How Retrosynthetic Analysis is Making Me a Better Mom (I Think)

Somewhere at sometime, I was taught to write with confidence if I am aiming to sell a point.

I’m obviously failing that lesson, with regard to my subject line for this piece.  The only thing I can say with full confidence today is that I’m thinking, and better still, I’m trying to be honest with myself and others.  If that gives me enough credibility, then feel free to read on.

I signed up to take an Organic Chemistry class this fall.  You may wonder what on earth that may have to do with being a doula, and to be honest, I don’t have a great answer to that question.  All I can say is I’m a curious person with many questions — like why doesn’t pitocin (synthetic oxytocin) succeed as well as our body’s naturally produced oxytocin, in terms of leading to a comfortable labor and satisfying birth?  Also, there may be an eventual benefit to my clients for my attendance in this class, but only the future will reveal that for sure.  I’ll certainly keep you posted with what results.


Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” and is largely responsible for the contractions of labor. Synthetic pitocin is identical, but mysteriously, it seems to make labor more painful.

In any case, it’s been a fascinating semester!  I would love to get into all of the interesting things I’ve learned, but I’m pretty sure I’d lose my readers (all of you who still remain after seeing today’s subject line).  So for now I’m sticking with retrosynthetic analysis, which is basically how chemists scheme ways to produce various compounds.  You start by drawing the compound you hope to create, and then draw compounds from which your final compound can be made, and then draw other compounds from which those compounds can be made, and so on, until you have relatively uncomplicated chemical species that are easy to find in any lab.  With each scheme, you have to keep in mind that, to favor the compounds attaching to each other in one particular way, you must use certain conditions (temperature, exposure to light, acidity, and concentrations of certain solutions, for example).

It’s a clever, albeit simple, idea: to begin with the end in mind, and trace your way back and forth between what you currently have and what you aim to have.  Essentially, you’re drawing a map or set of instructions.

Also, in case you’re wondering, we have retrosynthetic analysis to thank for the vast majority of medications that are available today.  Therefore, if you are on a medication that helps you to manage life and be a better parent, you could say that retrosynthetic analysis is making you a better parent.  

I say that retrosynthetic analysis is making me a better parent, even without taking medications!  How so?

Yesterday (and not for the first time), I was delayed on my tri-rail commute to school by a so-called “trespasser strike.”  There is more than one reason why some “trespasser” would be in the middle of the train tracks right as the train is passing through, but none so likely as suicide.  The 35 minute interruption of hundreds of commuters lives, for this “trespasser” to be cleared from the tracks and our train to start moving again, was certainly an inconvenience — costly for those who still hoped to still catch their departing flights out of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale as they hailed taxis and threw away the non-refundable tri-rail tickets they’d just purchased.  For me, I missed the first 10 minutes of class, and thereby looked irresponsible.  It is only natural to be annoyed in these situations.

As I tried to make the best of it, by studying in our waiting time, another thought crossed my mind.  Clearly, we can dehumanize a person by labeling them “trespasser.”  At some point, however, that “trespasser” was a freshly born baby, embraced in the arms of a new mother who wept the happiest tears of her life.  That “trespasser” was a soul conceived out of love — if not by the parents, at least by God!  How did we get from love, to suicide?  And what tears that mother would weep now!  Did she ever imagine this would happen?

My eyes were looking at examples of retrosynthetic analysis, but my mind was suddenly fixed on my children, for whom I have cried both happy and sad tears over and over again.  If their lives on Earth were to be finished by a train strike, I’m certain I would for the rest of my life on Earth recount every thing and every experience I gave them, as well as every thing  and every experience I failed to give them.  I would question the conditions under which I reared them.  I would ask, perpetually, “What if?”  I wonder if asking the question today can prevent me from asking it in a more regretful way tomorrow.

What if?  That is the question chemists are asking.  What if we put compound A in compound B under condition X, then take product C and combine it with compound D in conditions Y?  Would we be able to make Product Z, which has all of the components we perceive as necessary to block the transcription of, say, a cancer-causing strand of DNA?

Whether we’re making a work of art, a new chemical compound, or a new human life, we wonder: what if?  Did God ever ask the question, “What if?”  I’m not sure, but I do know that, for me, “What if?” feels like the most daring and creative question we could ever ask ourselves.

Perhaps the question, for you, becomes:

  • What if I sell my home, downsize, and switch from full-time to part-time?
  • What if I find a new network of more positive people to surround myself with?
  • What if I switch care providers for my upcoming birth?
  • What if I breastfeed my baby (or toddler) even though my relatives perceive it to be weird?
  • What if I turn the tv off during meal time, and have a conversation with my family?  Or start bringing meals outside for that matter?
  • What if I take time to imagine myself in their shoes?  What if I lower my expectations of others?
  • What if I went on more dates with my spouse?
  • What if I created a new habit of starting and ending each day in prayer and meditation?
  • What if I schedule 30 uninterrupted minutes with my child each day?
  • What if I make a resolution to laugh more?  Dance and sing more?  Re-learn cartwheels?
  • What if I ask for help?  What if I pay for some help?

I know we can only control ourselves, and to a large degree, the environment in which our children live.  Much is beyond our control.  This is what keeps me humble — that no matter what I do as a mother for the sake of my children, there is no guarantee that I will not be the mother of a railway “trespasser” who is struck by a train.  I think I’m becoming a better mom, but the jury is out, and we may only find out if I’ve done well or failed after having made irreversible mistakes.  Chemists are clearly not immune either.  The success of creating a compound that seems to combat some health condition can be deflated by the finding that such a compound may have an unintended consequence of, say, birth defects or other chronic conditions.

Nevertheless, we who ask, “What if?,” are students of life.  We are trying.  We are examining and analyzing our lives and pondering how we can do better.  We are risking our default status quo, for the improvement of odds for our children (and their children).  These are not actions we will regret.

We’re beginning with the end in mind: a final “product” who is an adult living with inner peace and a sense of purpose.  What we have on hand is a baby who was conceived out of love.  What are the conditions and “reactions” that will lead from this baby to the adult we envision?  I will end with that question, and leave it for you to answer.

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