Illustration by Amy Bock

Slip'N Slide Rule

Engineer-turned-mom finds herself happily challenged by the complexities of everyday life. By Ingrid Mantey Burchfield

"Pull out the plug and fill the pool walls and the base of the tunnel with water. Once filled, close the plug. Fill the tunnel with water before inflating."

I stared at the instructions for my son's Slip 'N Slide and felt thoroughly confused. Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the heat from the sun, but I really wasn't sure what step to do first. I was interrupted from my slow mental processing by the cold spray of a hose. I turned around to see an impish grin on my very mischievous child.

"Do not spray me with the hose!"

He kept smiling, but I gave him a dirty look, and he resumed watering the plants. I looked at the instruction sheet again. I could just imagine my husband taunting me, "Oh come on. You've got an engineering degree from Northwestern. Surely you can assemble that." My husband went to Iowa State University and spent the vast majority of his free time in a bar. While I was holed up in Tech Libes (the Technological Institute library), he was watching movies as credit for his film degree. How interesting that we ended up working for similar software companies, doing the same job for the same salary!

I finally got the Slip 'N Slide set up, and my son spent the next hour walking around on it and laughing as he fell on his butt. I suggested that he run and dive, but he didn't quite understand the diving part.

I would have demonstrated myself, but according to the box I was over the maximum height limit.

"Mommy's too tall," I shouted from the deck, secretly happy for an excuse not to strain my back. It already takes enough abuse with me being my son's favorite mode of transportation, and I am a sucker for those chubby little arms wrapped around my neck.

I recently saw a cousin who, like me, is an engineer-turned-mom. When I asked her if she was still working, she laughed and said, "I do nothing now." Anyone with kids knows that "nothing" really means cleaning yogurt off the walls, taking trips to the park, looking for lost action figures in the couch, and, in varying degrees, yelling and snuggling.

I told her that there are actually (possibly for the first time in one's career) opportunities in motherhood to apply your engineering degree at a practical level. For example, I used a board and a piece of cardboard to get a MatchBox car out from under the refrigerator. And I answer questions such as, "Where does the poo go when you flush, Mommy?" Luckily I took that class on wastewater management!

Then there are the magnetic trains that sometimes frustrate my son because he cannot get them to connect.

"You've got two positive poles there! Turn one around," I advised. Maybe someday he'll be interested in what that really means, unless he is too busy playing video games with his dad.

Four times a year I receive Northwestern magazine. I always turn right to the Class Notes to see who is doing what. I am fascinated to read what my classmates have accomplished. Having wandered away from my career path several years ago, everything sounds so impressive.

Motherhood offers no formal performance reviews. When we go to the pediatrician, I keep hoping for an "Exceeding Expectations — child eats well" or "Needs Improvement — child hates sleeping." Instead, all I get is a $20 co-pay charge.

Although if hugs count, it seems I'm doing quite well.

I have started substitute teaching, which really should be called taking attendance, handing out worksheets and reading something that I (hopefully) brought from home. Otherwise, I will be reading about the school's tornado drill and dress code policies — I had no idea exposed midriffs were such an issue.

If the worksheet is something I can help with, like science or math that I have not forgotten, I will wander around answering questions. One high school student was surprised that I was able to help with gram-to-mole conversions, and he asked me where I went to college. When I said Northwestern, he replied, "Ohhhhhhh, you must be really smart."

"I may be book smart," I replied, "but just don't ask me to assemble a Slip 'N Slide."

Ingrid Mantey Burchfield (McC96) is a mother, private tutor and substitute teacher who lives in Naperville, Ill.

We're always on the lookout for fresh alumni insights. If you'd like to submit an essay, click here to visit our web site for guidelines.


Northwestern Home | Calendar: Plan-It Purple | Sites A-Z | Search
Northwestern 1800 Sheridan Road Evanston, IL 60208-1800
Phone: 847-491-5000 Fax: 847-491-3040 E-mail:

Last updated  Tuesday, 08-Mar-2005 05:14:02 CST
World Wide Web Disclaimer and University Policy Statements  
© 2002 Northwestern University