Identity: Who are we, really, and do we care?

People talk from time to time about identity.

One big discussion on the mother blogs we read on occasion is the intersection of feminism and motherhood.  Who does that make them?

In terms of my identity of a feminist mother (for the one of us who has procreated)… I’ve never really thought about it. I have such a strong identity of me as me… and things like “midwesterner” or “economist” overshadow my identity as wife, mother, or even teacher. I have a hard time identifying myself using constructs based on my relationship to other people. I don’t really think of me as a mother or a wife, even though I am. I guess I think of my specific relationship– married to DH, not a wife… taking care of DCs, not a mother. These are things I do but not things I am.

Technically I’m a feminist, but I’m not trained in feminism and it seems like such a part of me that it’s not even an overlay like midwesternism. I don’t think about it. I don’t do things because I’m a feminist like I do things because I’m a midwesterner– I’m a feminist because I do things and think things that feminists do. A certain brand of feminist just happens to be right about things in my mind, and if that label didn’t exist I would still hold the same beliefs.

I’ve been getting away from an identity as “mathematician” but can still converse in that language. I might even be able to still pass. But the econ is now much stronger.

Scalzi recently talked about what makes a person a professional writer– he said you have to get paid.  Some folks in the comments mentioned that it was important to identify oneself as a professional writer as well, as many of us get paid for our writing, but consider ourselves to be things like professors or researchers etc.  But why is it important to have that identity?  It makes sense for professional organizations to have specific gate-keeping rules, but the label of professional writer is not so important to those of us with other labels already.  Professor.  Scholar.  Social scientist.

Who are you?  Are you what you do?  Are you what you think you are?  Is your identity important, and if so, how?

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45 Responses to “Identity: Who are we, really, and do we care?”

  1. NoTrustFund Says:

    ‘These are things I do but not things I am’

    Love this. Would never have been able to articulate being married and motherhood in this way but, yes. Thank you!

  2. Kellen Says:

    Identity probably seems more important to those who don’t already have a strong sense of their own. For example, I grew up in New England, but my family is from a foreign country, so I never quite felt like I “belonged” to that area. Now I live in Georgia but have a New England background so that’s even more so, haha.

    I think this is all somehow related to lacking a community.

    I also think it’s related to why I work so much.

    • Debbie M Says:

      I also don’t fit. I’m not quite a geek, really more of a groupie of geeks. (I don’t enjoy taking things apart or programming, but I do enjoy using my brain and being rational, plus virtually all my friends are geeks.) And I’m not quite a hippie, even though I want everyone to be happy (even animals, even plants). Because I am opposed to mind-altering drugs (even though they are probably in every single known culture, so I just have to accept that anyway). I’m pretty Girl Scoutish, what with wanting to learn about lots of things (earn badges) and do the right thing (follow the Girl Scout law of my day–they keep changing it), but I’m not religious. I’m just glad I live in a place with many subcultures, where it’s okay that I don’t exactly fit anywhere, and where people who look like me get to do the things I like to do. (If I really liked Black culture, for example, I might have more trouble, but I can blend with geeks, hippies and Girl Scouts.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Community is an important piece of the identity, surely.

      • Rumpus Says:

        For me, identity goes hand in hand with community. If I was alone on a desert island I don’t think I’d have an identity. Well, maybe king of the island monkey tribe, and absolute judge of all monkey fingerpaint art. I would be a just king, or maybe a fair one, but I’d be a biased judge with clear favoritism for postmodern works.
        Anyway, identity labels are just categorization. They are short-hand for telling yourself or others some pre-defined package of traits. They aid in quick decisions and forming cliques or power blocs. Why would we want that?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        If I were alone on a desert island I would absolutely have an identity. I have a strong sense of who I am. Of course I would still be me without other people around (though I would be a different me without my partner).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        @rumpus– it sounds like you don’t separate identity from labels.

        Maybe I think that labels are things that other people put on me, or see me as, but identity is how I see things and how I act and respond. Definitions are so important. (I’m sure the philosophers have argued this out.)

  3. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    I love this post! You pretty much summarized a lot of the insane thoughts that go through my head. Thanks =)
    I feel like a lot of people who have kids identify themselves as a mother first. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course, but a mother isn’t how I think of myself. Honestly, when I hear others describe their relationships with their children it makes me feel like I’m not very maternal. I think of myself as an individual trying to make the very most out of this life…and I happen to have kids and a husband that I (sometimes) drag along with me. Call me crazy.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My mom was the same way, so I have the benefit of being able to see that my sister and I turned out fantastically. So either our way is better or it doesn’t make a difference. :)

  4. Debbie M Says:

    For me the whole point of feminism is that you can do what you want, including be a mother. Yes, historically that was the only choice, so now there might be questions about whether you’re doing it just because you’re supposed to or because you really want to.

    As far as professed identity goes, I find it most useful for getting access to resources that improve your life. So, when quilters meet, they share techniques and favorite stores and supplies, etc. Ballroom dancers invite good instructors and rent ballrooms to hold dances and hire DJs so they can dance. So I think if you going around calling yourself a mom, it might mean that you just love talking about different cool activities you can do with your kids and cool ways to teach them stuff. If you go around calling yourself a Christian, you similarly invite a different kind of conversation than if you don’t.

    I’m still struggling with what to go around calling myself. Because people do ask who you are and that is supposed to be a springboard for future interaction–I may as well aim it somewhere fun. But whenever I think of something, I can always think of people who are a LOT more into that thing than I am, and I don’t want to be a poser! I really need to think about what topics I want new people to ask me questions about, and then go around calling myself something that inspires them to ask those questions. For example, I think I might like the kinds of question people would ask me if I called myself an early retirement extremist (except during job interviews).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Do you think there’s a difference between “labels” and “identity”?

      • Debbie M Says:

        Yes, I do. I guess I’ve been talking about how to pick the best labels. Identity is huge, and even a large number of labels can’t cover it. I think I use labels to see how I fit in with other people. But when thinking of my own identity for my own purposes, labels don’t come into it. Like everyone, my identity is what interacts with reality to result in the sum of my thoughts, feelings, and actions. I don’t really know how to talk about that.

    • chacha1 Says:

      I think labels that we come up with for ourselves are identity. Labels that other people give us are just labels. :-)

      But fwiw I don’t care about making my identity part of a conversation. I’d just as soon talk about the latest movie we all saw. You can only have a meaningful conversation about something that’s part of your identity if the other person shares that. o/w there’s nothing to connect to.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Hm, I’m comfortable with the label “mother” (it is something I do), but I don’t feel like it’s part of my core identity. Same with the label “professor.” I’d still be me with a different job, but my job currently gives me that label.

  5. plantingourpennies Says:

    In general, I don’t think identification is important to me. Labels make me somewhat uncomfortable as they are often viewed in an exclusive context. (You are mother so cannot be feminist or you are environmentalist so cannot be pro-business.)

    Maybe this is weird, but I tend to look at identity as one of those Galileo thermometers. I have many different elements to my person, and depending on the surrounding climate (often cultural climate) I can let a different element float up and be expressed. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t unexpressed facets beneath that layer that are often just as (or more important) than the one currently being expressed.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Really thought provoking comment. I just now tried to find a poem called masks of me that I did for forensics in high school that expresses that last sentiment (you know, poetically), but turns out there are a lot of poems called masks of me and I can’t find the one I was looking for.

      Another concept it’s related to is code-switching.

    • rented life Says:

      YES to everything you’ve said. I’ve had a hard time expressing the problem I have with labels but you just nailed it for me.

      “There are a crowd of people harbored in every person…” Ani Difranco, Light of some kind. To me, that sums it up. One identity isn’t sufficient.

    • Debbie M Says:

      Yes, this is what I just tried to say in an earlier reply only better.

      • First Gen American Says:

        What planting pennies said. Great comment. There are many sides to us all and most people with the exception of very close friends and family only see a slice of who we are.

  6. rented life Says:

    I think about identity a lot because it relates directly to what I teach. How do you identify/see yourself? What is The Other? How does this impact communication/relationships? What I like about posing those questions to my students is when I get to see them realize where the labels they’ve placed on themselves and others becomes less about organizing and more about harm. Someone is “too” different. When we do the identifying for others, how are we impacting our communication with them? (Negative gender identity messages for example.)

    I am so glad to read ‘These are things I do but not things I am.’ I struggle with the mother stuff because I just don’t see myself as “baby’s mom” but that’s how I’m addressed….already. Zie’s not even here yet! I’m MORE than a mom but most people only want to talk about that stuff. I explained this to my brother who best put words to how I felt: I want to talk about babies and pregnancy, but only on my own terms. I’m tired of doing it on everyone else’s, which involves “taking things with a grain of salt” because people are “happy” for me (that’s my parents speaking. UGH). I have interests! A job! Ideas! Hell, let’s talk about what was on TV just stop asking me if we know what we’re having, or telling me how hard it’ll all be (I hate those people) or how fat I am or giving really awful advice that starts with “You don’t want to hear this but…”

    I want to label myself as a writer, but I’m not crazy about Scalzi’s “you have to be paid.” I get what he’s saying, especially since a lot of people claim to be writers are just blowing up twitter with junk. Too many people already don’t see being a writer as a real thing, but rather as a hobby, so it’s hard to say that that’s part of my identity and have to hear “yeah, ok, but what do you do?” I don’t currently consider my job as part of my identity either. After struggling so much in the academic world and not “making it” I realize I don’t see me as an academic so much as having some of those qualities. I don’t see myself as a “Sr. Program Associate” (my new title, which I seriously had to look up), because I just have not found it successful to make my job my identity. When you lose your job, that all falls apart, and the first time that happened was so crushing for me. It took a long time to figure out who I am because I just saw myself as my job and nothing else.

    When it comes to wife, I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of me as “his wife” except when we introduce ourselves. (If I can, I say partner, but in his work world, that doesn’t work.) I’m the person who pushes him to grow (and vise versa), and we share connections I can’t share with anyone else. To me that’s more than wife. I don’t have a word for it. (And I just wrote a book. Sorry. I’m waiting for new boss to actually tell me my work was ok so I can move forward….)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      He has another post (also in one of his books) where he says you’re a writer if you write. Period. It’s being a “professional” writer that means you have to get paid for it.

      • rented life Says:

        A lot of his stuff on writing/being a writer is pretty interesting and I love how transparent he is about how he makes his money and the benefits of different kinds of publishing. He always gives me a lot to think about.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      p.s. Good to hear about the job! Income is NICE.

      I think even without my job, I would still be an economist. That’s just how I view the world now. It filters my experiences and shapes my thoughts. I used to be a mathematician, despite never having been paid to be one (other than college work-study teaching assisting) but I’ve been getting away from that over the years. The job is what I do, but the economist is something I am.

      • rented life Says:

        “Communicator” is the best I’ve seen for my field, but honestly that sounds so lame and doesn’t really encompass how I filter the world.
        And thanks! It’s work from home for a decent organization and my supervisor is someone my brother knows, so I knew more about the personality I’d end up working with ahead of time. The pay the 3x what I’d make per hour adjuncting. I’m PT now, plan is FT in fall. I get to work on projects that hopefully improve the K-12 education system, and I’m not limited to projects in my state. But yes, it’s what I do, not who I am.

  7. GMP Says:

    A few years ago I was interviewed for the college newsletter or something similar and the article said I was “a wife, and mother, and a professor” and thus awesome or whatever. That really pissed me off and stuck with me. I never think of myself as a wife; honestly, I consider it an insult to be first thought of as what I am to some dude, even though I am married to and love said dude.
    I jokingly call myself a “fallen physicist” — I am a theoretical physicist by training but also have an advanced degree in an engineering discipline and now work on a little more applied stuff. Seriously, being a scientist is the strongest part of my identity, with “professor” being an addendum. Then I also do think of myself as mom and that part of my life does color much of what I do, for instance how I relate to the students I teach.
    I don’t have feminist training, but it appears that, based on my background growing up, I am of the pretty traditional feminist cloth. Economic independence and political equality first!

  8. delagar Says:

    Some radio show I used to listen to back when I drove cross-country a lot (it might have been Dr. Laura?) used to do this big thing where women identified themselves as their kid’s moms. As in “Hi, I’m Julian’s Mom!” or, “Hi, I’m Becky and TImmy’s Mom!” <– Because that was their identity, or I guess maybe the most (only?) important part of their identity. As if they had made a religion out of motherhood.

    Well, that was annoying, obviously, and kind of dumb; but it's sort of how I feel about doing that with anything. I mean, I'm a writer and it feels like the most important part of who I am, but I don't go around announcing that. "Hi, I'm a writer!" Because first, I'm also dozens of other things, and (B) these other things are also enormous and enormously important parts of me too. So if I said, "I'm a writer," it really would be untrue, because I am also, really, a scholar, a teacher, a parent, a cook, a reader, a feminist, all these other thing.

    And what I get paid for and what I don't seems an odd criteria for deciding what's real about any of it. Though, yeah, as Americans, of course that's how we decide it. (J/k. I'm always telling my students that the true religion of America is capitalism.) I don't get paid to be a parent, after all. Am I not a real parent, then?

    I like your code-switching connection, N&M! That's really what I started this comment to say, before I got distracted.

    • Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

      I go around introducing myself as a writer. But that is the primary thing I’m paid to do so it answers the question people are asking. Actually, I just as frequently say “journalist” or “author” since “writer” sometimes carries connotations of not doing it for a living.

      On the question of motherhood identity, I likewise feel that I’m me. Now I’m me with three children. They are all their own little people, becoming more of their own little people every day, and I wouldn’t imagine them primarily identifying themselves as “Laura’s kids.” That doesn’t mean we don’t shape each other greatly.

  9. Ana Says:

    Interesting topic. On a day to day level, I think all the “multitudes” within me meld together and I just feel like ME. But certain experiences bring parts of that identity to the surface: when I’m with patients that are specifically asking me to help them through a difficult decision, I feel like “doctor”, when I’m interacting with a third-party on behalf of my children (pediatrician, daycare provider) I feel like “mother”, when I’m with my parents I definitely feel like “daughter” (and often teenage one, at that!), when exposed to new customs of the area I currently live in (or snow) I feel “southern”. Not sure about “wife”—not something I feel is a strong part of my identity, or maybe its just buried in there, and I will someday have an experience that brings it to the surface.

  10. chacha1 Says:

    Great topic! … btw I absolutely love the imagery of the Galileo thermometer. That would be a super awesome way to introduce the concept of identity in school.

    I have, pretty much my whole life, resisted the assignment of identity by people-who-are-not-me, aka environment. When I lived in a gregarious and intrusive culture (small town, deep South), I was anti-social. Now that I live in a more isolationist culture (Los Angeles), I am the person who pulls together ways for people to meet and interact.

    There are two words, labels if you will, that I do relate to pretty strongly … more strongly than, say, “feminist” or “wife,” which as you indicate are merely components or subsets of the various characteristics that define me. Those would be “professional” and “creator.”

    My general approach to life is one of intentional competence, a la Danielle Laporte’s “do what you say you are going to do.” This goes beyond simply being good at my day job. I am fairly broadly considered a professional, not only by past and present business colleagues, but by people in my avocational network who know that they can count on me. This is important to me because I see a lot of very accomplished women who brush off recognition of their accomplishments. (That sh*t drives me crazy.) I expect people to relate to me as a professional; I present myself in a way that facilitates that; and I don’t apologize for the things I do well.

    As to “creator,” well … I am a dancer, choreographer, musician, singer, painter, fiber artist, jeweler, cook, and writer.

    To me it has become important to acknowledge these things, because society as a whole does want to put people (and keep people) in neat little boxes … and I don’t particularly care for the box that middle-aged women are apt to be stuffed into.

  11. bogart Says:

    I guess there are a few experiences that I feel like have shaped me so much that I might think of them as part of my identity or (in principle) say “I am a …,” but they’re not the sorts of things I’d usually use to describe myself to other people, and some don’t even have easy labels. “Witness to the very unpleasant and drawn out experience of my my dad’s really dreadful treatment of my mother and her self-extraction (through divorce) and eventual blossoming,” for example: it just doesn’t trip off the tongue. In the right setting I might try to explain what that was like or how it changed me, but not typically. Ditto infertile, though that’s a bit easier to characterize (though there’s debate even in the infertility community about whether I can characterize myself as infertile now that I’m a biological mom — but I do identify as such and can articulate why).

    I’m happy to use the “DS’s mom” label if I’m meeting someone who knows DS and not me, or who’s likely to have forgotten my name at e.g. another kid’s birthday party where we’re there because of the kids, it’s just an easy way of explaining who I am and why I’m there. But it’s not “my identity.” You can fill in “DH” and “wife” in the same way, in the above, though that (needing to explain my presence by referring to my relationship with DH) is a less frequent occurrence, likely because our social circles are more stable/long-lived than are DS’s, at this point.

  12. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    You know, I guess I do still think like a mathematician sometimes. One of my colleagues and I have a dataset that is totally messed up, and she gave up on it after attacking it every which way with Stata. So my first step was to take a little manageable subsample of the observations for which we know the correct answer and see what’s up with them. After doing that it was obvious how the dataset was f-d up. Just like getting to know a math problem before attempting a proof– check out a few examples. So there’s still a bit of mathematician in me. (And I had fun doing it too.)

  13. chacha1 Says:

    I will see your Dan Bern and raise you Walt Whitman:

    “That shadow my likeness that goes to and fro seeking a livelihood, chattering, chaffering,
    How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits,
    How often I question and doubt whether that is really me;
    But among my lovers and caroling these songs,
    O I never doubt whether that is really me.”

  14. Identity, and what it means to me | Stacking Pennies Says:

    […] by NicoleandMaggie who asked: “Who are you?  Are you what you do?  Are you what you think you are?  Is your […]

  15. mochimac @ save. spend. splurge. Says:

    You bring up a really interesting point of who we are. I don’t think I am an consultant, it’s just what I do. I’m someone who ____insert a lot of words about values_____, rather than my job. If that were the case, during high school I was a fry slinger.


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