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Mathematics+Fatherhood: an Interview with Darren Glass


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Back in September, I published an interview with mathematician and mom Constance Leidy by mathematician and mom Lillian Pierce. It was part of a series of interviews for the Association for Women in Mathematics about how women balance motherhood with their mathematical careers. (You can find another interview in this series at Cathy O’Neil’s blog mathbabe.org.)

Shortly after I posted the interview with Leidy, mathematician Darren Glass tweeted me:

I was curious about the story behind the tweet, so I asked him if he’d be willing to talk to me about mathematics, fatherhood, and adoption for the blog, and he graciously agreed. Especially now that fathers are often more involved in parenting than they were a generation or two ago, it’s interesting to learn how both men and women balance their careers and their family lives. As Glass said to me before our interview, “When people talk about issues of women in academia, men often have some of the same issues.” This is an edited transcript of our conversation. Links were (obviously) added by me.

Elliott, Darren, and Kay Glass in San Francisco. Image: Darren Glass.

EL: Where do you work, and what is your research area?

DG: I’m at Gettysburg College, a small residential liberal arts college in south central Pennsylvania. By training, I’m an arithmetic geometer, Galois theory type of person. But since tenure, I’ve diversified my research interests. I’ve followed interests in combinatorial number theory, projects in graph theory, and cryptography. I’m one of those mathematicians who values breadth over depth. You know frogs and birds? I’m definitely more of a bird. I dabble in a lot of different things. But it all sprouts out of questions about Galois theory of curves.

EL: Did you always know that you wanted children?
DG: Yes, I guess so. I don’t think I had ever given it a lot of thought. I just thought, of course someday I’ll have children. When my wife and I first started dating, we started discussing it and decided that was something we wanted to do. (Much later, of course.) By academic standards I got married somewhat on the young side while I was a graduate student. I hadn’t really thought too much past that at the time.

EL: How did you and your wife decide to have a child through adoption?
DG: Once I got a tenure track position and we moved to Gettysburg, we bought a house and started making things a little more permanent and solidified. We started thinking about having a child, and we pretty quickly ran into some infertility issues. We decided that our way of handling that would be to go straight to adoption. Adoption was never a second choice for us. It was something we tried very quickly. My wife especially had always had an interest in adoption before that. We had never really thought about it that seriously, but it was something we had talked about some and had some interest in already.

We started looking at adoption agencies and found one we that wanted to work with. We have an open adoption, which means that we know the birth family, and we still have communication and contact with them. My wife and I were actually in the room when my son was born. We got to know them ahead of time and got to be there with his birth mother when she gave birth. Our son came home from the hospital to the hotel where we were staying. He was born in Texas, so we flew down there.

It was obviously a very moving, powerful experience to get to be there for that. I think for us the symmetry was also nice. My wife and I really went through the same experience together, which most parents don’t get to do. When one of them is giving birth, the other is there with them, but we were both there going through the same experience, which was a very powerful thing.

EL: I know from Twitter that the adoption happened around the same time that you got tenure. Tell me about that process.
DG: It was the summer of 2008, and I was going up for tenure that fall. At Gettysburg, tenure materials are due in late August, and we expected our son to be born at the end of July. We didn’t really know how long we would be in Texas or what the situation would be. I literally dropped my tenure binders off at the department office right before we headed out of town to go to the airport for my son’s birth. I spent the first half of that summer compiling the dossier and doing all the paperwork. Then I dropped the binder off and went and became a father.

That timing was really nice for a few reasons. For one, at Gettysburg, and I think at most schools, there is a pretty long delay between when you submit your dossier and when you hear something official from whatever levels of bureaucracy it has to go through. Here it’s normal for you to submit at the end of August and find out in late December or early January. As I always told people, I didn’t have to lose sleep over my tenure case because I was losing sleep over a child! Waiting to hear about tenure is normally a very stressful time, and I really didn’t have a chance to think about it at all over those few months. That was sort of nice. Also having tenure once I became a parent obviously took off some of the pressure for publishing and other things, and therefore let me not have to feel as much like that was in competition with parenting. For me, the timing worked out great, especially because my tenure case was successful.

EL: Was that timing deliberate, or did the ball just get rolling on adoption so that it fortuitously worked out that way?
DG: Some of each, I think. One of the things that makes adoption more stressful than other types of family planning in some ways is that there is a lot more uncertainty as to the timing. With pregnancy you’re pretty sure that nine months later you’ll have a child. Not exactly, but within a few weeks. Whereas with adoption, we have friends who adopted their children and the whole process took two months, and others that took two years or longer for some international adoption programs. So we knew roughly that the timing was going to be around the time I was going up for tenure. But we worked with the agency for about a year between when we first signed up with them and when our son was born. It could easily have been plus or minus six months on either side, if not more.

EL: Did you or your wife take time off of work immediately after the adoption?
DG: Yes, that was one of the things I was really lucky about at Gettysburg. We have a very generous parental leave program. It’s called a primary caregiver leave. It’s not linked either to how a child is born or to which parent it is. For faculty the rule is that a primary caregiver gets a full semester leave with full pay.

It’s sort of funny, when we started the process of adoption and had gotten a little bit into it, I had a meeting with the provost of the college, Janet Morgan Riggs, who is now the president. She was a psychology professor and before that a math major. I met with her to talk with her about the adoption and the leave situation. I asked her with the primary caregiver leave, what is the definition of the primary caregiver? All it said in the faculty handbook was that the primary caregiver gets a full semester and that the secondary caregiver gets a one course release. At the time my wife was working at an advertising agency, and she was going to get 6 weeks of paid leave. So I asked Janet, did I qualify as the primary caregiver in that setting, or secondary? She turned to me, and said, “Well, are you going to be a primary caregiver or a secondary caregiver?” “Primary, but what’s the definition?” I remember saying to her, “You’re a math major, you understand that this is circular reasoning!”

In the end, their answer was that because my wife would be back at work before the semester would be over, they were happy to give me the full semester leave. I was the first man at the college to take primary caregiver leave. My wife got 6 weeks of total leave, although because we had to travel for the adoption she went back to work when our son was five weeks old. I then had the full fall semester off. I didn’t go back to work until the middle of January. It’s a really nice perk that Gettysburg offers to not have “maternity” leave linked to either the gender of the parent or how the child is born. I think very few places have that.

EL: So the school was very supportive. How did your colleagues and department react?
DG: My colleagues were all very excited and very supportive. It’s a small college. Our department only has seven tenure track faculty, and at the time I think two or three of them had children as well. Everyone was supportive and flexible. The fact that the adoption could have happened six months earlier meant that several people had to be flexible about teaching schedules in the spring. I think all of my colleagues, both in my department and across campus, were very supportive. It was actually one of the physics professors who had led the charge to make the school’s primary caregiver leave adoption friendly. So that had only gone into effect a few years earlier. She was very supportive and helpful.

What we’ve found is that there are a lot of adoptive families in academia as a whole and at Gettysburg in particular. I can think of a dozen other families on our faculty of 200 that have adopted. I don’t think it’s as strange in our community as it might be in some others.

EL: This is probably a ridiculous question, but how did having a child change your work schedule and habits?
DG: How didn’t it?! I had heard this from people before I had a child but hadn’t really internalized it: becoming a parent really focuses you on which aspects of your job are most important to you and how you prioritize your time. I found that my job became much more of a 9-5 job. Not that I’m never grading papers in the evening. But before I became a parent I would often go into the office at 10 or 11 on days I wasn’t teaching and come home at 7 or 7:30 for dinner with my wife. Once I became a parent, it was much more that I would go in at 8:30 and come home at 5 because up until recently I had to pick him up from daycare at 5. That was the schedule. I don’t do as much work during the days on the weekends as I used to. It’s just at night after he’s in bed or during 9-5 hours. It focused me a little more on which research projects are important, which things are interesting to me, which courses to focus on. I had that freedom, as I said, because it happened around the same time I got tenure. I think that’s been a big piece of it.

One thing that I don’t think I anticipated is that traveling to conferences is much harder. That is something that, to be honest, I miss. I go to a couple conferences a year, but I used to go more and be able to give talks other places. But now it’s harder. It’s more of an imposition on my family to do that. I have to prioritize those things more than I used to. Now when I’m invited to a conference, I really have to think, will this be productive to me in the long haul, not just will this be a fun and interesting way to spend a few days? Which is what you get to do as a postdoc, earlier in your career.

So I think parenthood has changed my habits in those ways. Many other things have stayed the same. I’m still teaching the same amount, I’m still researching a comparable amount. But everything has shifted a few hours earlier in the day.

Up until he started kindergarten, he was in a daycare on Gettysburg’s campus. It meant that to take him into daycare I would  have to go to campus. It was rare that I would then come home and research at home during the day.

Things like sabbaticals and leaves are complicated by family in general and kids in particular. I was due for a sabbatical the year before last and I delayed it a year so it would be right before he started kindergarten. We felt like that would give us more flexibility. We wouldn’t have to pull him out of preschool and put him back in preschool and go back and forth. We ended up going down to Oaxaca, in Mexico, to IMATE. Obviously having to find housing for a full family and childcare and a school he could go to were more complicated than if I were single and it was just me. On the other hand, I was much happier to be abroad for three months because I had my family there with me! It was a wonderful experience.

EL: So he just started kindergarten?
DG: Yes, he just started kindergarten this past August. He’s starting to learn math, so I’m getting to teach that to him.

EL: What kinds of things does he learn?
DG: At this point it’s mostly counting, a little bit of his plusses, as he calls them. We talk a little bit about plusses and minuses.

This past summer we all went up to the Museum of Math for the MOVES [Mathematics of Various Entertaining Subjects] conference. He wouldn’t say he learned math there, but I would say he did. He played with all the math games they had. He went to some talks and some of the activities, the Chartiers’ mime and Greg Warington’s juggling performances. He certainly picked up on math things there.

EL: But he’s not quite up to the Sylow theorems?
DG: No group theory yet! I was trying to explain some set theory to him the other day, but I’m not sure how that went over.

EL: You’ve mentioned a few of the differences between adoption and other ways of having children. What are some challenges you faced that were unique to the fact that you chose adoption?
DG: On a professional note, there was a lot more uncertainty in the time table. We had almost a full year of knowing that any moment we would be getting a phone call that we should pack our bags now. That’s hard no matter what your profession is. I think in an academic setting where you have classes you’re in the middle of, it makes it more challenging. Professionally, that’s the only thing I can think of.

I think there are other challenges related to adoption, issues about my son’s feelings towards it. That’s one of the reasons we feel that open adoption is so great. He has known as long as he’s been conscious who his birth family is, that they’re out there. We talk to them on the phone, and he has a relationship with them still.

EL: I’m sure his understanding of that will keep evolving.
DG: Yes. That’s the kind of thing that will keep evolving and hopefully we can help him with it.

EL: It will never be a sledgehammer.
DG: Exactly. That’s the conventional wisdom about adoption these days. You introduce the information as the child grows so that it’s always a natural thing for them. At times for various reasons it’s hard for him, but that’s just how it is.

He is multiracial, so we’re a multiracial family now, which opens up other kinds of questions. It hasn’t been a hardship in any way, but it is a difference. I don’t want to use the word challenge, but one of the things about having a multiracial child and raising him in a small rural central Pennsylvania town is that we think things like travel are important to expose him to more diversity. Things like spending the semester in Mexico. We also spent a month in San Francisco this past summer somewhat connected to a conference I attended at the American Institute for Mathematics in Palo Alto. We feel like those types of things have an increased importance to us. We want our child to see a wider range of things, especially diversity. We do not live in the most diverse place, and it’s nice to expose him to that.

EL: Anything else that comes to mind that I haven’t asked about but that you’d like to share?
DG: I can’t think of anything. It’s hard to remember what life was like before I became a parent and got tenure! A couple years later I started a term as department chair, so a lot of things changed in my professional and personal life, all at the same time. But it’s all been for the better.

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. Uncle.Al 11:55 am 12/9/2013

    “I literally dropped off my tenure dossier on the way to the airport to adopt my son.” Res ipsa loquitur.

    Link to this

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