I am a mother. And, I am not ‘just’ a mother.
I went out for drinks with a friend the other night. Just a few minutes after sitting down, a man came over to our table. He seemed so comfortable and familiar with my friend that I thought he knew her (I later found out he didn’t, and that we were both uncomfortable) and so he sat down for dinner and drinks with us. He ate our food and drank our wine. And, he totally took over the conversation my friend and I had planned to have that night, mostly directing it towards celebrities he supposedly knew, places he’d traveled, foods he ate. Things I didn’t care about, but was polite about.
Though wholly unexpected and a bit one-sided, the conversation was mostly pleasant… until I mentioned I was a mom of four. It was then that this man’s tone notably changed. At that point, most statements directed at me were incredibly patronizing. From then on, he felt quite comfortable openly mocking me. When I took a sip of wine he noted several times, ‘aww, Mommy’s night out.’ If the conversation turned towards books, music, or art- he’d laugh that I recognized a popular song or show. When I got up to use the restroom he ‘joked’ that he’d ‘let me’ get away with wearing leggings and a flannel out because I am a mom. Though his tone remained on the surface playful and lighthearted his intended message was anything but: I was not supposed to be there. I was no longer allowed to enjoy my life, or to be fully in charge of it, because of one role I occupy in my life: mother. Though he had literally barged his way into our space, I was the one left feeling that I was intruding. He made it clear he found me unworthy of his time or attention, regardless of my actual contributions to the conversation- a conversation he was never even invited to join.
It wasn’t hard for me to guess what had shifted for him, as I’ve experienced it many times before: he couldn’t reconcile his stereotypes of mothers with the three dimensional, fully human person sitting across the table from him, having a drink and chatting about life. I was a mom, and for him that was all he needed to know to size me up, to dismiss and discard me.
And, it’s not just among young, single dude-bros that this attitude persists. Many moms I love, people who I respect on so many levels (professionally & personally) speak of motherhood as a dirty word, avoid authors who primarily write about motherhood as inherently less serious or intellectual, add ‘mom’ as a prefix to words like entrepreneur or writer to render their meanings less worthy, less acclaimed. As moms, we do it to ourselves, too. We minimize our own goals and dreams and define ourselves with ‘justs’ in front of our accomplishments when asked to speak to our achievements. We apologize for sharing stories and pictures of our our kids – downplaying our lives and experiences as boring. We worry that our haircuts, our body types, our choice of jeans will make us look like ‘moms.’ But if moms are what we are, what’s so inherently wrong with that? And what does it mean to ‘look like’ or ‘act like’ a mom anyway?
Mothers are a demographic as diverse as the general population. There are mothers (albeit too few) running businesses, writing books, leading activism and grassroots organizations. There are mothers fighting wars, abusing partners and children, stealing and murdering, addicted to drugs, and in prison. We are no different than any other demographic, no better, no worse. Because the only common experience mothers share is motherhood. We are not a monolith. And the attempt to categorize our experience as one thing, to categorize us as one thing is an attempt to silo and silence us.
When my youngest daughter was first born, my family made a move from our home in California to Seattle, where we knew no one. Because of the timing of the move, I quit my job to stay home with our new baby. And, because we had just moved, we were meeting new people everywhere we went. With every new introduction: BBQ’s, birthday parties, playdates, etc. the same grating question always came up: ‘what do you do?’
What I eventually learned from those countless introductions is this: most times, it’s not really a question aimed at finding out the details of another person’s life, it’s code for assessing someone’s status and worth based on their career. The question gave me anxiety and made me feel bad about myself, but at the time I couldn’t pinpoint why. I minimized my role as a caretaker to our young daughters by saying simply I was ‘just’ a mother. But soon, I realized that though it was obvious that my response made most people’s eyes glaze over, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have an interesting answer to that question. No one does. The details of any one person’s life are, for the most part, boring. Without relationship, without connections to who they are at their core, without knowledge of what matters to them on some deeper level- the rote responses we give at a dinner party about ‘what we do’ hold little information about who we really are. That isn’t a phenomenon unique to mothers.
It’s not that I don’t think that motherhood is transformative. It is. For me, the impact of motherhood has changed me more than any other experience in my life. The privilege and responsibility of raising four small humans has absolutely humbled, inspired, consumed, exasperated, confounded, and motivated me. But while many of my experiences of motherhood have been defined as universal, most are highly individual. How I respond to their impact continues to be personal. And to know anything about what that means for me, you have to get to know me. You have to want to see and hear me for who I am beyond whatever preconceived ideas you have of what it means to be a woman, to be a mother.
That night, a night that was supposed to be a fun night out of dinner and drinks with a friend, I let a stranger make me feel entirely inconsequential. Though I hadn’t found him remarkably interesting I’d allowed myself to judge my life by his standards simply because he’d deemed himself an authority without really even knowing me-and I felt like I wasn’t worthy to take a seat at my own dinner table. I mainly sat there silently, letting this stranger co-opt our evening. Eating our food and drinking our wine. He had effectively silenced me and I had let him. But, I won’t let it happen again. Because, now I know. I am a mother. And I am not ‘just’ a mother.