Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Talkin' With Moms

As 18 month-old L. and I navigate the play areas in our apartment complex as well as the nearby park, inevitably we encounter other toddlers with other parents, mostly moms. The kind of talk that goes on in such situations is not, for me, one of the highlites of parenting.

I don't dislike all such talk, of course -- I'm not some kind of ogre, glowering my way between the swings and the slide and turning my back on friendly smiles as we proceed towards the play structure. I make a point of smiling and nodding or saying hello to whoever we encounter, and if chatter seems to be in order I most definitely participate. I even enjoy it more often than not; though this blog may come across as a little cynical at times, I rank few of lifes pleasures higher than hearing about other peoples' lives (though admittedly talking about my own is rarely something I enjoy, and I prefer to hear substance rather than the fairly trivial stuff that makes up most playground banter). My problem isn't so much with the actual practice of this parental conversation as with the ideal to which it is supposed to adhere, the standard against which it is judged. The farther the conversation is from the ideal, the more likely it is that I'll enjoy it.

In thinking about this, I've been a little worried that in feeling this way I have been drafted into the cultural tendency to devalue the feminine. Like I said, there is the odd dad, and a few more grampa's than that, but mostly the adults in this particular space are women. To give such encounters the respect they deserve, I suppose it is important to recognize that they have historically functioned, at least for some women, as a kind of mutual sounding-out, an audition for inclusion in each others' networks of practical advice and emotional support by which the uncharted waters of mothering can be navigated. Quite understandably, male existence in that space and potential for inclusion in those networks is somewhat different -- not nonexistent, but different. I'm not complaining about that, by the way, because I have a sense of the historical, cultural, and political reasons why it is so; sharing your birth story or complaining about sore nipples is just less likely to feel comfortable when the stranger on the playground is a man. As well, I'm not sure that such a strategy for parenting support particularly meets my needs or ways of dealing with things either.

And even so, playground encounters between moms are most often just trivial and superficial ways to pass the time while the toddlers steal each others' toys. Sharing the experience of being a parent is not a particularly strong indicator of having much else in common. As one of my sisters joked to my partner when we were back in Ontario in December, whatever words are used to start conversations between moms on playgrounds they more or less always functionally amount to, "So, I see your ovaries are functioning too."

So partly it is the triviality of such interactions that turn me off. Smalltalk of any sort bores me and I've never been very good at it. But there is something about conversation in this situation that goes beyond ordinary smalltalk -- like I said, something about the ideal irks me. There is a script that outlines the general pattern for the conversation, and a series of rules that hems in where it will flow. This ideal is not a neutral thing -- it is a recipe for the performance of middle-class "respectability," and its power is felt even in many situations in which the identities of one or both or some or all of the participants deviate from oppressive North American "normalcy." Even more than in other kinds of smalltalk, there is an expectation that the rules will be followed. It has something to do with the presence of kids, I think, some shared understanding that substantive "adult business" will be avoided for the sake of child-focused harmony and for the sake of appearing to be a "good parent." In the general culture that category, of course, gets constructed in ways that validate ways of being associated with privilege and conformity. It is this expectation that I will perform that I resent the most. And, of course, the fact that I can generally meet these criteria purely by performing (i.e. by hiding self) is itself a privilege -- lots of other parents cannot. And none of us should feel we have to.

Admittedly, I tend to be hypersensitive to such scripts and expectations. Lots of other folk probably wouldn't even see it as performance but rather just as talking about the stuff of everyday life (though I think there's a lot of cultural training that goes into what is considered the stuff of everyday life, versus what is taboo and what is not even seen). Others who would see them as potential constraints would find ways to skillfully violate them in ways that did not alienate, or ways that maybe sometimes did; hopefully I can get better at that. But mostly I think I'll just continue quietly preferring conversation with other parents that deviates even in trivial ways from the performance of "respectability" and conformity.

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