For several years now, social situations have been punctuated by two conversations. The first starts with “How are the kids?” The second, or The Other Conversation, went like this for the last seven years or so:
Other person: “Oh, you’re in school? What are you studying?”
Undergrad Me: “English.”
Other: “Oh, will you get your teaching license?”
The Other Conversation changed slightly this year, with graduate school. Notice how different:
Other: “Oh, you’re in school? What are you studying?”
Me: “Library and Information Science.”
Other: “Oh, are you doing children’s services? Working in a school? Reading classes for kids? Getting your teaching license?”
The conversation ends with my fumbling defense about why I don’t want to work with kids. It’s a song and dance aimed at convincing the person that I like children, I just don’t want to dedicate my professional life to them. These statements end with that question-high-note, as if up for debate rather than my true feelings.
Over my eight years of university-level studies, I’ve had the conversation approximately once a month. I let the assumptions of the conversation pass through like cold water. Yes, I’ve noticed how infrequently my male schoolmates are asked if they’re studying literature in order to teach kids, and how fewer people seem to ask my female schoolmates without children if their studies are directed at teaching children. Sure, these assumptions need to be challenged — they’re limiting and annoying. But something else bugs me more.
The real bother is that the conversation makes me so uncomfortable. Why do I hurl myself into a defensive monologue about why I don’t want to work with kids? Why does the defensive part of my brain override every other avenue the conversation might have taken? Why don’t I focus on what I DO want to do instead of focusing on what I don’t want?
I think my discomfort is twofold. First, I believe people will think less of me as a mother if I am staunchly opposed to working with other kids, so I embark on the explain-a-thon. I’m practically begging the other person to believe I can be both a good mother and a person who doesn’t enjoy working with children.
The rest of it builds on that insecurity… why should I care what anyone thinks of me as a mother? Am I the only one in the conversation making the mother connection to unrelated parts of my life? Imagining it as a qualifier? Treating it like an integral part of my resume no matter how disparate? The point is: I am increasingly unable to distinguish when I’m bringing my mama baggage to a conversation, including the conversation above.
Maybe I’ve been driven into extra-sensitivity by my entrenchment in more than four years of play dates, stay-at-home childcare, and mom blogs. Maybe I’m afraid people remember when I said I never wanted kids. Maybe it’s an arm of my concern for the state of capital-M Motherhood. Maybe I have even questioned the nature of my foray into two somewhat traditionally feminine, maternal fields of study. In a way it doesn’t matter how my motherhood and this defensiveness are linked, only that they are.
When I have the conversation and react defensively, I am reinforcing the idea that I am required to explain why I don’t want to work with kids.
Another thing that matters is this: my mama-defensiveness doesn’t do shit for any of those concerns. When I have the conversation and react defensively, I am reinforcing the idea that I am required to explain why I don’t want to work with kids. Even worse, I might even be introducing the idea to people unaware of the assumptions I’m assigning to their questions.
Instead, I could make a mini-revolution in those areas of concern by speaking confidently and passionately about the exciting prospects in my life, leaving the mama baggage out. I could archive regional history! I could digitize the classics! I could even teach or read books to kids! As long as my ventures feel important and enthralling to me, it doesn’t matter if my motherhood figures in as a cliché or an anomaly. That informed, self-reflective choice is the change the conversation needs to reflect, and it’s my turn to speak.