them for vitamins and freshness.

How can anyone survive the siege with her body, but having lived through it, survive the siege with her soul?

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