The scene is the Walker Memorial building on the MIT campus, the occasion free weekly swing dancing. It is the first time I have gone out to have fun without Morgan since his birth, and while I have the utmost confidence in Hassan’s caregiving abilities I’m feeling a little twitchy, like I’ve forgotten something important. I have to remind myself several times that going out and having a good time is not a guilty pleasure–I am allowed to take time for me.
As the sonorous opening notes of Summertime fill the hall, I ask a man to dance. In between spins and swing outs we exchange names and he asks me the most basic question of small talk, which leaves me stammering, unprepared.
Male swing dance partner: “So are you an MIT student or are you working? What do you do?”
Me: “Not much at the moment. I just had a baby six weeks ago.”
MSDP: Oh! That’s weird.
Me: Yeah it is.
MSDP: So where is this baby?
Me: Home with daddy so I can get out of the house.
As soon as this conversation is over, it begins to haunt me. I’ve pulled on a persona like a cloak, stepped into the role of Frazzled Mother to put myself in a box that maybe this young engineer can understand.
In our culture, what do you do is coded language for who are you. The answer given must be short and must name your avocation. Our identity is written in our position in the paid labor force or in the structured educational environment that prepares us. Because I am neither working or studying I flounder at the question and give an answer that makes me cringe. These days, not much.
Not much, just sustaining the life of another human being. And yet to answer “what do you do?” with “I’m a mother” feels forced and wrong. Being a parent is not like being an engineer or a teacher or a taxi driver. It isn’t something you clock out, shut the office door behind you, and walk away from. It is more than a livelihood, it is a life.
And while I have happily named my identity in the past as Graduate Student, or Toddler Teacher, I haven’t worked up the confidence to answer with Milliner, Artist, or Writer–all of which are things I do but am not really paid to do (although you can buy my hats). I don’t want to identify as a Mother in the same way, with the capital letter working overtime to define me. I insist that there is more to me that that. Is it because I have internalized patriarchal norms that seek to divide me into a private and a public self, that declare relationship based identities as subservient to economic and political selves? Or am I feeling a feminist rebellion against the housewife model and resisting patriarchal norms that see women as inherently creatures of relationships, who do not need the same kinds of self definition that men do?
Probably a little of both. Indeed the root of the problem is buying into a system that believes I can encapsulate my identity in one word, no matter what word that is.