Interview with My Mom, the Scientist

by Anne Helen Petersen

When I was three years old, my mom used to take me to the library, find me a pile of books, and let me sit and read for up to an hour while she went and browsed the stacks. When I was 14 years old, I made my mom paint my room black, and I spent a lot of time watching The X-Files and being mortified by her. But she never forgot that I could also be that first kind of patient, inquisitive girl, even when I insisted on listening to Walkmen tapes of Queen’s Greatest Hits while hiking in Glacier Park.

Like so many of us, I didn’t fully appreciate my mom and her tenacity until I started aging past the times when she did things — realizing, at age 21, that she’d already have gotten married; that when I was 23 and verrrrry slowly figuring my life out, living with my best friends in Seattle, she had already been pregnant and moved to an entirely new home halfway across the country.

When my mom read Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors, she excerpted a quote about the protagonist’s declaration that “for year and years still, they were going to be able to live this carelessly,” followed by “I never got this message (to be able to and enjoy living carelessly when I was young. Why did I feel compelled to follow a path towards security rather than adventure?”

Here’s our attempt to figure out that why.

•••Mom, let’s start at the beginning. I remember four very distinct stories you told about your childhood:

1) You had to wear dresses or skirts until the end of elementary school.

2) You went to a school that was a product of the progressive educational reforms of the late ’60s and ’70s and had weird 15-minute ‘blocks.’

3) You were a track star and had your cleats signed by Jesse Owens.

4) You were a U.S. Presidential Scholar.

Is that how you remember your childhood and teens, more or less?

Not at all. My memories are saturated with the angst of trying to find friends and fit in. I didn’t see myself as exceptional probably because nobody told me that I was. I do not know if it is characteristic of smart girls in that time but I based my self-image and worth on what was reflected back to me by others.

I did not want that for my daughter. Just think about the messages embedded in these stories: Unlike the past, women can now be and do anything. Since your schools are not progressive, you are going to have to do more than is expected. Like me, you have a strong body. Like me, you are smart. I wanted to emphasize that I had choices and I chose to stay at home with you. Just like many women today, I did not recognize that staying home could limit my job choices in the future.

You could’ve gone to any college you wanted, basically, on a full ride. But you didn’t, because Granddad didn’t want you to go out of state, right?

Granddad actually said that I couldn’t go east of the Mississippi River.

Much later, he told me that he did not want me to go far away to school because I most likely would marry someone I met in college and not come back. He also had a general mistrust of “the East” and its values. Since he was paying the bills, I felt like he had the right to restrict my choices. And, unlike you, I knew nothing about colleges outside of Minnesota and nothing about the advantages of going to a selective school. I received a few view books but I assumed that I could not afford to go. I didn’t know the power of being a National Merit or a U.S. Presidential Scholar (one of 100 in 1974), either for admission or for financial aid. My memories are a little vague but I think that my dad refused to fill out the financial aid forms. He did not think I would get anything and he felt that his finances were none of their business.

So what was college like for you? How did you get super into science?

College was mostly studying, especially the first two years. Nothing like what you experienced. Originally, I became a double chem/bio major because I had read about medical technology in the college catalog. The fourth year was free. That meant that my dad would not be paying for it and he could no longer tell me what to do. (I want to be clear that my parents loved me very much. My dad just had strong opinions about what was the best path for his children.) I liked chemistry and it turned out that I disliked biology (too much memorizing). During my freshman year, my chem professor asked me to be his advisee and do undergraduate research with him. I won the top freshman chemist award. None of my other professors paid any attention to me, despite excelling in all of my classes. So, I stayed in chemistry.

What was it like to be a female scientist during that time?

It was the mid ’70s. Plenty of women were going to med school. But, in upper division chem classes, there would be only two or three women. My lab partner was almost always a guy. I wasn’t conscious of there being any discrimination, except with one of the professors who only asked guys to go to coffee with him. One of the disadvantages I had was that I had never tinkered around with machines or equipment. That is a very useful skill to have as a chemist.

But you didn’t go on to grad school in Chemistry? Can you say a bit about why?

It is complicated. First, I didn’t think I was good enough, despite having a 4.0 in my chem classes. When I was a junior, I took physical chemistry. My college did not require math beyond calculus and I hadn’t taken any. There are a lot of differential equations in p-chem and I had to memorize, rather than understand it. I got an A but I lost my confidence. None of my professors suggested that I go on. I assumed that they thought I wasn’t good enough. Frankly, I didn’t know what graduate school was and I certainly didn’t know any women who had gone. All of my professors in the sciences were men.

Near the end of my junior year, I decided to get certified to teach high school chemistry. I had been dating your dad for almost two years. I had a lot of fun in high school chemistry and I thought that I would have no trouble finding a job. That turned out to be false. I finally got a maternity leave replacement at a school that was in a blue collar suburb. I married your dad about two weeks before I started teaching.

Did my Dad ever say anything about what kind of work you should do? Did you expect to have a career?

No, he didn’t, and yes, I expected to have a career. The media was full of stories about being able to balance work and home. I didn’t know anyone who had (in fact, none of the mothers of my friends growing up worked.)

So you started teaching. I used to just love to hear you tell the story about the 8th grade students who threw a paper airplane at you with a picture of your fly undone. Was this like the ’70s version of Teach for America?

It was one student, Dennis, and my fly was undone. It was an act of mercy. They assigned me to teach six sections of ninth grade “Science for Living.” They had tracked the other top 20 percent of the students into classes taught by another teacher. I also was coaching two sports. All for $9800 a year. It was a very difficult job, certainly not the high school chemistry position that I wanted.

And then you had babies. Can you talk about why you chose to have them so (relatively) early?

I was diagnosed with endometriosis that same year. My doctor put me on an anabolic steroid (which it turns out is correlated with increased risk for ovarian cancer) and told me that if I wanted to have children, I should have them as soon as possible. Since we knew we wanted children, it was not a difficult decision.

You were really bored and lonely staying home with me, right? At least that’s how I remember the stories about that time.

By the time I was pregnant, I had a new job teaching math and science at a prep school. I did not plan on staying home after you were born. We bought a house when I was pregnant based on both of our salaries. However, your dad was an intern, which meant he was on call every third night at the hospital and was exhausted the rest of the time. When you got sick or if the daycare provider got sick, I had no back up. Family sick leave did not exist. I could only prepare for work after you went to bed. The stress was intense.

Then, when I quit my job, I had a naive view of what it would be like to stay home. With an unreliable car and no money to spare, I was very isolated. Once I was invited to spend the afternoon with another intern’s wife. We worked out and went to their townhouse. Then, she thought we should smoke a joint. That friendship went nowhere.

How did you and Dad decide to move to Idaho?

He did not want to practice in Minnesota because of managed care. He loved Glacier Park in Montana but the areas around there were oversupplied with doctors. When we visited Lewiston, there was an inversion and it stunk but the people in the practice were very friendly. Your dad liked the practice and the climate: he could play golf nine months a year! I thought that it would be good to live in a town where he would not have to spend much time commuting and would have more time at home.

When we visited, it was customary to take the “wife” on a tour. I asked to see the public library. This was a first for them. They were clearly uncomfortable, as they should have been, since the library was in an old hardware store and the collection was extremely limited. If I was doing it again, I would ask to see the library and an art gallery and to eat at an Indian restaurant. I would ask for the school board minutes and take an unescorted drive around the junior highs and high school. The quality of these things tells you a lot about a place.

What was it like that first year? Did you miss Minnesota?

Minnesota is a hard place to live when you don’t have enough money for reliable cars, a snowblower, an efficient furnace, a dry basement, or central air. The only thing I missed was the Minnesota State Fair: specifically, the mini donuts and the butter statue of Princess Kay of the Milky Way.

Did you think you’d go back to work? What did you do for fun and intellectual stimulation, other than play with me when I refused to take a nap?

Since your dad’s job was so demanding, I thought that I needed to stay home and nurture you and your brother. I read a lot and learned how to quilt. As we made friends, mostly others in the medical community and people from church, we did a lot of entertaining. I really looked forward to those conversations.

Then you decided to run for the School Board. Why?

I had volunteered at your school, been in the PTA, and campaigned for a levy. Before that levy passed (about 1985), the elementary schools had no computers and no libraries. I thought I could make a difference. And, I did. I introduced a policy that prohibited corporal punishment. It barely passed. I remember the local radio station called and asked me “do you really think that there is something wrong with giving a kid a few hacks?” I said something about there always being an alternative to hitting a child. The principals were coerced by the superintendent into not speaking out about the measure but it was clear that they were opposed. Many of them had a paddle in their office.

Did you feel respected, even though you didn’t have a “career,” per se?

I had the respect that went with the position I was in as a “doctor’s wife” or as a school board member. But, it wasn’t necessarily respect that I earned.

When did you decide to go back to school?

When your brother was four, Washington State passed a law that all certified teachers had to have a master’s degree or sufficient upper division college credits. Thinking that my certification in Idaho and Washington was my insurance policy if something happened to your dad, I decided to get the credits to keep my Washington certification. Three semesters of classes then turned into an opportunity for an adjunct position at the college teaching math.

Did you feel fortunate that you could pick me up for piano lessons, etc., and work part-time? Did that feel like a good mix, or did you want more?

It is funny that you remember it as part time. I was teaching a full load of classes. I only could pick you up because I was able to arrange my class schedule that way. We had a new big house by that time with a lot of yardwork. It was very overwhelming.

When did you decide that you were going to have to start providing outside “enrichment” for us kids? What did your early ideas look like?

When you were born, I primarily wanted you to love to read and learn. So, we read to you every night and I took you to the library about once a week. Once we moved, I bought lots of books, both fiction and nonfiction, so you would be surrounded by them. We bought an Apple IIe so that you could play Oregon Trail and Number Munchers and learn to type. I used travel to expose you to a bigger slice of the world. (The need for this is exemplified by this story: There were almost no people of color in our town. When you were three or four years old, I told you that Lavar Burton of Reading Rainbow was a human being just like us. We were shopping at the local “mall” when you saw a tall black man. You said, very loudly, “Look, Mom! There’s a human being!”)

We went to Seattle for museums and later, shows. We took you to France and I assigned everyone homework to be ready for the trip. I sent you to language camps and science camps because I thought the counselors would be good role models. We listened to books on tape on long drives.

When you and Dad divorced (when I was 16 and you were 40), you were about to finish your Master’s Degree. What sort of things were you worried about?

Actually, I only had two courses of my online Master’s Degree finished. I was making $14,000 a year as an adjunct. In Idaho, divorce is no-fault. Assets are divided 50–50 and child support is by formula. Alimony is not required. It did not matter that I supported your dad while he was in school or that my primary “job” was staying home with the kids. I knew that there would never be a secure or better paying job for me at the college. I was absolutely terrified about finances. I also was emotionally unmoored: without warning, my vision of the future changed in almost every aspect. I felt shamed, foolish, and unwelcome at events where I had previously felt comfortable. Again, I was evaluating my worth based on the opinions of others. Most of all, I worried that my lack of resources would make a difference in our relationship. As you once told me, you went from being a privileged doctor’s kid to being the kid of a doctor without the privileges.

I feel so much regret that I wasn’t strong, or unselfish enough, to let you move to someplace where you could’ve completed your PhD. Do you regret that too?

I strongly believe that a person should only get a PhD if they have an incredible thirst for knowledge and want to contribute something, however small, to their field. I wish I had been able to immerse myself that way. However, I instead have written four textbooks for a national market. I think those textbooks will impact developmental math students in a way that I can not do by myself. Writing has not changed my status and opportunities for advancement at my job but that is not as important to me as it once was. Also, you were a teenager and you had just had your family fractured without warning. You could not be expected to understand what I was asking; I knew that. Often a parent has to choose the interests of the children before her own. It was just one of those times. I have no regrets about that choice.

You’ve now been teaching developmental math full-time — like exhausting full-time — for 15 years. What’s most fulfilling about that work?

Actually, it is 21 years and it is important to note that I am a lecturer and have always been on a one-year contract. The reason that it was exhausting is because I have not only been teaching but have also been writing classroom materials and then textbooks for much of that time. My students are not ready to do college level mathematics. They often have relied on last minute memorizing to get through their previous courses. When I can structure and teach a course so that they finally understand the math, it is very rewarding. Teaching is not just a matter of presenting the material — I have to create a culture in which students feel empowered to learn and are motivated to do work that they find boring or terrifying. I enjoy that challenge as well as seeing students be successful.

You always tell me how much you love watching my life develop over my 20s and 30s — and seeing me experience the sort of freedom that you never had. Can you say more about why that’s gratifying? Does it make you sad, too?

A mother cannot live through her children but she can enjoy being proud of her children, as I am. Both of my children are kind, thoughtful people and they love to read. They are deep thinkers. Of course that is gratifying! There is no sadness in it at all. Yes, I could have made other choices but the only thing I know for certain is that my life would then have been different. I have a wonderful new marriage and a great dog. We are eating sun-warmed peaches right off the tree today. I am in no rush to be a grandmother but I do hope, that as part of your freedom, you get to experience the joy of raising a child.

What was (are) your favorite thing(s) about being a mom?

Snuggling up in bed reading Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows and crying with you at the end. Reading what you write; hearing you laugh with your boyfriend. Watching you run; you are so strong!

What’s harder for women today, and what’s easier?

I think that varies a lot, depending on class, education, and location. Certainly American women have more legal protection against discrimination and sexual harassment. More employers offer flex time and all must support unpaid family leave. When I was growing up, the employment want ads were still divided into jobs for women and jobs for men.

I think it is more difficult to mentor a young woman in a culture saturated with sexuality and celebrities whose only talent seems to be selfishness and a lack of manners. Mothers have to take every opportunity to have their daughters meet and learn about women who are using their brains to be successful. When a tragedy like Steubenville unfolds, a mother has to take the opportunity, no matter how uncomfortable it is, to talk about sexual violence and responsibility.

Previously: Interview With My Mom, One Who Stayed Home

Anne Helen Petersen’s Mom has never been afraid to have difficult conversations, even when teenage AHP didn’t want to listen.