I have a monumental task I’ve been avoiding forever: deciding what to do with the remnants of my past history. I have been thinking about making some vast sweeping changes in my life.
In a dusty corner of my basement, I have about 7 large plastic boxes of old college and laboratory-related papers I haven’t been able to go through since I quit my former 12 year career in the biotech field to raise my daughters myself after juggling two daughters and an 11-hour workday. Today, I started cleaning up and looking through them.
It seems like I’ve dreaded the task of looking backwards when I was always looking forward to the next phase in my life. In the clinical laboratory, things were always changing. No matter which laboratory I was in, the technology we used was always changing to newer/better/faster means of obtaining results. And I have to admit, it was always exciting to be on the cutting edge.
I’ve always loved the process of how things worked in the laboratory. I’ve always loved the rhythm generated by doing my labwork, and I loved learning all I could about the tests I performed and the new procedures that came online.
I also loved the solitude that working on the bench brought. I could quietly go about my work and get into a zen-like oneness with the process. (Hmmm…I think this is why being a homemaker has been so tough… I can never complete any process without a million little interruptions and nothing stays organized for long).
I have boxes of research articles and training materials about microbiology, forensic DNA analysis and medical genetics. I have some procedures manuals and materials from conferences I attended. I have a few scientific journals too. 8 years after leaving my career to be home with my children (and added one more daughter), I am finally ready to go through my boxes.
I’ve discovered a few things. I remembered some things I had done that I had forgotten about. And, more importantly, I forgot that choosing one path often meant excluding another path…but sometimes with happy consequences.
In a box of old college papers, I found traces of the classes for the M.S. degree in Analytical Chemistry I was supposed to get – old class notes from analytical biochemistry and PChem (physical chemistry). Sometimes I forget how interested in chemistry I was and ambitious I used to be. Sometimes I wonder who that girl was…and am in awe of her. She was really smart.
After I graduated with my undergrad degree, I was working for a microbiology company, working my way up from a lowly lab tech to QA assistant at the corporate HQ in the three years I had been there. Since I was going for my M.S. in chemistry, I was asked to assist with both the microbiology and the chemistry departments so they didn’t have to hire two QA assistants, mostly to save them money. But I realized I worked my way off the bench and into the horrors of office cubicle life. By the time I’d written my third SOP, I realized my grave error. I was in paperwork hell with no laboratory work to relieve the drudgery. It didn’t matter that I oversaw two departmental QC programs, I wasn’t the one who was going to do the fun stuff – the labwork.
Fortunately, relief came in the form of a job opportunity to work in forensics. After a 15- month process, I was hired for a forensic DNA laboratory. I have to laugh about that now. I applied on a lark, assuming I wouldn’t get it, knowing that it was a competitive field to get into. It certainly was a tough career to stay in as it was very highly stressful and totally unglamorous (you can forget CSI).
I never did go back for that M.S. degree.
And there at the crime lab, the technology changed so rapidly – both in laboratory methods and statistical analysis, and I was happy to be learning new things all the time. I think I have about 200 research articles (no, I’m not kidding) to study up on. I used to have to calculate population frequencies of DNA profiles by hand before they had given us a computer program to work with. It wasn’t so bad for single profiles, pretty awful for all the possible combinations of a mixed profile. I found some of my old hand calculations. It just boggles my mind now.
I was asked to validate new instrumentation for our new capillary electrophoresis (STR) technology. I was in the first training group for the ‘brand new’ method…which is now standard procedure…and had the added benefit of having automatic DNA profile frequencies generated.
I don’t have much from the medical genetics laboratory I supervised, because the technology was very similar, but I do have a procedures manual for the different tests and some old work reviews. The most notable thing there was not just the work that I did, but whom I was working with – neurologists, geneticists, researchers, genetic counselors, some of whom are well-known in their fields.
I ask myself why am I still keeping this stuff. I think, maybe for evidence that I had actually had a life before kids. There’s a part of me that wants to cry about what I no longer do, and another part of me that wants to honor the person I was that accomplished so much in so short a time.
As much as I love having this season of life with my children (and willingly chose it), I was losing sight of who I was before I quit my career to be home with them. I am glad I kept my old papers.
While sometimes I’m wistful for the path I did not take, I do remember why I decided to step out of the work world. I go back to my laboratories sometimes to visit with old friends. I don’t really like how regimented and controlled the environment is now. It used to be much more laid back and now it’s so tense there. There are some people who’ve worked in the same job for 18 years…always doing pretty much the same stuff they were doing when I was there. I could not believe that they had no desire to move on to bigger and better opportunities – that has always been so strange to me.
And while it goes largely unnoticed, I still am developing other aspects of my self. I helped my daughter overcome selective mutism and now I help other parents do so too. I work with my daughters on their projects and with their homework. I have time and energy to read and do science experiments with them (and there are so many fun projects for kids out there these days). I have collected a lot of math and science related games, toys, books and kits to help them learn more at home. I have a growing collection of rocks and minerals, shells, and other things that my girls have enjoyed. My girls are developing in some really wonderful ways. I am the mother to them I wish I had.
On their days off from school, we go on field trips to the local museums sometimes. I’m actually going to give a forensics lecture for my fourth grade daughter’s gifted class in a few weeks, we are both very excited.
I read prolifically (I have time for all the philosophy and psychology and literature I missed while working) and I am developing my creative gifts now. I love photography and have a lot of time to take pictures. I write a lot (someday I’ll publish something interesting), I sew and I have fun doing art journaling.
I still dream about going back to school, but I doubt it will be in the sciences (you never know, though). This is really my year to do some planning for re-entry into the work force.
My daughters keep asking me when I’m going back to work, like maybe in a grocery store. I inwardly blanch at the thought. I actually do think I could enjoy working in a local garden center, if I had to work retail at all. I have it in my mind to build a garden/natural habitat in my backyard, but I really could use some help with that.
And now…for the big picture…the five or ten year plan of where am I going to? I don’t really know and I find that so frustrating. But I’m determined to find out. I have been afraid to strike out on a path…for fear of choosing wrong.
But tonight I realized, I’ve never been afraid of that before…so why have I held myself back?
I can’t go anywhere worse than nowhere at all.