I don’t think my mother has ever forgiven me for a remark I made aged four. As she tells it, I announced loudly in a department store, “I know what you can do Mommy, you can be a cleaning lady!”
Now, in my own defense, my mother’s Swabian genes guarantee a commitment to clean unrivaled by most operation rooms. My child’s perspective failed to distinguish between my mother’s love of having things be clean and her enjoyment in cleaning. I didn’t yet realize how much she actually hated the process that achieved her goal. So, my pre-school self thought in Oprahesque fashion, why shouldn’t my mommy get paid to do what she loved?
Both my male colleague and I have had our children visit us in the office and conclude that our work is defined by writing emails. My sons begrudgingly admit that I ‘meet’ with students as well.
A young alumna I had advised took care of the boys for a few hours earlier this week. The child of a working mother, she thought it important that the boys understand the role I had played in her development. She asked them if they understood what I “do.” Email, replied the younger. Work with Northwestern students, replied the elder. She wanted more; they wanted supper.
At times my boys have articulated the understanding that I teach and that I write. The subtleties of advising versus classroom teaching and academic writing versus blogging likely eludes them. I certainly have enough trouble explaining my eccentric role within the academy to my neighbors and colleagues let alone my children. I don’t fit into a tidy mold.
They have a better grasp of my husband’s work. I understand why, but it bothers me nonetheless. When we turned to dad’s work in the conversation above, my older son promptly replied that his father writes computer programs for a reinsurance company. He may not be able to explain MonteCarlo methods and Dynamic Financial Analysis, but he has the information he needs to appreciate that my husband makes something that other people use. Indeed, the boys possess justifiable pride that their father’s code is used around the globe.
They know my advisees go around the globe on fellowships I helped them to find, and I once tried to explain that far flung libraries have my articles in their stacks. But it’s not the same.
Of everything I do they like this blog best, because they can see it, read it, and relate to it. I once came downstairs to find my older son reading my lament about the decline of dance in Bollywood films. “Are you really depressed about that, Mom?” I assured him that it was no more than a minor disappointment over-dramatically expressed, but I loved that he cared.
What I write here relates only tangentially to the what I do for pay. However, I hope it sheds light on why. My values and motivations must lurk somewhere within this lighthearted venue. I realize this leaves me in a traditional gender role of maternal inculcator of good as opposed to paternal provider of goods. I comfort myself that the critical question should ask not what I do but who I am.