As we continue our series on motherhood and identity this week, I wanted to talk a little about all the different places we find our identity today. If I asked you to tell me about yourself, what would you say? Do you identify yourself by your ethnic heritage, the place where you were raised, the sports teams you follow, your IQ, your hobbies, your career, your relationships?
I would answer that question differently depending on when you asked me. I met my husband (and Anna and her husband) my first day on campus in college, at a retreat for the honors program. I spent the next four years of my life with this incredibly interesting, smart, and fun group of people, and I ended up by being its student president for a year and a half. I had a strong academic reputation at college, and it was one for which I worked hard and of which I was proud. Within three months of graduating summa cum laude, I got married and moved to a new place, where no one knew anything about me. While my husband was commencing a brilliant law school career, complete with prestigious internships and post-school job offers, I found a job teaching at a little Christian school, and when the school shut down, moved on to Starbucks. Nobody at work cared about my full-tuition college scholarship, all the awards I won in college, or my IQ. At work, my identity was the “mean teacher” (because I expected my students to do their homework) and then the “goodie-goodie barista” (because I didn’t come to work high or hung over). Then I had my son, and I was “just” a mom–and have been ever since. What I find interesting about my “public” identity over the past 20 years is how much it is influenced by external things–my class standing in high school, my GPA and leadership positions and clubs in college, my paycheck after college, and now my lack of a paycheck.
As a mom, my intelligence is automatically suspect; if I were smart, wouldn’t I be earning money? At my husband’s work parties, I often find myself stressing that I homeschool our kids, as if being a full-time mother wasn’t enough. While homeschooling is certainly a big part of my identity at this stage in life, I fear that I usually add that mostly because it sounds more impressive to a table full of people with multiple advanced degrees. Maybe I’ve truly gotten more confident in my homemaker status, but I do honestly feel like those powerful, successful people look at me a little differently than they did when I was “just” home with a houseful of preschoolers and babies. I’ll never forget introducing two of my girlfriends, both graduates of Ivy League universities, to each other. The successful working friend had little interest in my stay-at-home mom friend until my husband purposefully dropped the housewife’s alma mater into the conversation. Suddenly this “mere” homemaker was worth talking to–and indeed, the conversation centered around her and Ivy League comparisons for the rest of the visit. I asked my husband later if he’d noticed how rapidly my friend had gone from not-worth-talking-to to worthy-of-sustained-conversation, and he agreed that the look in our prestigious friend’s eye when she realized who this housewife “really” was cracked him up. But is that who she “really” is? We’d been friends for months before I noticed her college diploma up on a wall in their apartment, and in that time, I already knew that she was a total kindred spirit, a wise and generous friend with whom I can discuss breastfeeding, Jane Austen, the theology of spiritual gifts, and politics, all in one conversation. In fact, most of my posts on this blog have their roots in conversations I’ve had with her! My perception of my friend didn’t change when I saw her official credentials, because I already knew that she was a very smart, well-educated woman who had embraced the calling to stay home and raise her (equally smart) sons. Her Ivy League education is certainly a part of what made her who she is, but to be honest, I’ve met her mom (another housewife), and I think she gets way more credit for her amazing daughter than any East coast professor. So I guess it’s always rubbed me the wrong way when people assume that those with impressive degrees and prestigious jobs must be smart, while those of us who lack both of those must also lack intelligence or ambition.
We’ll talk more about how earning potential seems to relate to identity next week, but for now, let’s remember an impressive-sounding degree or a prestigious job does not trump our life-long identity as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, friends!