Leaving motherhood out of conversations

June 23 2011 | Guest post by Rodrigues
"Mom Knows Best" Chocolate Frame
Photo by Emily Jones, used with Creative Commons license.

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.

  1. i have five kids and the last thing i would want to do is work with kids. i love my kids but the mystery and wonder of kids is gone. maybe it is the whole idea that i see my kids everyday and the idea of seeing other people's kids every day isn't appealing. i would want my work to have nothing to do with kids to get a mental break from kids. i can completely relate to you in that way. i think it is perfectly fine and i wouldn't tie motherhood with career or look down on someone who didn't want kids in their career. i would actually wonder how you would manage if you did!

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  2. I completely understand. I currently do work with kids because the job works with my schedule for me to attend grad school and take care of my kiddo, but….I have had the same troubles. I got my undergrad in social work, so everyone thinks that I want to works for children' service with the state. And mot of them affectionately would ask if I was going to be a "babysnatcher". Lovely…I eventually want to work with women, survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse. That's where my heart is. So I feel your pain…It's definitely not a crime to have kids and not want to work with them lol. Working with your own is challenging enough sometimes :)Good luck on future conversations!!

  3. I don't blame you one bit for not wanting to work with kids.
    I'm majoring in IT, and no one asks me if I want to work with kids. It shouldn't be assumed that you want to just because you're a mother.
    I love my daughter, but I don't have the same love for just any kid. Sorry.
    Be proud of who you are! The people who are asking these questions are just stuck in old stereotypes.

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  4. This essay totally speaks to me!

    Know what depresses me? That nobody even bothers to ask me if I have a career. I've done most of my work from home since having kids, so I often find myself meeting fellow parents at playdates and school events during the day. They assume I'm a SAHM, and while that is certainly a noble profession, I'm desperate for someone to ask me about my job, because I love what I do. I try to make a point to ask moms I meet if they work outside the home, but then I risk offending them by implying that being a full-time caretaker isn't a legit job! Believe me, it's happened. Usually I just get a look askance, but occasionally I meet a mom in a situation like my own, and then it's worth it.

    I recognize, by the way, that I'm bringing my own achievement-oriented baggage to these conversations.

    3 agree
    • I totally feel you on this! I'm also a wedding & portrait photographer (in addition to editing Offbeat Mama), so I work from home or on-location. When other stay at home or work from home parents DO ask me if I have a job outside of the house and then hear that it's photography, a lot of people assume it's a hobby. I always have this tug of war where I want to be like "I have a BUSINESS! I do this for a LIVING!" but also realize that…most people are just making polite conversation while our kids play with trains.

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    • I work from home as a custom dressmaker (mostly custom bridal) When I meet new moms, I have the same problem. When my work is brought up it's, "oh fun! Can you make something for me/my daughter?" Like it's a fun hobby I do, just because. In fairness, there aren't many professional dressmakers around, so I think they assume I have an Etsy shop selling baby clothes or something? I've just started replying "sure, here's my card, gowns I create start at $1,500" Then they either drop it or it propels the conversation more deeply into what I do and how they spend their days. It's a weird conversatile sometimes.

  5. I will be starting my MLIS program this fall, and people who hear this news tend to fall into two categories. The ones who have known me since I was small, and have been entertained/perplexed/awed by my voracious reading habits assume that I'll be staffing a circulation desk in a public or K-12 library. The others say, "Oh? What will you do with that?", and then I find myself explaining that while what speaks to me in children's librarianship (and fill in info about my current read-aloud volunteer program), that sort of thing is as underpaid as teacing, and so I will probably focus on information architecture, because it is transferable and employable.

    I haven't actually made any hard decisions yet. I need to get my basic requirements out of the way before I choose elective courses, and I hope I'll be able to do a little of both. I find myself defending my course in advance, which is a little weird. I mean, I don't think anyone EXCEPT other librarians has ever said, "Oh, God, you'll never make money with a library degree!" But I find myself explaining as if they had, or would.

    • I've encountered a few uncomfortable "Why go to school for that?" conversations. Until I began to research library school, even I didn't realize how much was involved. So I can understand how people get this thought bubble in which I am spending 2 years learning the Dewey Decimal System: MLIS evokes very outdated expectations, and I think that is another element of my weirdness when explaining what I'm doing in school. And then, again, the best thing I can do is be knowledgeable and prepared for such a conversation so I can say, "Listen to what is so cool about this!" instead of "I'm begging you, please don't devalue what I'm doing!"

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      • "And then, again, the best thing I can do is be knowledgeable and prepared for such a conversation so I can say, "Listen to what is so cool about this!" instead of "I'm begging you, please don't devalue what I'm doing!""

        YES! I'm a MLIS student too, and I've had many a conversation based around "No, I'm not getting a degree to just print out due-date slips for people!" I've found that saying "I am studying how to make information accessible and equitable, how to create organized database systems, and stuff like metadata!" really helps get the conversation past the circ desk assumption.

  6. I had The English Degree conversation SO MANY TIMES. But when I told people I was getting a Master's in Library and Info Studies, the response was always, "You need a degree to shelve books??"

  7. I really hope you ladies have seen the movie "Party Girl," which contains these vital conversations played out by Parker Posey in her most winning, early-90s heyday. It's one of my favorites of all time.

    I've considered–and been encouraged to pursue–an MLIS degree, but it sounds like it's just as challenging to find your place in that sector as I thought!

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    • It does seem to be challenging, but I think one good thing about the degree is that you can take it anywhere. Library needs aren't just in cities, aren't just in suburbs, aren't just in rural areas, which I think is one really nice thing: you may need to figure out where your niche is, but as long as you don't over-specialize yourself (which, granted, may work out just fine…you never know!) I think there's potential with it because you aren't forced to go to one sort of place.

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      • Agreed! The general public thinks everyone at the library is a librarian, but that's the only challenge I've had.

        What drew me to the MLIS degree is that you can also work in a number of different professions – archives, public libraries, university libraries, business libraries, law libraries, communications, publishing, etc, etc, etc. It's a very versatile degree!

  8. I totally applaud your self-awareness on this issue. Knowing why something hits a nerve is the key to knowing yourself better, and eventually, improving as a person. 🙂 Way to go!

    On the practical note, though, here's a suggestion on how to shrug off the questions. I'm a professional mathematician, and when I'm out at a restaurant with friends, they often turn to me as if I've already calculated the optimal tip. Which, of course, I haven't. Instead I just smile slyly, shrug, and say, "Hey man, I'm off duty." That usually gets some chuckles, and then the night proceeds happily. Because hey, I get enough math at work.

    In a similar vein, you could answer your questions with something glib like, "Hey, man, part of the reason I work (/go to school) is to GET AWAY from kids!" Certainly, it depends on the audience, but if any fellow mum said it to me, I couldn't agree more. Many men might even understand, too. 🙂 Good luck out there!

    1 agrees
    • Same here — I teach kids, but big ones (writing and literature at a small university). I love my daughter, but a horde of littlekids isn't my bag.
      Folks always declaim their interest in reading or their ability to speak English "correctly" once they learn my job. It's difficult to explain that neither my mamahood nor my job are my entire being…

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  9. If you're talking to other parents, I don't think they'll find there's any mystery as to why you don't want to work with children. I hold a very contentious, stressful community volunteer position where people yell at me a LOT. And people always ask, "How are you finding it? Is it depressing?" I laugh and say, "Well, since I spend all day with a two-year-old, I'm so excited to talk to adults that I don't even care that they're yelling at me!"

    Other parents think this is hilarious and totally get it. Lots of us absolutely adore children. But I think most of us, even parents, have a limit to how much time we can spend with them without going mad. 🙂

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  10. Is it possible that the people asking you the question don't know all the career options available for a Library and Information Science degree? I'm an education major, and sometimes I have people ask me what I'm going to do with that! lol Depending on who's asking you, maybe they're just coming up with school-related jobs because their immediate association is with their school librarian or something. An answer like, "No, actually I'm planning on (insert whatever career you're going into)" might be all they're looking for, and your answer could be a career that's never occurred to them.

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  11. I don’t have kids yet, but still I get this all the time! I will be starting graduate studies in the fall and whenever someone learns I’m studying English they immediately assume that I’m going to teach elementary school. I politely correct them by informing them that I’m actually hoping to be a professor, but don't say much else because their eyes have generally glazed over by then. I don’t think people know what else people with our degrees do. But then the big unspoken (sometimes spoken) question is when I’m planning on having kids amidst all this schooling, which I’m planning on doing, but is really not a complete stranger’s business.

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    • This! I have a BA in English and after years of enduring the "What grade in high school do you want to teach?" question, I went to grad school to get a masters in higher education and the question became "So you're going to become an Engosh professor." nope, not that, either.

  12. "Oh, no! Mine are more than enough for me!" Haha, polite laughter, bam, done. Subtle implication: "Oh, no! My world doesn't revolve entirely around children."

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  13. I'm also a Librarian and LOVE my job. I currently work in a large public library's Adult Reference Division and I am very glad I generally don't have to work with children. Of course I'm helpful when kids and teens come into my department, but I'm greatful that I don't have to do any programs or storytimes with them. And no Summer Reading lists, yea!

    When I used to work in neighborhood branches, I was more of a age generalist and didn't love my job as much. I love my kid and other people's kids in very small doses, but screaming kids all day long drove me crazy. I do think that I have way more tolerance than my colleagues though on the rare occasions when we do have to help kids/teens.

  14. I work for a non-profit, often with kids, and always needing volunteers. I can say from experience that many people are great parents, but don't work well with kids. They are two complete different skill sets.

    That being said, I am getting my PhD this fall so that I don't spend my life working with kids:)

  15. I've been there too! Both the English Major "Oh you're going to be a teacher" conversation, partially because about half of my family on my mom's side is in the education field; and the "You need a master's degree to shelve books?" conversation. Although I don't have kids yet(ever?) so I don't have to deal with that part.

  16. This struck a chord with me, even though I do not yet have children. I am studying counseling in Nebraska, a very family-oriented state. Luckily, family and friends never ask about working with children, and my professors come from all areas of the field. However, I still feel like an anomaly: aside from being 27 and childless (ancient!), I feel like one of the few in the program that doesn't want to work with children (like, break out in a sweat thinking about it don't want to). In fact, I'm the only one I know of that wishes to work with the elderly, and to eventually get a doctorate and teach. I know this carves a nice little niche for me, but I felt really bad about this until one of my professors said that she also prefers not to work with children. Now I just say that I hope to work with older adults, and feel confident in saying so. Not everybody needs to understand my choices.

  17. I know the feeling–my B.A. is in English and people ALWAYS ask (even in job interviews) "Oh did you want to be a teacher?" Originally I wanted to go to law school but that didn't work out b/c of personal reasons. I definitely feel your pain. You'd think it would occur to people that, as a mother, you don't want to spend 24/7 around kiddos. Adult time, please!

  18. This article was very interesting. I almost have the opposite problem. I'm a baby photographer & so I always get the question: "so when are you going to have a baby?"

    I get very defensive of myself and feel like I have to justify my choice not to have a baby right now (or maybe ever). I feel like if I don't defend myself people might think I don't appreciate their choice to become parents. You've got me wondering if actually I convince them of that with my defensiveness.

    Thanks for the article, you've given me something to think about 🙂

  19. A lot of people who don't have kids get the 'teaching' suggestion/presumtion/question thrown at them too, so I think it's right that you've questioned whether or not you might be projecting a little bit.

    And I think your last paragraph is definitely the way to go. Reading to kids is the LAST option, not the first choice.

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  20. I'm applying to grad school for English Creative Writing rather soon and I'm pregnant with my 3rd child. My view is that I have kids, but that's not what I am about exclusively and in school or work the fact that I have a family doesn't need to come up. I don't like people assuming that I'm any particular way just because I have kids. By the way I talk most people don't even assume that I have kids (don't notice that I'm big and pregnant either) and are even more floored to find out that I married a man…I guess because I present in an androgynous manner and, as of recently, like to study masculine identity in literature.
    People have asked me if I want to teach, but I always reply, "Yeah, at the college level. Could you imagine me teaching elementary school?" We laugh, and they accept it at that.

  21. ever since i told people that i was going to be an english major (way back in highschool), people would ask if i was going to be a teacher. sorry, but hell no! i am not a kid person, i dont plan on having any of my own, so why would i want to spend all day taking care of your's? when i decided that im gonna go get my masters in library science, i still get the same "oh are you gonna work in a school?" stuff. i know that people can only remember having librarians in schools or in public libraries, but there is so much more that a person can do with a library science degree or even an english degree than work in a school/teach.

  22. Thank you so much for posting this! I know exactly how you feel. I'm currently an undergrad studying English, and the first thing people ask is, "Are you going to teach?" When I explain that I would like to teach at the post-secondary level because I don't think I would like to work with kids I have the exact same feelings you do. I find myself trying to justify my choices, which is completely absurd. I love being a mom, but that doesn't mean my whole life revolves around children.

  23. I CONSTANTLY get these type of comments! I'm going into my third year of a bachelor of visual arts degree and I have a 10 year old son.

    I love MY son, but in general I really dislike being around other people's kids. I like some of them, but I don't like a lot of them. the last thing I would ever want to do in a million years is put myself in a place where I would have to care for or teach otehr people's children! ACK!

    Unfortunately, people think that because I'm a momma, I must LOVE children! I must be great with children! No! I'm awkward and not good at all around them!

  24. It's nice to see that I'm not the only one who wants kids but doesn't want to work with them! I think the career thing is something widespread. People have little understanding of things they don't have a direct interaction with in general.

  25. I hatehatehate that some degrees / jobs are still so gendered! And library sciences, really? I'm offended that so many ppl seem to think that an MLIS degree only applies to a children's library. Maybe I'm biased bec. my best friend is a tenured university librarian w/an MLIS plus a masters in history & I have other friends w/MLIS degrees who work in museum archives & scientific libraries. I'd considered getting the degree myself when I was burnt out on tech writing, but never for working in a children's library. Has nothing to do w/ones opinion on having kids.

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