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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: A Study in Scarlet

The search for meaning.

August 25, 2016

One of the central concepts in Economics is the idea of “comparative advantage.” This idea, which originates from those who founded the discipline, says that people and countries should build on their strengths and do what they do best. After that, they can trade for goods and services. I found myself thinking of this recently when I inadvertently found myself in an academic procession wearing a gown similar to the ones I have envied for years, one in bright scarlet.

As I left my home for Convocation last Sunday, I grabbed the cover containing my academic robe and hood out of the closet, and in doing so, the robe itself slid off the hanger and onto the floor of  my closet. I didn’t realize this until I had driven a half hour to participate in the New Student Convocation. Once I discovered what had happened, I was about to turn around and go home when one of the Ursuline Sisters came up with a solution. She went to the room of one of the retired Sisters who was a Theologian and borrowed her gown; the Sister was as short as I am, so it would work. The Sister had a bright red gown, indicating her field of study, the kind I had always envied. I put on the gown and joined the procession, wondering what my life would have looked like if I had found the ability and courage to pursue such a degree myself.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have been drawn to issues relating to Theology. When my parents had the parish priest in for dinner, I would corner him and ask him, time and again, “but WHY can’t women be priests?” I never received an answer from him that satisfied me. And in high school, I took an extra class in World Religions, just for fun. I used a flat rate tuition plan to do the same in college, again taking more classes than I needed to graduate.

Once in college, my involvement in campus ministry put me in touch with fellow students who were majoring in Theology and Philosophy. I envied their courses of study and enjoyed late night conversations with them about such things as “the meaning of life.” Even as I enjoyed those discussions, I realized that the lack of Math in such studies would frustrate me if I was to study them for any length of time. In graduate school and beyond, I again often surrounded myself with Philosophers and Theologians, bringing interesting conversations into my home that I hope my daughter will appreciate someday.

However, I knew that studying Theology was not something that I could realistically see myself doing, for several reasons. I knew that my extended family, of which I was one of the first to earn a bachelor’s degree, would be appalled if I was to choose a major that they saw as so impractical (but which, ultimately, is most important.) Indeed, I argued with my parents about which major to list in the local newspaper’s “Deans List” column the semester I changed my major from Physics to Economics. “Who knows what Economics is?” they wondered, even as they agreed to list it as Economics.

But a bigger barrier keeping me from majoring in Theology was my own comparative advantage. While I am pretty good at Math, I am horrible at languages, and earned my lowest grades in college fulfilling my core requirement for language competency. It is clear that studying Theology seriously, which would require knowledge of ancient languages, was not in my future. Indeed, Dorothy L. Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, felt the same way about her writing. I wonder if she ever realized how much joy she brought into the world with her works of fiction. Much more joy, I am sure, than my boring Economics papers bring.

In my role as an advisor and a parent, I work to help my students and daughter choose a path in life that speaks to their souls and which uses their own comparative advantages. I hope that they will pursue lives that help them live out what they finally conclude to be the “meaning of life.”


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