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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Motherhood, a Radical Idea
May 10, 2012 - 7:03pm

Central to the subject of Economics is the idea of “utility maximization.” This concept proposes that people choose the optimal assortment of work, goods and leisure given the constraints they face. As calculus is applied to compute such choices, it is assumed that the economic agent is strictly self-interested, an assumption I find myself thinking about as we celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend.

Mother’s Day is often anticipated with advertisements for flowers and greeting cards, with hardly a mention of the very radical origin of the day. Indeed, the day was created by Julia Ward Howe in 1870 as a day for women, especially mothers, to come together to work for peace. The day’s founders proposed that the women of the world, with a vested interest in the well-being of the next generation, could find ways to create a better world. As I think of the women I know who mother, I have to agree.

I think of my students who are mothers, some single mothers, who come to my classes, bringing their worries and dreams as they sit through yet another lecture on statistics or calculus. I think of the decisions that brought them to this place, and I realize that some of these decisions were very hard decisions that were made in the face of great difficulties and great love for their children. I know of some who had children when they were not much more than children themselves. I am amazed at the students who work long hours to make ends meet, and then come to class, tired and frazzled. In a world which tells us that people approach life from a purely self-interested perspective, the sacrifices of these mothers challenge us to rethink that assumption.

I think of the women I have met who have made great sacrifices to parent when such parenting brings with it extra challenges. I think of the mother who adopted several children who had been born addicted to illegal drugs, and the one I know who adopted a beautiful rainbow of children of different races, bringing children with blonde hair and brown skin to sit side by side at her dinner table. In a world that still surprises itself at how much racism still exists, she is a loud testimony to the fact that we can find a better way.

I think of the women who navigate the world as their children’s advocates, talking, and sometimes arguing with educators in an attempt to help their children have the options they deserve in life. I recall one woman who refused to give up on her child and insisted she be “mainstreamed” long before such a word was even part of the educational vocabulary. She was successful, and her child has lived a very typical life and is now a mother herself. And I think of the mother of Albert Einstein, who saw her genius child struggle in an traditional classroom. She must have known that he had so much more to give, and I wonder how she continued to encourage him to do just that. In a world that judges people quickly and severely, they are a reminder that sometimes great things can come from the round pegs trying unsuccessfully to fit into square holes.

I think of the women who make the difficult choice to stay home with their children as full time parents, and the other women who make the different, but still difficult, choice to financially parent their children. These two different choices expose the need for us to find better ways of valuing the contributions people make to society beyond the wage that the free market assigns them.

I think of the women who stand by their sick or injured children and encourage them back to health. I think of one woman who brought a very sick child to the U.S. for health care that she could not have received in her war-torn country. The girl receives healing from some of the best hospitals in the world. Despite severe injuries to her face, she became the darling of the town where they live. In a world that imposes impossible standards of beauty on even its youngest girls, that woman is teaching us that beauty is found from within.

And I think of my sister, who is very sick herself, but continues to be an amazing mother to her two children. She gets herself up at night to take care of her baby boy and his older sister, despite a painful side and a body exhausted from chemotherapy.

When facing difficult situations as a mother, I sometimes joke that “mothering is not for wimps.” It is, however, a bold statement that the world can be a much better place, if only we put our minds to it.

Wishing all my readers a Happy Mother’s Day!


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