Monday, March 24, 2008

How My Work is Going

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)

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm an FSP in Asia, and I am a successful scientist to my mother. Mainly because I have a steady job with a decent income, and as far as she can tell, I seem to be enjoying what I do. To her, my husband (an MSP) is probably more successful because he jet-sets a lot more than I do, travelling for meetings, conferences, collaborative visits. At one time, my brother was the most successful (in my parents' eyes), making pots of gold in investment banking. My greatest success has been getting them to realise that our lifestyle as academics, especially using flexitime to combine work and parenting, has advantages that outweigh that gold! The big gap yet is breaking their patriarchal mindset on "belonging": my brother's home is a second home to them, but they only visit my home, or my sister's home, as guests.
Is that more extreme in Asian communities, or is it universal?

FSP, I rarely comment, but I do love your blog. Keep writing.

MM

Anonymous said...

My mother FINALLY stopped asking me when I was going to "retire" to stay home with my kids when they were aged 4 and 7 and I was about 10 years post PhD in an established career! I don't really know what it was that made her actually listen to my answer that last time she asked...but I remember it with great detail because she actually said something like "Oh, I get it now" when I gave her the same answer I had given her probably 20-30 times about how I enjoyed my career and it made me a better mother and I had no intention of retiring.
HA!

Ψ*Ψ said...

My mother held a lab tech position at one point, so she does understand some of what I tell her about my research, but she will NEVER be content with what I do! She wants me to go into cancer biology, or at least pharmacy school...but those things couldn't be further from my interests, and I'm really pretty happy in organic materials.

iayork said...

I remember Vishva Dixit, giving a talk at Harvard. The (largish) room was completely filled with his audience, and he started out by saying he wished he had a camera so he could send a picture to his mother.

Maybe you could do that -- take a picture of a couple of thousand people, and tell your mother "These people flew in from all over the world, just to hear me explain the universe to them."

PhysioProf said...

I'm not sure if you meant this as a serious conundrum, or if you really don't give a flying fuck whether non-scientists see you as a "success". Anyhoo, my impression is that the only trappings of science success that non-scientists can easily wrap their minds around are: (1) your annual budget; (2) how many people you supervise; and (3) awards you have won.

Anything else, while achievable, takes a lot of explanatory effort.

SaraJ said...

I fear I'll never be a successful philosopher to my mother because 1) I'm not an FSP as she had hoped, and 2) I haven't developed a sufficient answer to the question "why do insurance companies drop homeowners?"

EarlyToBed said...

Hi FSP--Ouch--must be tough. I was lucky with the parent deal. My mom is incredibly supportive about my job and family, and so is my mother-in-law. Both are strong feminists and believe that women can and should have the same options as men, careerwse. Without them as support (practical as well as psychological) I would have a much more difficult time as an FSP & mom.

Brigindo said...

My mother is visiting this week. I am a successful scientist in her eyes but she was in academia herself many years ago. She gets it. It also helps that my research area is something she has always had an interest in and we can talk about it on multiple levels.

sandyshoes said...

"How do I KNOW your work is going well?"

"Because they're still paying me to do it."

My parents never gushed over my professional success as much as they do my brother's. The double standard grates.

Anonymous said...

She has dementia. Why are you treating this as if it were a rational question? You need to be examining your own deep-seated anxieties about your own accomplishment and not putting this off on your mother.

landsnark said...

My mom has always been great about my career (I'm 37). She's always been proud of me and very encouraging. She never had a "career" herself, only jobs, until I went to grad school & my sister started college--but at that point, she went to nursing school, and has been working as a nurse ever since. For her, it's as much a calling as a career, and we're as proud of her as she is of us.

OTOH, my *grandmother*, who actually was a career woman (a high-powered secretary to bank presidents for decades), has very little clue what I do, and is much more proud of my nephew (15 years younger) who went straight into the navy after graduating from high school. She just busts her buttons to see him in his uniform. I guess that's a career she can understand.

Vodalus said...

Sadly, Dr. FSP, I think your family may just be exceptionally unsupportive. And I'm not certain that skipping one of serial groom's wedding makes you a difficult sister. Not unless he's the sort to put a lot of effort into making his wedding a special day.

You'd think the phrases "keynote speaker" and "international conference" would indicate that this was a very important event. I guess I can understand the dementia preventing this realization (my grandfather also suffers from fixations as a result of brain trauma) but I would have thought that the rest of your family could see it and support you. :/

If it's any consolation, you're at least famous on the internet.

Propter Doc said...

My mother's favorite question is 'is your boss pleased with your work?'. She needs some kind of metric like school report cards, exam grades, or supervisor's opinions to judge me properly. But this is from the woman who things that I'm going to be a teacher at a university and will be allowed to keep doing research 'on the side' like some sort of indulgence. I'm starting to accept that she will never comprehend the job and she will never ask sensible questions.

Anonymous said...

I guess I am lucky. I am a FSP and my mother is extraordinarily proud of my career. She brags to her friends and has succeeded in making one of the neighbors jealous that his daughters did not grow up to become FSPs.

My in-laws, on the other hand, are completely mystified by my career.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

I still remember teching during early college, doing something like trying to get some in situs to work, and having my father one day ask me if this sort of work was going to set me down the path to the Nobel. Although my parents are very supportive, they only *really* know one benchmark.

I told my father that if I was lucky, what I was doing would make it into the methods section of a paper, and he hasn't asked about Nobel prizes since.

fitz said...

I completely understand where you are coming from ... sort of. My mother is a narcissist who only asks about my research to make it appear that she cares. I have tried in vain to talk about my research to my mother, but I gave that up a few years ago. Ever since starting grad school, let's see that's 17 years now, she has demonstrated no interest except for continually asking me (before I graduated) when I would get that "damn PhD." And then she had the gall to ask why I did not dedicate my dissertation to her? Ye gods.

My dad also has a PhD and wants to hear all about what I am doing. He does not quite understand it (different field), but he is at least intrigued. It's awfully nice.

Ms.PhD said...

I'm with propter doc and FSP. My parents only understand success in terms of outside measures like money and fame, not happiness.

To her credit, I think my mother senses (although I'm not sure she can understand) my frustration at not being treated with respect at work.

Beyond that, I think my parents are just concerned that I land on something they consider stable enough that they can give themselves permission (usually measured in dollar signs) to stop worrying so much.

FSP, this post made me really sad. Sending e-hugs.

ScienceGirl said...

My mom must be an oddball: she values "doing what you are interested in," even if it doesn't bring tons of money and fame. My in-laws, however, measure success in money; their son's success, that is - in their mind I am a non-submissive feminist, and therefore a failure.

laurieparker said...

I'm lucky too, my mom is the one who first suggested to me that I might want to be a scientist. Now that I am about to become a FSP in the fall, she couldn't be prouder of me. She dropped out of college (journalism major) to have us kids (all girls) but then went back, got a masters in software systems engineering and is now a web developer--but I think I'm living a dream she always kind of wished she'd followed.

Alethea said...

"the only trappings of science success that non-scientists can easily wrap their minds around are: (1) your annual budget; (2) how many people you supervise; and (3) awards you have won."

I sort of agree, at least with respect to my family, and would add (4) how many publications you've written this year.

Sigh. Even intra familias.

drdrA said...

I always have trouble when my mother asks me how my work is going ... glad I'm not the only one...

FSP... I am tagging you for a 6 word memoir.

Anonymous said...

Why do we ultimately depend on the complete approval of our relatives, especially our mothers? When I saw my grandfather for the first time after completing my PhD, he asked, "Why do you want to be a doctor of philosophy when you could be a real doctor?" That was followed by, "As long as you are going to be at a university, you might as well take some classes on the side, and get your MD." My grandmother never spoke to me about my interests, only about what a great doctor I would be. Or consider my mother, who has had a multifaceted career in public serice and in the biotech business. She volunteered a few years ago (fifteen years into my career) that she was disappointed that I had chosen science over the humanities. At least my mother recognizes that I love what I do, and that that is far more important than making lots of money. Also, I am in a better position than my sister-in-law. She's a surgeon who earned an MPH in her spare time, and now has a strong career in commercial medical research. Nonetheless, her mother (retired health professor) has never acknowledged my sister-in-law's abilities or achievements as satisfactory, and always critiques her negatively versus her banker brother.