On being a mom and a mathematician: interview by Lillian Pierce
This is a guest post by Lillian Pierce, who is currently a faculty member of the Hausdorff Center for Mathematics in Bonn, and will next year join the faculty at Duke University.
I’m a mathematician. I also happen to be a mother. I turned in my Ph.D. thesis one week before the due date of my first child, and defended it five weeks after she was born. Two and a half years into my postdoc years, I had my second child.
Now after a few years of practice, I can pretty much handle daily life as a young academic and a parent, at least most of the time, but it still seems like a startlingly strenuous existence compared to what I remember of life as just a young academic, not a parent.
Last year I was asked by the Association for Women in Mathematics to write a piece for the AWM Newsletter about my impressions of being a young mother and getting a mathematical career off the ground at the same time. I suggested that instead I interview a lot of other mathematical mothers, because it’s risky to present just one view as “the way” to tackle mathematics and motherhood.
Besides, what I really wanted to know was: how is everyone else doing this? I wanted to pick up some pointers.
I met Mathbabe about ten years ago when I was a visiting prospective graduate student and she was a postdoc. She made a deep impression on me at the time, and I am very happy that I now have the chance to interview her for the series Mathematics+Motherhood, and to now share with you our conversation.
LP: Tell me about your current work.
CO: I am a data scientist working at a small start-up. We’re trying to combine consulting engagements with a new vision for data science training and education and possibly some companies to spin off. In the meantime, we’re trying not to be creepy.
LP: That sounds like a good goal. And tell me a bit about your family.
CO: I have three kids. I got pregnant with my first son, who’s 13 now, soon after my PhD. Then I had a second child 2 years later, also while I was a postdoc. I also have a 4 year old, whom I had when I was working in finance.
LP: Did you have any notions or worries in advance about how the growth of your family would intersect with the growth of your career?
CO: I absolutely did worry about it, and I was right to worry about it, but I did not hesitate about whether to have children because it was just not a question to me about how I wanted my life to proceed. And I did not want to wait until I was tenured because I didn’t want to risk being infertile, which is a real risk. So for me it was not an option not to do it as a woman, forget as a mathematician.
LP: What was it like as a postdoc with two very young children?
CO: On the one hand I was hopeful about it, and on the other hand I was incredibly disappointed about it. The hopeful part was that the chair of my department was incredibly open to negotiating a maternity leave for postdocs, and it really was the best maternity policy that I knew about: a semester off of teaching for each baby and in total an extra year of the postdoc, since I had 2 babies. So I ended up with four years of postdoc, which was really quite generous on the one hand, but on the other hand it really didn’t matter at all. Not “not at all”—it mattered somewhat but it simply wasn’t enough to feel like I was actually competing with my contemporaries who didn’t have children. That’s on the one hand completely obvious and natural and it makes sense, because when you have small children you need to pay attention to them because they need you—and at the same time it was incredibly frustrating.
LP: It’s interesting because it’s not that you were saying “I won’t be able to compete with my contemporaries over the course of my life,” but more “I can’t compete right now.”
CO: Exactly, “I can’t compete right now” with postdocs without children. I realize—and this is not a new idea—that mathematics as a culture frontloads entirely into those 3 or 4 years after you get your PhD. Ultimately it’s not my fault, it’s not women’s fault, it’s the fault of the academic system.
LP: What metrics could departments use to be thinking more about future potential?
CO: I actually think it’s hard. It’s not just for women that it should change. It’s for the actual culture of mathematics. Essentially, the system is too rigid. And it’s not only women who get lost. The same thing that winnows the pool down right after getting a PhD—it’s a whittling process, to get rid of people, get rid of people, get rid of people until you only have the elite left—that process is incredibly punishing to women, but it’s also incredibly punishing to everybody. And moreover because of the way you get tenure and then stay in your field for the rest of your life, my feeling is that mathematics actually suffers. The reason I say this is because I work in industry now, which is a very different system, and people can reinvent themselves in a way that simply does not happen in mathematics.
LP: Do you think industry, in terms of the young career phase, gets it closer to “right” than academia currently does?
CO: Much closer to right. It’s a brutal place, don’t get me wrong, it’s brutal. I’m not saying it’s a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination. But the truth is in industry you can have a 3 year stint somewhere that is a mistake. Forget having kids, you can have a 3 year stint that was just a mistake for you. You can say “I had a bad boss and I left that place and I got a new job” and people will say “Ok.” They don’t care. One thing that I like about it is the ability to reinvent yourself. And I don’t think you see that in math. In math, your progress is charted by your publication record at a granular level. And if you’re up for tenure and there’s a 3 year gap where you didn’t publish, even if in the other years you published a lot, you still have to explain that gap. It’s like a moral responsibility to keep publishing all the time.
LP: How are you measured in industry?
CO: In industry it’s the question “what have you done for me,” and “what have you done for me lately.” It’s a shorter-term question, and there are good elements to that. One of the good elements is that as a woman you can have a baby or a couple babies and then you can pick up the slack, work your ass off, and you can be more productive after something happens. If someone gets sick, people lower their expectations for that person for some amount of time until they recover, and then expectations are higher. Mathematics by contrast has frontloaded all of the stress, especially for the elite institutions, into the 3 or 4 years to get the tenure track offer and then the next 6 years to get tenure. And then all the stress is gone. I understand why people with tenure like that. But ultimately I don’t think mathematics gets done better because of it. And certainly when the question arises “why don’t women stay in math,” I can answer that very easily: because it’s not a very good place for women, at least if they want kids.
LP: You mention on your blog that your mother is an unapologetic nerd and computer scientist; the conclusion you drew from that was that it was natural for you not to doubt that your contributions to nerd-dom and science and knowledge would be welcomed. How do you think this experience of having a mother like that inoculated you?
CO: One of the great gifts that my mother gave me as a Mother Nerd was the gift of privacy—in the sense that I did not scrutinize myself. First of all she was role-modeling something for me, so if I had any expectations it would be to be like my mom. But second of all she wasn’t asking me to think about that. I think that was one of the rarest things I had, the most unusual aspect of my upbringing as a girl. Very few of the girls that I know are not scrutinized. My mother was too busy to pay attention to my music or my art or my math. And I was left alone to decide what I wanted to do—it wasn’t about what I was good at or what other people thought of my progress. It was all about answering the question, what did I want to do. Privacy for me is having elbow space to self-define.
LP: Do you think it’s harder for parents to give that space to girls than to boys?
CO: Yes I do, I absolutely do. It’s harder and for some reason it’s not even thought about. My mother also gave me the gift of not feeling at all guilty about putting me into daycare. And that’s one of my strongest lessons, is that I don’t feel at all guilty about sending my kids to daycare. In fact I recently had the daycare providers for my 4-year-old all over for dinner, and I was telling them in all honesty that sometimes I wish I could be there too, that I could just stay there all day, because it’s just a wonderful place to be. I’m jealous of my kids. And that’s the best of all worlds. Instead of saying “oh my kid is in daycare all day, I feel bad about that,” it’s “my kid gets to go to daycare.”
LP: Where did this ability not to scrutinize come from? Where did your mother get this?
CO: I don’t know. My mother has never given me advice, she just doesn’t give advice. And when I ask her to, she says “you know more about your life than I do.”
LP: How do you deal with scrutiny now?
CO: It’s transformed as I’ve gotten older. I’ve gotten a thicker skin, partly from working in finance. I’ve gotten to the point now where I can appreciate good feedback and ignore negative feedback. And that’s a really nice place to be. But it started out, I believe, because I was raised in an environment where I wasn’t scrutinized. And I had that space to self-define.
LP: The idea of pushing back against scrutiny to clear space for self-definition is inspiring for adults as well.
CO: Women in math, especially with kids, give yourself a break. You’re under an immense amount of pressure, of scrutiny. You should think of it as being on the front lines, you’re a warrior! And if you’re exhausted, there’s a reason for it. Please go read Radhika Nagpal’s Scientific American blog post (“The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc Ever”) for tips on how to deal with the pressure. She’s awesome. And the last thing I want to say is that I never stopped loving math. Cardinal Rule Number 1: Before all else, don’t become bitter. Cardinal Rule Number 2: Remember that math is beautiful.