Wow.. another amazing STEM leader just lost her mother. She said that she was not sure what the actual underlying cause was for her illness. Her mother had been sick for a few years. She was fortunate that she was living close to her and other siblings were also in the same locale.
As she attempted to tell me the entire story of her mother’s illness, we were interrupted several times by other individuals in an event that brought together academic professionals and alumni to celebrate the institution. It took about three or four “conversation starts” before we actually finished the recounting of her mother’s rapid decline and eventual passing. While we had been interacting in professional spaces for a number of years, she actually did not know that I had lost my own mother about 3 years earlier. I watched us do this precise communications dance with others in the room. There were some strangers and some well established colleagues – they mingled and talked, oblivious to the painful recounting of our mutual loss. It was amazing to me how we both were able to turn “it” on and turn “it” off.
Just what is this “it”? I am glad that you asked…. The “it” is the professional conversation, positioning or in some cases the professional mask that one wears to interact with … well .. professionals. In this case, there was no need to draw others into our intensely private conversation occurring in plain view, but not in plain hearing of strangers and friends. At one point I suggested that we take the conversation into the hallway, to continue to share this life-altering experience that we will all face in one way or another in our lifetimes. Loss of family and friends is inevitable. Yet for a number of STEM professionals, the ability to discuss professional “loss” may be easier and “more appropriate”. Professional losses include, a rejection of a research proposal, a challenging research result, a student moving on to another advisor before completing their degree or even a loss associated with not getting an honorific award. Of course, we may not broadcast these losses on a social media platform or lead off a faculty meeting with them, but they are sometimes easier to discuss quietly.
So what eventually happened in this conversation? Well, we did not take the conversation into the hallway. We did a thinly veiled dance and shared how important it was for us to follow-up and catch up on the “non-professional” aspects of our lives. About that time, her two teenagers came up and asked her a question – we realized that the time had come to transition fully back into the other conversations dominating the room. I gave her a hug of support and whispered for her to hang in there. I told her that losing a mother was a journey of pain that does not end, it just changes its form as time passes.
As I left the event I pondered an important question. How many of my STEM colleagues are turning “it” on and not turning “it” off enough to realize that there is more to life than the STEM profession that we “pursue with passion” and “ponder with purpose”? Is there a paradigm shift we need to pursue? A pivot to a different approach to find that unique balance that enables us to do our work AND live our lives. Is that even possible?
The title of this post has “Resilient” in quotes… because what we sometimes call resilience may not be the healthiest way to deal with a situation…..
Stay STEM Resilient AND Balanced!!