The Maternal Equation

By Jennifer Sutton / July / August 2000
May 3rd, 2007

Angles of Reflection: Logic and a Mother’s Love by Joan L. Richards (W.H. Freeman, 282 pages, $23.95).

Anyone who's tried to balance a job and children knows it's impossible to do both wholeheartedly. Usually you end up focusing on your job and asking someone else to take your child to the playground, or you stick with the kid and squeeze in a little work at night. But if your child becomes ill - especially if you are a woman - the balancing act goes right out the window. Your career just has to wait.

That's one of the underlying messages of Angles of Reflection: Logic and a Mother's Love, an eloquent memoir by Associate Professor of History Joan Richards. In the course of eighteen months in 1994 and 1995, one of Richards's sons endured first brain surgery and then a mysterious elbow injury that left him unable to bend his arm. Those eighteen months coincided almost exactly with a sabbatical that was supposed to get Richards, whose specialty is the history of mathematics in Victorian England, back on the academic fast track. Over the years she had managed, with two little boys at home, to teach classes, write a dissertation and a book, and get tenure, but she'd also lost a promotion because she had chosen to spend time with her family instead of cranking out a second book. Now, with nine-year-old Ned in and out of the hospital, Richards watched the opportunity presented by her sabbatical trickle away.

As she describes how she cared for Ned, Richards puts forth the other message of Angles of Reflection: that, despite the book's subtitle, a mother's love is not logical at all. Richards boldly relies on her academic specialty to provide her with guidance in her personal life. The result is a deftly told and moving story.

As Richards grapples with her son's illnesses and the havoc they wreak on her long-awaited sabbatical, she describes the life and work of a nineteenth-century mathematician named Augustus De Morgan, one of the first people to write about probability theory and logic in England. Like Richards, De Morgan had a child who became sick, and also like Richards, De Morgan found mathematics a tranquil, orderly respite from the chaos of everyday life. But as she alternates passages about De Morgan with her own experience, Richards reveals how her beloved mathematical world, with its theories about logic and absolute time and space, doesn't really have room for things like children and sickness and loss.

Angles of Reflection is at times an emotional, even tearful, read; Richards writes powerfully of her struggle to reconcile the messiness of her personal life with the neat absolutes of her mathematical training. The sections on logic may get tedious for nonacademics, and sometimes the juxtaposition of Richards's experience with De Morgan's feels a little forced. But in the end the two stories need each other; each deepens the other's meaning. Just like a mother and child.

Contributing Editor Jennifer Sutton is a freelance writer based in Brattleboro, Vermont.

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July / August 2000