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Mathematics+Motherhood: An Interview with Constance Leidy


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This is a guest post from Lillian Pierce, who has been doing an interview series for the Association for Women in Mathematics. Her series has focused on women who are balancing motherhood with their mathematical careers. I found her interview with Constance Leidy very interesting, and I am grateful to Drs. Pierce and Leidy for allowing me to publish it here. The interview first appeared in the September/October 2013 issue of the AWM newsletter (subscription required).

Mathematician Constance Leidy and her daughter. Image: Thomas S. England.

Constance Leidy is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Wesleyan University, working in low dimensional topology.

Interviewer Lillian Pierce is a Bonn Junior Fellow w-2 Professor at the Hausdorff Center for Mathematics in Bonn, Germany, and a Research Scholar at Duke University. Pierce works in analytic number theory and harmonic analysis.

LP: Could you briefly describe your mathematical field of interest and your current position?
CL: I am a low-dimensional topologist; recently I have been working in knot concordance. I am on the faculty of a liberal arts college that has a graduate program, and so both teaching and research are integral parts of my job, which I think is maybe a little bit rare.

LP: What was your progression to becoming a mother?
CL: I guess I have always known that I wanted to be a mother, but never found myself in a relationship that was serious enough that I was going to have a child with somebody. I actually used to kind of resent the math career partly for that, because you often have to move around a lot and you interact with other people who have also moved around a lot and so I think it’s difficult for us to meet people who are not in the math department. Especially by the time I got to my current job, I now live in a small town and I’m in a small department, and pretty quickly I came to the conclusion that it didn’t seem likely that I was going to find a relationship any time soon that would result in a stereotypical family.

LP: When did motherhood start to be a really conscious concern?
CL: Even as far back as graduate school, when I started to realize that the career meant moving around and not really being rooted in a community for a long time, I was already worried that maybe I wouldn’t get to have a family in the way that I wanted to. I started then thinking about the idea of having a child with donor sperm. I thought about it in the abstract without really knowing much about it through graduate school and through my postdoc, and it was once I was in my tenure track job that I started to really find out how to go about it.

LP: Did this feel like a momentous decision?
CL: The decision to pursue this was not very difficult. I think I’d been coming to it over the years. But then figuring out the logistics of it was really important. Most women who have children with donor sperm are very big planners—they plan for years in advance—and that certainly includes me.  It was in my second year at Wesleyan that I started telling my colleagues that I was interested in doing this and that I was trying to figure out how to go about it because I knew I wouldn’t have a support system of family in Connecticut.

LP: How did your colleagues react?
CL: My department is very family oriented. I think that’s rare. We have 13 mathematicians in my department, 6 of them are married to mathematicians and we have 2 couples in which both spouses are faculty in the department. So children of mathematicians are around the department a lot. I actually felt like they didn’t quite know how to interact with single younger colleagues!

LP: Since you didn’t have family nearby, what did you decide you needed in terms of support during the birth year?
CL: I knew that I wanted to move geographically closer to my family to have the baby. Although I knew I could take a semester of family leave, it seemed difficult to relocate myself for just a semester. Then one day I was having lunch with a math visitor and we were talking about the dilemma I was in, that I wanted to have a child but I couldn’t figure out logistically how to make it work. And I realized I could combine a sabbatical with a semester leave, so that I could be gone for an entire calendar year. That’s what ended up happening. I was on sabbatical for the spring of 2012, and then gave birth to my daughter in May 2012, and then had a semester of leave in fall 2012, and during that whole year I was with my family in Florida.

LP: How did this timing interact with your tenure clock?
CL: In the spring of 2012, I was also about to submit my tenure portfolio, and at the same time I was pregnant and living in Florida and traveling to Houston a lot to work with collaborators there. Toward the end I developed a medical complication, and so it was especially helpful to be with family. It’s hard for me to think about my daughter without thinking about my sisters. I have three sisters and they all live in Florida and they were all with me in the hospital and through the delivery and through taking the baby home.

LP: At the end of your leave, what was it like to move back to your normal working environment with a baby?
CL: Very different. I don’t know if it’s unique to being single but I’m having to learn how to just live my life, including do my job, in a totally new way. I have viewed this semester as purely a survival semester. I’m fortunate that my tenure vote happened in the fall while I was gone, so it took a lot of the pressure off of this spring semester. I have focused on doing the things that I have to do for my job but otherwise have been focused on being a mom more than anything else. Part of the reason I regarded this semester as a survival semester is that I thought this is a time I’m never going to get back with my daughter, it is a time to really cherish with her. A semester is quite short in an academic career, but the first year of my daughter’s life is quite important.

LP: Absolutely! How are you negotiating the balance of spending time with your daughter and using childcare for her?
CL: She is in day care only three days a week. I teach on Tuesday and Thursday and meet with my graduate student on Wednesday. I’m still a nursing mother and so having my daughter in day care 5 days a week would be more difficult as far as that’s concerned, but also the financial cost of having her in day care for 5 days is unfeasible. On Mondays and Fridays we often come to the department together. I’m still available and around, I’m still able to have conversations about things that come up within a department that need to be figured out. Also my daughter feels completely included in the department. I bring her in and immediately people come by my office to play with her. I also have an undergraduate that I hire occasionally to watch the baby in my office when I need to go to a seminar, and the nursery is closed or my daughter is sick. Recently I had a lot of grading to do, so I just hired her to watch the baby in my office while I graded.

LP: The cost burden of childcare on a single parent clearly presents an unusual challenge. What are other things that lie outside the paradigm, say, of a dual career couple?
CL: For one thing, in some ways it’s easier because you don’t have any other option. I stress sometimes to people that I’m not resenting the fact that there isn’t someone pitching in—I don’t have a husband to complain about not helping out enough! Similarly I don’t have colleagues asking why my husband isn’t taking care of my daughter so that I can do things. Everyone realizes I’m the only caregiver. On the other hand, it is true that there are things that are difficult. For example, we moved back to Connecticut from Florida in February, and my daughter was acclimating to day care, and we were both just sick for the whole month. And I didn’t want to cancel class every time. I made it to the end of the semester and only cancelled one graduate class and never cancelled my calculus class. I did once lecture with her in a Bjorn in my graduate class and I taught my calculus class with one of my colleagues watching my daughter while I was teaching.

LP: You’ve fit together an impressive collage of childcare so you can deal with a wide array of professional commitments!
CL: Conferences are still a difficulty. In fact I don’t know what long-term solution I have. So far the only conference that I’ve gone to was local and even that was difficult because it was over the weekend and there’s no daycare over the weekend. My sister and her 2 kids flew up from Florida to watch my daughter while I went to this conference. I guess my idea long term is to try to go to conferences that are geographically located where I know people and they might know baby sitters in the area. Another idea, when my daughter is older, is to travel first to my family and leave my daughter with my family, and then I will go to the conference.  And of course the expense is the main obstacle for that. You’re paying for first a flight to go to family, and then a flight to where the conference actually is.

LP: I think there should be travel grants that pay the travel costs for an infant and a caretaker to accompany a female mathematician to a conference.
CL: Of course. I’ve had conversations with friends who have nannies—someone they’re already paying to take care of their child—and because they’re nursing mothers, they want to be able to bring their child and their nanny with them to a conference, and currently you can’t use grant money in order to pay for that, and so they can’t afford it.

LP: Many of the challenges of being a new mother are inherent to the period of life, but some of them are simply matters of funding.
CL: It’s a little difficult to figure out how to enter back into the game. When I’m in my department I feel very secure in all of this. What is harder to figure out, and I think this is probably not unique to being a single mother, is how to interact with the broader research community, while still being a mom. I think there’s value in having specific grants to support people who need onramps back into research for whatever reason—having a child, being chair of their department, illness—it just seems like an efficient way to get talent back into the research pool.

LP: What about getting talent into the research pool in the first place? Do you think the graduate student experience has changed in terms of welcoming mothers, since you were a graduate student?
CL: Actually, I think our graduate program has changed over the years that I’ve been here. One of the graduate students who graduated my second year pointed out that at the time, she was married and was interested in having children, but felt like she couldn’t consider doing that during graduate school; she needed to be focused on doing her work and graduating on time and all of that. But now one of our graduate students has a newborn and a 3 year old and another of our graduate students is pregnant. We have women graduate students who are thinking about how to build their family while they’re in graduate school.

LP: In some sense, having a baby has become normal in your department.
CL: Yes. I honestly think this is partly due to the fact that we have so many math couples in the department. For example, one couple had their children in the 70’s, when there was no parental leave, so the only way they could have children was to bring them to the department! There is a culture here that is supportive of families. It’s quite unusual! In fact I can’t imagine leaving my department because it is so unique.

LP: This has been a big year for you. Congratulations on your baby, and on tenure!
CL: Whenever things get overwhelming I just remind myself “I have tenure and I have a baby, so everything is going to be alright!”

Evelyn Lamb About the Author: Evelyn Lamb is a postdoc at the University of Utah. She writes about mathematics and other cool stuff. Follow on Twitter @evelynjlamb.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. dadster 4:21 pm 09/10/2013

    It sounds as difficult as it really is for career  women  . Women must be paid extra remuneration to cater for child care needs . Alternately , departments must establish their own child care facilities within the departmental  premises for which provision and space should be provided at the time of  building the department  itself. It’s really not asking for much .it’s only organising the work place to meet the needs peculiar to women who are 50% of the humankind. 

    At present the work place is organised for men only .University departments must start the culture becoming the leaders in organising work place for women. 

     This will help to set the trend for industries too to organise accordingly in an enlightened manner . Industrial work places  provide conference rooms ,  cafeteria , toilets , car parks, even gyms for men . Why not add a crèche , a nursery and child care facilities too. It’s an investment in human resources that will pay high dividends . 

    Besides reorganising  the work place for women , the terms and conditions of employment and service also should be women-and-children-friendly . Women give birth to children nurture ,nurse and nourish  them and it’s but natural that they feel more committed and bonded to their children than men and cherish them Without that care and devoted attention how can children ever grow into useful productive women and men of the world ?   

    Children are the wealth of a nation . Business profits made cutting on their needs and 
    welfare is really not true profits .For short term profits we are paying with long term harm if we fail to act catering to the needs of women and children .it’s a social responsibility of business and industries , of trade and commerce , of educational institutions and higher seats of learning and of the govt too which no one can abdicate without paying a much heavy price in terms of National wealth and the future of human civilisation .

    It’s not only men , but women also , whether they are career  women , working women or non- working women , all 100% of them,  should raise their voice and demand of society and the govt .the urgent need to make work place and terms and conditions of employment, pay , promotions, pensions  etc to be women-friendly which at present it certainly is not and currently  catering  to the needs of men only , literally ignoring women folk .Women and men are chromosomic-ally  different . Their individual needs and collective needs are different . That reality must be recognised and vigorously addressed without sweeping them under corporate carpets and pretending it’s not there.      

    Unless women’s organisations join in force and make their demands voiced , nothing will happen except the universities ,govt and corporations  paying lip service to the cause of women. Women have 50% votes in their hands and is literally a major vote bank which politicians will court if women stand as one on this issue.

    It’s just not the issue of a few minority of currently working women .it’s the issue of your own daughters and sisters in future too. Its the bounden duty and responsibility of the  present generation to fight for the rights and welfare of the future generations .  So even though a non-working woman are not directly involved now, but it’s her duty and responsibility to make the work place and terms and conditions of employment of women reorganised to meet with the needs of child bearing and child rearing working women . 

    At present , women are unbalanced yet expected to play balancing themselves on a platform heavily biased in favour of men .It’s not something special that’s being asked on behalf  of women .It’s what 50% of the population want  and demand as a matter of their legitimate right  .Govt can claim to be democratic only if the govt actively work for the cause of women and remove the injustices now perpetrated on them making the playing ground level for women also to stand and play as women in their professional career path or in any other work to become economically independent and be freed of their bondages and economic dependence on men. 
                     

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  2. 2. ianagol 12:36 am 09/11/2013

    Although I don’t believe the NSF has funding for family travel, the Simons fellow program has unrestricted travel money which may be used to pay for childcare or for family expenses while traveling.

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  3. 3. colinbeveridge 8:25 am 09/11/2013

    On the good side, highlighting women in math is an excellent idea.

    On the less good side, I suspect there’s more to Prof. Leidy’s work than being a mother. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finkbeiner_test

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  4. 4. Evelyn Lamb in reply to Evelyn Lamb 3:14 pm 09/11/2013

    Of course there is much more to Dr. Leidy’s work than being a mother! This is part of an interview series for the AWM that is specifically focused on asking women who are balancing their careers with motherhood how they made it work for them and what challenges they have had to overcome. I agree that the Finkbeiner test has a place: it’s annoying when an article that should be about a person’s work ends up just discussing how well she makes nurturing meatballs or whatever. But I think articles about issues facing women in science have a place as well, and this is one of those. Dr. Leidy has had an atypical route to becoming a parent, and I think other men and women in academia (and outside) may find her story interesting and helpful.

    Link to this

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