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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Irrational Decisions

Parenthood and teaching.

March 12, 2015

In Economics, the idea of someone acting in a “rational” way implies that they make decisions that maximize their own utility, and that they do so consistently. in Mathematics, the same word means that a number can be represented as the ratio of two integers, that it can be written as a decimal that either ends or repeats forever. I found myself thinking of this recently, and the many decisions that we make in life that might be seen as “irrational”, as we approach the day the most famous irrational number is often celebrated. That number, “pi”, can approximated by its first three numbers, 3.14, and is therefore sometimes celebrated on March 14th. Indeed, this year is a very special “pi day”, since it is 3.14.15, writing out the first five numbers in the irrational value that continues on forever without ending or repeating.

When I think of decisions that people make that can be “irrational”, the first to come to mind in that of becoming a parent. Perhaps that is why the Catholic wedding ceremony includes a line in which the bride and groom promise to “accept children lovingly from God.” If people sat down and asked themselves if they wanted to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to watch out for the well-being of a tiny, helpless human until it was able to leave the house and fend for itself, I suspect that many rational people would decide to skip it. However, it is in just this endeavor that some of the happiest and proudest moments of our lives happen.

I have heard it said that an initial meeting with a baby can be disappointing. After all, some point out, it will be eighteen years until you can have a real conversation with that baby (although that did not keep me and my husband from talking to our daughter as if she could understand us right away.) And what an eighteen years it will be! In those years you will take a helpless infant from diapers to high school graduation, and beyond, with all the twists and turns in between. There will be nights of worrying and projectile vomiting at 3 a.m. There will be many nights struggling over homework (new math, anyone?) and tears about friends who are not very friendly and teams that could not seem to find a position for your prodigy. And just when they start to feel at home in their own skin, adolescence hits, followed quickly by a chance to earn a driver’s license. I heard one mother say that the teen years are God’s way of preparing you for letting them leave the home.

Of course, although filled with stress, parenting has many rewards. On difficult days as a parent, I remember the way my daughter used to put her baby hands up to her mouth as she giggled, almost as if she was trying to hide her joy. And I remember the stuffed bumble bee that she held onto for months, until someone gave her a favorite Teddy bear. It soon traveled everywhere with her, and still occupies an important spot on her bed; I suspect it always will.

Although my role as a teacher often gives me a front row seat as students discover their own inner talents, that is nothing like the experience of watching a child you are raising figure out what their own interests and skills are. Although not genetically related, my daughter looks a lot like me, so I was tempted to think that she would have many of my own interests and abilities. I even signed her up for dancing lessons at age 3 ½, thinking that she, too, would also develop a love for dance. My husband was wise in reminding me that “she is not you,” something that I learned repeatedly as the years unfolded. Not only is she not a ballet dancer, she is quite a basketball player, and is good at other sports, too. And where I struggled socially as a teen, she seems to navigate that world without difficulty, even as she does well in school, most of the time. She is a collection of interests and skills that I would never have imagined, and that is what makes this project of parenting so much fun. Almost, one might say, “rational.”

Of course, the world of academics was designed by and for people who generally had partners at home taking care of many of the irrational aspects of parenting. As we progress with a discussion about the future structure of the academy, I am left wondering if it might be possible to begin a conversation about ways that the academic marketplace can be revised to make it a better place for all parents.

How are you celebrating this (ultimate) pi day?


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