• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Mom: Fitting In

Let me clear up any misconception. I am a tenured faculty member at a celebrated liberal arts institution who will soon come up for promotion to full professor.

May 29, 2008

Let me clear up any misconception. I am a tenured faculty member at a celebrated liberal arts institution who will soon come up for promotion to full professor.

At this precise moment, however, I am not at that liberal arts institution. Not even close. In fact the floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of me hold views of lush mountains, not suburban streets with houses lined up on either side of a paved road. I am otherwise surrounded by books with titles like Stochastic Processes and Wavelets. I am, naturally, at a desk in the library of a mathematics institute blasted into the side of a mountain in the Black Forest in Oberwolfach, Germany. The main building across the brick patio includes a dining room, housing accommodations, and "closets" with chocolate, beer and wine that you purchase on an honor system. This is work, I remind you.

I begin each day with the sun streaming in the window of my Spartan room. There is no piercing alarm for me in Oberwolfach since I don't have to be anywhere or take care of anyone until 9 a.m. At this point in my life, nine o'clock in the morning may as well be the afternoon for me. I do not rush down to make breakfast before the school bus arrives because the school bus is 4000 miles away from here. I actually lay in bed quietly for a few minutes, soaking up the silence that will seem an eternity away once I return to my otherwise normal life in the States.

The morning lectures will take us until lunch time, at which point I enjoy something along the lines of homemade asparagus soup, followed by green beans, potatoes, salad and a bit of meat. I do not chop, wash or cook any of the ingredients. I simply sit down at a seat marked by a napkin with my name on it and the gourmet food will appear. It will happen again at dinnertime.

In between, I listen to scholars from various parts of the world talk about the Casimir Operator and the Geometry of Numbers, among other topics. I enjoy discussions about scholarly (and other) ideas after the talks and take hikes in the long break after lunch. I fill my research notebook with meaningful insights and side comments (including tasks I need to remember to do when I return). It will remind me of the boost this week provided once I am home again arranging swim practice and orthodontist appointments.

With vast expanses of time to reflect and discuss, it occurs to me how fragmented my life is at home, how much I have to squeeze into (and out of) bite-size chunks of time. That could be a discouraging thought. Yet it also occurs to me how I have somehow established a system for managing to live life in those bite-size chunks, supplemented by some stolen extended hours in the evenings and wherever else I can find them. My guess is I am not doing anything any other mom is not doing, in or out of academics. Whether it is keeping a stack of papers in the car in case the car pool line is delayed or staying up late to meet a research deadline, these small (and large) investments add up to a meaningful sum.

That doesn't mean it is easy or systematic for any of us. The January when all three of my children were sick comes to my mind, for example. For a solid week, some child or children had been awake all night and I still managed to teach all of my classes with the equivalent of one eye open. One morning that week, I cried the whole way to school, taught my classes with a smile plastered to my face, and cried the whole way home thinking about who might be getting short-changed. Whoever it was has now, I think, worked their way back to a positive balance. That's hard to keep in mind at the time so I think I will save this posting to remind me.

In the meantime, in our circles of academic friends and/or colleagues, we moms can come alongside one another in the day-to-day moments of life since we share an understanding of our common journeys. We know what it means to have a baby the year before you come up for tenure. We know what it means to arrive late for the school bus when the Dean got long winded. We know what it means to stay up late to prepare to attend an out-of-town scholarly meeting. We know what it means to try to work our way into the stay-at-home mom set, particularly the stay-at-home mom set with matching purses and belts.

We moms can make it work for us in academics. This Institute is actually a good example of the progress women have made. Founded when women were nothing more than a singular exception in mathematics, the design of the Mathematicsches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach provides the perfect blend of a quiet setting for reflection with the opportunity to discuss and exchange ideas. And chocolate. It is an academic mother's paradise, even though there are not many of us here in terms of percentages. But we are here. And we fit.


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