Check your identity at the door

            “Why did I never know you have a Masters in architecture?”  Why, indeed.  The woman asking had a degree in urban planning.  She had known her acquaintance for years.  Their children played together and went to school together.  They had spoken to each other every single day for years.  But she had no idea that they had this common interest.

            Six years prior, they would probably have learned this about each other the first time they met.  They would have talked about urban theorists, perhaps tossing about opinions on Jane Jacobs.  They would have compared their career paths and what the hell one can do with that background in this market.

            But, now, they stand, waiting for pickup time, and chat about their children.  They chat about their husbands’ jobs.  They talk about politics and weather and celebrity sightings.  But, they never talk about themselves.  Not really.

            We can tell each other about night wakings and compare picky eaters.   But we cannot ask about our pasts.  To ask is sensitive.  “What did you do?” implies you are no longer who you were.  “What do you do?” puts the respondent in the awkward position of saying “I’m just home with the kids.”  We avoid the topic altogether. Even those who are still working in paying jobs are clandestine, quiet about their careers. 

            We check our identities at the door.  Someday we will find them again, but not right now. So careful to avoid shaming other mothers, we lose who we are.  But, I am holding that claim check tight, baby, and I intend to pick that identity up again one of these days.

21 responses to “Check your identity at the door

  1. but at least you did/do have *something*. Even if you don’t talk about it now. I never had any sort of career before so it’s almost doubly lame. “What did you do?” Er, not much. Tended bar. Made coffee. Picked up horse poo. Served overpriced gourmet kosher baked goods. lol. Ohh but I was a maybe no so good aspiring artist who never really did anything with it. Yeah. Good times. But you…You have these impressive degrees AND are pursuing writing which you’re incredible at as well.

  2. Very topical for me, I just read an article about the guilt mothers who work out of the home feel – and that they get the worst of their children at drop off and pick up times. It’s weighing on me. I’ve had similar experiences to this but it’s with other mothers picking up kids at daycare in suits and obvious work clothes but we don’t know what each other does, like we’re ashamed or something, maybe it’s just that we’re too bloody busy trying to haul screaming kiddies into cars?

  3. I wonder why we all feel a need to be defined by what we “do” or “did.” Even as a working mom, I really hope that my work, as valuable as it is, does not define me. It is a part of me, as are so many other parts of my life, I would rather be defined by my actions throughout my lifespan. Right now, a major part of that is motherhood. But, that is relatively a short period of time in the whole scope of who I am.

  4. Since I don’t have kids, I’d never really thought about this. Although recently I ran into a high school classmate who I’d thought was a stay at home mom. When I said something about her being a great mom, she seemed irked and told me “I’m also a <>.” I felt like such a jerk. I didn’t mean to imply that she’s “only” a mother. I was trying to compliment her. But I also didn’t realize someone would be offended by my unintended implication. I wish I’d read this post before then. 🙂

  5. I know that I have never actually met you, but if someone were to ask me to describe you, great mom and great writer would tumble over each other. Maybe you haven’t checked your identity at the door, just added to it a little (times 3).

  6. I always want to ask “what did you do before you stayed home with the kiddos?” but it’s really hard. It’s hard to predict how the person will hear it, even if I’m only really interested to know. And I don’t talk about my career unless someone asks and then I’m vague unless they really seem interested.

    It’s all so weird. Why do we do this to ourselves??

  7. i spend so little time with other mothers – except the ones i chat with at daycare drop-off/pick-up. and of course, they’re all there because they work too. but still, it’s all about the children. i have no idea what most of them do.

  8. I’m trying to imagine this in another context, for example, when you start a new job and the other employees are trying to get to know you. Again, I think people are guarded because..? Because why? Are most of us such a terrifying combination of insecure and judgmental?

  9. I’m working on a post about something my sister said to me that ties into this.

    My claim check is pretty dog-eared and smudged.

  10. *sighs*

    Yeah. I know how that feels.

  11. I don’t usually ask people this question in general. Men or women. It seems irrelevant I guess. If they start to talk about their job that is different. I’ll ask. Otherwise, the job is just how you survive (make money) not who you are. I don’t think a job defines a person at all. It is just a means to an end.
    Perhaps I’m over-simplifying.

  12. I’ve had a post swirling in my brain about losing yourself in motherhood… you’ve added some food for thought.

    I’m with Kathryn – I don’t know what most people I meet “do”, it’s not important to me. Of course, before kids I was following the Grateful Dead and learning how to meditate! ha.

  13. It’s not so much about what people “do” or their jobs but about the interests they have outside their children and spouses that seem to disappear. Mothers seem afraid to talk about anything that defines us other than our children.

  14. Ah… the gender identity once again. How is it that “fathers” don’t have this same issue? We would never hesitate to ask a daddy playing with his kids at the park what he does?

    Speaking from one who has raised and released… you never get back who you were. Instead you grow, change, evolve, and develop into a better and more capable person having spent the past l8 plus years without a name other than Mummy. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything – now that I have a chance to look back.

    The grass is always greener…

  15. You’re still the same person. Only some parts of you are in shadow whilst others are in the sun.

  16. It sounds like it is challenging to admit being devoted to things ‘other than your children’. The language of it (to me) starts to sound like a new form of infidelity – not something you admit to people you don’t know well.

    and thus begins the motions of my political paranoia. Is this the embodiment of neo-conservatism? Is a conversation about a woman’s professional / educational life secondary to proving her commitment to motherhood?

  17. How true…thanks for sharing. I so enjoy your take on subjects that impact so many of us moms.

    have a great weekend.

  18. This always perplexes me when I’m with “SAHM” (hate that classifcation) aquaintances @ Montessori. It’s worse when they ask me what I do (when it becomes obvious that I do indeed WOHM (hate that too!)) So lately I’ve been throwing out “Tell me something about *you*!” Tis awkward.

  19. And some of us leave our full time jobs to reclaim our identities as mothers a bit…because time moves too fast. It’s more important, what you “do” Emily. I honestly believe that.

  20. Maybe it’s because I live near two major universities and most of my acquaintances have advanced degrees, but we usually ask each other what we studied. That easily leads to a discussion of whether and how we are using our degrees now or what our hopes are for using them later. Somehow that’s a lot less threatening than “What did you do before kids?” or “Do you work outside the home?” We all went to school before we had kids.

    I do sometimes feel like I have checked part of my identity at the door. But being trained as a teacher makes it a little easier to see how my career choice fits motherhood well, even if I’m not teaching my kids ESL!

  21. Think of that facet as on sabbatical, not abandoned.