July 29, 2012

Work Life Balance ... Premature Baby Care

In the usual weird way in which my brain works it occurred to me that many of the women astronauts are without children.

I can think of Kalpana Chawla, Sunita Williams, and Sally Ride.

I am inclined to look at the facts as they are rather than putting them through any loaded prisms such as women's rights, etc.

Fact of the matter is technology is not yet so advanced that men can give birth to babies. Giving birth still remains the exclusive preserve (and may be a 'privilege' too -- but that's an assessment for ladies themselves to make about themselves) of women. Post natal care also involves (or needs) significant contributions from the mother. The late pregnancy period also is a time of many physical changes to the expectant mother.

The father is at an advantage in all these respects. He can afford to be essentially a pure bystander in all of these. The maximum is whatever level of emotional investment he chooses to make in the dangers involved in the childbirth and related processes.

So may be the female astronauts were so involved with their careers and had so many passions and interests and things to learn that they made conscious decisions not to have babies as they simply did not have the time to devote to that.

Then there are the corporate ladies who do have kids. Few of the high profile women executives that immediately come to mind include HP's Carly Fiorina, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, new Yahoo CEO and former key Googler Marisa Mayer.

The thing to note is that there are certain differences in how career trajectories progress depending on what you are. Meaning -- if you're a gymnast, probably you're at the top of your game when you're may be 16 to 22 years of age at the maximum. Most sports-persons tend to peak in the 20s -- think of Maria Sharapova or any other female tennis stars.

The corporate ladder works in such a manner that in the 'normal' or traditional way of things, you were supposed to reach the presumed top of the ladder -- the post of CEO -- when you're may be 50 or 60.

The CEOs are getting younger of course. That seems to be in fashion. Think of Chanda Kochar or Indra Nooyi or Fiorina as examples of the 'traditional' sort of climbing of the corporate ladder.

Then there are the new technology companies where 20-something boys tend to be the founder CEOs -- the Facebooks and Twitters of the world. Marisa Mayer's case is an example of that.

What I'm trying to say is this -- if you're, say, a tennis star or a movie star, you're sort of at your career peak in the 20s and you can probably quite easily delay matters related to having kids to a time when you're in the 30s when you know that your career might sort of peak or ... you get what I mean.

In the corporate case meanwhile, you can probably choose to have kids at some point when you're may be going through some gliding phase or routine phase of your career when you're probably a junior person. I am inclined to use 'probably' as I am quite hesitant to generalize as I am doing in terms of career graphs -- none of us probably is 'safe' in whatever jobs we might be doing. Unless we were a genius 28-year-old tenured professor at an Ivy League college or a Doogie Howser kind of neurosurgeon. So do keep in mind that there are no ways to generalize and I am not unaware of the uniqueness attached to every form of a career.

So it's interesting to sort of look at different careers and how that intersects with the biological aspects of motherhood.

I do not have any exclusive knowledge of the facts but I am just hopeful and want to conclude that some women -- say the astronaut ladies -- made those conscious choices not to have kids and I wish for that to be so and for society to accept and respect those decisions.

The crux and the contrast lies here. There was all this talk just last week when Marisa Mayer's surprising selection as the CEO of Yahoo was announced and she also made public her pregnancy. And then of course the flurry of discussion begins about balancing the needs of careers vs. motherhood and the rest of it.

My point is this: all men do not rise to the top. All men do not go into space. All men do not end up as CEOs. It is to do with differing levels of ... may be testosterone or IQ or whatever else. The same should be true of women. Some or many or most women will be happy to spend their lives in the relative obscurity of society which is of course the fate for ... well, 99% of all of us or something like that ...

It's that the debate about the work life balance as it pertains to women should not be taken to extreme levels where the implication seems to be that it's somehow the responsibility of society to create some perfect utopia for women so that they can get a perfect work life balance as they pursue their careers and the inevitable ascendance to the corner office.

What I want to emphasize is degrees of things. It's like this -- some women will be happy housewives -- whether that's a fault of a traditional society such as India or some women do indeed make that choice completely happily is a topic for another debate, other women will take maternity leaves when the babies come along, and still other women will simply focus exclusively on learning or learning to fly airplanes or whatever it is that they fancy. They will choose not to have kids.

So we need to respect those diversity of choices.

Clearly the average man who climbs to the top ... in the ways in which our society chooses to measure these things ... is an atypical sort of a person. Think of an entrepreneur or a career-obsessed MBA guy or hedge fund or trader guy or lawyer or something -- these guys probably spend an insane number of hours at the workplace.

So whatever it's that propels these men to be the way they are -- that's an entirely different matter. The point to be noted is that some men are that way. But clearly not all. The average guy is probably interested in his kids and spends time with the cute little guys -- let's admit it, kids are fun.

So the bottom-line is there are different types of men who form a spectrum. Surely women come in different types too and form a spectrum.

It would be erroneous therefore to conclude -- if anyone does that -- that somehow if a women ends up not having any kids, as if that points to some fault in her or in her society. It can be simply a matter of personal choice.

I look forward to these life choices being considered quite unexceptional -- some men will have babies, others will choose to focus on other stuff. Same with women.

There will always be a supply of other men and women who will be happy to be parents and will produce the progeny that the planet clearly needs to avoid becoming extinct -- which it surely would if everyone stopped making babies.

Imagine how perplexed alien historians/anthropologists/paleontologists will be if they reached Earth at some point in the future and they saw ruins of cities pointing to signs of intelligent life but if humanity had become extinct by then simply because everyone suddenly decided not to have any kids. EVER.

Readers will probably agree that that's a sort of a contingency with a low probability. We are either already sufficiently technologically advanced or will soon reach the stage where artificial means of human reproduction will take care of planetary emergencies if such arise whereby everyone refuses to have babies.

The 'choice' to have a baby for a women will become ever more difficult and important -- as we continue to become ever more advanced and modern societies and the possibilities of what it means to be alive and human continue to expand.

More and more people -- particularly women -- rise from the cycle of poverty and destitution and endless reproduction. This is all good.

The role that I see for technology -- medical technology to be specific -- in the business of making babies is probably going to play out somewhat like this.

What's the worst bit of being pregnant? While I have never had the opportunity to become pregnant myself -- and thus I can't speak with any great amount of authoritativeness which might have been a result of hard, personal experience -- it seems somewhat obvious that the late stages of pregnancy are probably quite physically (or physiologically?) inconvenient or awkward for pregnant ladies. The third trimester would appear to be the most challenging period.

[Full Disclaimer: I 'might' sound or appear like an expert or gynec/obstetrician or something by using words such as 'trimester' but I want to vehemently and forcefully and indeed obstreperously deny any such claims to having any expertise in those specialized medical domains. I have not even helped a random woman or a distant relation deliver a baby in an emergency with the help of the internet and vacuum cleaners. That's the preserve -- strictly -- of Bollywood heroes. So please bear with me as I appear to be pretentious by using such highfalutin words. I have no sinister plans whatsoever.]

So the third trimester is the problem -- can't that be eliminated altogether then? I think medical technology will improve in the near future to a level where it will become routine for babies to come out of their mom's tummies after two trimesters.

Remember how recent any and all medical advances are -- whether it's the use of anesthesia, or neurosurgery, or radiology. We routinely open the chest cavity or drill into the skull. These would have been fatal a hundred years ago but are now routine.

Therefore, extrapolating the ongoing medical advances into the future, I imagine that we'll soon have a complete understanding of the processes that occur inside the placenta and once we have that understanding, six-month-old fetuses can be safely delivered through C-section and after delivery, may be they can continue to be kept in a liquid medium outside the womb -- something that will duplicate the environment inside the placenta that the fetus is used to.

We can continue that for the duration of a normal pregnancy and then at the end of it, we can take the baby out of the liquid medium and induce hormonal changes or whatever else happens during a normal childbirth that will persuade the baby/fetus that it's now time to stop floating in the water and start utilizing the lungs to breathe.

We'll understand all the biology involved in all this soon enough. What was considered impossible yesterday has become the banal, commonplace reality of today in many different fields of human endeavor -- whether aviation and flying or other stuff. In fact, the stuff that we have come to develop using technology has most often gone beyond what we might have imagined to be possible.

For example, neither da Vinci back then nor science fiction writers in the 19th century were probably talking about the wonders of cellphones or all the iPhone apps and the extraordinary feats of technology which we know as microprocessors.

The sci-fi writers weren't describing a hundred years ago the world of today with the pervasive internet/world wide web and ubiquitous social media.

So I am sure what might seem like sci-fi today will become the everyday reality of tomorrow -- I look forward to a time when babies come out of their mothers after four or six months rather than the present average of nine months.

Thanks if you have been reading and sorry for that rather meandering and long-winded tale. Hope you did not die from boredom.

[PS: I hope I haven't committed any major medical faux pas which would be only too obvious to any medical professionals who might stumble onto this article. My advance apologies in case such exist.]

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