Woman to Women
Forget the gender-gap stereotypes – math is a woman’s
“Girls = Boys in Math.” “Girls Measure Up in Math.” The headlines were clever and upbeat. Based on test scores of 7 million students, a study published in a recent issue of the journal Science concluded that girls perform as well as boys on standardized math tests, reversing the results seen in similar studies over the past 20 years.
Most of the articles invoked the 1992 talking Barbie doll, who, among her other nuggets, said “Math class is tough.” Few passed on the opportunity to recall the controversial remarks made in 2005 by then Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who said women did not have the “intrinsic aptitude” needed for top posts in science and math. None of the articles talked about my mother.
Or your mother. Because Summers wasn’t completely wrong. There is something to those XX chromosomes and the fact that counting is the best-kept secret of our gender. Our moms knew.
The study abstract also says that this time the standardized tests did not include questions that measure mathematical thinking. They were a measure of computational ability, not aptitude. In other words, arithmetic. So math may still be hard, but when it comes to arithmetic, it can be said that girls have a natural advantage, a whole lifetime of counting. Our mothers just needed to let us in on the secret.
My mother was always counting backward, although I didn’t know it when I was growing up. I didn’t know she was reformulating the timing of the major events of her life. She passed herself off as a peer to her younger suburban lady friends, her size-4 figure and impeccable dress ensured that she could trim years off her age. To her, age was as fluid as putting on a new evening dress, and it was perception that counted.
Her mind could go at lightning speed, and she could perform her arithmetic wizardry without looking away from a conversation. Her memories of Broadway plays, world events and dance crazes – she recast them all to fit the age she was claiming. It’s amazing I didn’t hear the beads of her mental abacus clacking against one another.
There was a time when she almost tripped up. She was always careful to calculate her age relative to her sister’s, since I knew they were born five years apart. My aunt, a onetime budding comedienne, had known Woody Allen, then a neighborhood youngster named Allen Konigsberg, when he was writing one-liners in Brooklyn’s Midwood High School. When New York Stories was released, a magazine cited details about Woody Allen’s Brooklyn roots, including dates that didn’t jibe with my mother’s retelling of my aunt’s brief stage career. My mother distracted me from the facts with the story of my grandfather refusing to let my then unmarried aunt go to California with a producer who’d seen her in summer stock. That’s the way it was back then, my mother said. Instead of setting off for a dramatic career, my aunt counted the months until she was old enough to get married.
Girls are always counting. With the onset of menstruation, there’s a primal and painful reminder to take life in 28-day cycles. The consequence of failure to count could have a profound impact on the future, as in unwanted pregnancy, or at the very least, wardrobe-related issues. I lost count and found myself in line for grad school course registration on an impossibly hot day in new, and newly stained, white pants. Before classes had even begun, I’d mortified myself.
One of those classes was a required statistics class. I found something completely comforting in the constancy and predictably of the relationship of the numbers and patterns and rules that were presented – such a contrast to the arbitrary encounters of my single life.
It was surreptitious counting that kept me in spare change when I first graduated. My boyfriend at the time needed an extra for his poker game, and my careful counting of the cards helped me raise my way to winning pots.
I am not alone in finding comfort in charts and counting. Weight Watchers knows this. Their successful program has women, and it is mostly women who enroll, assign point values to their foods and record and tally them on a pocket-sized chart. It’s three points for a bagel, five for a chicken breast, and that ice cream cone is seven points charged against a 18 to 37 daily point target. There are bonus points for exercise to add another layer to the obsessive counting, and even a slide rule to help calculate values for personal recipes.
In my quest to have a child, I became a master at counting in nine-month intervals. In September I knew that if I successfully became pregnant that month, I’d deliver in May; a January conception meant an October baby. And when I did get pregnant, as the baby kicked I calculated all the milestones – how old I’d be when the child entered grade school, college, perhaps had a child of its own. I became a master at counting forward.
I never detected my mother’s creative counting until she had a minor heart attack. When I arrived at the hospital, too impatient to wait for the elevator, I raced up the stairs, (three flights, 2.6 calories of post baby fat burned). She sat propped up by a pillow, looking pale and frail. An IV tube was attached to her wrist, and she had an oxygen tube resting in her nose. She was sedated and scared.
But when I reached for the chart at the foot of her bed, color came back into her cheeks and lips. “Put that down,” she said. “It’s a good place, they’re taking care of me.”
But it was too late. I saw on the chart what she didn’t want me to see, what she’d been furtively recalculating all those years. Weeks after we celebrated her 59th birthday, her chart revealed that she had just turned 65.
You have to know what counts. That much is in the genes.