The Tyranny of ‘When’
“You’ll understand when you have children.”
“What will the class call you when you change your name?”
I’m twenty-six, in a long-term relationship, engaged to get married next year, childless, in a profession centred on children and in constant contact with mothers. Needless to say, I hear the above very frequently. And every time I hear it, I get the same unpleasant feeling. For years I’ve not quite known why. They’re innocent enough queries, simple enough statements, made without snark or nastiness. Following a familiar conversation last week that I walked away from feeling familiarly annoyed and twisted, I finally put my finger on the exact word that causes this reaction in me every time: when.
In German, when and if are the same word (wenn) and are easily mixed up without context, but in meaning we can all agree that they are worlds apart. We use when for something that is going to happen. We use if for something that is undecided.
Being a woman does not mean that I am destined to have children and change my name. I’m pretty sure, last I checked, both of those possibilities were my choice. Making them ifs.
As a writer and a teacher, I’m extremely conscious of language, and how our word choices influence others and others’ perspectives. Language is a powerful, powerful tool, used for thousands of years to manipulate, disenfranchise, undermine, control and misrepresent individuals and whole groups of people. In my classroom, when instead of if is fixed easily with red pen. Out in society, it’s not this simple. Like the children I teach, most people aren’t even aware of the slip-up or the social attitude their wording represents. They don’t realise they’re insinuating that parenting is an inevitable plot element in the story of my life, one I cannot avoid no matter what I might rather choose, and that when rather than if it happens is only a matter of time. They don’t realise they’re assuming that their view on marriage is universally shared and that a change of name is inherent in that view, and that they’re unconsciously pushing that view onto me. They don’t realise that by making these assumptions they have already made decisions for me in their mind, decisions I have to challenge in my answer.
The assumption that I will be having children and changing my name is not borne of any cruel or hateful attitude – I know that. The people asking are usually women and they are asking out of interest. Many are my friends, family members and colleagues. But I don’t think they’re hearing themselves. I don’t think they’re seeing the posse of seven-year-old girls listening at my feet and I don’t think they’re considering the viewpoints on femininity and independence that these little girls are forming as they eavesdrop on adult interaction. No one seems to realise how limiting their question is, or how strongly they’re projecting their own expectations of the female role onto me when they ask.
No one expects a sideways answer to a linear question, and so I find myself explaining. Constantly. Unfairly. Which begs a new question: when it affects no one but me and my kin, why does independent thought and personal choice demand explanation in the 21st century?
I think kids are great. When my best friend has her baby later this year I will be cot-side to cuddle him and shower him in cute nerdy outfits and mobiles for his nursery. The kids I teach are inspiring and amazing young people and I care for them immensely. Kids are awesome. You know what else is awesome? My life – exactly as it is. If, rather than when, my partner and I decide we want kids, it’s going to be on our terms. I resent the idea of parenthood as this insidious trap hidden somewhere in the dark gloom of the future, lurking in wait, ready to sneak up on us when we least expect it and forcing itself upon us. I work in a fantastic school and I am lucky to have a great class of children from wonderful families, but you can’t be a teacher and not know firsthand that there are plenty of children out there who aren’t wanted, and kids born at unfortunate times in their parents’ lives when there just isn’t the time or the money or the energy to devote to a fulfilling childhood, no matter how deep the love. “You’ll understand when you have children.” When?! Like I don’t have a choice in this? Like it’s already been decided for me? When scares me. I don’t want a when baby, a baby a well-meaning but oppressive society told me I needed to have because that’s what a young woman does once she’s married and has had her fun getting degrees and pretending to have a career. If I have one I want it to be an if baby – a baby I wanted – with all the miraculous possibility implied in the word if.
Likewise with my name. I really, really like my name. My first name, my last name, even my middle name. I like my names separate and I like it all put together. I like the way it sounds and I like the way it looks on paper. It and I have been through a lot together. We met on the day I came into this world, and we instantly clicked and got along. We went through school together and graduated high school together. It’s the name I put on the cover page of every assignment I slaved over for university and it’s the name the presenter called out at my graduation ceremony. It’s the name on the certificate they gave me that now hangs on my wall. It’s the name I neatly wrote on the back of the envelope when I sent my first manuscript submission to a publisher and it’s the name they addressed my first rejection letter to. My name is the label on my school books, the tagline on my emails, the nameplate in the front of every book on my bookshelf, the sign on my classroom door, the sound that’s called out to me when someone wants my attention. My name is an integral part of my identity and I am deeply attached to it. Everything I have worked for, everything I have achieved, I have done so with this name. No. I am not changing my name.
I feel strongly about it and obviously I can justify my choice, but the thing is, I shouldn’t have to. Lots of women keep their maiden names in these times. It’s not uncommon. But again, people assume the when rather than the if, and there are the automatic questions. “Why not?” And yes, I have an answer, but it’s actually borderline hurtful that it needs to be explained. “Because I’m an intelligent adult in a free-thinking society with the political freedom to make my own choices on this kind of thing,” isn’t good enough for you? What about, “Because in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a unique individual with many strong opinions and if you knew me at all I wouldn’t think this would surprise you”? My reasons are never assumed, and that’s kind of depressing. No one just guesses that I feel pride in my achievements under this name and that I would like to stay close to those. Instead there’s a surprised demand to explain myself, to make clear why I will not conform to the asker’s preconceived expectation of what it means to marry the person you love.
Only once has my pronouncement that I will keep my name been met with “Good on you”, and I still hear the echo of that wonderful woman’s voice in my head as I write this. In three words I also hear a thousand, the acknowledgement of all I am and all I value, and the acknowledgement of my right to make a choice that’s right for me. I think more women need to back each other up in this way. We don’t need to agree with each other’s choices. We don’t need to decide to all shrug social norms just because a few want to. We just need to respect and acknowledge each other’s right to make these choices without judgement, and to measure our words when we discuss these choices to ensure we aren’t passing unconscious judgement or expectations under our breath.
Yes, this post has been kind of a rant (and I thank anyone who’s read this far without rolling their eyes at me and clicking ‘back’ on their browser) and I want to make a couple of things clear at this point. One, I’m really excited to be marrying my partner. I love him to pieces and my choice to keep my name is not in any way a reflection on him. He understands my reasons because he’s awesome, and that’s one of the many reasons I love him. I’m not marrying him to get his name, and I’m not marrying him to have his kids. While these are frequent by-products of marriage, I really disagree that this is what marriage is about. But that’s another blog post. Secondly, I have no negative opinion whatsoever on women who want to change their names. I’m nostalgic, too – I understand the lure of tradition, the want to share a name, the desire to unveil one’s new self under a new title, and I think that’s beautiful. If it’s what you want, and what will make you happy, then do so. Likewise, I have no negative opinion towards women who have children. Good on you. (Keeps me in work.) Plus, no doubt, your kids are probably awesome. I’m delighted, in fact, that they bring you so much happiness and fulfillment.
Just don’t get to thinking that what you want or what makes you happy is what I need in my life, because I’ve known myself an awfully long time, and I think I’m rather better qualified than most to say what makes me happy. And while this may sound aggressive, I’m saying it as strongly as I am because I’m saying it on behalf of all women who don’t have children, all women who want to keep their names and all women who want to do things their own way, perhaps contrary to tradition or social expectations. I’m saying it on behalf of all the girls in my class, future kick-ass women brimming with creativity and talent and what ifs, growing up in a world that’s tough enough without society misinforming them on what it means to be female. I’m saying it strongly because it deserves to be heard. Ladies, don’t limit and stifle each other with narrow views.
We are each other’s greatest allies in the journey of empowerment – no one can build girls up or tear them down as powerfully as other girls. Words are your weapons as much as they are your toolkit, so please, build each other up. Emanate the respect, compassion, understanding and acceptance that we want to see in other women, and set each other free of expectations that concentrate on the irrelevant and hold us back from worrying about the important things, like being incredible. Women don’t need to be mothers to be incredible. Women don’t need to uphold traditions to be incredible. Women only need the freedom to be incredible, and for the women around them to value and acknowledge their right to be uniquely incredible in whatever form that takes for that individual. Let’s celebrate incredible women, and all the ifs and wonderful surprising possibilities each woman’s future journey may hold, rather than getting bogged down in when she’s going to have babies or change her name and do all the other things you might expect from her. Let’s just wait and see what incredible things she’s yet to do and always wonder if, not when.
Shayla Morgansen is a primary school teacher and a self-published fantasy author in Brisbane. The Elm Stone Saga, her first book series, follows the personal growth of a central female character in a traditional, male-dominated magical society set against contemporary times.