Culture Shock.

Culture Shock.

The words hit me like a toddler at full tilt as I sat in a memorial symposium for a dear friend and colleague this morning.  The room was cold and dark and sad, a sea of dark suits and grey beards, with just a smattering of ex-postdocs and me in the back row.  We had gathered to celebrate a life — a life that was drawing to a close, but a life which had been well-spent and scientifically productive for nearly fifty years.  In his honor, colleagues had organized a series of scientific talks by his compatriots that he would have loved.

Would have.

For he died last week, just before this gathering was to come to fruition.  Instead of a celebration this afternoon, there would be a memorial service.  Instead of his weak smile, there would be a (powerpoint) presentation of his life — the most fitting subject in the most fitting medium — but still verging on the edge of tragic.

A life has ended.  And here we sit, mourning men in the dark, oblivious to the happy children playing just outside the window and the young mothers strolling past.

Last night, I was at another kidless event, but one I expected to be much more friendly.  I ‘m not sure why, exactly, except that it was a gathering of women.  Wrong?  Perhaps.  Really wrong?  Yeah, probably.  The occasion was a reception and panel on the advancement of women to influential positions in the aerospace industry.  The panel was held in what I believe to be one of the five most beautiful places in the U.S. — one of the Washington offices that overlook the Capitol.  When we walked into the room, heels clicking and skirts swishing, we were immediately drawn through the reception area, past the wine and cheese and mini crab cakes, to the long wall of windows at the far end.  Floor to ceiling they sparkled with the last light of the sun setting over the Capitol and the warm glow that emanates from the building where so many exert all their energies and all their powers to doing the work of the people. 

As the reception blurred into the panel, my mind drifted again to the lighted windows behind, and the staff working late on the Air Force appropriations bill.  Would they prevail?  Would their wins and losses be a net gain for aerospace, or would they be stopped by the many needs of the war? 

The panel droned on with platitudes washing over the audience in waves with each change of speaker.  Be the best that you can.  We had to be better than the men.  Things have changed.  Women are now 50% of this, and 48% of that.  Net gains.  The words I didn’t hear, here of all places and of all times, were not percentages or statistics, but the quiet phrase “my children.”

So I asked the question, played the card, outed myself as the token mom.  They responded in kind, largely encouraging.  But, one by one, they stated that they didn’t have children, so they couldn’t tell me their own success stories. 

Except one.  She did, and she had, and she had good words to share. 

But largely, in this room of successful women, I felt oddly alone.  Alone with my friend, another SAHM, and we stood together, watching the young women we used to be and the old women we weren’t quite sure we wished to become.

This room, too, full of black cocktail dresses, sleek bobs, and women at the top of their game, felt strange to me.

One more vignette and I’ll bring this to a close.  The last gathering of the week will be tomorrow.  A casual afternoon at a Mommy-friend’s house with kids, dads, dogs, babies, and of course bouncy balls, goldfish crackers, fruit cubes, and polly pockets everywhere.  I can’t paint a full picture, as it is yet to come, but I know now that the warmth of the summer day will not outshine the warmth of good friends, happy children, and families who are perfectly in tune with each other.

… even if they sometimes wonder about their careers that might-have-been.

New reviews are up at Review Planet, including a review of the latest Bear in the Big Blue House DVD.  Two special breastfeeding product reviews will be posted over there later this week, so check back soon if you’re looking for solutions.

6 Responses to Culture Shock.

  1. Pilgrim Mom says:

    Hey Whymommy. This resonated with me 100%. My life is wedged between halls of power and prestige, and a home with three boys, playdough in my hair and ink smudges on my hands. Why is it that people behave as though these are two separate worlds when they could and should intersect?

  2. whymommy says:

    Exactly! As I used to say in my old job, when discussing workforce issues, do we really want to say that women are welcome to work here — as long as they choose not to have children, or are well past childbearing age? It seems that perspectives would be undeniably skewed. Is that what any of us really want?

  3. beanmom says:

    Whymommy,

    Just wanted to comment that I recently found and love your blog. As another scientist turned stay-at-home-mom, what you have to say speaks to me. Good luck on straddling your two worlds! And congrats on your recent successes in your consulting work, and staying “in the game.” I can’t believe that at a reception of women aerospace workers there was such a dearth of mothers! It’s better in other fields, but still very hard.

  4. […] presents Culture Shock. posted at Toddler […]

  5. As an “overeducated” SAHM mother of three, I get tired of two things upon stating that I am a SAHM:

    1) If the questioner knows of my educational background, the question: “Yes, but what do you REALLY do?” (What is wrong with wanting to stay home and raise my children despite an education?)

    Or 2) If the questioner does NOT know of my educational background: “Oh” then questioner turns to speak with anyone else available nearby. Am I not smart and interesting enough??

    Maybe I have a chip on my shoulder, but your story really resonated with me too. I have always envied women who could stay at home, yet “keep a foot in the door,” but I see from your tale that it can still be an awkward position among peers. Why???

  6. Recently found your blog via several of your Team WhyMommy members. I have seen you get hundreds of comments on your recent chemo and breast cancer entries. Please know my sympathies are with you as well. Will be putting up a blog about IBC soon, but as there are so many that have just gone up I thought I’d wait a week or so.

    But wanted to speak to you as a scientist Mom. Jeez it seems that the world is an unfriendly place for women scientists. My husband works for ESA and has several women engineers working for him. I have made sure he is acutely aware of the special problems facing Moms in his profession. As my daughters are now 9 & 11 I am hoping to get back into the career world next year (I stopped 5 years ago when it just got to be too much even as a consultant). I think the problems Mom’s face are even worse in Europe where in many countries the shops close at 6PM in the evenings so the only time for working Moms to shop is weekends and it becomes frantic!

    I hope you will be up an around and having to deal with these problems again soon as the only way to make the working world aware of the problems for working Moms is to get out there and show/tell them!

    Good luck and I’ll keep you in my prayers.

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