What it feels like
We had a special project this week in the newsroom.
A tab all about women. Women in leadership. Women in the workplace. Women and how they live in “a man’s world.”
I felt like Jane Goodall in that editorial meeting. I sat, utterly fascinated, listening as a handful of men sat around me — the only woman in the newsroom, mind you — brainstorming which women to reach out to for interviews and why (or why not), which questions to ask them, what would be relevant to explore about a woman’s experience, what would not be relevant as a focus for each interview, and the repeated use of the phrase “man’s world.”
“Is it a man’s world,” seemed to be the ultimate question at which we decided to strike collectively in our individual interviews. And it struck me that the gaping chasm between the lived experience of men and that of women is no more bridged today than it ever was, really. Empathy is possible but true, authentic understanding between men and women just is not.
I had to lean pretty hard, during that meeting, in advocating for interviewing a stay-at-home mom. Having been one, I can tell you that it is not an easy position to take up, one calling for a fierce woman with one heck of a deep well of love and grit to excel. It felt sacrilegious, as a woman, not to advocate for the inclusion of that perspective.
Of course, the stay-at-home mom was one of my two interview subjects. And, of course, I wanted her. Not only do I recognize her to be a good mom, with children close to my own children’s ages, but I knew she’d be a fruitful, easy interview and, most enticing for me, I knew that she was someone I could connect with on a personal level.
We spent over an hour in this woman’s dining room Thursday morning, while one son entertained himself quietly in the other room (I remain convinced that she could be running a lucrative side hustle just teaching other moms how to achieve longer periods of uninterrupted in-home conversations with peers, by the way), and the other played quietly upstairs in his bedroom. Over the course of 90 minutes, we laughed together, talking over her experience, our shared experiences, and the places where our experiences could never, ever be reconciled with one another. And I was right. We totally got each other, which made her story a breeze to write later that afternoon.
It struck me, reading back through my notes on our interview as I sat down to do just that, how we’d spent a lot of time discussing the overwhelm, the frustration, the lunacy, and the many other negative aspects of choosing to stay home with children rather than to work outside the home. All of the reasons that, for me, it was not a sustainable path. Just looking at my notes, one might think that my subject and I had done nothing but crab about the nastiness of motherhood. But that wasn’t the case.
In fact, we spent the majority of our time honestly, authentically cackling over the absolute madness of motherhood. The utter irrationality of the entire undertaking. While we had two very different sets of circumstances, two very different sets of lived experiences, and two very different futures as mothers, we could easily meet one another squarely in the middle in a place of total understanding and, even better, acceptance of our many inglorious moments.
We talked about how it can feel when you’re exclusively home as if you’re standing in a room full of people screaming your desperate need for connection while a few people barely look up to see what it is you’re whispering. We discussed how easy it can be for resentments to grow for partners and how hard it can be to reach out to request even a fraction of the help that we need a fraction of the times when we need it for fear of being shamed by others or, worse, ourselves. And we mulled over the fact that a father can spend two hours out in the community alone with a child and be praised like a king for doing the very bare minimum of his duty as a parent while a mother can put in hundreds of hours a week in direct care and find herself judged by stranger after stranger for the slightest perceived hostility, exhaustion, shortness, or ineffectual parenting in the produce section or at the playground or in a restaurant.
We talked about how choosing to stay at home means you can’t afford to go to restaurants. Or movies. Or to have second cars. Or a multitude of other niceties.
We each quietly grieved, in some small measure, our lives — our selves — before our children were born and, as children of course do, demanded their due offerings of significant portions of each.
We talked about “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and a little hypothesis I’ve had on simmer for months now — that husbands who watch the show do so mostly because their wives are obsessed with it, and some even enjoy it, but that not a single one of them can pick up on the subtly enormous nonverbal content filling out every last line of dialogue, and that most miss entirely an essential element of the story itself because of that deficit — was once again validated.
This interview, you guys? It was the first thing I’ve done for work in weeks that did not feel, even a little bit, like work.
As a woman who seems to do well (I mean maybe there’s a whole other narrative being told when I’m not around, but I’m pretty confident in my perception at this point) in a traditionally male work environment, I have dealt with my share of unrecognized, subtle, and often unintentional discrimination.
Boys-only bowling leagues, for example.
People calling to complain that I mistyped their letters to the editor, or expressing astonishment that managing my managing editor’s social schedule do not constitute the lion’s share of my daily functions in this newsroom.
Having to lean hard to have my opinions heard and validated on a project about women who thrive in male-dominated professional environments.
And I’ve learned this:
Men can appreciate women. Men can advocate for women, and empathize with women, and love women, and want every bit of the best for women, and men can realize that the women they love face barriers and challenges that they do not.
But there is no way that a man can ever, ever understand what that feels like.
White men, especially, can never ever claim to know what it is to be excluded from something relevant to them to their well-being, because of some physical aspect of theirs. Some (ultimately) trivial thing having to do with the way they look on the outside has never prevented white men from participating in society.
White women enjoy the next best level of privilege in most of society, and we would do well to be humbled by that, but we still have an understanding of what it is to be excluded based on the equipment we carry.
Not a hundred years ago.
I cannot go bowling on certain days, with certain people, at certain places, because I am a woman you guys. That’s a thing that still happens.
Women who choose not to work have to be advocated for when projects about women in the community are being assigned.
To their credit, the men I work with in no way try to exclude me based on gender. When there is inequality in treatment, it’s not intentional, and it’s to some extent so expected as to go unnoticed until later in many cases. And, if I’m honest, I’m more comfortable around men, more trusting of men, and more likely to thrive in a room full of men than I am in a room full of women. Just, in general. Because although the double bind is so ingrained in our culture that it exists, on men’s part, mostly without conscious awareness, what women have resorted to doing to one another in response to discrimination — to the expanded set of barriers we face in nearly every endeavor — is beyond visceral, and cruel, and dangerous.
And it’s sad. It’s sad to me that women have been forced into a position where we even need to remind one another that we should be lifting one another up in a collective effort at ascension, rather than tearing one another down in an effort to achieve individual glory.
So. That’s just a thing I was casually thinkin’ over today.
Also, noodles. And how much I like them.
It’s kind of a mixed bag, up here in my nugget.