Parenting: Maybe It Is Rocket Science

September 03, 2003

It doesn't take a Ph.D. from Harvard to change a diaper. In fact, "Harvard Ph.D.'s shouldn't be nannies," according to a few of my bosses, scientific colleagues, and family members. They have told me, sometimes gently and sometimes bluntly, that I should not be spending my valuable time as the primary caregiver for my four sons. I should, they tell me, be using my degree and my scientific knowledge out there in the working world.

To earn my doctorate in chemistry, I spent years balancing chemical equations and memorizing biochemical pathways. Professors with Nobel Prizes taught me about molecular spectroscopy and quantum theory. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health paid for most of my graduate training.

So why have I been spending the last decade changing diapers, instead of inventing a new polymer for the next generation of disposables? Why am I volunteering in my children's elementary-school classrooms, instead of lecturing in an ivy-covered building to hundreds of college students? Why am I cooking up a batch of macaroni and cheese, instead of whipping up a cure for cancer?

Because I believe that being a primary caregiver and an involved father is every bit as important and valuable to society. With our first two sons, my wife and I shared the parenting duties. But after our third son was born, we wanted to move back to the Midwest to be near our families. When my wife's company offered her a transfer and a promotion, I gladly accepted the role of "trailing spouse" and began a new career as a freelance science writer. Over the next few years, our 50-50 division of household responsibilities shifted as I assumed more and more of the day-to-day parenting duties. When we divorced, there was no question that the boys would be living primarily with me.

And now that I've become comfortable with my role, I've discovered that my Harvard training has served me very well. It may not take a Ph.D. from Harvard to be a dad (or mom), but it sure doesn't hurt either. Every day, it seems, I discover a new application for some of those lessons I learned back in the labs and lecture halls in Cambridge, Mass.

Lesson 1: Sleep deprivation and mindless repetition are the keys to success.

In graduate school, I spent many nights in the lab, repeating experiments over and over with the slightest variations in conditions. I learned how to sleep for 15 minutes at a time, waking up just enough to start a new experiment, devour a stale doughnut, and go back to sleep. Sometimes, when I could sleep for 45 minutes between experiments, I'd sneak into the women's lounge and sleep on the cot. Scientific research, at least as I experienced it, was not glamorous work. I felt grimy, groggy, and brain-dead by the time I finished my 12-hour overnight shift. No wonder graduate school is sometimes compared to the medieval apprentice system.

But what wonderful training for taking care of an infant. As a new dad, there I was again -- sleeping on the floor beside the crib, waking up just enough to give baby another bottle, and mumbling a lullaby for the 100th or 1,000th time.

Lesson 2: Once you master Lesson 1, you'll quickly become a leading expert.

Modern science demands specialization. By the time I finished my dissertation, I was a leading expert on six particular hydrogen atoms in a large, coiled protein molecule called lysozyme. I could predict how each of those unique hydrogen atoms would behave as I dissolved the molecule in "heavy water," as I changed the temperature or pH of the solution, or as I added chemicals to cause the protein molecule to uncoil.

Today, I'm the world's leading expert on four particular boys. I can predict (at least most of the time) how each of these unique boys will behave as I introduce him to a new social experience, as I try out a new vegetable for dinner, or as I ask him to do his homework. (Quite frankly, hydrogen atoms are better behaved, and they don't tease each other.)

Lesson 3: Exciting breakthroughs and newfangled theories are sometimes wrong.

Science is based on skepticism. I learned never to trust new results or new claims until they had been tested, verified, examined, and replicated. If a new result looked too good to be true, it probably was. So I learned to be cautious, do the background research, and ask lots of questions.

I apply the same skeptical research techniques now -- to new school curricula, glossy advertisements for "healthy" breakfast cereals, and prices for items my kids want to buy on eBay. And when it comes to treating illnesses or solving school problems, I treat my children's doctors and teachers as research partners. We each bring our expertise and questions; we develop our hypotheses; we read up on the published literature; we test our ideas; and we compare results.

Lesson 4: Without chemistry, life itself would be impossible.

This slogan, put forward by Monsanto's advertising agency about 20 years ago, may be a bit grandiose, even for a chemist. However, I've discovered that nearly every parenting and life situation I've encountered can benefit from a chemical perspective. I've called on science metaphors to help me cope with issues such as:

  • Discipline -- I try to use a "gel"-like disciplinary philosophy that incorporates both the fluid properties of a liquid and the rigid structure of a solid.

  • Messy bedrooms -- Entropy inevitably increases in a closed system, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

  • Divorce -- Covalent bonds, which involve atoms sharing electrons, are more stable than ionic bonds, which involve the attraction of charged opposites.

My children have grown accustomed to my use of chemical analogies and metaphors as teaching devices. At a recent family gathering, my 10-year-old son was asked to describe my approach to teaching good behavior. He said, "My dad likes to use analogies." His 2-year-old cousin quickly responded, "My mom has allergies, too."

Lesson 5: Illegitimum non carborundum.

My Harvard diploma may be written in Latin, but I learned only one Latin phrase while in graduate school, and I learned it from the Harvard Band: Illegitimum non carborundum. Loosely translated, it means, "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Used for generations as a battle cry for Harvard athletics teams, it's actually wonderful advice for fathers trying to be more involved in their children's lives.

Unfortunately, some people still believe that a man has no place in the kitchen, in the nursery, or at the neighborhood playground. But those folks are fighting a losing battle as American society experiments with new rules and roles for parents and families. Make way for a new generation of involved fathers. Please don't call us Mr. Mom. But you can call us Dr. Dad.

Randy Wedin, a dad, a Ph.D. chemist, and a freelance science writer, lives with his four sons in Wayzata, Minn. He's working on a book-length memoir, The Alchemist in the Minivan: Distilling Memories, Molecules, and Meaning from Fatherhood.