As I drove home today, a memory from my graduate school years in Boston flashed into my head. It was the end of the first year of my PhD program and my cohort had met for a fantastic meal together. We were talking about what we wish we could be doing, what we wanted to do, what we were hoping for our lives. The expected answers for such a group went around, “Grants, tenure, chair, museum head…” They all sounded great to me and all were things I wanted too.
When there was a brief lull in the listing, I briefly threw in, “And you know, I want to get married.”
Immediately, I could tell this was an option that, for some reason, made everyone uncomfortable…and quiet. I could see them thinking, “Married? What kind of desire is that? Slavery! That’s what! Poor Sophia…what can I do to convincer her of her naivete? But…I can’t make her defensive…so…”
I remember answering some polite yet intensely curious questions:
“You mean, like, in ten years right?”
“No. I wouldn’t mind being married right now. I want to be married. I feel ready to be married. I think it would be great being married.”
“Oh…that’s…huh. WELL, huh…”
I became keenly aware that I had put a damper on the party. I had “outed” myself as a stereotype to them and it was confusing. I was the PhD student. I was the single young woman on the town. And I wanted to get married?! At TWENTY-THREE no less! Something unheard of and completely unexpected…something young, single women on the town who are getting their PhDs are not supposed to want. And I was being weird.
But instead of laughing at me or acting incredulous, they just kept asking questions, trying to understand, conceeding points and politely bringing up concerns. Listening. Considering. Acknowledging. It ended up being no big deal after the first shock of stereotype was passed over in their desire to allow difference and understand my individual convictions.
I remembered this experience in contrast to a comment my mother made to me two days ago. I had noticed that she had been making some passive-aggressive comments about the fact I had not changed my name when I got married 9 months ago, so I decided to broach the subject.
“Hey mom, I think my name makes you worried or uncomfortable and so I thought I’d just tell you why I haven’t changed it yet.”
My reasons were varied, but the primary one was simply that I had never felt stoked about the idea in the first place…so I never took the effort (and the legal pain in the rear) to really consider and execute the option. I simply liked my name and it was what I’d always been. My husband felt the same way about his own name. So, we kept ours. Plain and simple.
But before I could cover these reasons, my mom said, “Oh, it’s just because you don’t love your husband enough.”
As the tears welled up in my eyes, I choked out, “Mom…that is not…that…that is very hurtful…that…how could you think?…how”
A response that made her backtrack and insist that it was “only a little joke” and that she was “just teasing” and “didn’t really mean that at all.”
But she did. I knew she did because I had heard her say the same thing about every woman she knew who varied from a straight up last-name-replace at marriage.
And I knew that she had stereotyped me too, judging by the snearing tone she used to say “feminist.”
I hadn’t changed my name and therefore I didn’t love my husband enough and we would inevitably get divorced because I was selfish.
I wanted to get married and therefore I was a naive, brain-washed girl who didn’t know how to be her own person and would inevitably get trapped in a loveless and manipulative patriarichal relationship.
Stereotyped on both sides: this is what life is like on the fence between traditional and modern womanhood. But judging by the way each side dealt with their auto-assumption (and we all make assumptions), I lean toward my cohort. They acted out of a sense of concern and worked past their initial reaction to try and make sure I was making a personal, not a forced or unconsidered, decision. They listened and questioned with respect, even when they thought I was in conflict with their own values. They considered and opened their own lives to a new perspective without fear.
I lean on the fence toward those who are not afraid. I lean away from those who belittle, damn, and silence those who fall into their too-quick-stereotyping. Sometimes I sit on the fence, sometimes I lean on the fence, sometimes I hang on the fence.
And I often hang on the fence. Body all on the sunny side, I look over the picket and into my old yard.