Tell Me About Yourself

I don’t know how many of you are regular readers of Salon, but last week there was a letter to Cary Tennis in his Since You Asked column that really caught my attention.

I get grossed out when I hear, “I’m a mom!”
I’m about to be a mom, actually, but I don’t want to just be a mom.

By Cary Tennis

Feb. 01, 2008 | Dear Cary,

I’m a 30-year-old, happily married woman on the brink of having children, and I have a problem. I’m grossed out by moms!

It’s not the idea of a woman with children that bothers me, or the thought of myself being one. It’s just the whole concept of identifying oneself as a mom that I find a bit icky. It’s this dialogue specifically:

“So, Lucy, tell us a little bit about yourself.”

“Well (giggles), I’m a mom.”

Gross! How about, “I live in Houston with my husband and children and I spend my free time gardening/writing/selling marital aids/whatever”?

As my friends have gotten married and started having children, I’ve heard this kind of thing coming out of their mouths. I realize that being a mother is fun and rewarding, and all-consuming at times, but why does it have to be the primary identifying factor in some women’s lives? I would think being a mother is sort of a family affair, and making it your calling card, so to speak, is no more appropriate than saying, “I’m a wife.”

Who cares! You got married and had children! What else do you bring to the table?

I’m just worried that I will end up having children and one day understanding that way of thinking, or even making motherhood my primary identifying factor. I don’t plan on working in an office when I have small children — I want to be at home and my husband agrees — but I’ll be damned if rearing children is all I’ll do for five to 10 years. I’ll go a step further to say that if I didn’t do something else with my life, I wouldn’t be a good example to my kids, especially if they are girls. It’s all a little too “Feminine Mystique” for me. I’m not saying mothers need to be working and earning a salary, but just that I feel like women should have something meaningful in their lives beyond the biological.

How can I get over this ick factor when I hear other women identify themselves this way, and how can I avoid becoming one?

Almost Pregnant With Possibility

Dear Almost Pregnant,

I am completely unqualified to advise you on this matter.

However, one thing you say interests me: You point out that one rarely hears a contemporary woman qualify herself principally as a wife. At the risk of sounding insufficiently feminist for present company, and speaking in purely subjective emotional terms, I must say it would be strangely gratifying to hear my wife qualify her role in the world as principally that of being my wife. But that is a rather remote possibility, as my position in my wife’s life is on the contrary rather like that of the man one sees about the neighborhood picking up bottles and cans — one senses that he is performing certain duties yet wishes somehow he could find a better way of going about it.

I clearly see the historical and political difficulties of entertaining such a wish. It is hardly the way forward for masses of starving Afghans. Still, we probably all dream of being central to someone — it is the infantile jackpot repeated, after all. So, having nothing, as I said, to say directly to your question, let me now briefly address only the heterosexual married men in the audience. You women, you just skip to the next paragraph. That’s right. Move along. That’s good. Now. This is for men only: Men! Be honest now! Has what this letter writer suggests ever occurred to you — that while mothers often enthusiastically define themselves as moms, one rarely hears a wife say, upon being asked for an account of herself, “Well, I’m (giggle) a wife”!? Have you ever heard a wife say that? Have you ever dreamed of its occurring?

OK, that was a sidebar with men only. Now, back to the question. (And may I say, those women among you who cheated — you know who you are! — you are not to be trusted!)

All foregoing protestations of ignorance being hereby incorporated, I will at least suggest this: Concentrate less on what the mothers around you say, and more on what you yourself hope to accomplish in the raising of your own children. Observe carefully the things people say that cause you anguish and distress, but do not assume that your symptoms amount to social analysis. There’s no telling what they mean. Your symptoms may constitute that subsection of the personal that is decidedly not political but on the contrary wholly idiosyncratic and quite irrelevant to the affairs of the nation. It’s hard to tell. We’re all a little nuts if you ask me.

And now, for the umpteenth time, I back away from the discussion and creep toward the fire to light my pipe and stare blankly into the abyss of my coffee.

OK, not to belabor it, though, and recognizing that this wheel is spinning rather absurdly now, I will also say, as to having acute reactions to possibly harmless phenomena: I myself am highly symptomatic; I am filled with petty reactions to the most harmless and trivial of other people’s behavior; my preferred techniques of communicating such include emphatic eye-rolling, a sudden little cough, faux-involuntary tics of the face, a nervous, down-looking glance, and a facial expression that gives the appearance that I am about to begin whistling.

I also confess to occasionally wanting to kick strollers, throw car seats into bushes and snatch the pacifiers out of babies’ mouths. But, like I say, this is not a political platform; rather I consider it my (till now) wholly private pathology of misplaced aggression.

My one otherwise irrational response that I do feel has social merit, however, is the keen desire I feel to grab the pruning sheers when I see a child on a leash. No person should be attached to any other person by a leash except at the Folsom Street Fair. On that I am firm.

As to the rest, please have at it, those of you with relevant experience and knowledge. I fear I have already done my part.

This letter truly fascinated me because for decades (and yes I’ll admit it), I would scratch my head when some women answered the “tell me about yourself” question with either “I’m a mom” or “I’m married.” I don’t remember being grossed out about this reply, as the letter writer is (but then again, I might have stronger feelings in my younger, more headstrong days). Yet I did find it strange that motherhood or marriage would be the first thing that would come out of these women’s mouths when asked about who they are.

Those of you who know and love me realize that the day I reply to the question of “tell me about yourself” with a simple answer of “I’m a mom” or “I’m AdoringHusband’s wife” is the day after I’ve had a frontal lobotomy. There is so much to who I am beyond motherhood or wifehood. Those are both critical features of my life, but in terms of defining me, they are only part of the story. I define myself not by my relationships, but by what I do, my beliefs, and the curious concoction that is my mind.

Were someone to ask me to tell him/her about me, my answer would probably go something like this:

I’m a physician specializing in the care and feeding of adolescents. I’m a liberal, womanist, ethnocentric, strongblackwoman in recovery from doing too much, feeling too much, and taking on everyone else’s pain. Thinking is one of my favorite pastimes, along with knitting, sudoku, reading, and playing hidden object games. I’m a diva, a zealot, an empath and a survivor of trauma. I love with my whole heart and my devotion to those in my life knows no end. My husband and my daughter are my greatest blessings. This is Liana in 30 seconds or less…

Somehow I can’t see myself rocking the “I’m a mom” successfully. What do you guys think? I got through a few pages of the comments and found them equally interesting.

There were the new moms who basically said, when you have a child, you will be defined by motherhood because you won’t have time to do anything else. The other moms who said, hello, having a child doesn’t mean indentured servitude. Take time for yourself and have interests other than your child. The feminist men who asked why her husband wasn’t choosing to stay home with the kids if that was important. And the bristling moms who were like, get off your high horse.

Interestingly, as far as I read, no one touched Cary Tennis’s comments about wishing his wife would define herself as his wife. I was like, Cary, please get over yourself.

And as always, when I write some of my womanist/feminist beliefs, I must add the caveat that all I can speak from is my own perspective and for me, I could in no way define myself only by my relationships and not by the part of me that exists independently of my relationships. Yet I completely respect the right of all people to define themselves in any manner they see fit.

So my internet friends, what do you think about this Salon letter? Let’s discuss!

(And sorry about the trouble with the comments running out of the boxes. I’m working on fixing that.)

Published by: teendoc on February 4th, 2008 | Filed under marriage, motherhood, on gender

19 Responses to “Tell Me About Yourself”

  1. Meira Says:

    Heh. I half expected to get to the end of the quote and see you write “I used to scoff, but now I *get* it . . .” I should’ve known better, eh? ;o)

    I often answer those types of things with: “Mom, wife, knitter, animal lover, homeschooler.” I have to admit I think these sorts of ‘don’t they realize there’s more to life’ comments often seem to me like left-over misogyny, a blatant lack of appreciation for mother/hood. I list “mom” first because it is the most important thing I do on a daily basis. I’m not on track to cure cancer, I visited London when I was 14 but it had no impact on any life but my own, I’ve enjoyed white water rafting, I’m a recovering addict, I think W screwed our whole country — all of which is to say I contain the same mundane multitudes as everyone else. I put ‘mom’ first because realistically, being a mom may end up being the biggest impact I *ever* have on the world. That may sound sad, but statistically virtually none of us are going to have any worthwhile impact. Shit, the guy who was responsible for saving billions of lives with his plant technologies is virtually unknown. I’m living a small life, it may always be a small life — and I’m ok with that. I have no delusions of grandeur and I’m having a pretty good time.

  2. teendoc Says:

    Oh man, did I fail the mom test again?! I was supposed to “get it?” 😉

    Ah well…there is no hope for me.

    But in truth when someone asks me such a question, my goal is to try to convey that which makes me me, and not my neighbor or some woman in Duluth. I’m trying to figure out how to describe my personality, my beliefs, my likes/dislikes and all the minutiae that makes me who I am. For me, “I’m a mom” or “I’m a wife” does not capture the totality of who I am or how I seek to describe myself. It isn’t about delusions of grandeur, but more about how one chooses to sum up one’s whole self in a few words. There is more to me than motherhood, marriage, knitting or my enjoyment of driving fast. I’ve spent so many years in therapy constructing a self that I can love and be proud of. This self is truly multifaceted.

    So I guess my goal here is to see how others define themselves: by their roles or by their concepts of who they are as individuals, or some mixing of both.

  3. atlasien Says:

    I don’t know exactly how to define myself. I think a lot of it depends on whether someone is passionate about what they do for a living. I used to be in that position, but now I have a boring job that really doesn’t inform my identity at all.

    One thing I do know for sure… Cary Tennis is absolutely insufferable! Every time I try to read one of his advice columns my eyes glaze over by the second paragraph.

  4. teendoc Says:

    Yes but we put more into our identity than our jobs, paid or unpaid. See this interests me. How would we choose to define ourselves without job titles and relationship roles? What makes us tick?

  5. Flicka Says:

    I would never tell anoyne else how to define themselves. Period. Which is kind of the whole point, I think. You feel comfortable describing yourself as all the things you listed in 30 seconds or less and I love that description of you. It’s exactly who you are with no pretension.

    But me, I’d describe myself as a mom if I could. Right now I say that I’m a librarian and yes, a wife because those things are VERY important to me. I almost lost my husband so the fact that I’m still able to call myself a wife is something I rejoice over and feminists can make of that what they will. I love the man; he’s been my best friend since the age of six. If he was a woman and I was calling him my wife, no one would have a problem with it; in fact, they’d be applauding me. I fail to see why this has to be paternalistic just because he has a penis. I assure you, equality is a nonissue in our house.

    Sorry, I got a little offtrack there. I’m working hard to become a mom. Most of my time, energy and resources are spent on that goal. When I get there I’m for damn sure going to identify myself as a mom; I’ll have earned it! I don’t think there has to be a stigma attached. I think women like the one who wrote this letter are applying a stereotype that is just as wrong as any other.

    I also think there is an important difference in her definitions: she is defining herself by her accomplishments. Her friends are defining themselves by their relationships. I don’t think one definition is more valid than the other.

    (Please don’t think I am attacking you, Liana. None of this is aimed toward you or your values. I think all of us should be able to define ourselves the way we want, be it by relationships or accomplishments. I’d like to see the mommy wars just. stop.)

  6. teendoc Says:

    Flicka: I always appreciate your comments. Thank you.

    Yet I must have read the woman’s words wrong because I didn’t see it as an attack on motherhood or choices since she plans to be a SAHM. From where I sit, she was asking why some women choose to define themselves solely in relationship to their children rather than as all the things they do. Katrina below defined herself as mom, scrapbooker, and goddess! I love that because it tells me more about her than the simple, “I’m a mom.”

    For me there is so much richness in learning more about a person besides their roles. That’s why I like those silly memes because you learn so many interesting tidbits about the people you know online.

    So from where I sit, there is no wrong or right here. Just interesting questions and dialogue about how we define ourselves as women and humans.

  7. Katrina Says:

    I say I am a mom, because that is the job I do almost 24/7. And the pay SUCKS!!! ;o) Seriously though, I don’t see why anyone should nitpick over how anyone else describes themselves. And no offense, but if someone is asking me to tell them a little about myself, I don’t think they are looking for my life history or my impact on the world…they probably just want the gist and are making small talk. (Unless it’s an interview, then I give them a nice, politically correct answer.)

    That being said, I am a SAHM admin goddess scrapbooking queen! And I like to eat candy.

  8. teendoc Says:

    Now see, this is so interesting to me. I get more out of your last two sentences than the first. It shares more about your personality with me. Who you are comes through so much better. That’s why I like to hear more than “I’m a mom.”

  9. Pamela Jeanne Says:

    Well, I’ve made no secret about how uncomfortable I am with the “cult of mommy” that seems so pervasive these days. I wrote about it last August in a post called How a Little Word can Torment:

    I also have an Onion-like spoof on article where I replace “As a Mom” with “As an Infertile”

    The spoofed article illuminates how off-putting a fixation on the “mom” role to the exclusion of all other aspects of what we as women offer can be. Given the choice between new acquaintances, if a woman puts MOM front and center and another puts their mothering role in the context of her involvement in community, work, music, etc, I’ll pursue conversations with the latter and look for a quick exit from the former’s company. As Ben Franklin says, “everything in moderation.”

    Thanks, Lianne, for inviting the dialogue here. Good stuff.

  10. teendoc Says:

    I thought this post might resonate with you, Pamela. (And don’t worry about calling me Lianne! I answer to just about everything.) The way I look at it has to do with my belief that if I define myself solely based on those relationships, then if one takes away the relationships, I become nothing. I have to be something in the first place in order to create and develop relationships: wife/mother/friend. I have to have a sense of self to share with others. This is why I am more likely to answer the “tell me about yourself” query with self-concept/self-assessment replies than with describing my roles.

  11. Pamela Jeanne Says:

    Ah! I just realized that I wrote Lianne instead of Liana. I have a friend Lianne and it’s stuck in my head. Feel free to call me Paula.

  12. Sylvie Says:

    Interesting… I have been working on this whole who is Sylvia question for months. I would like to have a quick interesting answer like you have but I dont. Even after months of job interviews where you have to describe yourself briefly I find myself stuck! Oh no, do I not know who I am!???
    But really, I think I find myself saying mother first, I don’t know why. I don’t think being a mother defines me, but for some people it does define them and I don’t think anything is wrong with that. It doesn’t define me as a person, BUT I think it is my most important job to help shape this little person into who he will become, to aid him in being a good person, to protect him from the world. You know all that good stuff. I don’t think I would lead with I’m a mom at a cocktail party or in a business setting though.

  13. Sylvie Says:

    Ok I’m back. I read the other comments (I like to answer without reading other comments so not to be influenced).
    You alway make me think Lianna! Thanks! I ran out to get some lunch and I am still thinking about this post, and who I am. I like that you pointed out describing ourselves outside of jobs, and relationship roles. I agree with parts of all the comments. I guess what really defines me is being a Christian. Because it inlfuences every part of who I am, how I live my life and most of the decisions I make. Well all of them. Now dont get me wrong I am not preachy with my faith, but as a follower of Christ I consult the bible and pray about my decisions and I TRY to do things as Jesus would. But see it is not really politcally correct to add that in the 30 second speil, because people assume all kinds of things (like why do people think you are a republican because you are “born again!”) and you have to spend 2 minutes of your 30 second speil clarifying what being a Christian means to you. I said that to say we should be able to define ourselves how we see ourselves and I think that is what has got me stumped on how to come up with the 30 second networking speech. I’m too worried about how people will take what I say. Should I care?

  14. teendoc Says:

    Sylvie: thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, twice! I do understand what you mean about how the use of certain descriptors cause others to make assumptions about your beliefs. For you it is using the word “Christian” and for me it is when I call myself a feminist. Feminism implies hating everything with a penis, among other misattributions. In order to avoid these assumptions, I would call myself an egalitarian feminist. It helped, but only for those who understood the word “egalitarian.” 😉

    Yet it is hard to avoid the knee-jerk response that comes when someone calls him/herself “Christian.” I think people respond better to “spiritual,” though that may not be focused enough to convey what you really mean. Should you care how people take what you say? Yes and no. People who matter: yes. Others: no.

    This is a tough one, but I do agree with you. You should be able to define yourself in any way you see fit.

  15. Louise Says:

    Fascinating topic, and I love the comments from your readers. I don’t think that I have had to introduce myself to anyone lately! Need to get out more!!

    Before I took my leave of absence, my reply would probably have been, “I’m a public affairs manager.” Boring! 🙂 Argh! But there is so much more to me than my day job 🙂

    Right now, I am a wannabe domestic goddess with dustbunnies peeking out from her kitchen table. And yes, a wife and mom, at last. And, a follower of Jesus Christ. And I am addicted to bubble-baths.

    After reading the column, I am tempted to see my husband’s reaction if I were to answer “I’m a wife.” LOL! Being a guy, he probably would enjoy it! Ha haa.

  16. Sylvie Says:

    See Lianna you always make me think! I thought egalitarian had something to do with being equal, but I had to go look it up to be sure! 🙂

    Louise I love your description.

  17. Jean Says:

    Liana, as always your blog opens up interesting lines of thought. I can’t remember ever saying, “I’m a mom” to define myself. Forget the giggle. I HAVE said, “I’m a suburban housewife” with a smirk, but only to people that I have known for YEARS, particularly from NY, that I happen to run into. That’s because the idea of me being a suburban housewife is very funny to people that knew me in my single days in Manhattan.

    We are the sum total of our lives and experiences. I cannot imagine a man saying, “I’m a dad” when asked what he does, unless he is a fully committed SAHD. I love being a wife and mother, I’m committed to keeping our family happy and healthy, but my brain didn’t shrivel up when I had kids.

    I’ve never thought of my own mother as a “mom”. She was a docent at the Met, a fierce tennis player, a costume designer for our school plays, a health food addict (bleah, this was in the 60’s and 70’s), a moralist, a co-conspirator, a shopping and traveling companion. She’s still the person I turn to first when I’m sad or confused.

    I wonder how she defined herself when we were little. I need to ask. But back then, nearly all the women she knew were wives and mothers from their early 20’s on. Maybe it was unnecessary to define oneself?

    I can only hope that my children will someday define me by all that I do–I design jewelry, I sew, I decorate, I read, I garden, I climb trees, I can do math in my head very quickly and know very, very, very many words 🙂 DS and I go on every night and he is quite impressed. LOL.

  18. Definitions | this woman's work Says:

    […] late to the party but Liana had a really interesting post about how we think of ourselves. I’m gonna quote her some here: […]

  19. starfish Says:

    I loved this post! I feel the same way about automatically identifying myself as a “mom” as if it’s the only thing I am. However, I think I’m less likely to do that because I am a FT working mom (dad stays home) and I’m a relatively new mom. I find that the women who do that have been home for a long time and don’t have anything else to identify with. Many women are okay with that (those I suspect many of them say they are, and aren’t), and have lived their lives with the end goal of putting everything into motherhood. I’m like you – there’s so many other things about me, and most ultimately make me a better mom.

    starfish’s last blog post..There’s been knitting…

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