To my Mum, on International Women’s Day

My Mum, Rosemary Tannock
My Mum, Dr. Rosemary Tannock

My Mum, Dr. Rosemary Tannock, is one of my heroes. I don’t actually know too much of her early life, but I know it was not a particularly easy life – her father, my grandfather, never returned from World War II, and things were unsettled.

She studied to be an Occupational Therapist in the UK, but married my dad, and, like many women of that era, followed him as he advanced career. They lived in Houston, TX for a while where my brother was born. Then in Holland, where my sister was born. Then back to the US & Philadelphia and finally Toronto. Of the many stories my Mum has told from this time, very few seem to be particularly happy. My dad was a medical student, a PhD candidate, with all that those entail, they were poor and my Mum was often alone, isolated with 2 small children in a foreign country.

By the time I came along, my parents had settled to stay in Toronto, my dad was working as a doctor, and my mum decided to go back to school. She got her PhD from OISE, which she finished, I believe, when I was about 5. Even this can’t have been easy – while I have no memories, she & her former office mate tell stories of my napping under her office desk while she attended class, or wrote, but one of my earliest memories is finding her on the lawn outside Convocation hall at UofT, with her wearing her convocation gown.

And then she finally, already nearly 40, got to start her career. When I was in elementary school, she started working at Sick Kids hospital in Toronto, where she still maintains a lab today. And while my mum worked incredibly hard, incredibly long hours, I don’t ever recall a time when I was young that she wasn’t there for me.

My Mum epitomizes the struggle that so many working  mothers face: she started her career later than her male counterparts; throughout most of my early life she still did most of the primary childcare (to my Dad’s credit, this changed dramatically as time went by); She faced institutional sexism from both her colleagues & her superiors; She felt like, and probably actually did, need to work much harder, much longer to get equal recognition. There was a many a night when everyone else would long be asleep when my Mum would still be up, perfecting a grant application, or editing a paper, or reviewing one of her students’ presentations. But then, come the next morning, she’d still be already up helping get me ready for school.

I remember many an evening when I was a little older when my parents would both be sitting writing grants. In the solarium at the back of the house, my dad would be scribbling rapidly on yellow-lined pads, occasionally stopping to chew his pen, crossing out the odd word here and there. Writing seemed effortless to him. My mum, at the computer, or editing sheets would be crossing out huge sections, writing massive edits in the margins, working it, working it, working it until she was satisfied. Writing was hard, to be taken seriously, a process, not a natural thing. The end results for both are uniformly fantastic – both are very well-published academics. I’m lucky in that my writing has gone much more like my Dad’s – it comes out more or less fully formed. I couldn’t say for sure, but I suspect my brother’s process is much more like my mum’s. But seeing that dedication to minutiae, that attention to detail has informed my coding style professionally my whole adult life.

And because I watched my Mum rail against seemingly arbitrary bounds of her professional aspirations; watch as male colleagues with few publications, with less grant money, with less all get promoted a head of her. Watched as she dealt with the collapse of a long professional relationship into slander and harassment; watched as she struggled with her career aspirations and balance them against my Dad’s in a way that men aren’t expected to; without it ever making her waver from her goal, or, at least to me, question her own worth was, and continues to be inspirational too. Her efforts, her confidence have shaped my own today. I have, without a doubt, been very lucky in life. But I don’t take it for granted, and I’m constantly challenging myself, my opinions to measure how they might have affected my Mum.

Today, my Mum is very successful in her career, her life, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. So, Mum, in recognition for everything you’ve done for me, for our family, and most importantly for yourself, I raise a glass to you on this International Women’s Day.