Pauline Lee: Olympian, Academic, and Solo Mom

Pauline Lee: Olympian, Academic, and Solo Mom

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How embracing a larger community led to a richer, more diverse, and textured “family”

Pauline Lee is a professor, writer, former Olympian, and she is also a Solo Mom. Her first book, Li Zhi: Confucianism and the Virtue of Desire was published by SUNY Press, and she is currently working on her second book, Play in China: The Trifling, the Wicked, and the Sacred. She lives with her nine-year-old daughter in Saint Louis where she writes, teaches, raises chickens and a bearded dragon, bakes cakes, makes sushi, swims, is a soccer and ballet mom, and somehow makes it all work. She was an Olympic figure skater (1988, Calgary) and sometimes still makes time to go to the ice rink.

What is your job?

I’m an assistant professor of Chinese religion and philosophy at Saint Louis University. I’ve been a professor for ten years. As a professor, one is on a “tenure clock,” which includes writing one’s first book, which is exciting. But even more exciting at this very same time for many women is the birth of one’s first child. This is a lot going on all at once. What does work well in the academic world for a solo mother is the enormous day-to-day flexibility. I can manage my work schedule around, for me, my daughter’s ballet classes and performance, camps, playdates, and school time, and I can work at night from home.

When and how did you become a Solo Mom?

I became a single mother about five years ago.

Has being a Solo Mom impacted your career?

The transition did initially, for a short time, affect my ability to focus on work. I did have a social support network, and a growing one, which offset the initial upheaval. Through the years, I’ve learned to make it work better and better by growing a different kind of village. My daughter’s teachers, friends, neighbors, colleagues, my daughter’s friends’ parents, a spiritual community, family, “found” family—all are part of our village. I’ve been surprised at how opening myself up to a larger community has made a richer, more diverse, more textured “family” for my daughter and myself. I’ve had to become much more organized and spread out my deadlines so I am less likely to be underwater in work at any one time. I’ve learned to prioritize and cut out unnecessary work. Again with work too, I’ve relied on a village of support. To make work work, having a good mentor has been critical too, as well as senior and supportive colleagues.

For academic conferences, I am mission-focused. In the past I would go to conferences for several days. Now I prioritize and cut out days I don’t absolutely need to be away from home. There have been times where I fly in in the morning and fly out at night the same day. I make sure to attend close-by conferences.

What does your day typically look like?

I think one of the best things about academia is, again, the enormous flexibility. So in a way, I don’t have a typical day. In the summers we travel quite a bit, and often to where I have family, which is in Taiwan, which also works perfectly for my work (in China studies). I teach two days a week, and in my work life I prioritize my writing time. So I try to keep the first few hours in the morning clear for writing. Then it is chaos. Appointments, meetings, correcting papers. In the afternoons I pick up my daughter from school and she spends a lot of time at the ballet studio or at soccer practice or piano lesson or doing homework—sometimes making noodles from scratch or layer cakes or sewing dresses or chasing our two backyard chickens or, yes, these days, watching MasterChef Junior.

What are you most proud of as a Solo Mom?

I’ve been most proud that I’ve been able to figure out what’s most essential and a must-have and critically important to me, and let the rest go and sometimes absolutely go. So my daughter’s well-being is my first priority and my relationship to her. And at the same time, I’ve been able to sustain my career in a way that keeps all my dreams alive.

Is academia a supportive place for Solo Moms?

I think the prior question is if academia is supportive of mothers. And in my view it is slow to be so but becoming supportive of mothers. What is beneficial in academia—for a mother or single mother—is, again, the enormous day-to-day flexibility in time.

What advice do you have for working Solo Moms?

The thing that has most helped me is that I have a village of support. My daughter’s friends’ parents are now my friends too—and we support each other. We watch, and watch out for, each other’s children. I have a friend and we take each other out on Father’s Day. I think it’s helpful to creatively think of ways to support each other.

How has your experience as an Olympic athlete influenced your parenting?

My experience as a figure skater certainly impacts me, and so how I raise my daughter. Having a big passion at a very young age, and having my own mother and father so unreservedly supportive of my skating, was very empowering. And it has been even long after I retired, which was almost 30 years ago. In turn, like any parent, I take my daughter’s passion(s)—and she has been relaying for some time, it is ballet—very much to heart. And I am very encouraging with her interests in participating in sports. I feel being a young athlete—anything, a young musician, or chess player, or Lego master, or seamstress, etc., something you do long-term—can powerfully teach you lessons about the virtue of competitiveness or stamina or tolerance for failure. And then it just gives you, the parent, fun stories to tell too. I once told my daughter, while we were skating and sitting on the ice and she loved it, that the first lesson I learned as a skater was that the better the skater, the more times she has fallen; and Olympic champions most of all.

Robin Rogers is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her two boys.

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