All day she plays at chess with the bones of the world:Favored (while suddenly the rains beginBeyond the window) she lies on cushions curledAnd nibbles an occasional bonbon of sin.–Female Author, Sylvia Plath
I am many things. I am a gamer, a writer, a professional; I talk about these things all the time. I'm also a woman, a feminist, a foodie, an Air Force brat, a reader, a fashionista, a Jew, an artist, an Airbender fan. We all have infinite identities.
I'm also a mother, as it happens. And lately I've been thinking about how the role of mother and the role of professional fit together, or don't. I've been thinking about it particularly in the light of my online persona, that curated piece of me that you see from this blog, from Twitter, from the bios that I write when I'm speaking.
Not long ago, an interviewer asked for a little bit of personal information to put in some introductory text. One of the questions asked was about my family. And I suddenly realized that, for lo these many years, I have gone out of my way to avoid ever saying, "Andrea lives in suburban New York with her beloved husband and two precocious daughters."
It's not that I mind people knowing that I have children; clearly this isn't the case. I write about them pretty often, as these things go. Yet I am intensely reluctant to disclose the identity of mother in a context where I might be making a first impression. Why is that, exactly?
A few days ago, I sent out this Tweet:
I received a handful of suggestions. One came to me through a retweet, from someone who does not follow me, and presumably doesn't know much about me. It suggested that I submit the piece to Wired GeekMom.
Is it being excessively prickly to suggest that the sole reason for this suggestion was that I'm a woman? I try to be cognizant about the appeal of my work. I'm pretty sure that this kind of piece about transmedia best practices just isn't going to have much appeal to geek culture in general, nor to geek mothers specifically.
And I found, even though I really am a mother! I was offended by that particular suggestion. I am a mother. That's a statement of fact.
But I don't want to be just a mother.
I see male writers like John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig talk about their kids for the sake of talking about their kids. Photos, video, anecdotes and accomplishments. Pride and love made public. I cannot think of a single female writer of that stature who does the same thing. The closest might be Elizabeth Bear and her Giant Ridiculous Dog. Dog owner just doesn't have the same connotations as mother, now does it?
I love my kids no less than these fine gentlemen do. And as noted, I do write about my kids from time to time -- but really only in the limited contexts where it intersects with my activism, or with my work. If I sent up posts that were just photographs, just anecdotes about funny or awesome things my children have done, suddenly I would be a mommyblogger. Note that mommyblogger is a term of diminishment. Not real, serious bloggers, no. These are mothers who are blogging about their kids. Pshaw.
If I played this game of being proud of my family in the public eye, maybe I wouldn't be taken so seriously anymore, as someone with thinky thoughts about transmedia to share and dissect.
I try to keep that part of my life behind the curtain, nothing to see here, because I worry that being too public about my identity as a mother makes it that much easier to dismiss me. It feels a little unfair.
We have certain social expectations about mothers. Parenting comes with an inevitable loss of dignity, and yes, I've been vomited upon, sleep-deprived, snot-covered. Once you describe someone as a mother, you have performed an act of characterization describing that woman as harried, tired, a little stressed out, probably juggling too many things.
It's true. I'm harried, tired, a little stressed out, probably juggling too many things. I'm pretty sure I would be even if I had no children at all.
So look, I am a terrible mother. In the Maternal Olympics, I'm a sure loser because I do sometimes sacrifice my children at the altar of my career. We eat McDonald's instead of home-cooked vegetables and roasted chicken. I don't fill my children's days with crafts and home-baked goods and trips to the circus. I jet off to distant climes, routinely leaving my family to do without me entirely.
I am, conversely, an excellent mother. I give kisses to boo-boos, snuggles at bedtime, moral support on demand. I call the school to raise hell when need be. I go to recitals and field days and graduations. I've turned down jobs and speaking gigs that would require me to be away on birthdays or vacations or just plain for too long. In lieu of crafts and activities, I try to fill my children's days with ideas. We talk about politics, about surface area and evaporation, about what words like "nuance" mean, about nutrition and feelings and songs.
Which one of these things is true? Can they both be true?
There was a piece in the Guardian not long ago postulating that women who are not mothers have not experienced the full gamut of human experience, and their work therefore must be shallower. It pointed out, though, the devil's bargain: a mother might have a broader range of experience, but she surely will have a narrower range of work, simply because the logistics of parenthood take time one might otherwise devote to one's career.
There is no mention in this article about men and fathers.
During my recent Shindig event, an old friend asked me how my children inspire my work. I'm sorry, Joe, but I muffed your answer a little. It's true that I am working on an amazing project right now that is very directly and heavily inspired by my children. This is because children are the intended audience.
But outside of that example, the truth is, my children simply don't inspire my work. It's like asking how my breakfast affects my choice of shoes; the two are not related in any meaningful way.
It's interesting to note that on the spot like that, I didn't feel brave enough to say that. Because there's this societal idea of motherhood, and of women in general, that say that children are a wellspring of emotion. Becoming a parent transforms you into some separate class of being.
I missed the memo. I'm still fundamentally the same person I was before I had children. I've evolved to become a more active feminist, perhaps; I've learned to juggle more responsibilities. I don't know if I would have changed in the same ways without children, but change over time is inevitable. The mere act of becoming a parent didn't suddenly make me into a different person any more than other transitions, like graduating from college, or becoming a freelancer.
I love my children in a fierce way that, true, I had never experienced before I had children. There is something particular to that relationship that is different from all others. But I also have a relationship with my iPhone that I had never experienced before. The same with my ever-changing personal appearance. The same with my health. And the same with, inevitably, my career.
Every human experience, every human life is unique. What makes one more valid than another?
The course of being a mother and a professional in this world is a fraught one, even outside of the usual pop-culture context of maternity leave and taking days off to attend to sick children. There are matters of posturing and status to examine, questions that could have far-reaching implications for a career.
I'm walking a tightope and I don't even know if it's going where I want to be.
I'm afraid I don't have a snappy conclusion for you. There are too many questions here I don't have answers for. So these are things that I've grappled with, and things that have happened, and things I'm afraid of. Am I afraid of the right things? And if I am, what does that mean about us, as a society?