Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why I Don't Like "Things You Should Never Say" Lists

One day on Facebook I posted a list called "6 Stupid Things People Say About Natural Childbirth." I had heard nearly every item on the list and I guess I found it important to share that with the world. But my dear friend Alex, a straight-shooting New Yorker, challenged me. She asked, "How often did this really come up?"

Now, honestly, it came up quite often, though usually not the way you, or she, might assume. It wasn't as if people saw my swelling belly and said, "Are you going to have an epidural, or are you one of those natural birth freaks?" No, what really happened is people would ask if I was going to get induced, because I was miserable and my due date was approaching. Or people might assume I was having a c-section, for whatever reason. Or they might say something about how scared I probably was to have to go through all this again. And since I have a loud mouth and feel VERY strongly about the state of maternal care in this country (which I won't go into in this entry, you'll be relieved to hear), I usually shared that I had an unmedicated birth with my daughter, how wonderful it was, and how I planned (and eventually succeeded) to have a second unmedicated birth with my son. THEN, then they would say the six stupid things on that list.

But when Alex challenged me, it made me think. Is it really so bad if people ask a question about unmedicated birth? Shouldn't I - the teacher - look at that as a teachable moment, an opportunity to share my passion for birth choices and my belief that a woman is entitled to a positive birth experience, whatever that means for her? Isn't informed dialogue a passion of mine, and something I think is sorely lacking from American culture today?

So I started thinking about other lists. And there are many.

5 Things You Should Never Say to a New Mom

13 Things You Should Never Say to a Working Mom

9 Things You Should Never Say to a Stay at Home Mom

8 Things Never to Say to Moms of Multiples

10 Things Not to Say to Moms of Preemies

There are lists that have nothing to do with motherhood, of course.

9 Things Never to Say to Your Husband

9 Things You Should Never Say to Teachers

10 Things to Never Say to a Nurse

The list of lists goes on and on and on.

I don't disagree with the sentiment of these lists. Quite the opposite. Their intent is to educate people, to encourage people to be empathetic and compassionate to others. Unfortunately, though, your average Joe isn't going to seek these lists out. When we repost them on Facebook (or whatever you young kids are using on the InterWebs today), the people most likely to read them are the people who identify with the list themselves. I'll read the ones about plump moms or teachers or natural birth or working moms or people from Kentucky or what have you. I might read the ones about other types of moms - stay at home moms or moms who've experienced c-sections or moms who formula feed - if I have extra time. But will I read "Top Ten Things Never to Say to an Aviator?" Probably not.

My point is while the lists contain a lot of truth, they will most likely never fulfill their intended purposes. These lists alone will not teach people to be more compassionate or open-minded or educated about a topic or what have you. We post these lists and hope people will read them. But when someone says something on the list to us, rather than call them out, we say nothing, then run home and lick our wounds. Honestly, this is passive aggressive.

Instead of posting all the things people should never say to us, why don't we start brainstorming "Ways to Respond if Someone Says Something Offensive about Being ____________ ?" For example, someone might say to me, "Doesn't it kill you that other people are raising your baby?" Sure, it stings, but here's my chance to educate them. Here's my chance to tell them about how the idea that one mom raising all her kids alone is a relatively new concept in the history of humankind. How traditionally extended families and tribes shared the responsibility of child-rearing, and when you find a daycare as fabulous as mine, that's just an extension of that idea. I might also tell them how bad it was for my mental health to stay at home all day with my first kid, that we're all wired differently and I need outside-of-the-mom-gig stimulation. I might even add that I love my job and I like contributing to society as a whole by teaching future generations. I might go on so long that the person really, truly regrets ever making the comment to me in the first place.

Maybe the person made the ignorant comment to hurt me - that's possible - but I find it far more likely that they just need to hear my point of view. And now that they've heard it, maybe they'll think about moms who work outside of the home a little differently.

This is our chance. Our chance to engage in dialogue with people who might view important issues differently than us. This is our chance to educate them about why we've made the choices we've made or why a remark that they barely considered can be so hurtful. This is our chance to stand up for ourselves as women because, yes, nearly all of these lists concern women. Because women still, in the year 2014, find it hard to tell others what they think if they think others don't want to hear it.

Let's stop hiding behind our computers and start telling people what they need to hear. That's how we're going to create a more empathetic and informed society.


rachel leah said...

I agree with you that it is always okay to ask questions, I think it is important. But if I am being really honest, how the question is asked will impact my answer and how informative it is. But that has to do with who I am and my journey. I am the mother of multiples who delivered via c-section and who sought and received fertility assistance with all my children. When I was having trouble conceiving, I felt horribly alone and isolated and I am always happy to discuss my journey, at length, with others. But I always bristle at the questions: 1) "Do twins run in your family?" and 2) "Are your twins natural?" My answer to the first question is "Now they do," and to the second is, "All children are natural." I am never trying to be an asshole, but sometimes I wish that people would ask me what they really want to know, because if the question is genuine, which I can tell if it is, I am happy to open up and talk and help. But maybe people phrase things poorly because they do not know and I should just accept that.

Randi Skaggs said...

Ugh. That's pretty gross. "Are they natural?" Really? It sucks for you and every other woman that hears such a hurtful and ignorant question, but maybe if we all start being frank and honest (in as polite a way as we feel the person deserves), the landscape will shift. I think too many people get away with asking such crappy questions without ever being told how hurtful/ignorant they are. But, yeah, that really sucks.