Visible Motherhood

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.

Balancing Acts

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.

Telling stories

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.

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