This guest post is by Megan Carlson. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page.
When I was ten years old, a friend’s mom said—to my face—that she felt sorry for me because of how hard my mom worked. She was “worried about how I would turn out.” My mom, a graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School and entering into a field, at that time, heavily dominated by men, was somehow an unfit role model for her daughter in the southern eyes of women in our community.
My parents, though, carried on in discarding gender roles. My dad had me in the lab with him on Saturdays running “experiments” at the age of six, and my mom decided to keep being a great physician despite the questioning looks and muttered concerns. However, in spite of their great efforts in molding a daughter who was fearless, I still had issues with confidence and self-doubt, something that was invisible to most. Luckily, my professors at Auburn and Clemson saw the weight of my insecurity bearing down on me, and day by day they chipped away at it until I discovered what it felt like to move freely.
Brad was a financial analyst for three years. It was then he decided, for a variety of reasons (all of them good), to quit his job, go back to school for a year, and then apply to dental school. When he got accepted, people asked me, “How excited are you?” “Aren’t you just so proud of him?”
At the news of Brad getting into the University of Louisville Dental School, I quit my job, moved from Indianapolis to Louisville, and found a new job at a community college teaching freshman composition. I then went through the process of applying to PhD programs and deciding between some outstanding schools.
After months of discussion and angst, I landed on my dream program at the University of Michigan. I couldn’t help but remember Brad’s time of being accepted, and so I waited, looked forward to you might say, to the questions directed at me. In no particular order, here they are: “What about your marriage?” “Is Brad upset?” “Is your PhD program online?”
I remember when a boss of mine called me in for an annual review, and told me that when I was hired, I was viewed as a “peppy thing,” but now, based on my performance, I had gained the respect of my male administration.
I remember when I met a dental school professor, and that professor asked me, “So what do you do … like outside the home?”
I remember when a person asked me what I did for a living, and when I told him I was a teacher, he chuckled and said, “Of course you are, you pretty little thing.”
I remember when a male colleague, upon hearing when I got my master’s, said, “Ohhhhhhh, well look at you go!” in the tone a father has when his child successfully colors in between the lines.
And I remember hearing that question, “Is your PhD program online?” and wanting to snap, wanting to scream: No! My five year PhD program, where they accept 4-6 people a year, is not online. Yes, my career is important; yes, I want to advance in my career. I have aspirations to serve a greater population. I am smart. I am talented. And I love to be challenged.
But I also know that if I snap at those questions that make me feel hurt, insulted, guilty, angry … that I am immediately labeled as weak, irate, emotional, and the crowd pleaser: oversensitive.
Some may argue: But Meg, those are fair questions. And maybe they are if both parties receive them, but do you know how many people asked Brad or myself about the state of our marriage as we went from two household incomes to one, and as I quit my job and moved to a new city where I knew no one? Do you know how many asked if I was upset, or if Brad’s dental school program was online? Not a single person.
I have struggled, my entire life, with issues of confidence, because as soon as I feel like I’ve found my place where I’m being challenged and my craft is evolving, someone—no, a crowd of people step in and remind me of “my place.”
I know that no one means any harm by those questions about my career choices; that’s what makes them so dangerous and tricky. These seemingly innocent micro-questions imply so many things … that Brad can run off and do what it takes to have a career that fulfills him because that’s what he’s supposed to do. We nod our heads and congratulate him because that makes sense to us. But me …? Sure, I can do the same, as many may eagerly point out, but I also simultaneously get the pleasure of navigating a sea of guilt and shame over advancing my career. And I find myself with tearful eyes staring back at that mother who questioned how my mom was raising me and asking myself: What will it take for it to be different … and therefore the same?
Thank you, Megan, for this arresting reminder of what some might call, “benevolent sexism.” I, like many of us I guess, struggle to live a new and different story while enmeshed in an old story still present from our own past and in our culture. And so, I would invite a “snap” or two now and then from you; compassionate snapping is pure gold and sometimes even life-changing.