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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Role Models
March 3, 2011 - 9:49pm

Last week, I was thrilled to find a book in my campus mailbox that had been left there by our college president. It was a book that she had run across dealing with the “golden ratio”, and she thought I might enjoy it. By Mario Livo, it is called “The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Amazing Number.” I am currently reading it, with plans of donating it to our library when I finish.

The book about the “golden ratio” is about phi, an irrational number that is used to describe the length of a portion of a line that results if one wants to divide the line into two parts. These parts would be such that the whole line has the same relationship to the larger part as the larger part has to the smaller part. Like the better known number, pi, it is an irrational number and is written as a number that has decimal places that go on forever without ever repeating. It is a number that appears, directly or indirectly, in nature and in man-made architecture.

As part of an explanation of what the golden ratio is, the author spends some time discussing the concept of Platonic ideals. It is the concept of such ideals that caught my attention, for it seems that we are, as faculty members who are parents, caught between two “ideals”, with expectations that we succeed in imitating both. It seems that this is where the tension that is “work/life balance” arises, and this is where it needs to be addressed.

It wasn’t too long ago that the image of the ideal “mother” was widely agreed upon. She was someone straight out of the situation comedies of the 1950s. Always beautiful in a dress (even when mopping the floor), she took care of her children full time and had a dinner waiting on the table for her husband when he came home from work. At the same time, the ideal “faculty member” was seen as one that worked on research every free second and stayed at work late, so as to progress his career.

These two ideals depended on each other; the mother could be such a good mother because she did not work in the marketplace, while the faculty member could spend so much time at work because he did not need to deal with the minutia of raising his children on a day to day basis. Today, it is likely that neither of those “ideals” is easily attainable by faculty members who are now both parents and professors at the same time.

This leaves those of us who attempt to succeed at being both a parent and a faculty member with no agreed-upon model to use as a model for our own lives. Ever a two-handed economist (on the one hand…, on the other hand….), I believe this can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

This can be seen as a bad thing, because we have few people who have meshed these two roles to look to for guidance. Indeed, many of us are part of only the first or second generation of women who spend most of our days in the paid workforce at all. In many ways, then, we are on our own.

This is a good thing, however, because the lack of role models means that we can create our own vision of what it means to be a mother who is also a professor. In looking for role models, I find myself looking to fellow professors and even, at times, my own students. Indeed, just the other day, one of my students took a deep breath on her way out of class. “I am off to my second job” she said, and then explained that the second job she was talking about was her role as a mother to two young children. I laughed in agreement.

It is this search for a model that sometimes leads me to my contemporaries, and so I want to pass along a newspaper article about a woman who seems to have figured out how to succeed at both her career and at being a mother. It was in our newspaper last week, and is about a woman who is a member of the world-class Cleveland Orchestra, who is also the mother of a young child. Somehow, she manages to travel the world with, as the article says, “a bow in one hand and a pacifier in the other.” I was humbled to read about how she often takes her child along with her to foreign countries, while producing music that is appreciated across the globe.

Maybe, in our search for role models, we don’t have to constrain our search to women older than ourselves who have traveled the same academic road that we travel. Maybe, as the readers of this article might agree, it is very possible to also find role models for our lives from creative people outside of the academy.


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