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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Constrained Optimization at the Cafeteria Table
July 23, 2009 - 9:07pm

A friend from college is spending the year in Rome, on sabbatical with his family, writing two books. Despite the desire to visit them there, to see Rome as no tourist can ever see it, and to introduce my daughter to world travel and the larger world, we did not visit them during the year. This is because the year they chose to spend in Rome was the year that the economy showed difficult times, and we could not, practically speaking, manage to make the trip. I am sure that in seven years, when I suspect the family will be back in Rome, my little family will be the first on an airplane to visit them. However, this year was just not the right year for such an adventure.

Does this mean that I did not want to visit Rome? Of course not. I was doing what we economists call “constrained optimization”. I was making my decisions, subject to the constraints I faced in life at that time. We all do this; we face limited income, and, ultimately, limited time to earn more income or to enjoy leisure. This limit is made even more severe because we don’t actually know how much time we have to spend enjoying life, or to use to earn income. Ultimately, our choices are constrained by the limits we face, and we cannot say that the choices we make under present constraints are the choices we would make under different constraints, or with different options available to us.

I thought of this last week, when the group Moms Rising sent its subscribers an e-mail summarizing a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, aghast at what “the diary of the American Dream” had to say about how women academics discuss the decisions necessary to make their dreams a reality.

While it was interesting in itself, it became even more interesting as I discovered that the article criticized this forum by name. It seems that they criticize the concept of “Mama, Ph.D.” for trying to discuss work-life balance, as the former CEO of GE said that there is really no such thing as work-life balance, that we make our choices and then live by them. Yes, you do choose your job and then live with it, but that choice is one made under constrained optimization. We make our choices subject to the options available to us at the time. Would we make these choices if we were not constrained by the limited options available to women academics who are trying to both maintain our professional lives and raise children? Perhaps, but perhaps we would make different choices, as Moms Rising suggests, if we had access to jobs that allowed for a better balance between our professional lives and our duties as mothers. What exactly those jobs would look like is part of the focus of Mama, Ph.D., as we put out collective heads together to imagine a better world.

The Wall Street Journal went on to criticize this forum, saying the type of issues discussed here are similar to those previously discussed over coffee with fellow women at a kitchen table.


Or, I wondered, perhaps similar to issues discussed not just at a kitchen table, but at a cafeteria table. I was struck by the image of sitting down with others at a table, and recalled the book Why are All the Black Students Sitting Together at the Cafeteria Table, by Beverly Tatum. In it she suggests that people in the minority, such as African American students in a predominately White school, may find support from each other as they meet and discuss their situation at cafeteria tables. While women in academia are certainly not facing the challenges that African American students face in predominately Caucasian schools, I want to suggest that perhaps Mama, Ph.D. IS a way to metaphorically share coffee, if not to join at a cafeteria table with others in similar situations. For here, we can discuss the various trade-offs we all make as we seek to maximize the welfare of our own families and our own careers, subject to the constraints we face in the current academic labor market. And then we, as Moms Rising suggests, can begin to plan for a day when the next generation, or perhaps the ones following them, will be able to make different decisions, because they will face less severe constraints.


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