Mathematicians are often portrayed as socially awkward, unempathetic creatures. This was not my experience of the mathematicians I met at the PIC MATH Data Analytics workshop in Provo, UT in the Spring of 2017. You see, at this workshop—900 miles away from my home, family, and support system—I had one of the worst experiences of my life. I had a miscarriage. After a year and a half of trying to conceive—naturally at first, and then with repeated attempts to conceive with medical intervention—I finally got pregnant. My husband and I were ecstatic, with all our hopes wrapped up in this sweet baby I was carrying. Our hopes would be replaced by intense fears when I woke up on Day 3 of the PIC MATH workshop to discover I was bleeding.
That morning, frantic, I texted one of my project group members to let him know that I would be missing our morning meeting so I could go to the hospital. He was caring and concerned and offered to do anything he could to help. Since he didn’t have a car, though, I decided to venture down to the hotel lobby where breakfast was served to find another workshopper with a car to drive me to the ER. On the way, I encountered another group member and told her, through tears, what was happening. She quickly gathered a number of women who would usher me to the ER, help me get checked in, and offer to stay with me as I tried to discover what was happening to my baby. They told me stories of friends who bled during their pregnancies and went on to have perfectly healthy babies. It was exactly what I wanted to hear.
At the ER, I told my newfound friends that they should go to the workshop and not waste this professional opportunity, though they were perfectly willing to stay with me. Reluctantly, they left after I was ushered into an exam room. Not more than an hour had passed of my fretting, sitting cold in a ripped hospital gown on an uncomfortable hospital bed before a familiar face popped his head into my room in the ER. There stood Michael Dorff, my closest friend at this workshop and the Director of the PIC MATH program. “Would it be ok if I came in and sat with you?”
Allison and Michael Dorff (center right) with the Council on Undergraduate Research.
Foregoing his own professional opportunities and responsibilities at the workshop, Michael spent the entire morning with me in the hospital. We spent hours in that room in between ultrasounds and lab tests, waiting to hear the results from the doctor. I told Michael about my history of trying to conceive. He told me amusing stories about his daughters. At one point, in an effort to get my mind off of the test results I eagerly awaited, Michael pulled out his laptop and suggested we work on our book. We actually had some great ideas that day about inviting guest authors—women from underrepresented minority groups—to write their personal stories and use these experiences to give advice on how to mentor students from minority groups. At the end of my hospital stay, the doctor confirmed that my pregnancy had failed to progress in the last few weeks, and Michael comforted me through processing this news.
After I was discharged, Michael made it clear that it was ok for me to take the rest of the day to recover. I was not expected to come back to the workshop, though I’d be welcome if I thought it would help. Michael made sure I had food, medicine, and anything else I needed when I opted to spend the rest of the day in my hotel room (googling miscarriage stats, talking to my husband and mother on the phone, and binge watching King of the Nerds Season 2, featuring contestants Jonathan Adler and Heather Wensler who I had just met the night before). That evening, my groupmates brought me leftovers from the workshop dinner.
I jumped back into the workshop the following day. I was met by a number of people with hugs, sympathetic comments, and offers of help. My group members also helped me get up to speed on what they learned related to our project while I was away. They made it easy for me to start contributing to our work, which is what I wanted to do.
Although having a miscarriage so far away from home was a truly gut-wrenching experience, I felt like I was on the verge of tears for the rest of the workshop not because I was mourning my lost baby, but because I was overwhelmed by the kindness of all of these people, most of whom I had never met before this week. It is easy to focus on those in the math community who are unkind or exclusionary. I believe there are far more people in our community who are loving, giving, and empathetic, and I’m so grateful for them.
Allison Henrich is a Professor of Mathematics at Seattle University. She has a hilarious 17-month old son named Charlie, an incredibly supportive husband named James who juggles his careers as a musician and as a stay-at-home-dad, and an energetic labradoodle named Ole (“ohhh-leee”). Allison is passionate about playing with knots, sharing stories, fostering supportive communities, and spending as much time as possible with her family.
My career path has spanned academia, government, nonprofits and industry, and in early December 2017 I was coming full circle: I was preparing to start with the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) where I would be working with women across professions in a position to drive institutional change at the policy level, and support an army of volunteers to find meaningful routes for their own career advancement and improvement of our profession.
That is, I had arrived.
I have a nontraditional career path, which meant I had an uncommon skill set for mathematicians and I was going to use that to drive change! Watch out, math world. Good things are coming!
I gave myself the face slaps (“Let’s do this!”), and did the Rocky-style victory run up the stairs out of the DuPont Metro Station in downtown D.C. on Dec 7, 2017, on my way to represent AWM at the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences meeting, where Presidents and Executive Directors of 17 major math societies meet to share needs and find paths for collaboration. (Even though I wasn’t slated to start my job until January 15, since I lived in DC I would represent the AWM to quickly get up to speed
meeting my colleagues-to-be.)
Oh, and I only ran up the metro Rocky-style, metaphorically speaking: I was 8 months pregnant and doing a solid 28-minute mile at a duck’s pace.
Imposter syndrome has been real and present at each career change for me. I was aware that I possessed the knowledge, skills and abilities to strengthen the AWM, but I was certain no one else believed it. I waddled into the MAA Carriage House that morning with specific self-appointed tasks: be poised, positive, professional; introduce myself to heads of other major societies and listen to them; establish the foundations for future collaboration; make sure people know me.
(I should have been more specific.)
I got to introduce myself as we went around the room: “Hello, I am Karoline Pershell, I will be the incoming Executive Director for the Association for Women in Mathematics.” Yeah. #LifeGoals #MadeIt
The day was a success. I met several people whom I intended to follow up with and I also saw several familiar faces. Poised, Positive, Professional. I made it through the full day without saying something completely ridiculous (#RealFears), and the last part of the day was the AMS Christmas Party at another nearby venue, which my husband would join me for. My better half is a dynamic, intelligent, clever extrovert, and as my energy was waning, he would be the perfect wingman for me to finalize my coming-out into the AWM role.
I was having some closing conversation with the current AWM ED and AWM Treasurer, when I think I may have peed myself. Just a little. Um, this happens as you get so pregnant. Uh…I glance down. I am wearing polyester black dress pants (yes, with the elastic tummy belt, because no, I was not one of those tiny, cute pregnant people who looks like they swallowed a basketball, but otherwise are the same size), and at least polyester means it doesn’t show that my pants are wet.
I am mortified: wet pants in public doesn’t exactly fit my “Poised, Positive, Professional” mantra. I check the floor: I am not in fact standing in a puddle that other people would be able to see. Oh holy gods, just excuse yourself. The women I had been chatting with asked if I was walking to the reception now. I responded with something glib like, “no, I am waiting for my husband. I will make him carry my bag. Haha…uggghhhhh.” SERIOUSLY?!?!?! You are taking over at the helm of a women’s organization and you make comments like you are a damsel in distress and need your husband to tote your things?!? Pull it together, Pershell.
I make my way towards the bathroom, and each step swishes a little more liquid out of me. I keep checking the floor. God bless absorbent socks. Ugh! The elevator has light colored carpet, which would definitely show I was peeing myself…aghhhhhh…take the stairs, TAKE THE STAIRS!!!
I waddle up the stairs to the second floor and go into the single-room bathroom. I call my husband. I was not feeling good. He asks if I want to take the metro home and not go to the reception. I can’t think straight. He suggests an Uber. I can’t sit in an Uber with urine-soaked pants! That would RUIN my Uber rating, and I would have to create a new fake account to ever take a cab around this city again. Husband, please think of only GOOD ideas for pete’s sake. My back hurts, I can’t think. Maybe this is labor starting,
but it just is weird and not like the books. I say I don’t think I am coming home and that we may need to go to the hospital. I can’t believe I said it, and he can’t believe I said it. There was a (wait for it…) pregnant pause on the phone. He says he will drive over now.
I open the door to leave the bathroom and there is then MAA President, Deanna Haunsperger, waiting to use the bathroom. I was making her wait the whole time, while I am talking in the bathroom. For like 10 minutes. I apologize profusely, trying to convey that I am not a weirdo. (I assume I was unsuccessful.)
My confidences from earlier in the day are gone. I really don’t believe I belong here, in this role, in this historic place and this driven town. My entire carefully planned day of arriving on time, seeking out conversations, even the hours the night before where you try to find professional pregnant clothes….it was all a sham! I am leaking all over my own shoes. GET ME OUT OF HERE SO I DON’T HAVE TO TALK TO ONE MORE FUTURE WORK PERSON WHILE I AM NOT COMPETENT TO DO SO.
It was not that simple.
I wander outside and walk around the parking lot. It started snowing and I am outside in just a suitcoat, because it was not that cold when I left this morning. And I would not be so cold if I wasn’t wearing pee pee pants. I didn’t think my water had broken because it wasn’t the volume they described. Rather, I just kept leaking a little. Because…you know…poised, positive, professional…
I teared up. I just felt so stupid.
I am too cold to stay outside, but can’t sit down in an upholstered chair. In the warm entryway, I leaned against a table as Deanna comes back through, and asks how she can help. She is supposed to be at the AMS Christmas Party, and is waiting for her ride (good, please go…let me struggle without also needing to be respectable), but has reached out to the deputy director’s spouse (Amy Ensley), who was in the building, and is herself a mom (NOOOOOOOOO!!!! Don’t tell MORE people).
My normal instinct in conversation is to learn about the other person and make sure that SHE feels at ease by making small talk and inevitably saying things that I think are funny, regardless of whether the other person has an appropriately developed sense of humor. Amy is calm but concerned, and I do not want her to feel uncomfortable, so I worked very hard to make sentences with words in the right order that seemed applicable to the moment. Doug Ensley (then MAA Deputy Executive Director) and Michael
Pearson (MAA Executive Director) then joined us, saying they would wait this out with me, and I think they started telling stories of the births of their own kids.
Or maybe they talked about MAA’s budget.
Or maybe they discussed the proper techniques for germinating an avocado in the winter.
I really was not paying attention.
Karoline Pershell and Michael Pearson.
I needed to throw up, but I couldn’t go back outside. I gave Amy a signal, pulling my forefinger across my throat. I assumed this meant, “get them out of here,” but I think this may have had more sinister connotations because she quickly and unceremoniously dismissed the MAA Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director. I apologized again because I did in fact want the job I assumed I was now losing.
Amy said I was gray and didn’t look good and did I want her to call an ambulance. I couldn’t stand anymore. I got down on all fours on the industrial entry-way carpet to the Carriage House (because I didn’t want to make a mess on any other surface). Amy asked again about the ambulance. As the woman in labor, I was kind of the center of attention, and you would think that my word carried weight. But why?!? I was incapable of making rational decisions or speaking on my own behalf. I was intensely mortified at the situation and was holding it together to power through exceptionally uncomfortable circumstances. Amy said this was not normal and called an ambulance. My convulsions were strong and the nausea overpowered me. I re-swallowed the vomit in my mouth: I was NOT throwing up in the Carriage House (because that would have failed the “Poised. Positive. Professional.”-test).
The ambulance arrived about the same time as my husband. We were supposed to be delivering at Fairfax Hospital in Northern Virginia for a multitude of reasons (our cousin was a nurse there, we liked all of the services they had on site, it was a CALM place with a dedicated maternity building, it was close to Greg’s family and had full pull out beds for dads to sleep in). We told the ambulance drivers that is where we were going.
As though they were Uber.
They informed us they do not drive us to our selected destination, but only to DC hospitals, and by the way: were we ridiculous??? Did we realize we were trying to leave downtown DC at 6pm now? Rush hour traffic means this would have been easily double the time or longer.
We had been told that labor takes forever, and that newbie parents always overreact and run to the hospital and that we should prepare to chillax. So it was still in our mind that we had like 8 hours until baby made his appearance, and that I should get something to eat and go for a walk (seriously, baby books say this sort of thing, right?). There was a debate of what do we do, and I felt like a pushy, needy, whiner since I can’t hold my baby (like “I can’t hold my liquor”). I don’t know if Amy insisted that we go with the ambulance instead of driving, but Greg made the call to go to the nearest hospital and away we went.
I remembered why I didn’t want to deliver here: George Washington University Hospital is a teaching hospital, so there are consistently too many people in the room. And very young people. They look like undergrads. Exactly what I want right now: to be a teachable moment. I swore–a lot. They got me naked and on the table. They tell me I am 5cm, less than 90 minutes after my water broke.
Then they say, “I feel a foot.”
We just had a doctor’s appointment 3 days earlier and the doctor specifically showed us how to feel the baby’s back end up in the air and head down.
3 days earlier = correct position.
Today = baby has a foot where his head is supposed to be.
This is really bad, because either (1) he is turned upside down or (2) he has grown a foot off of his head. I feel like the ultrasounds should have picked up if it was (2).
One terrifying emergency C-section later, they show us Kepler and he is just fine. (Apgar score of all 9’s, because he already excels at test taking.)
Oh, and I learned later that me going into labor was thoroughly discussed at the AMS Christmas party, so it turns out that in my first day representing AWM, I did make sure that everyone knew me.
The author and her son, Kepler.
Karoline Pershell is a Sagittarius, a Gryffindor, and the Executive Director of the Association for Women in Mathematics, where she is privileged to work on programs to implement institutional change in the mathematics community. She tolerates her husband’s Star Wars infatuation and is constantly confounded by her toddler son, Kepler. She expects parenting to just get easier as Kepler approaches his second birthday. Please feel free to burst her bubble by writing to her at email@example.com.
One piece of advice I would give my younger self is to tell her that she WILL accomplish everything she puts her mind to with patience and time. My time as a graduate student truly validated this for me. As an African-American female and a proud graduate of an HBCU, I was sure that when I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in mathematics, I would also attend an HBCU for graduate studies. I could not have been more wrong. After visiting several schools, my family and I decided on a large predominantly white institution (PWI) in the Midwest with a department that had a high percentage of women but lacked ethnic and cultural diversity. While attending graduate school at a large, Midwestern PWI intimidated me, I had another task that concerned me more.
A year before I was to start graduate school, I had given birth to my first daughter. I had already struggled to complete my senior year as an undergraduate with a child, but now my fiancé and I had to contemplate what would be best for our family. Should we stay close to home and enter the workforce to make money to support our new family? Or should we leave so that I could pursue a graduate degree and accept a lower-paying teaching assistantship while securing a future career? As I weighed my options, the fact that I could potentially be one of the first persons of color to gain a Ph.D. in math from my graduate institution played a role in my decision-making. In the end, I decided to further my education.
After getting married a month before I left for graduate school, I had a lot of anxiety about being a new wife, mother, and graduate student in a city where I had no support from family and friends. I was thankful for the opportunities I had been afforded, but I still felt very nervous about the changes that were taking place in my life. Upon arriving in the small town where I would live for the next several years of my life, I remember saying to myself, “What have I done????” I felt like a fish out of water, and although the faculty, staff, and my peers in the math department were friendly, I remember going into stores where the cashier dropped my change on the counter and did not place it in my hand. I recall my husband telling me of an instance where he was walking down the street and a group of men in a truck passed and called him the N-word. I felt invisibly noticed, that is, I was invisible as no one spoke to me, yet they all stared.
In my department, I soon learned that I was the only graduate student in my cohort with a child. As my husband searched for employment, we found it hard as a family of three to get by on a teaching assistantship paying an annual salary of around $15,000. We tried for government assistance, but they stated that I was not eligible because I was an employed graduate student, no matter how low my income was. During these times, I was full of self-doubt, and I wanted to give up. To top it off, I was struggling to understand the concepts in my courses and falling behind with my work. I also served as a recitation instructor for the first time and specifically remember numerous white males in my courses questioning my mathematical abilities, forcing me to engage in “mathematical showdowns”, to validate that I knew enough mathematics to teach the course. Once I did this and the student essentially “lost,” I was able to gain control of the classroom and earn some kind of trust from my students that I was a capable instructor.
If the stress and pressure from graduate school weren’t enough, the pressures from home at times were just as heavy. With a daughter in her “terrible-twos” and husband who was newly employed, I look back to those times and wonder how we remained sane. I definitely remember having arguments with my husband that stemmed from financial concerns and how much time I was spending at the office. At this point, we did not have a strong support system, and I was too embarrassed to admit that I needed help. Mentally, I was about to crack. Fortunately, at a point when I needed it the most, I had a realization: I was not the typical graduate student, and I should embrace that fact. Instead of trying to fit the mold and lifestyle of a typical graduate student, I should boldly stand out.
Although I needed to study as much as (if not more than) the others in my department and that I gained a lot from studying with my peers, I realized that when I was at home, my role as wife and mother commanded my attention. So, I learned that sometimes I needed to stay home and study by myself. When my daughter was able to play quietly by herself, I also started bringing her study sessions. To my surprise, some of my peers enjoyed having her there, as they liked the intermittent distraction. Also, my husband became more visible in the department as I invited him to more of the department events. Ultimately, I ditched the self-guilt and realized that there is no perfect mom, wife, or student. I am fine with being imperfect and learning along the way.
As my husband and I reminisce on those times, we laugh, cry, and wonder how we made it through. We realize that those times laid the foundation for our beautiful, strong 17-year marriage. I look at my amazing daughters—one of whom is preparing to go to college, and the other, a fourth-grader full of curiosity–and think of how blessed we are. Although I started my family before my career, which was very hard, I look at my colleagues who are starting families in the midst of their careers. Seeing some of the issues they have to deal with (tenure clocks, maternity/paternity leave), I realize there is no perfect time to start a family. I know now that you have to just take things as they come and believe in yourself.
Christina Eubanks-Turner is an Associate Professor of Mathematics and Graduate Director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Mathematics (MAT) program at Loyola Marymount University. She is married to Earl Turner and has two children, Amari, 18, and Sariah, 10.
To be wise, to have more experience, to know better
To be sure, to be secure, to have time
To make friends, to learn the rules, to know the language
Until I understood exactly how it works, what to do, and how to fit in
Why not me?
Why not me, not now?
I waited those years,
I am tired, I am cynical, but I know best
I am older, I am comfortable, but the sands are gone
I am popular, I have conformed, but I can speak
And I understand exactly how it works, what to do, and how to fit in.
Keeping in mind my interests?
Keeping in mind vested interests, my choices, my institutions.
Not wanting to fail?
No longer able to see success, to understand failure, to remember me.
Carrie Diaz Eaton is an Associate Professor of Digital and Computational Studies at Bates College. She is the mother of Gabriel (11), who loves cats, business, and learning new things, and Yudani (9), who loves pizza, swimming, and making the world more efficient.
Halfway through my sixth year on the tenure track and a few weeks before my materials for tenure were due, I received news far better than earning the tenure I had been working towards. I was pregnant! My department culture is one where we meet to discuss a colleague’s tenure application. After several people suggested I attend a conference that August, I shared that I wouldn’t be able to do so because I was pregnant, due in August. Although it was early in my pregnancy, I felt okay sharing the news and in fact had planned to do so within the week, as we’d soon be planning courses for the coming year, a year in which I’d be on leave for the fall. Congratulations were shared, and I left the meeting hopeful that I’d have two things to celebrate in the year ahead.
A day later I was supposed to meet with my dean to talk about my case for tenure. Instead, I called him from my doctor’s office to let him know I wouldn’t be making it to the meeting (which he likely already realized as I called him after the meeting was set to begin). I told him I had a family emergency. When he told me he hoped I was okay I said, “I’m not. But I will be.” I had just learned that my baby had no heartbeat.
When I returned to my office later (having had to wait for an ultrasound to confirm what the doctor had suspected), I saw two colleagues in the hallway. I asked if anyone had come to my office, as I had to cancel office hours last minute. I shared where I’d been and what I learned. And I cried. My husband was waiting for me downstairs so I grabbed what I needed and went home. The next morning as I cried in the shower, I decided to go to work. To me it was better than the alternative – sulking the day away at home. I made it through most of my classes, wondering in the back of my mind if my students could tell I’d been crying all night the night before. By the end of the day I was just too tired, physically and emotionally, and asked a colleague to cover my last class. It wasn’t until months later that I would learn that my colleagues had shared lecture notes with one another and were already prepared to cover my classes for me that day. I had told my brother that I wished I’d never told my department I was pregnant, because now I had to tell them that I wasn’t anymore. But he said to me, “Don’t you think that’s a good thing for them to know?” And he was right. I wasn’t myself. I was hurting. I was sad, I was tired, and I wasn’t focused. And I needed their support. From the colleagues working together to make sure my classes would be taught, to the colleague who shared his own story of loss, to the colleague who sat with me while I cried in her office, I was able to get through that day.
Unfortunately, that was not the only time during my journey to motherhood when I would need my colleagues’ support. At the end of the semester, I found out I was pregnant again. Early in the summer, while teaching summer school, I found out I’d miscarried again. This time I needed surgery and it would mean missing a day of class. I asked a colleague who was also teaching during the summer if he would cover for me. He did without hesitation, and he didn’t ask why. It would be months before I would share that second miscarriage with my department, and I told different people at different times. One such time was early in the fall semester, when I once again needed someone to cover a class while I had surgery. I had gone to see a specialist after my second loss and a saline ultrasound revealed that I had scar tissue in my uterus, either due to not everything being cleaned out during my D&C or my body’s reaction to it. Either way, it had to be taken care of if I were to successfully have a full-term pregnancy. With both surgeries I simply told my students I was having out-patient surgery, that I would be okay, and that I’d only be missing one day.
For months I struggled with my losses, and with the fact that I couldn’t seem to get pregnant again. Until that day that I found out I was pregnant for the third time. It was August, and so I felt like I didn’t have to rush to tell my colleagues. We wouldn’t be planning for the coming academic year until December or January. They’d been so supportive in the past, but I wanted to hold on to the news for a little while. Gradually, I shared with my department and others on campus. Throughout the semester, I’d be asked how I was doing, how I was feeling. I was on sabbatical that spring so I knew I wouldn’t have to miss any classes despite having a late April due date. I emailed my department news of my son’s birth, and even with it being the most hectic time of the semester, I received congratulations from almost everyone.
After all my struggles to have my son, I feared that it would once again be two years before I would get pregnant again. I always wanted more than one child, so my husband and I decided we’d start trying again when our son was just a few months old. And when I returned in January, having been home in the fall on maternity leave, I was pregnant once again. There was definitely a sense of surprise from people when I shared the news, but no one seemed bothered that I’d be popping back for just a semester only to leave again. Or if they were, they never let it on.
Jeanette and family soon after giving birth to their daughter.
Once again, I was home in the fall for maternity leave. But this time, when I returned in January my baby was only four-and-a-half months old, and I had a toddler. I had requested a schedule that allowed me extra time to get to work than I was used to, assuming it would take longer to get out the door with two little ones – and I had assumed correctly! And given the expense of having two little ones in daycare, I opted to stay home with them on the days I wasn’t teaching. So here I was – two under two, working full time but home four days a week, with a new prep that required me to learn the material as I went. To say I was exhausted was an understatement. But once again, my colleagues showed how supportive they can be. I attended meetings via speaker phone so I could be home with my children. With the support of my department chair, I changed the meetings I hold as a coordinator of several courses from in-person to an online discussion board. On several occasions I had to pull out of a commitment I’d made to a colleague last minute –a child was sick, I was sick, or I’d left my pumping accessories at home and had to leave early to fit in a pumping session before picking up my kids. Each time I was met with understanding.
I often think about what my brother told me after my first miscarriage. Sharing something personal with colleagues can be difficult, it can be awkward, but it can be critical to getting through a difficult time. Like many women in mathematics, I believed my personal struggles should not be brought into the workplace. However, sharing what I was going through helped me succeed in my job, thanks to the support of my colleagues.
Jeanette Mokry is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Dominican University and a mother of two young children, Austin and Olivia.
The automatic response on my work email says, “I am on leave until September 1, 2019. You may contact the Executive Assistant of the Math Department if you have an urgent math department related need.” I don’t have access to my work email on my phone. I scan it every 2-3 days, but it can take me over a week to respond to emails that require a response. I rarely open my computer, and when I do I only get a few minutes before I’m interrupted by something more important. I’m writing this on my phone, with one thumb, and a 8 week old tiny human in my other arm, attached to my breast. I’ll finish it in stolen moments between feedings, diapers, and bedtimes, when my other child doesn’t need me to watch her practice karate, make her lunch, or teach her how to skateboard.
My son, Armando Antonio was born February 19, 2019 via C-section 30 hours after induction weighing in at 9lb 14oz and 21.5 inches long. February was the perfect month to have him, and I did it on purpose. Ever since the birth of my daughter I’ve thought so much about how academic culture encourages mothers to plan motherhood in a way that doesn’t interfere with their university responsibilities. As educators we give birth at the end of May, just after we wrap up our final grades, then we are free to enjoy the summer with our newborn. But as academics our summers are critical opportunities for productivity. It’s time to catch up with our research community and finish and start collaborations. Write. And while we are not given a concrete schedule to do those things, our university expects them. And for an average person like me, it’s not possible to do those things with a newborn attached. Not to mention…timing a pregnancy is usually NOT possible! But I always thought (assuming you have a decent maternity leave) that February was the perfect time. You’d get the spring semester to recover and bond, then the summer, without a schedule, to readjust to academic work before classes start up in the fall.
Shortly after joining the faculty at my university I joined a group working on an NSF Advance grant. One of our goals was to achieve a clear and generous (by US standards) family leave policy. At the time, faculty negotiated leave on a case by case basis. We usually ended up with a semester off teaching but usually had administrative duties and sometimes a reduction in pay. When I scheduled my meeting with my Dean to negotiate, I was ready to fight for full pay and commit to trivial administrative tasks that I didn’t care about, with my mentor there to back me up. To my pleasant surprise I was told I would get the semester off teaching (as expected), full salary, (phew, as the sole income I couldn’t survive any other way) and no administrative duties (what?!?!). My College had just figured out within the year how to do it! Ultimately they realized with the classes already covered, it doesn’t cost anything more to give a new mom the semester free of administrative duties. A beautiful revelation just in time for my dream maternity leave. I figured I would teach the January session 8 months pregnant just to torture myself, then hopefully have a couple weeks off to rest before I go into labor, then have the rest of the semester AND summer months to recover and bond and enjoy my growing family of four.”
On leave with an 8 week old and an 8 year old.
As I approach my 10th week postpartum, I am fully aware of my many privileges allowing me to still be home without the dread of returning to work too soon looming over me. To have a tenure track position at a university with good maternity leave is too rare. Most women in most professions would have been back to work between week 6 and 8. I could not imagine going back to work now. When I do go back, I do so in a department that is very family friendly. So far, I’ve been able to arrange my teaching schedule so that I am available to help my daughter get ready for school in the morning. She joins me at the office often and loves visiting my colleagues, who make her feel like a natural part of the department. I hope that more universities can commit to providing a full semester of paid leave for for faculty. I’d like to think that as women in academia, we are worth the investment!
Our first contributor is Math Mama Yvonne Lai. Yvonne is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is the mother of 1 year old, Vivian.
I pump and breastfeed in public. It is one small way to reinforce an important personal narrative: that motherhood and its activities are normal and can be integrated into life.
I also do these things in public, and am writing this post, because it is one small way to make one woman’s motherhood more visible. In doing so, my hope is that one day, the ordinary demands of motherhood — simultaneously mundane and requiring attention — are common knowledge. The main argument here is that with more awareness of what mothers do, it will be possible for more institutions to support mothers effectively; and also that cultivating this awareness must be work in progress, rooted in genuine interest for what motherhood entails for the work day.
To illustrate this argument, I give three stories of how visible motherhood made a difference.
“Do you know if there’s a lactation room?”
Two years ago, in a three hour evening course, I taught a female student who had a newborn daughter. She explained to me on the first day of class that she needed to pump, and asked to be excused for this, as well as whether there was a lactation room in the building.
I wish I could say that I immediately understood her situation. But I did not. I remember being confused about why she needed to pump in the evening, and also how 10 minutes could make such a difference. But I also knew, in vague ways, that pumping could be important. I was confused about these issues because no one in my circle had ever talked about pumping before, except to mention how much they disliked it. I was also confused because I had never thought to ask what was so unpleasant about pumping, because pumping had never concerned me. Pumping was invisible to me, and so I did not understand the demands of pumping.
In retrospect, I am relieved that I accepted her word for what she needed. Every Wednesday evening, around 7pm while the class was doing group work, she would unobtrusively grab my keys from the desk and exit. I would announce a 10-minute break. When she came back, I would begin instruction again. I confess that at the time, I did not understand her gratitude, which she expressed on multiple occasions. It didn’t seem like a big deal.
For the purposes of making pumping practices more visible, and how they can be supported, I will now explain some reasons why pumping can be at once so necessary and so demanding. When a woman can breastfeed and chooses to do so, her body produces breastmilk in response to her child’s supply needs. Newborns typically feed every 2-3 hours. When a woman needs to attend class or go to work for multiple hours, she misses a feeding session, which can lower the supply during a critical period of growth. To make up for this, a woman might hook herself up to a pump. This serves the dual purposes of having milk to feed the baby the next time she is gone, and also to maintain supply. This supply-and-demand dynamic explains why pumping at some point might be necessary, but not why a woman might need to pump at a particular time. When a woman produces milk, the supply builds up. When there is oversupply in the body, the woman can risk mastitis, which is an inflammation of tissues that can lead to fever, chills, and exhaustion. So routine inability to pump when a woman needs to pump can lead to both dwindled food for the baby and illness in the mother that impacts her ability to parent and to work. And even if a woman doesn’t get mastitis, milk build up hurts – for me, it feels like needles stabbing me from the inside.
My student’s story gave me more perspective, when I began pumping after giving birth last year, on how having easy access to a clean and comfortable place to pump can make the difference between a reasonable day and a terrible day. Some of my worst moments are when I feel like motherhood conflicts with just being able to go about my business — like the time I was almost late for hooding my first PhD student because I couldn’t find the one lactation room in the huge arena where the ceremony was held. At the same time, I am grateful for having a job in a town where I can pump in my office or at a coffee shop on my own schedule and with sympathetic baristas.
“Don’t get chalk on the baby!”
A month ago, I was talking to a collaborator about our undergraduate abstract algebra courses. She said that one of her favorite things about that class was that it was taught by a woman, and not only that, it was taught a woman who wore her baby in class while teaching (and would say, as she carefully erased boardwork, “Don’t get chalk on the baby!”). This woman was Kim Ruane (and she consents to this telling). My collaborator said this was the first time she, as an undergraduate, could see a future self being a woman and mother in mathematics.
Some readers may wonder what it means to “wear a baby”, and why one would choose to do so. “Wearing a baby” means holding a baby with a carrier that is attached to your body, so that the baby gets to be close to you and you have use of your arms and hands to do something else, such as eating your lunch, drinking a glass of water, or writing on the board. For many reasons, both emotional and practical, many newborns are calmer when held, and it is also one way that babies can take their much-needed, every 2-3 hour, naps. So wearing a baby, especially younger infants, is one way that a caregiver can sort of go about their day while also giving babies what they need.
For my collaborator, Kim’s visible motherhood sent an important message about being a woman in academia. It also likely showed the students in this class what it might look like to integrate motherhood with other aspects of life. Prior to this class, my collaborator, and perhaps the other students in the class, had not had a female professor. Moreover, even if they had been taught by a female professor, whether the professor was a mother was invisible.
When my daughter was four months old, I posted on social media about the difficulties of integrating motherhood and academic work. As I noted, my strategy at the time for balancing work and motherhood was to literally do both. In the height of scraping for minutes in my day, I would wear her, pump, and type at the same time. Or I would walk her to sleep on the way to a cafe, work until she began stirring, lull her to sleep on the way back, and then feed her at home. These strategies were short-lived not just because she doesn’t sleep that easily or as much anymore, but also because multi-tasking comes with a mental tax. I would be so frayed from doing more than one thing all the time that I would spend hours afterwards crying or angry or both, even as I felt joy with time apparently reclaimed. In between phases, I felt fragmented, like I was a negligent mother, wife, and researcher. The multi-tasking shattered my sense of self.
I identify as a mother, to my daughter. I want to notice her, in the most intimate sense. I want to attend to everything she says or does, interpret what I see, and refine these interpretations as time passes, so that I can respond in ways that will help her live with kindness, grace, and meaning. And I want to embrace the pain and joy of motherhood, even though I sometimes fail at this and grasp at fantasies of easy-ness.
And I also identify as a researcher, of math education. I want to contribute at least in a small way to improving math teacher education. I find joy, and pain, in looking for insight and clarity when I write and read and converse. I want to try my best to do meaningful work for the issues of teacher education I have promised myself to address.
The hardest thing to balance is that when in either identity, I feel like it is my whole world and everything else falls away. And then when I come back to the other identity, I realize I haven’t been there and that hurts until I’m reabsorbed into that identity. The transitions have gotten easier over the past few months, and I’m beginning to accept that it is possible to embody both motherhood and research, though in different ways than I conceived when I first began them.
Since telling this story of balancing acts, various parents and parents-to-be have written to me saying how much they appreciate my posts and sometimes have asked for advice about their
own situation in academia. They have said how welcomed my posts were because it made the black box of parenthood seem more penetrable. I see these responses not as a sign of my virtue as a mother, but rather as a sign that in academic culture, motherhood can be mysterious in part because it is invisible. Norms of invisibility mean that it is less likely for activities and ideas of motherhood to be public, and also that there are few widely-accepted ways for motherhood to become public.
I choose to tell my story because I believe the telling may benefit others, but mainly because it happens to feel right to me, on a very personal level, to share this story.
To be clear, it is no woman’s responsibility to make her activities or ideas public. A mother’s responsibility is to do what is right for her and her family.
I learned more about motherhood when I first started trying to conceive. I learned about motherhood by asking my friends about their experiences, and also by joining a number of online groups of parents. I wish that I had started observing parenthood more, and earlier, if only because I have students and colleagues who are parents. At my department, meetings are intentionally scheduled during childcare hours. I tolerated this practice when I was a non-parent, but I didn’t see how critical this was for parents to participate in decision making. At the same time, once this practice was explained, it showed me something about the demands of parenthood, even if I didn’t completely understand the reasons. So one way for the that activities and ideas of motherhood (and parenthood) to be more visible is for practices that support parents to be explained by department leadership in matter-of-fact ways.
As well, reading and participating in online fora, such as groups and blogs, can make a different. These venues changed my relationship with motherhood, because through them, I gained sensibilities that I may not have developed otherwise, or at least as quickly. I learned of persistent problems that every mother faces —such as negotiating multiple identities, confronting and accepting your own limitations and circumstances, and re-learning that these problems are indeed persistent. These are problems that cannot be fixed; they can only be managed. What I hope for in the future is that the knowledge of these persistent problems and the emotional and practical challenges that come with them in motherhood, gradually change from idiosyncratic personal knowledge to common knowledge in academia.
Twenty years ago I began my college teaching career. I was a 2nd semester first-year graduate student who was given sole responsibility for a Business Calculus Class. It was terrifying, amazing, exhilarating and exactly what I wanted to be doing. But it wasn’t until twelve years ago that I began my tenure-track career. I was in my penultimate year as a teaching and research postdoc at a service academy with a joint appointment at a US research lab. It was a job I loved. However there were several tenure track job openings that seemed like great opportunities and that were near family, so I applied. I went on interviews and decided most of the jobs were not a good enough fit for me to leave my current position early. The last position I had my eye on was the dream job: a small liberal arts college (SLAC) 45 minutes from where I grew up. My parents still lived in my childhood home and my sister and her family lived even closer to the college. I wasn’t the mathematician they were looking for, but I applied anyway. Having gone to a SLAC, I was a believer in the kind of institution; it was where I wanted to spend my career. Also, this college being so close to home was more than I could have hoped for. I didn’t make the first cut for interviews, so I continued on with my life. Continue reading →
You, Reader, probably do not know me. The relevant information for now is that I am a Black woman (yes, this is always relevant) in my very late 30s. I earned a PhD in mathematics from a large, research oriented university almost 12 years ago and held a 3-year postdoc after graduating. I have a loving husband and two children under the age of six. No, that is not me celebrating on top of a mountain.
The following is one of the many stories that has shaped my professional and personal life. Before we begin, I’d like you to ask yourself: What does professional success look like in the mathematical world? If you took a moment to think about this question, you might have come to the conclusion that there are many types of “math jobs” out there that the question is too broad. OK, fair enough. What if I altered the question to: What does professional success look like in the mathematical world of academia? Because, Reader, you probably smell what I am cooking, the answer that you are mulling over in your head might be much broader than the answer in which so many of us were indoctrinated in graduate school. I’d guess that at some point in your graduate education, you were told that getting tenure was the proverbial end game and achieving anything less than this was somehow falling short of the mark. Even if this idea wasn’t explicitly articulated to you, I’d bet that most every career signal you saw pointed in this direction.
And is there anything wrong with having this as an ultimate goal? Absolutely not. In the words of the great Nina Simone, please don’t let me be misunderstood. My thesis is simply this: Professional success can be measured in so many different ways. Let us as a mathematics community broaden our metrics of success for the benefit of us all. The fact of the matter is that most math PhDs who intend to stay in academia at some point have intentions to find their dream tenure-track position in their dream location. But what if the cookie crumbles another way? This is real life, after all, and things don’t always turn out as planned. Moreover, women are more likely than men to make career decisions based upon familial obligations (see this recent article on research related to women leaving STEM fields). Hence, a narrow view of success could affect women even more negatively than men.
As you might have guessed, this particular issue hits home for me. Here’s the story, as promised. My husband and I got married the same summer my postdoc ended. I had accepted an offer for a tenure track assistant professorship at a great school in southern California, but my newly minted husband got a job working in Silicon Valley (read: about a 6 hour drive away). Our plan was that we’d live apart for a while taking cheap commuter flights on most weekends until he found a job in SoCal. What could possibly go wrong with this plan?! About 8 months in and still no job change for him, we found our bank accounts dwindling from the frequent travel and maintaining apartments in two very expensive markets. Our patience was wearing thin. On top of all of this, I suddenly started to feel a twinge of longing upon seeing mothers with their babies.
Then out of the blue, an opportunity knocked. It was something completely unexpected and in direct opposition to our grand plan. There was a year-long sabbatical replacement position at the University of San Francisco for the next academic year. Was I interested? Maybe. But what would this mean for the professional life that I had spent most of a school year (granted, not a long time) building? Was it even possible to take a leave after only a year? What would my new colleagues think of me? What would happen after one year? I grappled with all of these questions and more, but in the end, my desire to be with my partner and to get started with our family won out. I took a leave of absence for the following academic year, and moved to San Francisco despite my reservations toward leaving.
There is so much more I could say about my life from that move until now. What I will say is that almost 8 years after my move, I still live in San Francisco. I am still teaching in a non-tenure track position at the University of San Francisco. And, as I mentioned, I had two wonderful children along the way. Did I make the right decision to leave a tenure-track job to start my family? The answer is not black-and-white. What I can say is that I made the best decision that I could at the time given all circumstances. You, Reader, might ask how I define success for myself. I feel most successful when I know that I am doing good work. Good work for me includes motivating my students, participating in outreach endeavors, keeping up with my own research, and certainly not least, maintaining a joyful home. Not all of these cylinders are firing all of the time. That’s when I grant myself some grace, and try again the next day. I don’t believe there is a formula for success (a point which I emphasize to students), and in fact, there can be as many definitions for success as there are individuals. However, success is intrinsically linked to the work we see as valuable. The more value we place on endeavors such as leading student research, broadening participation in mathematics, collaboration with K-12 teachers, or leading math circles, the more success stories there will be.
How do you define success for yourself? Did you make a “non-standard” decision in your career trajectory? Tell us about it in the comments.
Welcome to the first post of our new blog “Math Mamas”! We, the editors, were hoping to create a space where we can share our experiences, learn from each other, and discuss how our identity as women underrepresented in mathematics interacts with our role as a parent. Research shows that academic men benefit professionally from having children, yet women are penalized for having children. Therefore, the community we hope to create through this blog centers mothers and non-binary parents, particularly those who are raising or are considering raising children. We hope that our conversations will help all genders understand the joys and challenges of balancing life as a working mathematician and as a parent. Mathematics is the more formal part of our lives. Motherhood is the less structured and messier part of our lives. Each of these enriches and impacts the other. These roles are not separate and parallel. Instead, they are constantly intersecting which sometimes makes both jobs better and other times brings about unique difficulties.
Emille’s children, Margot and Grayson, at Yosemite National Park.
One of our goals is to build and expand upon ventures that have already been started in this direction. In January 2016 one of the co-editors of this blog, Emille Davie Lawrence, found herself feeling overwhelmed by the obligations of her career and parenting two small children. Seeking others to “compare notes”, she started a Facebook group called “Math Mamas” that quickly became a vibrant hub at which to share commonalities, seek advice, celebrate victories, or even commiserate at times. As the group thrived, group members sought out other opportunities to more publicly share their stories. As a result, Pamela Harris, Carrie Diaz Eaton, Becky Hall, and Emille Davie Lawrence co-edited a special “Mathematics and Motherhood” edition of the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics published in July 2018. The special edition featured a collection of essays written by mathematicians who are mothers about various aspects of how these two parts of their lives overlap. Math Mamas blog hopes to continue these conversations and to share them more broadly within and beyond the mathematics community. We strongly feel that communicating openly will help others realize that even those women who seem to “have it all” also deal with obstacles and challenges.
Amanda’s daughter, Eda, dressed as Math Girl for her school’s Super Hero Day.
We, as the editorial team, will give our own narratives, but we also want to encourage others to contribute. We welcome guest posts from parents with a variety of backgrounds. Please share with us if you have personal parenting accounts including, but certainly not limited to fostering, adoption, surrogacy, or infertility. We would also welcome you to share if you are a single parent or part of a blended or LGBTQ family. What does the intersection of math and parenthood look like for you? All experiences are unique, but we hope that these posts will bring about better understanding within the mathematics community. To grow a more diverse and inclusive community, we need to be able to appreciate that mathematicians are more than the people teaching and researching in our departments. We have full lives consisting of both struggles and joys that impact how we do our job.
Rachelle’s children, Giulia and Owen, at Natural Bridge, VA.
We all exist in the intersection of many identities. While we focus on the mathematics and motherhood, we also hope contributors to this blog will reveal how all of their identities influence their lives as working parents. As an editorial team, we encourage readers and commenters to value the experiences of our contributors, to read with the intention to listen and learn, and to interact with the blog from a place of support.
The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.