This article came to my attention and it's a good example of what I often talk about here: that women are different from men and that they need to plan their lives differently if they wish to become mothers. Since I believe most women do wish to become mothers, this article is relevant to most women no matter their profession...
The Chronicle Review
February 7, 2010
Women, Birth, Death, and Mathematics
Jon Krause, for The Chronicle Review
By Susan D'Agostino
When I decided to become a mathematician, I assumed that my greatest challenge would be intellectual. That was before the Christmas Eve my father made shrimp scampi in a Pyrex dish under the broiler. When he opened the oven and added cold lemon juice to the sizzling prawns, shards of glass flew 15 feet in every direction. Normally a fastidious cook, he had been distracted by my mother, who, at that moment, was telling my very young children—because none of the adults would listen—what she wanted for Christmas: for the family to acknowledge that it was time for her to die.
Nothing in my graduate program had trained me for this. I am a doctor, but not that kind of doctor. Not that being an oncologist would have helped at that point. With Stage 4 kidney cancer, my mother had no more than months to live. I was not at all surprised when my father picked up the shrimp and ate it; it was an earnest, if dangerous, attempt to show the power of mind over matter.
The message was that none of this was happening: The shrimp was not infused with glass, and my mother was not dying. At the time, I might have added that, in spite of my decision to take time away from formal employment to care for my babies and mother, my intelligence and training still had currency in the world of academe.
The day of the exploding shrimp seems like ages ago. My children are now in grade school, my mother has passed away, and I am an assistant math professor at an institution that makes me extremely happy. Still, I can remember the confusion that resulted from following my heart rather than toeing the feminist line.
Discussing this topic does not come easy. Having earned my doctorate right on schedule—with a baby on my hip, no less—and landing an assistant professorship in the geographic region of my choice, I could easily portray myself as some sort of mathematical, feminist superhero. In particular, I could gloss over the fact that there was a period in which I took time away from academe to change a lot of diapers and serve as a nurse to my terminally ill mother.
But just as I tell my daughter that she has more options than "witch" or "princess" for Halloween, I want to exist somewhere between "nun for science" and "stay-at-home mom." I have tremendous gratitude for the feminists who blazed the path before me. However, I respectfully reject the notion that my desire to engage in these so-called female activities is a 1950s-era can of worms that is better left unopened.
I am compelled to write because when I was thinking about family planning and end-of-life issues, it was the rare woman in math who revealed any ambivalence about how personal choices affected her professional life. Were there women who, in the absence of maternity leave or affordable child care, dropped out of their math graduate programs upon the births of their children? Or women who delayed childbearing only to struggle later with age-related infertility? Or women who were racked with guilt when a parent died alone in a hospital bed because they could not afford the time away from research?
As a math graduate student, I attended many women-in-math conferences, but those were not the stories I heard. There was casual mention of finding a "work-life balance," but most of the discussion concerned achieving equity. And when it came to equity, the messages converged around a central theme: "Work more," "Hire a nanny," or, my favorite, "That's what hospice volunteers are for."
Something changed for me during my hiatus from academe. No, I did not, as some had either feared or predicted, lose my ambition. Yet I am no longer the woman who, as a graduate student, took pride in the fact that I returned to work just days after having given birth. Of course, with no formal maternity leave, I felt that I had little choice. Still, my former self happily spun my postpartum math research as proof that I was making it in the old boys' network. My present self, on the other hand, is no longer concerned with the old boys' network. Rather, my present self strives to live the life that I want, which includes both family and work.
During my time away from academe, I realized that the world is much bigger than those in academe would lead you to believe. I came to realize that if academe did not see my merits, then I could still find work that was both stimulating and satisfying outside of it. As my mother's early death poignantly illustrates, life is fleeting. Too fleeting, in fact, to have only one definition of success.
This change of heart has made all of the difference in my life. Like businesswomen who ultimately rejected oversized shoulder pads as a superficial, not to mention odd, attempt to mimic their male counterparts, I am no longer trying to be the archetypal male mathematician who has a wife to birth his babies and a sister to care for his dying mother.
Today I am a mathematician who willingly participates in the nurturing surrounding birth and death. The fact that I can state that proudly is not just good for me but is also good for math. Just as biodiversity is vital to an ecosystem, diversity of experience and perspective is crucial in academic research. Research involves asking questions, and the kinds of questions an individual is predisposed to ask are constrained by his or her gender, language, and cultural background.
The Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock described the uniquely feminine and, at the time, revolutionary approach that motivated her research in Evelyn Fox Keller's biography of her, A Feeling for the Organism. McClintock treated individual corn plants as if they were distinct children she had reared from birth. She used words like "patience" and "listening" as she gained an "intimate" knowledge of what distinguished one corn plant from another. In doing so, she cultivated what she referred to as a "feeling for the organism" that most people develop only with humans or pets.
And Dian Fossey's groundbreaking research methods were decidedly feminine, writes Sy Montgomery in Walking With the Great Apes, because of her intense focus on nurturing relationships with individual gorillas. Fossey broke the previously undisputed rule of maintaining a distance from her subjects, much to the benefit of science.
Who is to say that any marginalization I experienced as a woman or mother in math did not influence my decision to study nonlinear codes as opposed to the more mainstream linear codes? Only later did I learn of a connection between nonlinear codes and the hot topic of quantum error-correcting codes.
When the math community recognizes that some women not only pace their careers differently from the archetypal man but may want to allow room for some (dare I say it?) stereotypically female endeavors, the groundwork will be laid for equity. In the meantime, if you are a young woman establishing yourself as a mathematician while at the same time contemplating family planning or elder care, take heart. Being a woman attempting to combine birth, death, and mathematics is a great challenge—greater, I think, than doing math in a vacuum. However, there is nothing I would change about the path I have followed. And if I ever run into you at a conference, I will very likely tell you as much.
Susan D'Agostino is an assistant professor of mathematics at Southern New Hampshire University