Home > Naming Experience, Positive Actions, Role Models > Letters, Packages, Good Advice: How Mom Nurtured My Inner Engineer

Letters, Packages, Good Advice: How Mom Nurtured My Inner Engineer

The theme of the upcoming Scientiae carnival is “Mothers and Others, women who have influenced you along the way”. So here are my musings.
I am fond of saying that my mom is the reason I became an engineer. She is not, of course, the sole reason I became an engineer, nor is she the sole person responsible for me sticking it out despite all the crap I had to put up with and all the jerkwads who tried to discourage me and get me to quit along the way. But she played a pretty significant role, and that’s all the more remarkable given who she is and where she came from.
My mom was a coal miner’s wife, not an easy life. Her major life roles were as housewife and mother. She “mothered” her younger brother and sister after their own mother died very young, so even before she was married she was raising children. And she had six of her own, so she spent about 35 years taking care of kids.

But mom was the person who first suggested to me that I should study engineering. My high school guidance counselor was all but useless, as was my high school. Mom had two brothers who had studied engineering and had thus escaped the coal mines. (One of these was the brother she had raised.) She didn’t really know what engineering was, but she knew it involved a lot of math, having watched these brothers at their studies. I was good at math, and so it seemed obvious to mom that I should try engineering.
I don’t know why my mother was not inhibited in her ambition for me by the stereotype of engineering as a man’s field, or why she didn’t have more stereotypical ideas of what kind of work I should do, or even why she was not more primarily concerned about me finding a good husband. She just thought that I would be able to do the work, and that I would get a good-paying job like her brothers had. One of them worked for NASA! Good money, and you could help send someone to the moon!
It was exciting and terrifying to leave my very, very small town for the main campus of Penn State, which felt like a giant city to me. Homesickness was sharp and isolating. I had a roommate who refused to believe that my father was a coal miner because, as she insisted, “that’s all done with machines. They don’t have any people in the mines now.” Even at a state land-grant university, I felt a bit out of place. But mom knew I would be homesick. She wrote me letters constantly, two, sometimes three a week. They might only be a paragraph or two, but it was mail. I was often the only person on my dorm floor who got mail from home. She sent me packages with homemade cookies and other treats, and always with plenty “to share with your friends”. Every so often the university would send my parents a letter offering them a chance to have a pre-packaged “treats” package sent to me. These, I suppose, were for the parents who wanted to show their children they cared, but were too lazy or busy to actually put together packages for their kids. My mom and dad always had these packages sent to me in addition to the homemade stuff mom sent.
The net effect of all this was that I could never feel completely alone, because on any given day when I was feeling down, I was almost sure to get something in the mail either that day or the next from mom, telling me she was thinking of me. One letter in particular stands out in my mind; enclosed in the letter were three crumpled dollar bills. Mom said she’d found these “in the bottom of her purse” and she thought maybe I could use them to “chip in” with my friends for some pizza some night. lt nearly makes me cry to remember this. Let me put this in context. My mom and dad were paying for every bit of my education. They thought it was their responsibility, and they didn’t want me to go into debt. I had a tiny scholarship my first year, and some minimal work-study income, but other than that my parents paid for all my tuition, room & board, books, and other expenses. I don’t know how they did this because it’s not like we ever had extra money laying around the house. When my mother wrote that she’d found three dollars in the bottom of her purse and sent them to me, she was speaking literally. Those three dollars were found money. And rather than save it for groceries or, god forbid, something for herself, she sent it to me, so I’d have a little extra – because she knew the other girls on my dorm floor generally had more spending money than me.
In these ways, mom tried her best to help me stay happy so that I could focus on my studies and do well at school. But probably the single most important thing she did for me in my undergraduate years was convince me to retake my first calculus course – and that, as they say, has made all the difference.
My dismal high school didn’t offer calculus, and though I had excelled at all the math it did offer, it wasn’t enough to keep me from drowning in my college calculus course. I staggered out at the end of the first term with a D that felt like a more generous grade than my understanding warranted. Like many a female engineering student before and since, I concluded that this meant I could not do engineering. When I expressed my concerns to my advisor, he essentially agreed with me and said maybe I should think about switching majors.
Mom, however, would have none of it. Keep the same major through the end of your freshman year, she said, and then if you still want to switch, you can. If you didn’t understand calculus, just take the course over again. So what if you get out of sequence? Maybe you can take some courses in the summer to get back on schedule. She had an answer for every objection. Years later she confessed to me that, at the summer orientation session for parents, they had been warned of common pitfalls freshman year and how to deal with them. My mom must have taken notes and studied them, because she was just ready and waiting for me.
So, I repeated the first calculus course. Suddenly it all made sense! This is how I described it in my essay in She’s Such a Geek!

Calculus suddenly started making exquisite sense to me. My stern female professor clearly loathed teaching us, as we were undeserving of and too hormonal for the beauties of calculus. But under her tutelage I began to sense the joy in the equations, I think because she so clearly experienced it even as she was denigrating and condescending to us. The final exam was scheduled for three hours, and was comprised of 100 questions ranging over the entire semester’s material. I was nervous beforehand, but once I was given the test and began working, all the nerves went away and I entered a zone of mental existence that I have never again completely attained. Every problem was easy, and I was sure of every answer. In one hour I had finished the exam. I reworked every problem, and this took me only half an hour. I knew that every answer was correct. I was the first to turn in my exam, and I walked out of the classroom with the exhilaration of my performance still making me tingle. That math high was as powerful as my first orgasm, and lasted longer, too.

After that math high, I was hooked. There was no way I would ever consider switching out of engineering again.
Incidentally, that math professor was the first of only two female professors I had in a science or engineering course as an undergraduate. She completely commanded respect in the large lecture hall where our class met. The notes I took in that class were sweet and clear, the most beautiful of any class I’ve ever had, because she lectured so well. To this day I regret that I didn’t hang on to that notebook; it was such a thing of beauty.
Does that make me a geek? Yes, I am a such a geek. And for that, I thank you, Mom.
Here’s a picture of mom and my sister Cindy, who is a totally awesome sister and another woman who has been important in my life.


  1. May 13, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    That is such a sweet story! Thank you for sharing it with us. As another female geek who got a lot of encouragement from her mom to study math (even though my own mother never took calculus), I can agree that that extra boost and support really does make a difference.

  2. absinthe
    May 13, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    Christ almighty but did you have a totally different upbringing than mine. You are truly, truly blessed to have the mother you did.
    The strongest female figure in my life was my paternal grandmother (I was brought up by my father from quite a young age). Luckily she lived less than 30 miles from where I grew up so I saw her often. She always encouraged me to follow all of my interests, both artistic and scientific. She had a nursing degree, but when she married my grandfather she became a full time housewife. After he died, she entered university again (just a few years before I did) and began working on an english degree. She also took up oil painting and learned to play the recorder. She was a woman of utter grace, dignity, and wisdom.
    When I went off to university, it was against the direct command from my father that I wasn’t going to university, no matter what subject I studied, even if I paid for it all myself (over the past several years I have come to realize that my father has some serious issues that go far beyond just plain sexism). I went anyway, and paid my own way by working many, many side jobs, to the tune of around 30 hours of work per week on top of my full load of courses.
    True to his word, my father didn’t speak to me for several years. Our relationship has been strained ever since (not that it ever was a happy normal father/daughter relationship to begin with).
    My grandmother, my beloved haven from my troubled family life, died too young at the end of my freshman year (she was only 72). Twice during my freshman year she sent me $50 (which she could ill afford on her fixed income), and I heard she caught a lot of flack from my dad over it (in his opinion, if he was going to be a total bastard and disinherit his daughter because she went off to university, well, the rest of the family should too). My grandmother reportedly told him to go to hell (and this is a woman who normally never used foul language).
    She died 21 years ago this month, and I still cry sometimes when I think about her…I miss her so much. She is my hero and greatest role model. I dedicated my doctoral thesis to her memory.

  3. May 13, 2007 at 11:34 pm

    Absinthe, you are amazing, too. Between what I’ve read on your blog and what you wrote here just now, I can see why you’re such a fighter. Happy Mother’s Day!

  4. absinthe
    May 14, 2007 at 8:22 am

    Well, even though I worked very hard to get through my undergraduate degree, they were some of the happiest years of my life…I fit a very happy and well grounded childhood into those five and a half years (I took a year and a half off to work as a programmer to make enough money to finish my degree, so I took longer than most to finish).
    When I hear 21 and 22 year olds being described as “adults” it makes me smile. I certainly wasn’t an adult at that age. I took every opportunity I could get to have fun with my friends…I blossomed from a very shy wallflower to a social butterfly. And I learned to speak my opinions (something I had never been allowed to do at home).
    For my part, as a mother I try my best to emulate my grandmother. My daughters can pursue whatever interests they like, as long as it doesn’t involve sitting in front of the TV until their brains leak out their ears. I provide them with whatever tools and materials they need to pursue those interests (for starters, lots and lots of art supplies, and lots and lots and *lots* of tape (oy vey, the amount of tape they go through)). My husband even built my eldest daughter a kid-sized workbench in the basement and gave her a fully equipped toolbox…she spends many happy hours down there building bird houses, etc. She is really good at it too. This year I will be showing her how to do stained glass.
    My grandmother’s philosophy, which she actually told me about one day, was that if a child wanted to do something, and it didn’t involve hurting themselves, anyone else, or anyone’s property, let them go to it.
    Also, like my grandmother, I treat my daughters as sentient beings. My grandmother always answered any question I had about nature, music (or whatever) as if I was an adult. I also never talk to others about my kids when my kids are present in the room as if my kids weren’t even there (have you noticed that a lot of people do that?)
    I am certainly not the world’s best mother, given the crap that my career aspirations put my family through (especially since the birth of my second daughter), but I improve all the time. Maybe by the time I’m a grandmother, I will have reached the motherly nirvana that my own grandmother reached 😉

  5. May 14, 2007 at 2:59 pm

    Absinthe, I’ve said it before, will say it again: you are awesome. I suspect that when your kids are grown they will remember childhood as a good time, even with all the turmoil you’ve been through lately.
    My mother’s not perfect and neither was my childhood, but the really good parts matter so much and really stand out. If it wasn’t the turmoil associated with your career, there could be some other family trauma that your kids would have to deal with – nobody is protected from that. All kinds of stuff happens that no one can predict, and families have to deal with it. Everyone expects Mom to be always there, always giving, all the time, and never needing anything for herself, or at least not showing it. And certainly she’s never supposed to go through a period where she just can’t give at all to her family. My mom did, though. She didn’t have a “career”, and the turmoil was a private family tragedy. But for a period of time she just could not function in any capacity as a mom. The rest of us were bewildered, bereft, and lost. But when I look back on that time, I feel only tender towards her. And when I think of my mom, I don’t associate that time with my image of her.

  6. May 19, 2007 at 3:31 am

    I almost cried when i read this “enclosed in the letter were three crumpled dollar bills. Mom said she’d found these,in the bottom of her purse”..I remembered my own days with my Mom..You got such lovely mom..Thank you very much for sharing with us..
    AA Breakdown Cover

  7. haydin
    June 4, 2007 at 1:31 am

    beautiful. I actually teared up a little at the “3 crumpled dollar bills” because that is so much like my own mother. Great mothers are the best things in the world (well, maybe tied with great fathers.) I’m also a female engineer, working on my MS in EE.

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