Six years ago I wrote an essay I called "Mama Mentor."* In it I talked about mentoring a former student, and how I found my mothering and mentoring intertwined. At the time, my children were 12 and 5, and they seemed far indeed from my own students. But I had recently found myself dispensing advice about balancing family life with an academic career -- a topic near and dear to my heart. I may not be an expert on it, but I was, in that case, the only person my former student knew who was actually trying to do it.
Lately, though, as I've mentioned before , I see my daughter in my students, and vice versa, all the time. I first noticed it about soon after I wrote that essay, when I met with a student in crisis and found myself prefacing my advice with, "If you were my daughter…" But we were still in the realm of projection here. She wasn't my daughter, and my daughter still wasn't anywhere close to her age. I was really just talking to a student in crisis, trying to help her out with whatever the tools were at my disposal. There weren't many, as it happened, and I was glad to have the backup of other faculty and, especially, our student counseling center. In other cases it's the career center or a colleague in another department who backs me up, as well.
But with every passing year I see more and more connections between my daughter and my students. Of course I don't know my students as I know my daughter, but when they come to my office for advice, I can't help actually giving it to them, as I would give it to my daughter. There was the young woman who came in for academic advising last week who wondered about adding a business minor to her English major. I went into a five-minute sermonette about studying what you love and following your heart. Not that I don't also advise plenty of students who do go happily on to study business; I just got the sense from this one that, like my daughter, she was at her heart a liberal arts student. When I stopped to take a breath, I apologized -- "sermon over," I said. "No, I don't mind at all," she replied. "I know you have kids -- I appreciate it." It was that obvious, then, that I was, indeed, doing the Mom thing.
I turned into Mom in the office again today, advising a senior who's facing graduation and an uncertain future. This time I turned cheerleader, reminding her of what she's accomplished so far, and encouraging her to explore further the ESL teaching programs she'd mentioned. Again, she seemed to appreciate it, though this is another case where the career center will provide far more tangible support than I can.
I'm never quite sure whether I'm too much a Mom in my office. I'm not much of one in the classroom -- though I tell stories on my kids and myself, they're always in the context of our reading and our work. But in the office, it's harder for me to separate my identities, and I'm not sure I should. After all, when students seek out my advice -- either in my role as their academic advisor or because they are in one of my classes -- they know who and what they're getting. Sure, they have their own parents, and I know they turn to them for advice as well. But it's actually one of the rare pleasures of my work, these days, to feel that I can actually use some of what I've picked up over the years -- whether it's listening skills, a way of talking to teenagers, or a sense of what their concerns are. The Mom thing is part of the package they get with me, and it's part of what I bring to the job. So far it seems like an asset.
*It was later published in a collection called A Cup of Comfort for Teachers (ed. Colleen Sell. Adams Media, 2004).