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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Mom: June
June 5, 2008 - 5:18am

June. Not the month bookended by May and July but a small, strong woman who runs marathons to raise money for the disease that took her brother from this planet while his hair was still blonde and his body still muscular. She doesn't run just any marathon either. She runs the New York or London Marathon and finishes in the top 20. She lives in the bustling center of London where she trains along the Thames and feasts on vegetarian fare, particularly good bread and cheese.

And I count June among my friends. Now how does that work given that an ocean separates us? To be honest, it could be more than an ocean that separates us. It could be the gulf of children. But it doesn't. In her fifties, June has lived her whole life without children and I have lived the last one-third of mine with three of them.

I only met June in the past few years and I only see her at professional meetings once a year at most, as I did last week. In between, we exchange emails about scholarly questions and editorial changes to manuscripts for various writing projects. We might add a line or two about our personal lives here and there but with full lives in our respective countries it is often business as usual.

That is, until we end up at a mathematics meeting together. Like old school friends who have just been let out for recess, we find some chunk of time nearly every day to hike through the Black Forest or run along the cliffs at Marseille, France (where there is another mathematics institute) chatting a mile a minute. We laugh about the sometimes hilarious culture clashes that occur, rather unexpectedly, among colleagues, express frustration when egos interfere with an otherwise fruitful discussion, and even cry as we recall some poignant moment from the past year. The boundary between professional and personal points of discussion grows a little blurry as the conversation progresses and, as it does, I find that a somewhat gaping hole in me begins to close ever so slightly.

As a parent and college professor, I invest considerable energy in making sure my children and my students move forward. I have what seem like dozens of radar always on alert to pick up signals for a child who needs a good book for an upcoming school project or a student who would benefit from a timely word after a tough test performance. Most of the time, this type of meaningful work energizes me and fills me with profound satisfaction. Every once in a while, however, I realize my own batteries need recharging and a meaningful conversation with a woman friend seems to provide just the necessary boost.

It is not easy to chisel out time for women friends in an already full life, however. As I think about it though, I appreciate the effort various women in my academic community make to snatch a few minutes of conversation before or after a meeting or in between lunch and a talk. But it goes beyond a few stolen minutes of conversation. A few months ago a close friend from graduate school who now has a position on the west coast sent me one of our favorite treats from yesteryear (chocolate covered oreos) with "I'm thinking of you" scrawled on a scrap piece of paper. My colleague in the history department who is beautiful and elegant always has a positive word for me when we pass in the quad. The other mom in my own department offers sage wisdom and insight just when I need it most.

When I began writing this post, I had planned to lament that time with women friends has been one of the measurable sacrifices I have had to make as a mom in academics. While I certainly acknowledge the existence of very little time for socializing, in thinking about June and other women I realize that maybe it hasn't been as much a sacrifice as I thought. That awareness simply emphasizes the resilience and continued possibility that women seem to find again and again to make things work on many different levels.

And that leaves me looking forward to July.


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