When I noted in our identity series that others are often more willing to take us SAHMs seriously when they know we had an impressive pre-child resume, two of my working friends pointed out that perhaps the thoughtless friend in my anecdote truly didn’t know how to make conversation with a stay-at-home mother. I have certainly met moms who can’t talk about anything other than their own children, just as I’ve met professionals who can’t talk about anything other than their job. Both types are dull, right? Quite often, the best conversationalists are also the best listeners, so I think it’s always wise to try to draw out the other person in the conversation. If she’s a stay-at-home mom and you’re not, here are a few suggestions that I have. Honestly, I think these principles are true when making conversation with anyone. Readers, please chime in with more suggestions below!
DON’T say, “Wow, you’re a SAHM? I just don’t know how you do it!”
I find this statement puzzling. How often do we say that to adults in other career paths? “Oh, you’re a lawyer—I don’t know how you do it!” “Oh, you’re a philosopher? I just don’t know how you do it!” “Oh, you’re an accountant? I just don’t know how you do it!” “You’re a plumber? I just don’t know how you do it!” Sounds pretty silly, right? I think it’s because we assume that people in those professions are, well, professionals. I know “how they do” their professions: they’ve invested time in learning the skill sets and work hard at them, year after year. How am I different? I’ve been called to run a home and raise a family. I actually invest more time than I did in my pre-children 8-5 job. I’m an expert on my kids in particular, and I’m pretty confident in handling the under-10 age bracket in general.
I’m often at a loss for words when people say this to me; I’m not sure what kind of answer they’re expecting. I’ll give most folks the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re not really doubting my ability to handle a household. Are they giving me an underhanded compliment, wanting me to thank them for the praise? That’s not a conversation starter. Are they trying to explain why they’re not staying home with their kids, wanting me to affirm their career choice? Are they honestly curious about how my day runs, wanting how-to details? When I’ve attempted to explain how our life goes, the conversation quickly devolves into comparisons between their children and mine, and how their children are so difficult that they could never stay home with them full-time. As if I only spend all day with my kids because they’re angels!
With that pet peeve off my chest, I think in general, asking someone directly about their job is a limiting question. I remember reading in a travel book years ago that Europeans find it extremely tacky when Americans meet someone and immediately ask where they work, because it’s like asking how much money they make, and that’s personal information. I don’t know if that’s still the case, but I do consciously try to engage new people with more general questions. So here are a few conversation starters I’ve used in the past week with spouses of law students visiting our house for dinner, fellow moms at the soccer field, and the neighbor’s nanny, who brings her daughter along while caring for the neighbor kid.
“Where are you from originally?” In the college town where I grew up, hardly anyone was a lifetime native, so this question was a given whenever we met a new family at church or new neighbors. It’s a great way to find out someone’s backstory, and often work, grad school, or family ties will come up as the reason they’re living here. When the person is a native and I am not, I can follow up with questions about what it was like when they were growing up, best activities to do with guests, etc. If the person has just moved into town, I always try to ask about what they miss about their previous home. I know how hard it is to assimilate to a new place, especially in areas like SoCal where everyone outright says, “aren’t you so glad to live here!” (no, I wasn’t, for several years). When you’re homesick and lonely (and stay-at-home moms often struggle with this upon moving to a new place), it’s wonderful to have an interested and sympathetic listener. And if you’re listening to what she misses, you have immediate inspiration for how to help her fit into her new home (and a vision of what kind of things she values). I’ve also found that it’s really a small world–every place we’ve lived, we run into friends-of-friends, and we often find that out through basic conversations like this.
“How did you and your husband meet?” Every marriage has a story, and I’m amazed at how much detail we women go into when when we tell about how we met, dated, and married our husbands. It’s an easy and fun way to find out a lot about someone’s interests (eg, my friend who met her husband swing dancing in LA!), school background (eg, my friend who met her husband in law school–note that this is way less pert than asking about what she did before she was “just” a sahm, as it’s part of her story but not the whole of her identity), theological convictions (eg, friends who were set up at church, friends whose marriages have involved conversion of one or both spouses), and even what they value in a friend. Quite often, one of those will overlap with my preferences, and we can move the conversation in that direction to find more common ground–books, movies, music, even politics. Just last week, I asked a new friend about how she met her husband, and I got way more than I was bargaining for–a story of mistakes, utter poverty, immigration, divorce, redemption, and unconditional love. Wow! I know so much more about her now (and respect her more than ever), just from asking a one sentence question.
“How did you pick your child’s name?” This is one I use at the pool and soccer when a bunch of moms are sitting around watching practice, and it often tells me a lot about them. Last week, a mom whose son shares my brother’s name said it was a tradition in her husband’s Italian family to pass the name on. Like me, she’s not Italian herself, but I was immediately able to bond with her over marrying into close-knit Italian families. Suddenly our conversation spread to culture, travel, food, and stereotypes. Since two of my girls have the names of Jane Austen heroines, the young, single student who asked me this question last month immediately got excited to talk Austen with another fanatic. In five minutes, we’d covered our respective trips to London and Bath, our favorite characteristics of Austen heroes, our favorite movie adaptations, the best sequels and fanfics (we both confessed to watching the Lizzie Bennet Diaries) and other great books and authors. Quite often, people name their children after characters or people they admire, and in explaining why they admire the name, or how they see that name fitting into their family, they’re telling you about their passions and priorities. You don’t hit a shared heritage or interest jackpot every time with the name question, but I generally find the meanings of names interesting, so at the very least, I get to learn something new.
“How do you know [mutual friend who has introduced you]?” Even if you have nothing in common, you have this friend in common!
“What did you think of that [sermon, concert, dinner, or whatever event you’ve met at]?” I see a lot of my husband’s colleagues at the big annual gala dinner, where keynote speakers are often famous figures in his field. I may not have an advanced degree, but I certainly have opinions on the speakers. We used to attend fundraising dinners for the pregnancy center we still support in Chicago, and we met all kinds of people there. Obviously we had a shared passion for helping women and children in tough situations, and that’s a big thing to have in common. I love to talk about the current sermon series when I meet new people at our church’s coffee hour after the service. One of my good friends (a working mom) loves classical music as much as I, so we try to attend performances together from time to time. Our vocations don’t need to come up as we discuss what we heard.
This post is probably getting too long, so I’ll stop there and see what other suggestions our readers have in the comments. In summary, ask the kinds of questions that are open-ended, aren’t fixated on income-earning activities or resume (although if they are important to the other person, she’s free to bring them up), give lots of opportunity to find common ground, and are easy for her to turn around and ask you back. With the acknowledgement that my working friends who prompted this post know this already, talk to a stay-at-home mom like you would to any other adult! Just because we spend all day, every day with children doesn’t mean we’re incapable of intelligent adult conversation. Whatever you do, please just don’t talk about Frozen!