FeminismPoliticsPregnancy & Childbirth

Get Out of My Head! Frustrating Assumptions about Mothers

Something magical happened when I got pregnant. Apparently, my skull went clear and suddenly everyone could see my thoughts before I knew them; and amazingly enough, those thoughts and motivations aligned perfectly with those of the person seeing them.

I was suddenly pro-life, pro-choice, pro-exclusively breastfeeding, pro-formula, religious, atheist, an avid SAHM, a working mother, a conservative, a crunchy liberal. The odd thing was I had NO idea I was any of these things until people told me, and I was like a chameleon, obliviously becoming exactly what each person expected me to be—before I even opened my mouth.

Most people I attempted to correct politely brushed my words aside. Clearly, they knew my true thoughts and motivations better than I did.

When my behavior differed from what they saw through my transparent skull, there was instant disapproval. “Tsk” muttered the man behind me in line as I bought beer for a party while pregnant. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” strangers asked when they learned my pregnant belly and I were running a half-marathon (though they may have been referencing the fact I was also fat, apparently fat folks don’t run distances).

Because of my children’s long NICU stay, I didn’t interact with people outside the hospital much until they were months old. By then, I was more confident and less willing to play nice because I’d had too much truly awful crap occur to care about being nice when people made assumptions.

But often I found myself speechless and too taken aback to say anything, as at one of the first parties I attended after becoming a mom.

We were discussing teaching careers, and I bemoaned the fact that our area does not make it easy for military spouses like myself to teach. Schools were willing to hire me as a substitute for less than it would cost to put my children in daycare, but not as a teacher. It’s a pet peeve of mine and I tend to rant. Someone asked if I planned to return to the classroom when we moved.

I paused, intending to say I wasn’t sure, that I had found a job that paid better by the hour but needed more hours, that teaching was rewarding but the educational environment had changed for the worse since NCLB, and the impending Common Core made me skeptical that I could teach the way I loved, but that teaching was an integral part of who I was.

I paused because the answer was complicated, and in the space I left, a party-goer looked through my clear skull and saw my true motivations. “Of course she’s not. She has children now.”

The one person in the room who knew me well hid her laugh in a drink, but the rest accepted the answer as a given. Apparently, I was a SAHM at heart, despite the fact I’d worked for the last 20 years and had always felt odd in those occasional months between jobs.

Sometimes, the assumptions occur without words in the choices I have not been offered. People regularly assume I don’t want a drink if I’m at an event with my children where everyone has a a glass of beer or wine. This is despite the fact I have generally been a responsible drinker, and would make the decision regarding its safety myself if offered. People make choices for me and only inform me of them after the fact.

It is done casually and without thought, as if people had an internal time machine that took them back to the 1800s, but only when dealing with a woman who has given birth. As mothers we are trusted to raise helpless infants to adulthood, but not to makes some choices for ourselves socially, and (much more seriously) medically.

A few months ago, I went to the doctor for pain in my hand and feet. He reassured me that new mothers often feel twinges of pain because of all the extra movement that went into taking care of children. “But, my thumb goes numb,” I protested. It seemed more than just “twinges.”

When I went in for a second opinion, the other doctor diagnosed me with carpel tunnel syndrome in my hand, and sent me to a specialist who found a bunion that affected my gait which in turn made my feet hurt. Neither of which had anything to do with my being a mother, and both of which have treatments that have made the pain disappear. I can imagine how dangerous the dismissiveness of the first doctor would have been had my medical issues been more serious.

I knew this was a widespread problem, but it felt especially strange in those moments when I saw it happening to me. So, of course I googled it. Because my first search was vague, I found article after article on how to maintain your sense of self once you become a parent.

Maintaining a sense of self hasn’t been a problem for me.

Sure, I’ve changed. I don’t take as good of care of myself. I take my kids everywhere. I don’t sleep much. I am (if possible) less reliable because my schedule is dependent on the needs of two special needs toddlers. But for the most part, everything people assume comes from being a mother is a part of my personality that led me to teaching.

The things that made me a good teacher translate pretty easily to being a mom: I explain things simply and check for understanding because that’s the only way I know how. I am flexible and adaptable, because I’ve had 15 years of rolling with the punches as a teacher. I tend toward no-nonsense but nurturing because those traits also made me a good teacher. I write everything down, plan ahead and notice details because I wrote lesson plans, differentiated instruction, and reflected on my lessons for a decade and a half.

I don’t feel like I’ve lost myself; but that others have lost me, and instead prefer to plaster over me with their images of what I should or should not be. It is annoying, but many days I’m too tired, too hurried, too busy wrangling toddlers, or too polite to correct them.

And in that way, I am part of the problem. I frequently fall back into the false idea that the person pointing out that a commonly accepted action or phrase is inappropriate is rude for doing so, when the initial action or phrase itself is the problem.

So, while I don’t accept responsibility for my apparently clear skull and motives obvious to everyone but me, I have decided to accept responsibility for helping people realize that they are looking into a mirror, and not my brain.

And for telling them politely to knock it the hell off.

Image: Girl with a Book by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, can be found here.


Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

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  1. There are so many important observations packed in this post. Not least is the reality that most people don’t actually care what your opinion is if you are a mother. We are so often ciphers to be spoken for, not heard from.

  2. Well, said, Deek. I’ve been mulling this one over a bit – not because I have any insights to offer about Clear Skull Syndrome and parenthood in particular, but it seems to me to be related to the phenomenon of pregnancy and parenthood as particular moments when women become a sort of public utility – after all, you’re having babies and helping all of humanity out by moving those genes forward, so we all get to comment on what you do and how you do it. I know people who justify their rude and intrusive comments by claiming that “It takes a village to raise a child”. All I can think is, that village is pretty bossy and I’m not sure I’d want to live there. Taken to the logical conclusion, you can write a universe of dystopian fiction where pregnant women are protected from any sort of personal agency, because they live in service to the womb.

    I will note, too, that this happens for those of us who choose not to have kids. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told I would regret it, that I would immediately think differently if I ever found myself pregnant, that I should have a child because I couldn’t possibly know I wanted one until I had one, or the assumption that we’ve tried every sort of heroic measure to make babies. (And now, I get the post-menopausal versions of those comments – the sad shaking of heads, and a “how sad that you never…”)

    SO – is Clear Skull Syndrome related to Uterus Possession? Golly, could it be?

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