[Ada Lovelace Day] Finally, my mother…

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Today we blog about great women in science, engineering, technology and maths – women who have inspired us, women who can act as role models to a whole generation of girls and show them that a successful career in a male-dominated area is not only possible but also fulfilling. Today is when I tell you about my mother.
My mother was born in the 1950s and grew up in Communist Bulgaria. She wanted to be a doctor. At the time, trainee doctors were shipped off all over the country, and you had no control over where you would be sent – my grandparents were not happy about this, and as far as I know the story, my grandfather put his foot down and told my mother that she wasn’t allowed to study medicine. They made a deal: if she agreed to study something more acceptable, like chemistry, he would enable her to go on exchange to Moscow. My mother kept her end of the bargain but for reasons I don’t know she never went to Moscow.
Once she graduated, my mother had a successful, decade-long career as a research chemist. She had specialised in organic chemistry and surfactants – things that you find, for instance, in washing powder. What she actually worked on were better, foam-based fire extinguishing chemicals.
Fairly early on in her career, my mother decided to have me. She got married at 23 and had me when she was 25. In some ways, having children young was easier in Communist Bulgaria. Maternity leave provisions were extremely generous with a paid period and up to three years unpaid. Childcare was affordable and pretty much universally available. In some ways, it was tougher – my parents lived with my grandparents until I was four years old.
My mother wanted to put me in nursery when I was six months old and return to work. I’m afraid I was having none of it, and in the end, she took the full three-year maternity leave. I’m not sure I can really regret something I did when I was six months old, but this one I do. Once she did return to work, she continued to work on fire extinguishing foams, and her career progressed pretty well.
I have a very vivid memory – I must have been eight or nine – of my mother taking me into work. It may have been during the school holidays, or school may have been closed for some reason – I’m not sure. I got to watch one of her experiments – I got to watch her set things on fire! That was exciting! Very shortly after that, like so many women in so many different circumstances, my mother sacrificed her career for our family.
When Communism collapsed in 1989, things took a turn for the worse very quickly. By early 1990, there was quite literally no food. There was food rationing. I remember booklets of yellow vouchers – this many for sugar, that many for flour, that many for oil. I remember – aged nine – fighting in a supermarket with a middle-aged woman over a bar of soap. I remember one bitterly cold January day standing with my mother in a queue at the butcher’s only to watch as they ran out of everything just before it was our turn. The butcher had put aside some meat for his own family, and when he saw me, he decided to share it with us. By mid-1990, my father had decided that we were leaving the country.
How exactly we ended up in Austria is a different story entirely, but while my father was fluent in German, neither my mother nor I spoke a word. I was thrown in at the deep end, sent to school, and within a few months, I was fluent. My mother had a much tougher deal. While I was at school and my father was at work, she was home alone with a pile of textbooks. She didn’t have the confidence, nor really the opportunity, to go out and speak. On top of that, my father insisted that at home we spoke Bulgarian – and while in the long run that was the right decision for me and the whole family, in the short run it made my mother’s life even more difficult.
By the time my mother’s German was good enough to work and she managed to wrangle a work permit, she’d been out of chemistry for four years. She was in a foreign country which hardly had any industry at all – certainly not in the part of the country where we were – and had very little of a social network. Would she have liked to return to science? I think so, but I don’t know for certain. In the end, though, she looked at which of her skills she could market and began first to teach German to refugees from the various Yugoslav wars and then to translate for an insurance company. She has changed career twice since then and now works in back office in an investment bank.
Here are some of the things my mother taught me:
Women work. For as long as I remember, my mother has had a job and most of the time a career. The short periods between jobs or careers were the times when she was truly miserable. She always wanted to work. There were – as far as I’m aware – never any questions about “having it all”, about combining motherhood with a career. My father pulled his weight around the house, and my mother worked outside the home. This was normality. I distinctly remember, when we moved to Austria, finding out that there were women who were “housewives”. I did not understand that concept. Women worked.
Not only do women work, but women can be anything they like. My mother was a research chemist, after all. When I was still in kindergarten, I actually thought she was a firefighter, because she worked in the research division of the national fire service. When I told the other kids this, they told me that women couldn’t be firefighters. I never believed it for a second – my mother was one, after all. When I was growing up and considering various career options, at no point did I ever think “I can’t do that because I’m a woman” or “It’ll be more difficult for me to do that because I’m a woman”.
These two very basic assumptions – that women work and that women can do whatever they like – are incredibly deeply ingrained in my approach to life. They give me what I’m sure looks from the outside like a huge sense of entitlement: as long as I work hard and bring the right skills to the table, I have a right to be in any workplace and any profession I choose. Yet this sense of entitlement is tempered by the third thing that my mother taught me – that sometimes we have to make choices and adapt.
In her fifties now and on her fourth career, my mother’s done her fair share of adapting. She’s adapted to changing priorities, to external catastrophes, to circumstances beyond her control. It is that adaptation that for me has enabled those first two basic assumptions to survive contact with western capitalist society. I’m nothing like as good at this as my mother – or possibly my priorities lie elsewhere and I have made different choices – but I greatly admire her for it, and for everything else she’s achieved.

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