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Illustration by Rachel Wada

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

My daughter arrived home from her first term at university, armed with a new awareness of gender politics. Although well-meaning, her orientation sessions in equity and inclusivity revealed an unseemly side to education that she must have thought belonged to another era or culture. She sat at the end of the couch one afternoon, scrolling through personal accounts of sexual harassment on university campuses, then clicking on links that detailed each testimonial. I pretended to be immersed in my own reading, avoiding eye contact and silently formulating responses to questions that I knew were forthcoming.

I could start with my mother, who dreamed of going to university but knew the money her parents were saving was reserved for her brother’s education. Or my grandmother, an astute and savvy businesswoman, who watched everything transfer to her less capable husband when they were married. My great grandmother’s story is the reason we both are here. She was left on the birthing bed to die when the doctor, understandably, focused on saving her twin brother. The midwife stepped in, giving my great grandmother the opportunity to outlive her brother by decades, and for her descendants to outnumber his progeny by dozens.

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My own experiences pale in comparison. An elementary teacher who assured me that my success in math was fleeting: The boys would soon catch up and, by implication, surpass me. A summer job denied, despite acknowledgement that my qualifications were superior, because “we need a boy in case something goes wrong.” The pattern became familiar when I assembled a bike in half the time it took three male applicants, then fumed as they were offered higher-paying jobs in repairs, while I was assigned to selling clothes. Eventually, I supported my studies serving liquid lunches to businessmen. That deserves another story. At graduate school I wondered, but dared not ask, why so few female professors had children. I was outraged when a biotechnology company invited all the male students for a lavish recruiting dinner and didn’t include me. And once, at a conference, I thought I was getting a great job offer from an international researcher until I realized that he wanted to discuss the final details in his hotel room. Most memorably, only three months into graduate school, I trudged over the mountain on a snowy morning in Montreal, then stood in the cold for hours, honouring the 14 students who were killed, just because they were women.

Even as these stores ran through my mind, I knew they were incomplete. I also wanted my daughter to hear the smaller details, the ones that will give her a broader perspective and help her to navigate a future that is likely to wind through these paths.

She should know about my male friends at university who willingly sought my advice on statistics (they still hadn’t caught up) or my undergraduate adviser who never lost an opportunity to promote my career, even a decade into his retirement. My graduate supervisor modelled an idyllic work/life balance with his extraordinary devotion to his children and repeated insistence that a PhD schedule was flexible enough to accommodate my long-distance relationship. My grad-student colleagues made long hours in the lab feel like home, even as they adjusted to a different type of family member. They gave up coveted space in a shared office so I had privacy to change after running workouts. They regularly moved my lab equipment, without comment, knowing that I couldn’t lift it. As I joined them for lunches, they ventured to new cafés with vegetarian options. When I realized I was being followed home after late nights in the lab, they modified their work schedules so I wasn’t walking alone. I knew intuitively that these gestures were not driven by chivalry or political correctness. They were simple acts by decent people who cared about their friend.

My postdoc lab was full of women and run by men. They took us to meet their wives, also scientists, and their daughters, future scientists. In grooming us for job interviews, these mentors assured us that no one had the right to ask questions about our personal lives, then prompted us with answers, knowing we would get asked anyway.

New challenges arose for me as a young faculty member, but it was my male colleague who stood up to the administration, refusing to accept a teaching schedule that would have put me in an impossible situation after a maternity leave. When I wanted room for a playpen at work, a senior professor insisted that I switch into his larger office. Another, long retired but still on campus, spent hours with a baby sleeping in his office or bouncing on his knee while I worked frantically to submit grants or mark papers.

Maybe I could remind my daughter about the first man in her life, although she has heard the details many times. Having never touched a baby until the midwife placed one in his arms, her father stepped up to parental leave and quickly became the primary caretaker in our house. Against all odds, we adapted to a new normal, learning that babies can live for days with mushed banana in their hair, that napping is sleeping regardless of where it occurs and that it is virtually impossible for children to overdose on pasta.

As I sensed my daughter’s growing agitation, I shifted position on the couch, purposefully invading her personal space until she was forced to look up. In that instant, I was reminded of the years of parenting when my primary goal was to convince her that the world is magical, with new wonders and opportunities behind every door. I still see hints of that childhood joy in her adult eyes, so I jump in before she has the opportunity to ask the first question.

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“I have something to tell you,” I begin. “It’s about simple acts by decent people.”

Cella Olmstead lives in Kingston.

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