The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why did I give up on math? Ask my mom.

The weird connection between mothers, daughters and math.

( <a href="">R. Nial Bradshaw</a> , CC 2.0)

At age 12, I started sulking about math. Up until sixth grade, math was effortless, if not as fun as reading. But now I had to work at it. It made me feel stupid, even though my grades weren’t bad, mostly B’s and C’s.

“It’s okay to be bad at math,” my mother told me. “I’m not good at math, either.” Her tone was sympathetic, if a bit exasperated. This wasn’t the first time we’d had this exact conversation that year.

My mother and I never had much in common. She knows how to walk into a room and own it; I skulk in the shadows. She had perfect eyesight well into middle age; I was severely astigmatic and nearsighted in first grade. Her taste in clothing and accessories has always been flawless; I am always in need of a makeover. I knew she loved me, but I sensed early I was never the daughter she dreamed of. Had there been a daughter store, I was sure I’d have been left on the shelf for another model.

So when I repeatedly heard that year that it was okay to be bad at math because she was, too, I clung to this bond, hoping we’d get closer through our shared weakness.

That was a mistake, and I became a statistic. Research shows 9 through 14 is the crucial age span for getting kids interested in math. Once they lose interest, they don’t pursue careers in STEM or finance, which tend to be higher-paying. Researchers have found that girls are more likely to worry about their math ability than boys, even if in reality they do as well in class and on tests.

My mom’s approach to my concerns, or the fallout, weren’t unusual. Mothers who think they’re bad at math risk passing on those feelings to their children, and daughters are particularly susceptible, since the same-sex parent is their model for adulthood. And research has shown that mothers are far more likely to encourage their sons than their daughters to engage in mathematical thinking.

But it’s unfair to pin all the blame on my mother. There were other factors, such as indifferent or incompetent teachers and my growing sense that girls who like math are suspect to boys — and at 12, what boys thought was suddenly very important.

I also lost my biggest champion that year. My grandfather Freddie, my mother’s father, was a pediatric radiologist who loved to learn. He taught me to read. He always had a puzzle we could solve together, and it usually involved numbers. He taught me to play chess, and after our games, we’d have long chats about my future, where he made it clear he expected great things from me intellectually.

Looking back, I wonder why he never did this with his daughter. My mother adored her father but resented his unspoken assumption that her destiny was only to marry well. True, he taught her to read and play chess, but he also sent her to a school that focused on turning girls into homemakers. It was not unusual for students to be engaged and pregnant by their senior year. My mother managed to persuade her parents to let her attend a more academic institution halfway through high school, but university was still not in the cards, since she was engaged by senior year.

The intellectual discouragement, though, began long before. In elementary school, a teacher told her she wasn’t smart enough to get her high school diploma. I never knew what my grandfather had to say about that, but his later decisions about her academic future must have felt like tacit agreement. And while I believe he encouraged my intellect because he saw my potential, I also wonder if he figured that was my only hope, since unlike his pretty, vivacious, outgoing daughter, I would never succeed as a hostess. Or maybe, hopefully, he had learned something about the potential of women since the 1940s and ’50s.

The good news is that, eventually, both my mother and I reclaimed math.

For her, it was when I was a freshman in college. With an empty nest and a far less active social schedule, she enrolled in community college with an eye on a bachelor’s. A four-year degree, however, required both remedial and college math. Fearful at first, she soon found she didn’t have too much trouble with the material. She even enjoyed statistics. She would go on to earn a master’s of social work at 57, and worked nine years in various hospitals before retiring.

Just as my mother started her career, I went into journalism, a field where math phobia abounds. I spent the next decade avoiding numbers as much as possible. But after leaving a newsroom where algebra left the most hard-bitten reporter quailing, I took advantage of my sudden freelance freedom and enrolled in remedial math at a community college, taking pre-algebra through calculus.

A lot of friends and former colleagues thought I’d lost my mind, but the fact is that, maternal bonds aside, abandoning the subject had always bothered me. And since I’d just spent years asking other people tough questions, it was time to ask myself why I thought I was so bad at something just because it took some effort. I’d never shied from other intellectual challenges, like science or languages. How was this any different? So I did it, and like my mother, I surprised myself by doing well and enjoying my studies.

At 38, anxious again about math and revisiting pre-algebra, I received a math dictionary as a present from my mother.

“I’m really excited that you’re doing this,” she said. Her tone was warm and encouraging.

I suddenly recognized how much her voice sounds like mine, and how we both wear glasses now, and have the same dark brown hair.