Much Madness is divinest Sense --
To a discerning Eye --
Much Sense -- the starkest Madness --
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail --
Assent -- and you are sane --
Demur -- you're straightway dangerous --
And handled with a Chain --
Shhh….I’m going to tell you a secret. Try not to be too shocked. Ok, are you ready? Here it is: Our society has different expectations for women than for men. Oh, goodness, are you okay? I didn’t mean to just spring it on you like that. I’m sorry. I know what you’re thinking: ‘Really? We haven’t figured it out by now? Suffrage? Women’s lib?’ No, sorry, the car has not pulled into the parking place. The ignition hasn’t been turned off. We’re not there yet.
I realize that you’re still reeling from the first blow, but sit down -- I have another one for you. Art, of any kind, is a hobby, not a career. Adults are supposed to have a practical plan, a secure career. Then, in a well regulated fashion, they may indulge these dangerous whims.
The preceding paragraphs do have a unifying element – other than sarcasm. Emily Dickinson had it right. Humans take comfort in conformity. We like the expected. We label, identify, and categorize. If we can label a thing, we must therefore know its nature, and thus, it is safe.
Children are permitted to dream. We tell our children, “You can grow up to be anything you want.” We encourage them to ‘reach for the stars,’ to have heroes, to pursue their passions. And, then we expect the dream to stop.
Somewhere, 4th, 5th grade, perhaps, we begin to shift our children’s focus from the stars to more serious pursuits. We no longer encourage them to believe that they can become astronauts, dancers, actors, painters, and star athletes. After all, those shining spots in the firmament belong to a select few. The rest of us toil in the earth.
We tell our girls, “You can have it all. You can grow up to do anything a boy can do.” We tell them the lie we want to believe. While letting our daughters play with Barbies and discouraging them from joining the boys in their climbing, muddy war games, we tell them that they can compete with men on an equal footing – so long as they look pretty, and don’t act too pushy. We tell them, “You can have a career, family, or both. You are lucky. Your generation can have whatever it wants.” We don’t throw the switch until later, until a woman enters her 30s. Then we begin the delicate (and not so delicate) probing into her reproductive plans. I have yet to meet a childless woman over the age of 30 who has not been subjected to a battery of questions and comments regarding her lack of motherhood. We tell our daughters that they can have a successful career and be good mothers. At least, we tell them that until the baby crowns. Once the sheets flood with amniotic fluid, the conversation shifts to the importance of maternal bonding, to the risks of working mothers to every facet of a child’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
In the late 1980s-early90s, science was the career choice. Those lucky enough to possess a decent aptitude for the sciences or for finance were assured the golden ticket – a safe, lucrative, permanent career. Those who chose a liberal arts degree were guaranteed a position in food-services as a fried-potato engineer. Being a good girl, and being blessed with an adequate, if only barely adequate, scientific mind, I chose the sensible path. Writing was for dreamers, but veterinary medicine was a career. Don’t get me wrong: I love animals, I love working with people, and I have been blessed to have a magnificently challenging and rewarding career for a number of years. However, I have come to believe that while nothing worthwhile is easy, fighting to squish oneself into a shape that fits a mold is a sure sign that the mold is not the correct one.
Like the stepsisters in Cinderella, throughout vet school, I bound, stretched, and lopped off parts of myself in order to make the role of ‘vet student’ fit. My stories and poems retreated from paper back into my skull while I memorized nerve pathways and formulae I have never used in practice. Yet, like the blood seeping out of the glass slipper, the writer in my head had a way of oozing into my life. Need a flyer? I’ll write it. Newsletter? Ask Christy. Educational handout? I’m on it.
When I began working in large animal medicine 10 years ago, the questions from clients said everything one needed to know about gender expectation. “How long is this one going to last,” the ranch wife asked my technician after pointedly appraising me. “Oh, is that the woman? There’s no one else available?” was always my favorite telephone call. “They sent you to pull that calf?” The elderly dairyman wasn’t about to pull any punches. As I proved myself willing to dig in, working through first one, then a second pregnancy, the gender comments diminished over the years. Diminished, but didn’t evaporate completely.
I think the award for all-time best I-can’t-believe-he-actually-said-that goes to a horse breeder of a certain age. He and I were discussing an associate that had just started with the practice. The man looked thoughtful after I assured him that the new doctor was a wonderful vet, and said, “Well, at least Tom hired a man this time.” (!)
Gender image is generally a bit more subtle than this. I saw it most commonly when returning from maternity leave. “Oh, we’re so glad to have you back!” Then, in almost the same breath, “Wait. Where’s your baby?” Paradox: a veterinarian should be practicing; a new mother belonged with her baby. The fact that both occupied the same body seemed to create a quandary. Note that not one person ever asked my husband following the birth of any of our children, “why aren’t you with your baby?”
These sets of societal expectations have converged in my mind recently as I bid farewell to long term clients. Naturally, the clients whose animals I have treated for so many years want to know where I will be going, what I will be doing once the practice closes. My admission that I lack the resources to set out in practice for myself tends to be met with understanding nods. Any delusions people once had about the wealth of veterinarians have cracked in the past year or two. But the nods turn to looks of condescension or consternation when I explain that I have been freelance writing part time and intend to turn that into a full-time career. Writing is an oddball ‘hobby’ for a vet, and it seems incomprehensible that someone would jettison a “practical” career for a risky venture like writing. Then I say the magic words and relief sweeps across the other person’s face. “Well, I’ve spent a huge chunk of my children’s lives on call and away from home, and as they get older, they probably deserve to have me around more.” One sentence shifted me from flighty dreamer to good mother.
Madness: I am changing careers. I am quitting private practice and starting a freelance writing business. Sense: I am losing my job due to the economy, taking some time to be with my children, and doing some writing.
Madness. Sense. I guess it all depends upon the discernment of one’s eye. But, I know this: the other day when Aidan said something about his future as a pro-football player, I opened my mouth to remark on the slim odds for becoming a professional athlete. Then, I looked into a mirror. My sensible path has turned out to be as much illusion as any dream. I closed my mouth, smiled, and said, “That’s great, Bud!”