I am a Black mother of two Black children. My husband and I are gainfully employed, myself at a reputable university and he at one of the largest technology companies in the world. According to the New York Times, I live in an upper-middle class community in San Francisco. We give our children private piano lessons, ballet classes, chess classes, swim and ski lessons. We are not only checking all those boxes that mainstream American society says we need to check, we are downright crushing them. But, it doesn’t matter how much education we’ve acquired or what titles we hold or where we live. My son could be asphyxiated without cause by a police’s knee in his neck. My daughter could be shot by police in her own home. My son could be murdered while out taking a jog or walking home from a convenience store. My daughter could die in police custody after a routine traffic stop. It is a terrifying and infuriating time in America, and if you are not a part of the solution, you are probably a part of the problem.
Of course, you’ve never committed an act of violence against Black bodies because you read math blogs. You would never call the police on a Black man unjustly like those other people because you have Black friends. But when have you opened a door for a Black colleague or gone out of your way to encourage a Black student? When have you spoken out against racist systems that are in place in math departments in every corner of America? What are you doing to diversify the faculty in your department? These things make a difference to this Black mother and each and every parent of Black children. I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before. You’re in the know. You’ve attended diversity trainings and microaggression workshops and you care. Really, bravo. But it has never been more apparent in our lifetime that there needs to be a tectonic shift in our thinking but more importantly our doing.
This morning, I asked my two year old if he would like to go to “circle time,” now offered virtually by his Montessori. He ran in circles saying “yes, yes, yes” until we began walking over to my laptop. At that point, he began to yell “I want to go to school, please!?” over and over as he burst into tears. Similar scenes play out in countless households across the world daily, and while there have been plenty of articles addressing how one might work successfully with kids also at home, and there have been many on how to take care of your own mental health during the times of stay-at-home orders and quarantines; I think one aspect has been mostly missing in these conversations. Those of us with children at home are not just homeschooling and providing daycare while working from home (which is an incredibly difficult, if not impossible task during the best of times), we are homeschooling and providing daycare while working from home during a pandemic.
We are all varying degrees of stressed, upset, scared, and worried, and this includes every child as well. Kids are struggling just as much, if not more, with the decisions that have been made surrounding COVID-19, and they are experiencing them with less understanding, less agency, and less fully developed emotional networks. What this means from a parenting or caregiver perspective is that they need us more than ever. We are not just watching them and homeschooling them, we are also supporting them, helping them process what is happening, and making them feel secure and hopeful for the future. This requires a good deal more work, time, and emotional labor than what is being proposed in the how-to articles or considered by many employers and, I fear, colleagues and friends.
Before I continue, it is necessary to acknowledge that this is written from a position of relative privilege. Both my partner and I hold full-time positions that allow us to work from home, and everyone in my family is relatively healthy. My intent here is not to elide those in more extreme situations, but to focus on a specific aspect that might be overlooked in many conversations.
As schools close their doors, children are watching their support systems shrink or vanish. The teachers, counselors, coaches, librarians, friends, and classmates that they rely on daily are no longer as easily accessible, and sometimes not accessible at all. Some schools are continuing with online meetings, and virtual playdates are happening; but meetings are shorter and not particularly comparable, and they tend to be a particularly hard way for younger children to interact with the world. From what I am seeing with my own kids and hearing from other parents, video calls are difficult for the younger children who do not want to engage virtually with people they are used to engaging with in person. And for older kids, the calls are not really on their own terms. The immediateness of the meetings and the invasiveness of the camera make it hard to sit back and assess the situation before joining or to be shy when one is feeling that way.
As school districts continue to announce closures for the remainder of the school year and potentially beyond, our children are feeling it even harder. They will never again step foot into their current classrooms, they will never participate in the exciting grade-level activities and events planned for the rest of the semester. The vast majority of the support kids need now falls on their current caregivers.
The struggles apply to children of all ages in many different ways. I have seen comments that infants and toddlers are not being terribly affected, but they sense our stress and their routines have changed. The middle ages of five to eight seem particularly hard because they have begun to form social groups, are old enough to recognize that something has changed and perhaps even name it but can’t grasp the larger societal structures at play. These are the age groups my children fall in, but I understand the different challenges that the older ages face as well. Teens in particular may resent not being allowed to participate in activities, especially if they see other people in their cities and towns not obeying stay-at-home orders. And at all ages, kids are responding in different ways: some are hiding and becoming more distant, some want to be held more, and some are more easily set off. Siblings are fighting more often, class work can be a daily battle, and children of all ages are viscerally experiencing a shrinking social and physical world beyond their control.
None of this is to say that no one is paying attention to these issues. Many of us have received information about support for child and adolescent mental health from our school, there are programs to make sure students are still receiving meals while schools are closed, counseling services are being offered, and laptops are being distributed for virtual meetings to help support students. But, even all together these efforts can never be the same as having childcare and schools open; and caregivers have to cover what is missing as best as they are able given all of the other disruptions in their lives and their own varying levels of access to vital resources.
As we move forward and, hopefully, emerge from the most drastic effects of the current crisis, I want to urge my colleagues to remember and acknowledge the additional emotional and physical labor taken on by caregivers as we move through our next set of reviews and beyond. Again, the narrow focus here is admittedly focused on the academy and written from a position of privilege, but it’s also a topic of importance. It is and will continue to be far too easy to ignore the additional emotional and mental labor of homeschooling during a pandemic, to equate it to a choice many make to homeschool during normal times, but it’s not. If we are to pursue equity, we must remember this moment and the costs it has levied on all of us, in varying ways and at various times, as we move forward.
Courtney Thatcher is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Puget Sound. She has two children, Hannah (6) and Benjamin (2).
We recently came across this original poem by Ashley Hammel, fellow academic mama, and felt the urge to share it with our readers. Thank you, Ashley, for sharing!
i am no great beauty.
even in my prime, I was
cellulite and large thighs
the nose of my father’s father
(the failed architect, lost to the drink)
lined forehead from my early teens
crows feet, stretch marks
elongated foot bones and wide palms,
caught at strange angles and too loud
for great beauty.
but my breasts sustained children and
my arms coaxed lovers back from the brink of death.
my long feet found balance when I thought I could not stand.
my hands have made bread
touched my father as he died
carried water through the foothills of the desert
broke the noses of marauders
& have written,
& have written.
my lips have carried stories that have brought the light out,
they have sang songs and spoke truths to crowds that swelled
and they have carried meaning in their silences well.
they have given love to many, in many different ways.
I am no great beauty,
but my eyes have witnessed power in unlikely places
and have salted the earth from loss
and still see through terrible fogs.
I am no great beauty but
my house and history are stacked
with beautiful things that I have made
that would break your heart,
and I have made a child who
will run to you to comfort when
he sees that you are crying,
and I begin to believe
that beauty is
the thin, strong line we use
to take the heads
from women who will change things.
Ashley Hammell has taught english, drama, social issues and most recently, how to effectively keep your mittens on while walking home from school. This poem fell out of one of her old notebooks when she repossessed it from her grabby 4 year old. You can find her trapped under her last baby, on her third coffee. She answers to email@example.com
Each year in celebration of Black History Month, the website Mathematically Gifted and Black features a daily profile of an outstanding Black mathematician. Although each profile is noteworthy (please check out some of their past honorees), today we work in conjunction with their editors to also feature Caprice Stanley, a mathematician at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who is also a “Math Mama”.
Keep reading to learn more about this outstanding mathematician who meets the demands of her career while raising her two year old son, Quincy.
Where are you from?
I was raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I completed my undergraduate degree in mathematics at George Washington University and went on to complete my Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC.
Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.
In 2013, I had the opportunity to participate in the MSRI Undergraduate Program. There I worked in a small group on a research problem in algebraic combinatorics. My experience that summer was transformative as it was my first exposure to research in mathematics. In addition, meeting other folks at various stages (ranging from graduate student up to tenured professor) of their math career and from a diverse range of backgrounds normalized the idea for me that I could be productive and successful as a mathematician, too.
Another significant experience was the summer before starting my grad program, that I spent reviewing algebra and analysis with the EDGE program for Women. Of course, it was super helpful to study course materials, but what I gained from EDGE, that was more impactful, was a community of women who were also embarking upon the grad school journey. From that community I was able to fellowship, get advice navigating challenging situations, receive encouragement, and so much more. And being a part of the larger EDGE community continues enrich my career in many ways
What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?
One of the proudest accomplishments in my life is my 2 year old son Quincy. And one of the proudest moments in my career was having him and my family attend my dissertation defense.
Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.
There is a pervasive misconception that to be “good at math” requires one to be born with the trait. It does not. When I think about my own journey, I recognize that what has gotten me this far is hard work, resilience, and support from my community. For anyone considering a career in math I would say to work hard, do not be discouraged, find your community, and practice self-care!
As I write this, it’s been nearly a week since the conclusion of the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Denver. Over the past week, I have been decompressing (well, as much as one can decompress when classes started two days after returning), but I have also been reflecting. There is so much preparation that goes into just attending a 5-day conference. So much so that I know many mothers who forego the JMM altogether because leaving their responsibilities of home life is too much of a burden. Moreover, for those of us who do manage to go to the JMM, there can sometimes be a question of should I go. My spouse is not in academia and works a “9 to 5” job in tech, so in particular, taking time off to travel with me and our children to conferences is not really in the cards for him. That means when I am away, he is at home being solo dad to two kids–a job that he would never complain about…out loud.
At any rate, away I went from Tuesday to Saturday night, which is a long trip for me. I caught up with lots of math friends, attended several meetings, was a panelist for two panel discussions, gave a talk on gerrymandering, and co-organized along with Della Dumbaugh and Carrie Diaz Eaton an AMS Special Session on Mathematics and Motherhood. It’s that last one that I’ll dig into a bit more here. I cannot overstate how awesome it was. We had 7 speakers giving their take on the subject followed by a panel discussion which was hands-down the
Heidi Berger talks about how mathematics played a role in helping her son.
best panel I’ve had the pleasure of attending, but more on that later. I was blown away by all of the speakers. To mention just a few, Heidi Berger talked about how she uses mathematics to help guide the treatment of her son Isaac who has Down’s Syndrome. She has even made his diagnosis a central focus of her math modeling course. Tiffany Kolba talked on how the birth of her fraternal twins spurred her research in the probability of double ovulation. Roseanna Gossman wore her newborn as she talked on her research on the fluid dynamics of childbirth with her toddler in the audience sleeping in a stroller. I was awestruck! As I sat in the audience, I could not help but marvel at the strength, sacrifice, and general badassery of the women on stage.
Roseanna Gossmann wore her newborn while delivering (no pun intended) a talk about the fluid dynamics of childbirth.
Then came the panel discussion. Let me tell you, we somehow landed the Dream Team of panelists. I knew it would be good, but I didn’t know how good until I was in the room. Karoline Pershell (AWM Executive Director), Karen Saxe (AMS Associate Executive Director) and Talithia Williams (Harvey Mudd College) were so generous and open with their comments about their lives and their decisions and non-decisions surrounding their positions as leaders in the field and motherhood. They made us think, and they made us laugh out loud with the synergy of old familiar friends. I could not have asked for more…but more I got!
Panelists Karoline Pershell, Talithia Williams and Karen Saxe with moderator Carrie Diaz Eaton.
As if on cue, Talithia’s young son, Micaiah, ran on stage and became the fourth panelist–from under the table, of course. Absolutely perfect!
Della Dumbaugh poses a question to the panel while little Micaiah listens on with mom.
So, how do I feel about my JMM experience? It was a magical time with math friends and acquaintances. I felt energized and uplifted and hopeful for things to come. And I missed my family like crazy. It will probably always be a mixed bag of feelings for me. Looking forward to sleeping in a king bed alone for a few nights but also tearing up a little on my pillow. That’s my life as a Math Mama. Tell us in the comments about your JMM experience!
It’s that time of year when you start to get excited about how much work you will be able to get done during your winter break. Once those finals are graded, you will have time to catch up with collaborators, write that revision, organize the office, finish letters of recommendation for students, submit peer letters for colleagues under review, and look through those applications of potential colleagues applying to your department. And that is just your December to-do list! In January you will prepare that talk–no wait, talks–for the JMM, plan all of your lectures for next semester, write that grant, and catch up on committee work. No sweat!
It’s also the season to reconnect with family since you will have so much spare time. Be sure to have some quality time with the kids, travel to see family and friends or host them in your home, plan dinner parties, keep kids occupied while not in school, clean out the house to make space for all the new gifts the family will receive over the holidays, decorate the house, and don’t forget to send gifts with your kids for their teachers! You can do it because you are a super mama! Right?
We wish you happy holidays and hope you find some grace for yourself not to have to do it all, and most of all, some time to just breathe.
The Editors of Math Mamas
Emille, Rachelle, and Amanda
When I was first asked to write this post, my plan was to write about the joys and hardships I had while caring for our first child while I had a semester on parental leave. I quickly realized that this perspective of a male talking about how much fun I had on leave, or how hard it was to care for a newborn might come across as reinforcing male privilege. In thinking deeper about the message that I wanted to share, I decided to look for information about parental leave policies in the US, in other countries, and in academia. The more I read, the more I learned about the issue of parental leave for families, its history, the intended goals of these policies, and their actual outcomes. The deeper I dug, the more complex the story became. Perhaps most notable is the fact that there is no standard parental leave for women or men. What I’m sharing here is more of a summary of what I have learned and concluded in this process than the personal narrative I had intended. Despite my limited expertise in the scholarship around family and gender, I hope the readers of this blog will find something of value here and that it contributes to an ongoing discussion.
When my partner gave birth to our first child in June 2014 she was working in a position that allowed her to take 8 weeks of paid leave after the baby arrived. She returned to work in mid-August at what would have been the start of my fall semester. But because I was fortunate enough to be in a gender-balanced department with a supportive Chair and Dean and a parental leave policy that had been culturally accepted, I was in a position to take paid leave for the semester and be the main childcare provider for our new son during the day when my partner returned to work. While taking care of a newborn 8 hours a day definitely had its challenges, I surprisingly found the experience was a chance for me to take a professional break, rest, and rejuvenate after nine years of working at a frantic pace. That feeling of relative calm was in stark contrast to that of my wife, who along with having to assume a full-time workload had to balance breast-feeding with sleep deprivation, a change in identity as a new mother, and postpartum depression. There was no way to compare the ways in which the new child in our lives affected my life as a father, to the ways in which it affected her life as a mother. The responsibility of continuing a professional career while at the same time as nurturing a new life for me as a father may have its share of challenges, but for a mother the demands seem superhuman. For all women the challenges of childbearing have real professional consequences, and for women in the academy these consequences include increasing the likelihood of leaving the academy, working in contingent positions, and increasing time to tenure and promotion [L], [Ma].
While the person who is having a baby doesn’t have much choice when it comes to the need to use their parental leave, it’s unfortunately still true that a large number of fathers aren’t using the option to take parental leave at the same rates as their partners, even when it’s available [P]. In academia it’s also true, especially while looking down the publish or perish barrel, that putting anything above your research aspirations could be potentially harmful for your career. Another issue which hits home is that at the university level there is evidence to suggest that science and math faculty are the least likely to use their parental leave for both women and men [L]. While each situation is different, and I can’t blame any family for the decisions they make about what’s best for them and how to provide for their children, I have to wonder, if a husband has the option to take paid parental leave and chooses not to, could he be hurting the career of his partner?
The goals of this essay are to both encourage my male colleagues to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to bond with our young children and families, and to be able to focus on the needs of older children when the new ones arrive. At the same time, I also want to take this opportunity to reflect on how these policies came to be and take a critical look at how they play out in the workplace in terms of achieving their intended goals of workplace equity for women. Like most things, these policies turn out to have both tremendous benefits as well as some surprising evidence of drawbacks that work against the intended goals.
Ways that parental leave supports gender equity in the workplace.
There is strong evidence that suggests the positive effects of parental leave on gender equity in the workplace. For example, in a study of nine countries in Europe from 1969-1993 paid leave policies were found to have led to an increase in the employment rate for women [Ru]. Similarly, leave policies have shown to lead to an increase in the retention of women employees [RS]. There are multiple ways that policies such as gender-neutral parental leave directly benefit men and also may benefit women when the men choose to take advantage of these policies and use them as well. For example, more men taking up opportunities provided by their workplace can decrease the social stigma for other men that is associated with taking parental leave. This in turn has been shown create a “snowball effect” in take-up of leave among co-workers [D]. This can lead to a workplace culture where the social and emotional burden for women who take leave is reduced, as it increasingly becomes a part of the dominant workplace culture. It’s also likely that when fathers spend more time providing childcare as a result of these policies, mothers have more time for work, and for well needed rest and recovery.
Studies also show that fathers that take longer parental leave are more involved in the children’s care as they develop. For example, in [R] the authors demonstrate that “fathers who are home during the initial transition to parenthood come to develop a sense of responsibility that permits shared parenting, regardless of the policy context in which they live.” Further, a study from 2015 shows that parents who tend to share parenting responsibility more equally are more satisfied with their lives [He].
Ways that paternity leave works against gender equity in the workplace.
One of the drawbacks of the gender-neutral parental leave policies has to do with accounts of men misusing parental leave to work on their research and provide a career boost similar to that of a sabbatical. There is both anecdotal and research-based evidence to support the truth of this claim, and includes instances of men taking leave while their partners were stay-at-home spouses or while the child was in full-time daycare [L], [Rh]. While abuse of this policy is certainly one drawback of the gender-neutral leave policy, fear of being accused of being a parent who uses leave to conduct research instead of childcare, also turns out to be a common concern for men when deciding whether or not to take parental leave [L]. This issue has led to counter-arguments that allowing men to take parental leave may reinforce rather than reduce gender inequity in the workplace, and there is research to back this up [Rh]. A recent study of Assistant Professor hires in Economics at 50 Universities in the US showed that when the universities adopted a gender-neutral clock-stopping policy that goes into effect with childbirth or adoption “the probability a man gets tenure in his first job rises by 19 percentage points after such a policy is adopted, while the female probability falls by 22 percentage points. Our estimates show that these policies help men, hurt women, and substantially increase the gender gap in tenure rates.” [A]
However, there is a large amount of data that suggests that both men and women, but men especially, are far too reluctant to take up these opportunities for leave, even when it’s a paid leave as is often the case in academia. It’s not hard to imagine that the pressures of the tenure process and the publish or perish lifestyle, in addition to the culture that frowns upon anything that draws from research productivity might make one think twice about taking leave for fear of discrimination when it comes time for tenure and promotion. There are also those opting out because of a personal beliefs, for example perhaps a more traditional viewpoint on parenting and gender roles. And of course, most fathers and mothers have real financial limitations on the amount of unpaid leave they are able to make. Curiously, this issue of opting out seems to be most acute in our discipline of mathematics [L].
I don’t want readers of this post to walk away with an argument for removing these gender-neutral policies such as parental leave because of their potential flaws, but rather draw the reader’s attention to the fact that these policies are only first steps and that decades of gender inequity in the workplace within a patriarchal culture will not be undone by a few strokes of the pen. As men, women, and as families, it is important that we take advantage of these policies, that we advocate for them for our peers, and we continue to engage in a struggle for institutions that provide a progressive vision of gender equity. Perhaps more importantly, these policies are proven to be most effective when men assume their full role as equal partners in terms of time spent providing child care. While they require some investment from the institution, paid leave policies ultimately allow faculty to stay committed to their academic careers, while at the same time pursuing family goals and spending time with their young children [L].
In order to make a significant change in these patterns, it is going to take a significant change in our culture in the academy, and in the mathematical sciences in particular. As a man in this environment, even as a male of color, I am in a particularly powerful position to advocate for meaningful cultural and policy change. One suggestion I’m providing here is to take advantage of leave policies in larger numbers, and to fully commit to supporting our partners through the process. But beyond this, we have a responsibility to continue to advocate for a cultural change around gender dynamics in our departments and universities so that our women colleagues can have the experience of participating in academic disciplines without the presence of patriarchy, which is something that all of us men take for granted on a daily basis.
[A] Antecol, H., Bedard, K., and Stearns, J. (2016). Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies? IZA Discussion Paper No. 9904.
[He] Hedlin, S., Parental Leave Equality and Subjective Well-Being (Masters Thesis, Harvard, November 1, 2016). Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=2862813.
[L] Lundquist, J., Misra, J., and O’Meara, K. (2012). Parental Leave Usage by Fathers and Mothers at an American University, Fathering: A Journal of Theory Research and Practice about Men as Fathers, 10(3), 337-363.
[Ma] Mason, M., Goulden, M., and Frash, K. (2011). Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 638, pp. 141-262.
[Mat] Maternity, paternity and parental leave: Data related to duration and compensation rates in the European Union (2015), Directorate General for Internal Policies, Policy Department C: Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, Women’s Rights, and Gender Equality. Available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/studies.
[P] Pelletier, A. (2006) Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 – Why Does Parental Leave in the United States Fall so Far behind Europe? Gonzaga Law Review 547.
[R] Rehel, E. M. (2014). When dad stays home too: Paternity leave, gender, and parenting. Gender and Society, 28, 110–132.
[Rh] Rhoads, S. E., & Rhoads, C. H. (2012). Gender roles and infant/toddler care: Male and female professors on the tenure track. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 6(1), 13-31. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0099227
[RS] Rossin-Slater, M. Ruhm, C. J., and Waldfogel, J. (2011). The Effects of California’s Paid Family Leave Program on Mothers’ Leave-taking and Subsequent Labor Market Outcomes. NBER Working Paper 17715, National Bureau of Economic Research (https://www.nber.org/papers/w17715.pdf)
[Ru] Ruhm, C. (1998). The Economic Consequences of Parental Leave Mandates: Lessons from Europe, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 113, No. 1, pp. 285-317.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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