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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: At Mother’s Knee

Memories and a moral compass.

May 7, 2015

As the first Mother’s Day since my mother’s death approaches, I find myself flooded with memoires of the woman who raised me. One memory that returns often is of my mother sitting with me, a teenager, solving Algebra problems together, hashing out how we would set up equations and whether the answers made sense. I once thought that I would share such days with my own daughter, but, as she dips her toes into Algebra, it is clear that she and I will not soon bond over variables and the order of operations. Still, I recall those days of sharing “math geek-dom” with my mom, and remember the many lessons she taught me, both in Math and in life. For these lessons I am infinitely grateful.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my mother was how to work hard. When her father, my grandfather, came to the United States from Italy, a relative meeting him told him that “this is America, and in America we work.” Those were words that he took to heart, hardly taking off any weekends and always working holidays at his small business that thrived on holiday customers. When he finally did sell his business, he was diagnosed with cancer within the month. My mother followed his lead and worked long past the usual retirement age. When we gathered to celebrate her retirement at age 72, I joked when I asked my mom, who spent her life financially caring for us and never even had a mortgage, “well, what are you going to do now?” She told me that she had just learned that her cancer had come back with a vengeance, and so she would be resuming chemotherapy.

My mother lived a life of fidelity to the promises she made and the people she lived with. When my sister was born with Cerebral Palsy in 1969, she insisted on searching for the care that would allow her daughter to live as typical a life as possible. Rather than the treatment centers available at the time, she found interventions that included physical and occupational therapy. Although my sister struggled somewhat in school, the image of her marching in her graduation ceremony for her Master’s Degree was one that inspired me. I kept that picture in my thoughts when I needed to undertake a search of my own to find the most appropriate interventions for my own daughter when she (temporarily) had difficulty in school when she very young.

When I fell very ill, my mother dropped everything to spend time with me, even though I was a grown woman with a job and apartment several states away. And when my sister became sick, she made a point of being there every night to help with the care of my niece and nephew, so my brother-in-law, who cared for their baby all day, could take a break. I am also sure she savored each second she spent with my fading sister.

My mother did not always understand my approaches to life, perhaps because we came from different generations. When I was disturbed by pre-Vatican II ideas from the church I called "home", she said that she just quietly listened to what the priest said, never questioning or becoming annoyed at the words spoken. This, however, did not mean that she took the status quo as being a good thing. She taught us to choose our companions by their actions and values, and not by convention or their outward appearances. This helped my sister to follow her heart into her unexpected marriage. Unfortunately, the vows she took of "til death do us part" were realized before she could celebrate her tenth anniversary.

Recently, David Brooks of the New York Times posed a question in a column asking where we derive our sense of values, where it is that we find our individual “moral compass.” I recall a former colleague from Philosophy who spoke of values as being learned “at mother’s knee.” As we celebrate this weekend that began as a call to work for peace, I wonder if perhaps that is where the answer to his question can be found.

                                                 Wishing all of my readers, especially those who “mother” in some way, a Happy Mother’s Day



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