I’m 32 today.
By age 32, Alexander the Great had conquered most of the civilized world of antiquity. Jane Austen had written Pride and Prejudice. Jean Francois Champollion had deciphered the Rosetta Stone. Bill Gates was already a billionaire. And by my age, both my mother and my grandmother had already given birth to four children.
Me? Well, I’m married, and we own a house. Other than that, it feels like I haven’t fulfilled any goals, and haven’t accomplished anything of lasting significance. I haven’t finished my doctorate. I haven’t even found answers to my medical problems. Instead, I’m deaf, infertile, and invisible.
It’s a depressing birthday thought, and it’s overwhelming me today. I’m teaching, which always helps, since I love talking about medieval history. But I heard from a fellow academic yesterday about her classes, and realized how boring and traditional mine probably are, an impression that was confirmed when half my class didn’t show up this morning. Unfortunately, I can’t allow large-scale classroom discussions or debates, because I can’t hear. I can’t show most historical films or clips, because so many of them don’t have captions. I’m doing my best to create an engaging course, but I feel like I’m falling very far short of my goal.
Someone recently attempted to “make me feel better” about everything by telling me that I’m a “remarkable young woman” – because I’m working on my PhD. I know this person meant well, but that comment only ever sounds patronizing to me, with a vague taint of condescension. After all, I’m not particularly “young”, unless you count childbearing as the marker of real adulthood. Otherwise – I’ve certainly dealt with more major catastrophes than most people my age, like sudden devastating hearing loss, and a broken back, catastrophes that have aged me emotionally and mentally. The “remarkable” bit particularly irks me: no one ever tells a man that he’s “remarkable” for pursuing a higher degree, or for holding a steady job. No one has EVER told my husband that he’s “remarkable” for being a dentist. It seems generally accepted and acceptable that men have brains, use them, and make contributions to the wider world. Why, then, is it so “remarkable” for a woman to get a PhD? Is it remarkable because women aren’t supposed to have brains? Is it remarkable because I’ve been doing academic work rather than having babies? Is it really that remarkable for me to have goals beyond childbearing? Or, if what I am doing does deserve comment, why not just say that I’m a “remarkable person”? Why do my accomplishments or lack thereof need to be tied to my gender?
The church unfortunately does nothing to challenge the stereotype that a woman’s value is primarily reproductive. I’ve developed and taught several courses for adult Sunday school classes in the past six years, but I feel like my contribution is always viewed as an anomaly, a special dispensation to keep me busy until I can add to the burgeoning population of the church nursery. I’ve been a regular contributing member of the meals ministry, taking food to mothers of new babies to help them in busy times, but one has ever offered to bring a meal to us, not even when I was preparing for my doctoral comprehensive exams and barely had time to sleep, let alone to cook. Motherhood alone seems to be the universal pass to consideration, acknowledgment, and acceptance.
This attitude towards non-mothers makes infertility so much harder to bear, as well as making me so much more discontented with my life. It reflects more about my own self-valuation than about others’ perspective on me, I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still feel very much like an invisible failure – not a very happy birthday thought.
Despite these obstacles, I do have many sources of happiness. The pain of hearing loss, of infertility, of isolation, can’t entirely eclipse my happiness with my husband, my sense of satisfaction in our home renovations, my joy in teaching history, and, of course, the purring comfort of our three plump cats.