Women mentors backed off until I got the big C



Support gesture: a pair of pyjamas

In my university days, I was in pursuit of a mentor. I don’t think I ever thought those exact words, but looking back, I know I wanted to be advised by a woman who had paved the way.

I didn’t find her.

I thought I had met her when I was in my final year of university. Like me, she was Canadian but had gone off to the US to do her PhD (cool!). I loved one of her modules so much I was willing to enrol in another at 8am on a Friday. Email was a new-fangled thing in those days, and I regularly logged on at the university computer lab and wrote her my musings on the books we studied and asked questions about academia. Because email was new, people only checked their inboxes intermittently, and one day she must have opened her account to find a dozen or more needy emails from that eager girl who always sat in the front row of her classes. Instead of mentoring me, she told me to back off.

During my doctoral programme in the US, I got married and thought about having a child. Mothers were not treated the same way as fathers in the academy, and I asked a professor, a lovely woman, about her experience. She told me if I wanted to make it as a scholar and a mother, I had to time things right. “I planned my pregnancy so that I gave birth a few days before Thanksgiving,” she explained. “That way, I had almost a week off, went back to teaching, and a month later got a couple more weeks off.” The woman was lovely, but her idea (or was it America’s?) of balancing motherhood and academia terrified me.

Finally, there was that professor on my thesis committee. I admired her, a successful professor at an Ivy League university (and mother), and reached out every so often, even after I graduated. When I heard she had a baby, I mailed her a present. It was a book, I forget which, and when she got it, she sent me a note. I guess it was a thank-you note, but it felt a lot like the back off message I got in undergrad (was I that annoying?). Or maybe a snort. It went something like: “Thank you for your gift. This is not my first child. I already own that book.”

Years after finishing my PhD, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and felt my face burn a hot red at the picture she drew of young women walking around saying to older women: “Are you my mentor? Are you my mentor?” the way that baby bird in the classic children’s book approaches a cow and a dog and a digger and asks “Are you my mother?” (Was that the book I bought my committee member?).

My experience with cancer couldn’t have been more different.

When I found out I had breast cancer, I had decisions to make, and, because it’s my nature to solicit advice from those who went before me, I wrote to women I knew had trod this ugly path. Some I knew well, some not very well. There was a friend I hadn’t seen for almost five years, a second I hadn’t seen in ten, and a third I hadn’t seen since high school; a professor I had met at a conference once, who, I had read, created a Jewish ritual (a “pre-chemo opsherin”) when faced with hair loss; and a local woman who used to belong to the same gym as me. The responses from each and every one of these women astounded me. Everyone was willing – no, wanted – to help. Not a single one told me to back off.

Through the professor who created the new ritual, I discovered a Jewish Facebook group called Sharsheret, and I joined. I introduced myself, and minutes later, a woman who saw my post asked if she could call me. She was in New York, I was in England, and we had never met, but we were suddenly talking as though we had known each other our whole lives.

Women offered me post-op photographs; advice; templates of letters they had written their doctors or NHS trusts. Sometimes they just offered an ear. “I can’t thank you enough,” I kept saying, and they all answered the same way: “Don’t thank me. Soon you’ll be on the other side, and someone will be calling you.”

I never had to ask for a mentor; my mentors were all around me.

And they were right – now I’m on the other side. I texted recently with a woman I met at a Jewish Studies conference once and Zoomed with a woman who was a Hebrew teacher in my kids’ primary school. I heard from an old friend’s sister. Each woman was scared, unsure, or sad or angry or both, and I try to listen. Give advice if I can help. Shut up if I can’t. Send pyjamas (button-ups best for post-op!).

It might not be easy to find a mentor in the professional realm but in the breast cancer business, veterans don’t shy away from novices. If they come up and ask, “Are you my mentor?” we will say yes!

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