Years ago, when I was attending Trinity College in Carmarthen, Wales, I had an interesting conversation over a plate of chips and beans. A fellow British student asked me quite earnestly if my home looked like the one in the television series Dallas and then he continued to expand on his low opinion of my perceived status as one of those rich Americans. I nearly choked and it wasn’t because the beans were any less palatable than usual. My reaction was because my reality was so far from what he envisioned that I was frankly a bit gobsmacked.
And I felt a bit gobsmacked by perceptions and differing realities yet again this morning.
There is a writer and blogger whom I’ve been reading for a bit over a year now. Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s blog, Ivy League Insecurities, is filled with bits of her life as a mother living in New York City. And while I have never met Aidan, I feel like I have a pretty good picture of who she is after reading her blog and her book, Life After Yes. So her post, “Wish Me Luck!” pulled at my heart. Not so much the actual post, but the commenter who called her “pathetic”.
Here was a woman whose honest reaction to Aidan is to find her pathetic. We writers and bloggers have to accept negative criticism of our work, words and very selves as soon as we make them public. As a writer and blogger and mother, I too have been judged and it isn’t always easy to find a way to process that judgement.
We all judge and its role in self-preservation cannot be over-looked as an evolutionary by-product. The very act of judging is to collect data, make assumptions of that data based on previous experiences, and to react accordingly. It makes sense to judge an on-coming saber-tooth tiger to be hazardous to one’s health based on previous encounters with saber-tooths. What worked for our ancestors continues to work even to this day. Mostly. But Aidan’s post and then being judged as “pathetic” is a good example of part of the modern equation easily overlooked: the effect of connotation. Data collection today and the ensuing judgement is nuanced by people’s emotional reaction to words. And in this case, I hazard to guess that the commenter who finds Aidan to be pathetic has a powerful reaction to the word “nanny”.
I think this is because when the average lower and middle class American hears the words New York City, nanny, and stay-at-home-mom, the reaction is to think of wealth and privilege and luxury. A person’s movement upwards through societal and economic classifications does not change the impact of connotative reactions; it merely adds layers to those connotations.
Nannies, from my experiences as a low-to-middle class American citizen, are the helpers of the wealthy. I hear “nanny” and the black and white uniformed Amelia Bedelia type figure comes to mind, followed quickly by Scarlett Johansson in the Nanny Diaries. But my non-knee jerking reaction to the word “nanny” is much more complicated and influenced by people I know who have been nannies and people I know who have nannies. I don’t know what a nanny looks like in Aidan’s reality. But what I do know, based on my own experiences and by the comments left on Aidan’s blog, the word nanny is much more powerful and potentially divisive of a word than I had previously thought.
Just how does a word divide us so powerfully into those who have and those who have not? It does it by dredging up our own personal histories. And the truth is, no one knows exactly how their use of words will affect others. We may have fairly astute assumptions, but they are not necessarily accurate for everyone. Additionally, people use words differently. My British friends regularly describe their dessert as “gorgeous” and “brilliant” while my American counterparts would call the same thing “delicious” or “yummy”. Obviously, word usage has idiosyncratic reactions that we cannot easily and universally predict.
In addition, societal norms are geographically and historically influenced. My mother-in-law reminisced about having someone come in to do the laundry and ironing in her childhood home in Houston, Texas in the 50s and early 60s. When I raised my eye brows, she said “everybody had help back then.” Household help in my childhood Northwest in the 70s and 80s was relegated only to the lives of the rich and famous.
But my primary reaction to a woman calling another woman pathetic reminds me of this: when we struggle, it becomes harder for us to be compassionate. Aidan is worried about her ability to cope because she knows herself. And the commenter judged her as an unfit mother because she has a nanny typically help her as a parent.
When we look past our emotional reaction to words, past their quietly powerful impact on our ability to perceive our world and the people who travel alongside ourselves, we are more able to see ourselves and others.
Aidan isn’t pathetic. And the commenter is not so much as judgmental as she is voicing her own pain. Yes, we could be more easily sympathetic to her if she had used different words. Just like that young man who thought I had a life he only dreamt of, so do some mothers perceive others as having an easier time parenting. In reality, no road is easy to travel. And every road leaves us reacting in ways more reflective of our personal experiences than our shared ones.
Be kind. To yourself and to others, for all must find the power to continue walking.