Hello! I have decided to start a new series called What We Don’t Talk About Out Loud, abbreviated as WWDTAOL. This came about from my passion for advice columns and because I am not exactly neurotypical. That means I have to think about things in my head before saying shit aloud. In addition, I was taught as a kid that I had to control my emotions to the point of never displaying them–unless it was unquestioning loyalty to my father. To this day, I have to process things really quickly in my brain in order to know the appropriate way to react when someone gives me news of any kind.
I had this idea simmering in the back of my head for some time. One thing the last president showed very clearly is how much our society relies on the social contract. Which, ok, I guess for most harmless interactions*, but doesn’t work that well for the President of the fucking United States. Part of the reason he was able to get away with so much shit was because he simply ignored the social conventions and did what he wanted. It’s hard to say whether he ignored the conventions or just didn’t know they existed. He definitely didn’t care. And his almost feral ability to detract from his bullshit by throwing a hissy fit about everything else until no one remembered the initial incident didn’t help the situation.
But what it underlined for me was how much of social propriety is built upon everyone agreeing on basic principles and following the rules more or less. I’m not talking about actual laws but the social rules that coalesce over times. What we call etiquette and something I give the side-eye to in general. For better or worse, however, we have agreed on a general outline of how we should behave on the daily with more specific rules for specific circumstances.
I find this idea fascinating because, again, I am not completely neurotypical about the way I think of things. For example, and this is something I’ve talked about a lot. Children and the lack thereof. I grew up believing I was going to have children because that’s just what people did. More specifically, that was the prime directive for women as rained down upon my head by both the cultures I belong to (American and Taiwanese).
When I was in my early twenties, I realized I didn’t want children. More to the point, I realized I didn’t HAVE to have them. I honestly thought I did up until that point and the relief I felt was immense. What? I didn’t have to be tethered to a sniveling, crying, whining human being for the rest of my life? Hallelujah! Honestly, that’s the same thought I had when I realized I didn’t have to get married, but that’s not the point of this post. When I decided I wasn’t going to have children, I didn’t see anything wrong with telling people who asked that I had made that decision. Mind you, I never brought it up because it was not important to me, but I didn’t hesitate in saying I didn’t want kids when asked.
To me, that seemed like a logical response to the question. I didn’t want kids and didn’t plan on having them, so why not say so? In my mind, it was a two-minute conversation. “Do you have kids?” “No.” “When do you plan on having them?” “I’m not.” “Oh, ok. How about those Vikings?” Then we would move on and nothing more would come of it.
That’s not how that shit went down. After I said I didn’t want children, I’d be greeted by various reactions ranging from incredulity to condescension to anger. Almost thirty years later, I understand why I received all those reactions. At the time, however, I was just bewildered, befuddled, and blown away by the reactions. Why was it such a big deal to other women what I was going to do with my reproductive organs?
That’s what I mean about the things we leave unspoken. Yes, I knew that women were supposed to have children. You can’t be a woman-shaped person in this country without being assailed with those ideas. But it just never occurred to me that it was so engrained in this society that some women took it very personally.
Side note: By far, it’s been women who have asked me about having children and reacting negatively. It was an early look into how women are often the gatekeepers of sexist norms as well as the enforcers. I have my theories about this and I have talked at length about them before. My point is that sexism is so prevalent, many women buy into it/prop it up either knowingly or unknowingly.
Nearly thirty years later, it’s the anger that sticks in my mind. The condescension (‘You’ll change your mind when you’re older’) and incredulity (‘What do you mean you don’t want children?’) have faded into amusement on my part, but the anger? That’s something I still ponder from time to time. At first, I truly didn’t understand why me not having children was an attack on them. I had women claiming that I probably thought they were dumb for wanting children or having them. I cannot stress enough that I simply said I didn’t want children. I never said they were the scourge of humanity and should be eradicated. In fact, I would sometimes say something like, “I like kids, but don’t want them.”
I say that because some of the responses I got were so out of proportion to what I had said. The anger. The attacks. Again, it took time for me to realize that it was because I was questioning the status quo and making them feel uncertain about their own decisions. Many women at that time (the 1990s. I feel depressed writing that because it’s not like it was during the Victorian eras, for fuck’s sake) simply went with the status quo because that’s what they were expected to do.
Anyway, what I want to do with this series is look at times when there is a social norm that is extremely hard to break because I am fascinated by this topic. I’ll try to do at least one post a week, but don’t hold me to it. This really is mostly for me.
*Requisite blah blah blah society norms blah blah blah everyone is different blah blah blah.**
**I actually believe this, but it’s not the point of this post.