The other day I was on the phone with a close friend. We hadn't spoken in a while and had a lot of catching up to do and only 15 minutes or so in which to do it. It needed to be a speedy call, but a deep one since we missed each other, so we dove right in.
We hit all the main targets of a typical phone call with a fellow mom friend. How are things? How are the kids doing? How's the marriage? How are your folks? What are all doing this coming [enter upcoming holiday, school event, cultural tradition here]?
We were at about minute 13 when I heard her familiar "Let's wrap this up" sounds start. We had gotten to the "Well, I'd better let you go" step in the phone-call-ending dance we've been performing for years when I realized that I didn't know the first thing about how my friend was. I didn't know what she was planning or what she was working on creatively. I didn't know what she was looking forward to, or dreading, or anticipating. I didn't know if she was happy, or sad, or tired, or fulfilled, or gleeful. I had no idea because I hadn't asked, and she hadn't volunteered. We had had nearly an entire conversation in which we had discussed every aspect of our lives except that most personal to us: ourselves.
I see this phenomenon increasingly as I inhabit the role of a professional mother. People decreasingly ask how I am when we meet or converse, instead asking me how my children are. Honestly, sometimes I don't even notice when it happens because I'm so happy to talk about my Smartlings, how fantastic they are, and what interesting people they are becoming. My daughters are my two of my favorite subjects, and so I have in the past happily gone along with the conversation when the subject turns to them. It is easy to do, and it is an enormous mistake.
Because I've gone along with this conversational gambit, it has become habit with some people in my life. A few years ago I was joking with my Smartner as we were on our way to visit a relative's house about a new drinking game that I had invented: If anyone at the house we were visiting asked me how I was before asking me how the girls are, I got to drink the entire bottle of whatever alcohol was nearest to me. Wine, beer, Fireball, creme de menthe: It was all fair game. Needless to say, the joke was on me. I was a threat to no bottle that night as no one asked me how I was at all. Not once.
That's when I began to notice how common this occurrence is. Among friends, among family, among acquaintances, I am most often invited into conversation by way of my children, as if that is all I have to talk about. As if being their mother is all that I am. As if I am not a person with an experience outside of them.
I don't think this is some kind of sexist conspiracy to demean me or diminish my personhood. After all, these are people who ostensibly like me I'm talking about here. Maybe the cause of this erasure is our cultural lack of imagination when talking to mothers, especially stay at home mothers. After all, aren't their children literally their world once their families and occupations fuse? Perhaps it is more indicative of a difficulty in identifying with people outside of their professions. But I've noticed that people are able to first ask my Smartner how he is before asking how work is going for him. He is identified first as an individual before being identified with his career. At times, I am granted neither consideration. And, if my phone call with my friend is representative of how I speak with my fellow mothers, at times I fail to grant that consideration to others and to myself.
A few years ago, just after my younger Smartling was born, I read an essay titled "The Mom Stays in the Picture" that really spoke to me. In it, the author talks about the importance of literally getting in the picture—not hiding from cameras or photo ops—with her children in spite of never feeling as beautiful or camera-ready as she once did. She fights against self-erasure by forcing herself to get in front of the lens rather than focusing it entirely on her children. She insists that she exists as a person by intentionally documenting her personhood photographically. It is a small step and an important one in the battle against the erosion of self that the construction of motherhood engenders in so many women.
We must do the same in conversation. When I and other mothers neglect to assert our own identity when speaking with others, it both erases us in the short term and encourages our interlocutors to erase us in further conversation. After all, if it's true that we teach people how to treat us, by agreeing to engage with others only in terms of our children, we are perpetuating the problem of maternal effacement in conversation. It's inconsiderate when others neglect to acknowledge our individuality; it's irresponsible when we let them.
For my part, I'm going to quit passively laughing at the thought of drinking an entire bottle of Amaretto (that laughter became more bitter the longer we made that joke, anyway) and start gently reminding people that I have interests outside of my children. When asked "How are the kids?" before asked how I am, I'll smilingly reply, "They're great! And so cooperative with my new writing schedule," or "They're great! We've really been enjoying Seattle's art scene together," or, most likely, "They're great! We've been working hard on learning Lafayette's 'Guns and Ships' rap because OH MY GOD HAVE YOU HEARD HAMILTON YET?"
And, I swear, family and friends, I promise to ask how you are. I want to know. Because you are my people, it's important that I know. And if I get lazy and forget to ask in the heat of kid-involvement and chaos, please, PLEASE tell me anyway. I even fully empower you to look me in the eye and say "I'M A PERSON, TOO!" before launching into your story. I hope you won't have to, but feel free to call me on it. It's for the better.
As for that phone call, I pressed on in our last minute and a half and asked my friend pointedly, "But what are YOU up to? What are YOU doing?" It was a wonderful communicative pivot that yielded so much good. She's working on a fantastic new creative project that I might not otherwise have known about, is excited for an upcoming collaborative venture, and looking forward to completion on a huge house project. Without my having explicitly asked, I wouldn't have known any of these significant goings-on going on in her life, in her mind, in her heart. Those last 90 seconds in which she shone in our conversational spotlight brought us closer and cemented our friendship. It was a small gesture that yielded great beauty—a gem in the midst of our hurried dialogue.
I want to know my people. I want my people to know me. It's time to insist that that happen, talk by talk, chat by chat, conversation by conversation.