On my morning flight yesterday I sat next to a woman who asked me (after we’d started a conversation) if I had children. When I told her I didn’t, she didn’t pass any comment, ask me any prying questions, or shift away from me in her seat. Instead, we had a long discussion about helicopter parents, parenting as a competitive sport, and the pressures of being a teacher in this age. She offered her opinions and accepted mine without even a sniff of condescension at my lack of hands-on parenting experience. She told me about her children—a psychology student daughter, who doesn’t take any crap from guys, and a son who’s a successful white rap artist. She told me, without gushing, that she was very proud of her children, that she loves them very much, but if she had it to do all over again, she’s not sure she would. This was one of the most refreshing conversations I’ve had on the subject of motherhood in a long time, but it was strangely unnerving. I’ve come to expect certain reactions from people when I tell them I don’t have children; I’ve come to expect that look of skepticism when I give an opinion on parenting. My expectations may have come from experience, but they’ve created my own form of prejudice. I expect mothers to judge me in a certain way, and sometimes, they just don’t.
A couple of years ago Jose and I went to The Museum of Tolerance here in L.A. My parents grew up in England during the Second World War, so I’m interested in that period of history, and I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust. MOT is a beautifully designed museum, both the external building, and it’s interior content. But we ended up leaving after only half an hour. Here’s why:
The museum only offers guided tours. You have to travel in a group and stop for the prescribed amount of time at each exhibit and be given all the information either by audio, or by watching a video, or reading. There’s no lingering over especially interesting bits and no jumping forward over areas that don’t grab your attention. For me (and this is a highly rated museum, so this is just my opinion) I felt that I was being force-fed my Holocaust education. The Museum of Tolerance wasn’t very tolerant of my ignorance.
Now, I’m an adult who took a free day from work and chose to visit this museum for my own edification. I have a college education, so I know how to learn under my own power. I wanted to be trusted to take the information and form my own thoughts. I wasn’t given that chance, and so I left, sadly, with my education.
I think that the majority of people out there in the world don’t understand the decision to be childfree and don’t understand how it feels to be childless-not-by-choice. I would say that most of us didn’t understand it either before we had that experience. I believe that we have an obligation to educate, to explain, to show people the other side of the story, but we can’t force-feed that education. The people in the restaurant last week got my back up with their closed minded opinions, but stomping over there and giving them a piece of my mind would have accomplished what? Nothing. Those people didn’t want to be educated, especially not by a complete stranger.
What I can do is work with the people who do mean something to me. When a well meaning (genuinely well-meaning, because there are some actual mean people out there) says something upsetting I have the choice to take the opportunity and explain my side of the story and why I’m upset, or let it go. Getting my hair all on fire and yelling about how insensitive they are isn’t going to help.
We need to talk, educate, explain, show, but only when the audience is willing and only for as long as they’re willing to listen. Bit-by-bit, we can tell our side of the story, and bit-by-bit, we can change the way other people view us.
After last week’s post about the overheard conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about tolerance and about trying to understand one another. I think that, as a group, we childless women often feel (and often are) misunderstood. We feel that people don’t think before they say things that hurt our feelings, that people with children make assumptions about the type of people we are, that employers assume that, because we don’t have kids, we are the go-to people for extra work. We’re always ready to stand up for one another whenever there’s an injustice done to one of our sisters. I love that about us.
And yet, even among ourselves, we have different frames of reference. There are those of us who are physically unable to have children; those of us who are emotionally unwilling, because of our circumstances; there are those of us who don’t have the opportunity to be parents; those of us who are childless by choice; and those of us who never had the desire for children. And even within those groups, each of us has a different story to tell about how ended up here on this site, looking for other women like us. Each of us looks at our situation through our own personal filters—just like those people out there who look through their own filters and see us differently than we see ourselves, who look at a childless person and see something they cannot understand.
So, I’m writing on a theme this week. It’s a bit of an experiment, so if the wheels fall off by Wednesday, just come back next week and everything should be back to normal. But for this week, I’m writing about tolerance. Stay tuned.