Acceptable Dreams for a woman

Como Garden and Conservatory June 8 2009I’m not sure if this is going to turn into a blog series. I think stories about my romantic life over the years might be a nice Beltane celebration, especially since I got married last December.

The first time a person actually asked me about my dreams for my future, it creeped me out. Mrs. Thannholdt was a frustrated English teacher at my high school. For reasons I’m not clear on, she had a vendetta against my father and was shameless about taking it out on me. “What do you want for your future?” I had been quiet, done nothing to draw attention to myself, but she zeroed in on me – and I was the only person she asked that question.

I wasn’t sure where this batshit broad was going, I just knew it wasn’t good. “I guess I’d like to stay out of debt.” I’d been going over my numbers, trying to figure out how the hell I was going to manage college since every week my mother was telling me what a financial burden I was on the family. I was actually really worried about student loans and how I could make it happen, and it took up a good chunk of my thoughts every single day of my junior year.

She gave me this look of contempt. “That’s all? You just want to keep your head above water?”

I sat very still. Whatever else she was looking for, I knew not to expose to her. “Yeah, that’s it.”

She sneered. “Well good luck with that.”

No one in my family ever asked me what my dreams were or what I wanted for myself, at least, not that I can remember. My mother did frequently plunk down careers in front of me she “found acceptable.” Journalism, mostly, sometimes teaching even though my father taught and she was constantly telling me how we were one step away from being hand-to-mouth on his salary. Sometime after a fifth grade teacher either stole or found a poem I wrote about a unicorn ((seriously, I don’t know where the unicorn thing came from)) I was declared a writer, and without really bothering to ask if I liked it, the adults pushed me along that route until it turned out I had some musical talent, at which point it got shoved aside as I played clarinet and had my joy in life sucked out of me daily by demanding and abusive music directors. I remember Mrs. Geimer, my art teacher, trying to protest me getting sucked into an art form that clearly made me miserable. Her voice went unheard. If I had dreams, I protected them so much and buried them so deep that I may still not know what they were.

I was still wearing the burden of someone else’s expectation when I started college.

My first date when I was in college was with a young man from Bangladesh named Sami. Technically it wasn’t a date – his religion didn’t allow him to “date” and he believed fervently in prearranged marriage. But it certainly had all the trappings of a date, including the long walk on a Lake Michigan boardwalk. I had enjoyed his company to that point, but then something ineffable brought that enjoyment to a halt.

“Tell me your dreams,” he said.

I was worried about a possible language barrier. “Like, when I sleep at night?”

“No – what you want for yourself.”

I paused. “Well, I’m in college so I’m fulfilling one dream right now.”

“No, not that dream – other dreams. Your real dreams.”

“I want to be a librarian, or a journalist.” Truth be told, my family upbringing gave me good reason to obfuscate any ambition lest they choke the life out of it. “Maybe win awards. I want to publish a novel, a fun one, not the Great American novel or anything.”

“That’s not a dream.”

I realize now that the only thing I could have said that he would have found acceptable was “I’d like a husband and three children,” and then perhaps something pious about a spiritual life.

It was my first overt experience with a man who had convinced himself that his chauvinism was benevolent.

Five years later, I had a similar conversation with a Malaysian man who was technically my superior at a university office. “I want to know your dreams,” he said.

I had learned a lot since then, especially when it came to men, culture, and skin color differences. Along with the valuable crash course I got about my privilege being white, I also got a crash course about men the world over. ((I’m still working up the courage to talk about my experience in mixed race relationships, not just romantically, but friendship wise, since there were some racial assumptions on my side and theirs that were dead wrong.)) Oh hell no. “Once I finish school I’m probably going to look into teaching college level.”

“No, not that dream.”

This again. Shit. Fortunately I avoided any “career counseling” with the man, who turned out to be one of the slimiest human beings I have ever had the displeasure to meet. Along with sexually harassing my partner he frequently engaged in lies, professional sabotage and at least once tried to order me to drive out and pick up something inconsequential during an ice storm. He was in essence asking me when I would be getting pregnant and getting the hell out of his way.

While I’ve only had this overt experience with men from cultures other than my own basically saying any dreams not surrounding reproduction are invalid, I have encountered this from those of my own country in more subtle ways.

Like my friend Pete, who was Catholic, wanted ten children, and who did respect my studious nature – but still held a certain disrespect for my femaleness. We would talk about what we saw in our futures, and mostly, I saw work. Pete dismissed this at least once. “I can totally see you writing at home while you take care of your kids.”

“But I don’t want kids.” I also did not like the idea of staying home – and I wrestle with the shame of said situation today.

“We’ll see how that works out for you.”

“I just don’t see marriage for myself.” I didn’t. I couldn’t imagine a man with attitudes compatible with mine. Too many men, including ones I dated, were really looking for the “mothers of their children” which is not the same as having a man who genuinely wanted to be with me. When I had  boyfriends, I assumed them interludes, a pleasant diversion on my way to something else, although every one of them held hope I was some final answer. If I had children at all, I wanted them to be a byproduct of a great relationship, and the guys around me just made it a goal. I now refer to this phenomenon as “knocked up and locked up.”

Pete himself once announced that his wife would be a “baby making machine.” The thought made me cringe, but I didn’t doubt that he could choose from any woman on campus or off who would happily live out that role with him.

I transferred schools a year later, and shortly after that I was engaged to someone who did not want children, or at least did not require them. I ignored other problems in the relationship just because I was so relieved to find a man who didn’t want to take me and “lock me away from the rest of the world.” ((Thank you, Cyndi Lauper))

I called my friends at my former college to share the news. Pete did not take it well. “I thought you said you were never getting married.”

“This is different.”

“But you said you would never get married.” As another email I got about two years after revealed, Pete was not the only person at that school who was troubled by my aversion to marriage and then my entrance into it. ((The other person to imply a problem with that was an ex of an ex, so I suspect she felt like she had something invested in my ultimate decision. Not that she did, but I can see where that came from.))

While I still don’t know what Pete’s particular problem was, I attempted to explain it to him. It came out terribly. “Look, almost all the students at your college end up getting married to each other, and none of you guys were the type that I wanted to end up with. You all want kids, and that’s a dealbreaker on both sides. So I just told you I didn’t want to get married so the conversation would never come up.”

“Oh.” Pete actually sounded pretty angry at that. I left for far more reasons than that, of course, but I wasn’t going to lie to Pete and say it wasn’t a factor.

His questioning of me wasn’t about frustrated romantic intentions – Pete preferred willowy blondes to fat brunettes, and while we were study partners and I had entertained a huge crush on him, I knew we’d never go deeper than friendship. Pete just wasn’t into me like that. The man had five sisters, and I was one more, sort of. Along with all the political trouble I’d gotten into that forced me to transfer schools – a good portion of which was actually for Pete – there was the simple desire to not torture myself and actually have the possibility of a real dating life, with no risk of inadvertently dating a cousin. I also really wanted to meet a man who did not want a “babymaking machine!” I also wanted to escape my family, all of whom were pressuring me to some end goal in their minds that they did not have the good manners to inform me of. Whatever it was they wanted of me, I just knew it involved, church, babies, DAR, and other things that just sucked.

At the time I was unable to verbalize that condition, and Pete, who had a happy family life and was utterly unable to relate to one that wasn’t, would not have believed me.

He never said congratulations, or “I’m happy for you.” Not that I remember. He just said “Oh.” He was friendly enough when we got off the phone, but we never spoke again. When I came through town to introduce my fiance´ to my old college buddies, Pete went home for the weekend. Probably coincidence, but maybe not.

It would be very easy for me to take away from my experiences that men want women to dream of having children. I have since met plenty of feminist men, or men who simply respected my strength of personality, who never even thought to insist on such things from me. I was not dim and pretty like a few of my roommates, and while I hid my dreams from even myself, I knew I wanted something else. It wasn’t necessarily to the exclusion of children, but it had to come first or it would never happen and I would be left in middle age, dissatisfied, even with my genetic material walking around on legs. My family’s pressure on me to have children when I wasn’t even married was once again about them not bothering to find out or support what I wanted to create for myself, and while not having children is not an act of rebellion against them it is certainly read that way. As far as I’m concerned, they were trying to help themselves to my future and since in my childhood my future was the only thing of my own I had, I sure as hell wasn’t going to let them take that away. My father, no feminist himself, wisely remained mum on the subject. I only lit into my father once in our entire relationship, and at the end of my tirade, he’d been forced to admit I was right. He stayed far away from comments on my lifestyle because he felt, in some ways, he was to blame for me getting as far away from the rest of the family as I could, and the children thing was definitely one among many factors that pushed me away and seeded further disgust for the women who shared my blood.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming of babies and a big house, and although many mothers bore the living hell out of me with reports on their kids ((I really hated the niece updates while I was in college, as the few things she did that were interesting were obfuscated in my mother’s penchant for excess detail and implications I’d better throw out my condoms))  I do like children. I just want something …different. On some level, I know that I’m meant for something other than motherhood, and I’m at peace with that. I’ve never felt a biological clock ticking, and I can already see the cyclic changes in my body that mean eventually fertility will end.

But when men insist that that is my only acceptable dream… it makes me want to call their mothers, and tell them they failed. I’m in my mid-30s and only now rediscovering what dreams I truly had, and while children would not stand in the way of any of them – children never genuinely stand in the way of the other dreams of their parents – I realize that the energy most women are gifted at maternity is going to me in a different way, and one that matters just as much. But these men from my past, they wouldn’t understand. Perhaps, over the years, they’ve learned, but understanding… probably not.


  1. John Lacey

    Sometimes it is easier to know what you don’t want, and work out what you do by process of deduction.

    I was actually in a webinar with Sir Ken Robinson recently, and he sort of described finding your passion as a spiritual pursuit.

    “I think the price we pay for people being disengaged from their passions is enormous, which stays around us everyday. And for some people it’s a catastrophe.”

    On the face of it having low expectations seems like a very reasonable position, because whenever you have a dream there is a risk of experiencing all the things that accompany a dream unrealised. But taking this position can lead to an unsatisfying existence, a soul-destroying mundane quality. And some of the ways we try to silence that restlessness can be really self-destructive.

  2. Post

    And I am definitely experiencing that restlessness. I will have to take a look at that webinar…interesting stuff!

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