Sunday, 4 March 2012

But What About Me?

Sometime in the past year or so, I was skimming through a magazine produced by my undergraduate college -- the kind of publication sent to alums and others, probably mostly for the purposes of inspiring donations to the college, but of moderate interest anyway for the articles and other news items.

Not surprisingly, this publication's articles focus on interesting and unusual things being done by graduates of the college, as well as current faculty and students. I almost always find something of interest to read.

In this particular issue of the publication, I was struck by a letter written by a fairly young graduate of the college ('young' in this context means only 'younger than I am'). She was complaining about the fact that the publication focuses too much on people who have had interesting, successful careers or who are involved in other time-consuming activities such as volunteering. She is a self-described "stay-at-home" mom with 2 young kids, and so she doesn't "see herself" in the magazine. This made her feel alienated and it made her also feel that perhaps, in the eyes of the college, she was kind of a failure.

That letter is something I would classify as a But What About Me? kind of letter, and I found it puzzling for several reasons. OK, in some ways I could understand it -- after all, this entire blog is like one long But What About Me? letter -- but I was nevertheless puzzled by a few things, such as:

1. I can certainly appreciate her point that a relentless message that career = success, no career = failure, would be demoralizing (if you saw things that way and let them get to you) or at least dismaying, but I have seen articles in this college publication about the decisions women make about career and family, and there is frequent mention of career-family issues. There are more articles about this than there are about science professors. Did this particular woman miss these articles, or did the fact that most articles are about people with interesting careers somehow obliterate the presence of the family-focused articles?

2. Does she really want to read approving articles about stay-at-home moms in more issues of this particular publication? I couldn't relate to this: I don't want to read more articles about people like me. I want to read about different people.

3. And that leads me to my next question: How do we define different? Perhaps the woman who wrote the letter has only two bins: women with careers (= different from her) and women staying home to raise their kids (= same as her). And perhaps others have different bins: for example, when I read an article about a woman who has had a career as a musician, film-maker, dancer, writer, artist etc., I am interested because I am learning something new about someone with a very different life. Similarly, a woman who has decided to stay home with the kids has a different life from me, and although I might not be so fascinated to read about her daily life, there are interesting aspects of it, including the decision to do this, what happens when the kids are older etc. It's just a different bin. I don't identify with the dancer more than with the stay-at-home mom just because the dancer and I are both pursuing careers. That's my perspective as someone with a career and a family, anyway.  Perhaps this perspective also stems from the fact that some of my best friends from college have stayed home to raise their kids, and I don't think of them as alien 'others'; we still have a lot in common.

So then I started thinking about this concept of bins, and how many we see when we look at the rest of the world, recognizing that the number changes depending on context. In the specific context of my reading my college glossy-mag, I think my bins are scientists and non-scientists. Within the non-scientists bin, there are many possibilities, including ballerinas, politicians, and stay-at-home moms.

This is one of those musing, picking-apart kinds of posts, without the intention of criticizing an individual, in this case the letter writer (although it may seem that way). I am most interested in learning about different perspectives, and in that sense the letter I am describing was very interesting and got me thinking; in fact, I don't remember anything else that was in that particular issue of the college magazine, even though I am sure it was festooned with successful career people.

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