Monday, March 05, 2012

But What About Me?

Sometime in the past year or so, I was skimming through a magazine produced by my undergraduate college -- the kind of publication sent to alums and others, probably mostly for the purposes of inspiring donations to the college, but of moderate interest anyway for the articles and other news items.

Not surprisingly, this publication's articles focus on interesting and unusual things being done by graduates of the college, as well as current faculty and students. I almost always find something of interest to read.

In this particular issue of the publication, I was struck by a letter written by a fairly young graduate of the college ('young' in this context means only 'younger than I am'). She was complaining about the fact that the publication focuses too much on people who have had interesting, successful careers or who are involved in other time-consuming activities such as volunteering. She is a self-described "stay-at-home" mom with 2 young kids, and so she doesn't "see herself" in the magazine. This made her feel alienated and it made her also feel that perhaps, in the eyes of the college, she was kind of a failure.

That letter is something I would classify as a But What About Me? kind of letter, and I found it puzzling for several reasons. OK, in some ways I could understand it -- after all, this entire blog is like one long But What About Me? letter -- but I was nevertheless puzzled by a few things, such as:

1. I can certainly appreciate her point that a relentless message that career = success, no career = failure, would be demoralizing (if you saw things that way and let them get to you) or at least dismaying, but I have seen articles in this college publication about the decisions women make about career and family, and there is frequent mention of career-family issues. There are more articles about this than there are about science professors. Did this particular woman miss these articles, or did the fact that most articles are about people with interesting careers somehow obliterate the presence of the family-focused articles?

2. Does she really want to read approving articles about stay-at-home moms in more issues of this particular publication? I couldn't relate to this: I don't want to read more articles about people like me. I want to read about different people.

3. And that leads me to my next question: How do we define different? Perhaps the woman who wrote the letter has only two bins: women with careers (= different from her) and women staying home to raise their kids (= same as her). And perhaps others have different bins: for example, when I read an article about a woman who has had a career as a musician, film-maker, dancer, writer, artist etc., I am interested because I am learning something new about someone with a very different life. Similarly, a woman who has decided to stay home with the kids has a different life from me, and although I might not be so fascinated to read about her daily life, there are interesting aspects of it, including the decision to do this, what happens when the kids are older etc. It's just a different bin. I don't identify with the dancer more than with the stay-at-home mom just because the dancer and I are both pursuing careers. That's my perspective as someone with a career and a family, anyway.  Perhaps this perspective also stems from the fact that some of my best friends from college have stayed home to raise their kids, and I don't think of them as alien 'others'; we still have a lot in common.

So then I started thinking about this concept of bins, and how many we see when we look at the rest of the world, recognizing that the number changes depending on context. In the specific context of my reading my college glossy-mag, I think my bins are scientists and non-scientists. Within the non-scientists bin, there are many possibilities, including ballerinas, politicians, and stay-at-home moms.

This is one of those musing, picking-apart kinds of posts, without the intention of criticizing an individual, in this case the letter writer (although it may seem that way). I am most interested in learning about different perspectives, and in that sense the letter I am describing was very interesting and got me thinking; in fact, I don't remember anything else that was in that particular issue of the college magazine, even though I am sure it was festooned with successful career people.


EliRabett said...

Bloggers, where are the damn bloggers?

Capcha writers: byMom lugge

Anonymous said...

As a married woman with a career with strong female friends as stay-at-home moms, I must say I support the letter-writers grievance. Articles on career-family issues are not the same as celebrating the decision of creative and talented women who chose to not pursue an active career and instead channeled their efforts and creativity towards family.

Second, about bins. My natural tendency is to NOT bin, as I think that limits my perceptions about a person, and also limits what I can gain from my interaction with him/her. I think the only bin I tend to spontaneously do these days is Democrat and Republican, and that is primarily because of the political circus going on, and the need to avoid tylenol (or pepper spray) if I accidentally meet a Limbaugh supporter. But.....

Being a woman scientist of immigrant origin married to an American man who is also a scientist, dealing with two-career issues and considering taking a year off to focus on our growing family, whether I like it or not, people put me (and hubby) into bins. I am painfully reminded of different bins people will put me into because (i) I belong to an immigrant minority (ii) I do science (iii) I have a baby bump, (iv) I dance tango, etc etc etc. I can go on about my experiences on getting "binned", but the gist is: even though they include both positive and negative stories, I feel claustrophobic when binned anyways. I never thought of me as a bunch of boxes, or anyone else for that matter. And will prefer if people let me explain who I am, and what I want from my interaction with them, than pre-judge me on some external feature.

So, these days, I have started to react and start binning people based on how they bin me, not a productive place to be, but I am not a vulcan. It is hard to negotiate social boundaries unless I judge people on how they judge me.

One of the best "binning" experience happened in a plane next to a senior (male) scientist who was very friendly (in the right way) and encouraging and he said something science-related to which I said "Oh, that reminds me of something my mom told me as a kid." His instant reaction was: "well, that's really weird. Why would random-science-fact remind you of your mom?" I pointed out she is a physicist, to which he visibly needed a few seconds to absorb the shock. He had binned me into daughter of a stay-at-home science-unaware third-world mom, and also binned my mom who he never met in that process.

the15th said...

I'm assuming that your alumni magazine is like most others with which I'm familiar; the profiles are of people who are exceptionally successful in a conventional sense, or whose careers or volunteer commitments are somehow very unusual (running a microbrewery, being a nun.) There isn't a lot of coverage of accountants and mid-level corporate managers, even if they're creatively fulfilled in their careers, and no one demands that there should be. So is she arguing that these alumni should be represented as well, or is the exception just for stay-at-home moms?

nicoleandmaggie said...

My grad mag does tons of scientists. My undergrad mag only does volunteers (or people who start nonprofits) and artists it seems like.

Anonymous said...

When I read that kind of magazine, I'm just looking for information on the people I know. That's pretty much folks in my class and one or two classes either side.

Mordecai said...

Hm; I'll try thinking through a naive hypothesis. Perhaps being a stay-at-home mother, she needs a different set of things from her undergraduate institution magazine; for you it was the beginning of a strong career, but perhaps for her, it was the one time she went out into the world and considered possibilities other than being a stay-at-home mom. Perhaps, without necessarily regretting her choice, she still misses that sense of possibility.

So when she wants to relive that, that sense of raw potential, or perhaps just the sort of community she had as an undergraduate, she's instead given a publication that seems to celebrate not what she misses, exactly, but what she chose not to pursue. Indeed, that praises a set of values that are at best orthogonal to how she's living her life now.

Would she see those as at tension, or as mutually hostile? Depending on how people around her have reacted to the decision to stay at home, that doesn't sound far fetched. So I dunno, but perhaps I see why she would care so keenly, and how she might feel actively excluded.

Anonymous said...

Having only done a brief stint (3 months) as a stay-at-home mom, I can empathize with the writer. I've worked in several professions before I went to grad school -- government technology, non-profit money-raiser, farm laborer -- and by leaps and bounds the most *different* job I've ever had was stay-at-home mom. It is the most unappreciated, exhausting, lonely and isolating job imaginable. (I say this having also experienced moving alone to a foreign country where I didn't speak the language and literally knew no one besides of a couple of workmates who I had just met on arrival. That was lonely and depressing, too. But not nearly so much as being a stay-at-home mom.)

Balancing work-family is *not* similar at all. I've had the fortune of flexibility being a grad student to try out a full range of work-family balance scenarios. (Unsurprising note: there is none that is perfect.) And as long as I had even just a little bit of "work" as part of my life (i.e. intellectual stimulation, conversations with adults that don't involve talking about babies, a sense of *doing* something), I've felt very differently than when I was 100% mom all the time.

I sense that your fellow alumna feels a bit unfulfilled in her role as 100% mom and wants to see if/how other stay-at-home alumnae find meaning in their lives. I know that when I was 100% mom, I wanted to work more. And when I was 100%+ work, I wanted to mom more. And I was lucky: I had/have a real choice. So many women today don't have a real choice: they want to work (just a little, even), but financially they need to stay home because daycare is so expensive. Or conversely, they want to stay home and mom (more, at least), but to pay the mortgage and other bills they need to work.

So I could see how the writer would like 1) a little confirmation that what she's doing is important and valued; 2) more recognition that her situation is pretty common among alumnae; 3) to understand how other stay-at-home moms find meaning and fulfillment in their choice (if they had one).

Saee said...

My mom was a full time scientist and then a more-than-full-time business woman when I was growing up. I grew up in India and I remember feeling left out when I saw other kids' moms being there for them 24X7. But oddly enough, when I started my PhD, I found that I actually subconsciously "looked down" upon being a stay at home mom.

When I fully realized this, I felt really ashamed of my thoughts. But it could be due to the fact that I am the third generation of full time working women on my mother's side. Maybe I just don't have the mind to see what could be exciting about it.

Also, I must also note here, that as a kid, I also felt used as an example by full time moms sometimes to prove that I lacked the attention that I should be getting at that age. In retrospect, I do not think my mom not being there has had any dramatic adverse effects on my personality. But sometimes I think that my lack of full respect for stay at home moms is also a product of my childhood envy!

Anonymous said...

Here's a thought--maybe the alumni mags could start a column that covers class members who were found guilty of a crime. After all they also need to "see" themselves in the mag AND this would be different.

Amy said...

Let's be honest, a good portion of the time these alumni magazines only profile those who have donated significant sums of money to the university. So if a stay-at-home mom wants a profile, she should establish a scholarship program or volunteer with the organization.

Anonymous said...

Probably reading way too much into this, but maybe this SAH mom is conflicted about her choice and wants to see affirmation of it, including in places like her college alumni magazine. Or maybe she really does want to read articles about mommy-and-me playgroups in her college newsletters because anything else isn't relevant or interesting to her. I saw something like this letter once in a similar setting and I didn't know what to make of it; the woman seemed to think that only SAH moms spend any time with their kids at all, and I thought that was strange.

Anonymous said...

Both of the alumni magazines I receive focus way too much on extroverts, and I sure don't see myself in them. I demand to see more personal profiles on introverts!

Anonymous said...

My college magazine completely ignores crazy cat ladies. I definitely never 'see myself' in this magazine and as a result will never donate money for a new building, except maybe a new center for feline studies.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of whataboutmeism around, certainly in blog comments, and I guess some people even extend this to other parts of their life. If you write about your career, you get But What About the SAH Moms? If you write about your career and children, you get But What About People Who Don't/Can't Have Children? or even What About People Like Me Who Don't Even Like Children? Yeah yeah yeah

Anonymous said...

One can be a stay at home mom without having gone to college. So isn't it reasonable for a college magazine to focus on what alumni did that did result significantly from having gone to college, such as their professional activities?