Although my mother is not yet 70 years old, she has some symptoms of dementia as a result of a brain tumor and its surgical removal about 10 years ago, when she was in her mid-50's. Fortunately, hers is - so far - a rather high-functioning kind of dementia, and she is able to maintain an amazing level of activity, including a part-time job, community service, a busy social life, and travel.
My mother has been visiting this past week. Each time she visits, she tends to focus on one or two things that she asks about over and over, sometimes every few minutes, throughout the visit. The topics of these questions are different each visit. This time, one of her obsessively repeated questions has been "So how's your work going?". She doesn't expect or want more than a cursory answer, so I just say "It's going well", or, in moments of exuberance, "It's going very well." Once I reply, her mind skips onto another track completely and we talk about something else.
Tonight at dinner, after the third "So how's your work going?" and my usual reply of "It's going well", my mother paused and demanded: "How do I KNOW your work is going well?".
She had me there. How do I 'prove' to a non-academic, non-scientist that my work is going well? I know from conversations over the years that she is not impressed by my research topics or the numbers of grants or papers or awards she has never heard of -- nor should she be, but it doesn't leave much else for me to use as evidence. She has occasionally been impressed by some of the talk invitations I have received, but it perplexes her that on most occasions I am not paid (other than expenses) for these invited talks. How important can I be if I'm not paid to give talks?
I didn't want to mention talks anyway because she is annoyed that I will be missing the latest ceremony in honor of my brother's latest military promotion. Long ago, long before the ceremony was even a gleam in some admiral's eye, I had committed to giving a keynote lecture at an international conference that is scheduled for what became the date of my brother's promotion ceremony. I give so many talks, why can't I just skip this one? I don't know.. because I promised? because I'm the only woman giving a keynote lecture at the conference? because I want to be at this conference? because my brother has a promotion ceremony every few years? I will go to his next ceremony if at all possible. I said that about his weddings as well, and I kept my word. I skipped one, but I went to the next one. [admission: It can't be easy having me for a sister]
I decided to abandon all hope of impressing her with classic measures of academic success and to focus on what I love about my work. I told her that my work is going well because I am making some interesting discoveries and enjoying my research immensely. I told her about one such discovery that I had made recently -- something that I am very excited about. It will not surprise the perceptive reader that that was perhaps the worst route I could have taken in my quest to be convincing. I am sure that my so-called discovery must have sounded very lame to her, dementia or no. No one is going to make a TV movie about this discovery, and the cover of National Geographic also seems like a long-shot. And I may have made my mother even more annoyed that I am missing my brother's promotion ceremony just to give a talk about that.
No man is a hero to his valet (M. Cornuel). In my case, this would be: No woman is a successful scientist to her mother. (though I hope that is not true in general)
9 months ago