The airmail letter arrived five months after the birth of my third child. I had just begun a year-long leave of absence, ostensibly to adjust to motherhood in a family of five. I hoped to keep my research moving along by writing one short article that year, but that was the full extent of my professional plans. The letter with the Oberwolfach, Germany, postmark changed all of that for me.
“Upon the recommendation of the organizers,” the letter from the director of the Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach (MFO) began, “I am pleased to invite you to participate in a Number Theory conference at Oberwolfach.” Designed to facilitate the crucial exchange of ideas between mathematicians, the MFO invites “leading representatives” of significant research areas from across the globe to meet for an intense week of discussion and interaction. I read the words once, then twice, even a third time, to make sure I actually held an invitation to this math institute I had only dreamed of visiting one day. But it had arrived at the most inopportune time in my career. I had a baby who depended primarily on my body for his physical sustenance, just as surely as I had a tenure case on the horizon that would benefit from a talk given at an Oberwolfach conference.
I had always claimed I would find a balance between my professional and personal lives. But what did balance mean when the predictable world of mathematics met the unpredictable world of children? Since the birth of my first child I had been defining and redefining balance constantly, depending on circumstances at home and at school. Over time, that balance seemed to hinge on sleepless nights more than anything else. What did balance mean now with three children, an upcoming tenure decision, and the professional opportunity of a lifetime? That confluence of events deserved some thought.
I started negotiating with myself that same day. I had ten months to prepare a talk. I could manage that. Casey, the baby, would have blown out his first birthday candle a few months before the conference convened. I could leave him for a week. I could even leave him for a week guiltlessly. My husband could handle seven days with three kids. It might even be “good for him.”
I accepted the invitation. In the 279 days between the arrival of the invitation and the conference itself, I tended to an infant, his three-year – old brother, and his first-grader sister. I invested the waning hours of the night in my research. Ironically, the early-twentieth-century mathematician I study produced his best mathematics from 8:30 p. m. to 1:30 a. m. Never mind that he had a wife to awaken the kids and send them off to school the next morning. Or that he typically arrived at his office at 10:00 a. m. He and I had the night in common.
I finished my talk a week before I left. That left me with only one thing to do before my departure: cry. So I did. I cried when I changed the baby’s diaper. I cried when I read to my three-year-old. I cried when I circled around the car-pool loop. I cried when my husband carried my suitcase to the car and the three kids clung to my neck.
And then I drove away.
I read a novel on the airplane. I watched a movie. Not Thomas the Tank Engine or Thumbelina. No. I watched Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in Not – ting Hill. In fact, I watched it twice. When the flight attendant inquired “Chicken or pasta?” I felt sure I had a tiara on my head.
Any lingering traces of guilt left me as the train rumbled along from the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, to the tiny town of Wolfach. I had forgotten what it was like to travel with a book bag and without a diaper bag. I ordered hot tea from the food cart and didn’t worry about it spilling on anyone. I put in lots of sugar, since no one was looking. I took in the Black Forest landscape like I had as a college student sixteen years earlier.
I departed the train in Wolfach with one other passenger. He had a long beard and tousled hair, sure signs of a mathematician. We rode in silence to the institute. For reasons I cannot explain, many of the best math institutes in the world are located in stunningly beautiful areas, and Oberwolfach is no exception. Situated halfway up a small mountain, the institute offered an unparalleled opportunity for stillness and reflection, particularly for a mother of three. With its Spartan decor of a bed, a desk, and a bedside table, my room overlooked the lush, green valley below. As a first-time visitor to the institute, I was given a tour of the dining room, the wine closet, and the chocolate cabinet. Mathematicians understand the quintessential aspects of life. The institute served three (gourmet) meals a day, along with tea at 4:00 p. m. and evening snacks at 10:00. It had been at least seven years since I had enjoyed this sort of quiet luxury.
Even so, the first twenty-four hours of the conference I felt anxious and uneasy. What was I doing here with all these “experts”? Why had I left my children halfway around the world to spend a week discussing mathematics? On Monday night, in one of the common areas specifically designed for conversation, I shared a bottle of wine with the conference organizers. On Tuesday, after my talk on how a historical study of number theory led to the proof of a significant result in pure mathematics, I began to feel more a part of the group. By Wednesday, I felt comfortable enough to ask questions and by Thursday, I offered my insights without reservation. On Saturday, I boarded the train back to Frankfurt with a tiny twinge of regret. The focused week of discussions had not only introduced me to an entirely new community of scholars and their ideas, but it had bolstered my confidence. I could hold my own on an international stage. I could even hold my own as a scholar with three children.
By tenure time, two years later, the Oberwolfach experience had led to invitations in Pisa and Vienna. I felt confident that my portfolio contained convincing evidence of an “international reputation.” While my colleagues at the University of Richmond debated my tenure decision, I began pursuing the possibility of a sabbatical in Vienna.
I had first articulated the idea to my husband, Michael, at a candlelit dinner ostensibly celebrating our seventeenth anniversary. Much to my surprise, he met my proposition with several mouthfuls of silence. He was not at all enthusiastic. How could he possibly leave his academic position for six months or a year? We could only agree he would ask his dean and move forward from there.
A week later, Michael tentatively approached his dean. Much to his surprise, the dean did not let him finish his query. “Of course we will make this happen,” the dean assured him. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you and your family.” And so it was done. Or it had just begun.
Were we crazy or courageous? When the ball dropped in Times Square in 2005, we had three seasons of clothes for five people tucked in to seven suitcases and scholarly materials stashed in two. At the airport, my four – year-old’s hands activated the sensor under the faucet in the bathroom. “It’s a miracle,” he celebrated. If he only knew. Shortly before dinner on New Year’s Day, the five of us boarded an Airbus bound for Vienna.
We traded our house with its expansive yard for a glorified student apartment. If we had focused on the bare white walls, worn carpet, and tattered furniture, we would have headed back home. Instead, we delighted in the minuscule window in the apartment door with its own shutter for peeking out at a potential visitor and the red crescent moon that appeared above the door handle when the bathroom was occupied. The Austrian neighbor across the courtyard, who exercised in his boxer shorts in sub-zero temperatures, kept us entertained under the gray skies of winter.
We began to establish a rhythm in our lives. On weekday mornings, our “big kids,” Hannah (eleven), and Colin (eight), traveled to bilingual schools via subway and train on their own. They discovered they liked independent living. My husband made his way to an office in the Geology Department at the University of Vienna via a neighborhood coffeehouse.
I walked hand in hand with our four-year-old, Casey, to a small school around the corner from our apartment. His teachers, Daniela and Doris, cared for Casey and me, exchanging a few minutes of conversation each morning about practical aspects of life in Vienna. They taught me about the essential ski underwear for children to survive an Austrian winter, the one bakery in Vienna open twenty-four hours a day, and the critical importance of fresh flowers on a regular basis. Daniela later admitted that they looked forward to teaching the “maths” professor some quotidian lesson each morning. Although nearly two decades separated us, Daniela and Doris quickly became my first women friends in Vienna.
I continued on toward the Erwin Schrodinger International Institute for Mathematical Physics (ESI) by way of the Anker bakery. Evaline patiently helped me find the right words to place my order every morning except Wednesdays (her day off). The walk up the Strudlhofstiege, an elegant outdoor staircase designed by the sculptor and painter Peter Strudel, brought an inspired focus to my morning even with a book bag and computer on my shoulder and ice beneath my feet.
At the top of the stairs, I walked to the first right, Boltzmanngasse, named after the Austrian physicist. I climbed seventy more stairs to the third floor of a sixteenth-century abbey, which gave way to the ESI. If I arrived early, I punched in the secret code—a certain prime number less than 10,000. My office overlooked the rooftops of the ninth district of Vienna and served as an impossibly perfect conduit for afternoon sun. The full-length chalkboards in the bathrooms reflected the overall emphasis on capturing original thoughts.
The ESI was an oasis for me. The physical setting alone encouraged the thoughtful atmosphere so essential to academic scholarship, particularly in mathematics. I no longer measured stillness in small portions parceled out throughout the day and, mostly, night. Instead, I came to savor stillness as part and parcel of my life in Vienna. A certain contemplative spirit returned to me in those months. I wrote professional manuscripts, I found new ideas with ease, and I filled pages of moleskins with personal and professional thoughts. I recaptured the life of the mind—until late afternoon and weekends. But that was enough.
We spent our weekends exploring the Austrian countryside and relaxing in thermal baths. We discovered we liked expansive pools of warm water with therapeutic bubbles. We found truffle torte and tea could cure just about any malady. Without a car, going anywhere—even the grocery, library, or pharmacy—quickly escalated to the status of an adventure.
All the while, of course, I gave considerable thought to my children and their Vienna experiences. Had this foray into the unknown asked too much of them? Shortly before we returned to the States, my daughter assuaged my concerns with one of those conversations you never plan and never forget. Since the summer sun set close to 10:00 p. m., Hannah went to bed at the equivalent of dusk. One night I found Hannah with her elbows propped up on her windowsill. The pink sky was just noticeable over the rooftops of a row of apartment buildings. Each building had its own jagged roofline that gave a definite shape to the nighttime sky. Hannah described her “favorite” neighbors inside various apartment windows. There was the woman who liked to read in a red chair, the family with children who ate at a counter like ours at home in Virginia, and the man who worked expansive puzzles on an equally expansive table. Her descriptions seemed to introduce me to characters in a novel, all bound together by their close living quarters.
As we cast our gaze out the window at these people we knew but had never met, Hannah made a query I will always remember. “Do you think you’ve helped women gain respect in mathematics?” she asked quietly, as easily as she would have asked if we could put milk on the grocery list. “I’m not sure if I’ve done that,” I replied, “but I hope I’ve shown people you can be a thoughtful, attentive parent and a successful college professor at the same time.” “Of course you’ve done that!” Hannah assured me.
There it was, a spontaneous evaluation I had not asked for, an evaluation that did not require seven binders of material to document and fifteen letters to support, an evaluation far more critical than the one that had made this windowsill conversation possible in the first place. In that single moment, the precarious balance I had carefully pursued for more than a decade overwhelmingly fell in my favor.
Now back in the classroom, in and among the mathematics, I continue to emphasize pursuing what you love and listening to the silent, inner voice that speaks to you in the more still moments of life. Only now, although I don’t mention it to my students, I know that voice can whisper to you on windowsills in foreign countries when you least expect it.