When I just had two (and then three, and then five..) little kids, we lived in Barcelona. Expatriate life was plenty challenging, and I had not been raised to suffer in silence (What? Then how are people supposed to know you're suffering?).
But I began to notice something odd. People admired me and looked askance at my husband. (He took to calling us Saint Dev and Mad Max.)
Now, I might not have minded (which goes to show how saintly I really am) if they had admired me for my talents or beauty or intellect. But it wasn’t that. They saw that I had “a lot” of kids—in Spain three counts officially as a “familia numerosa” and gets you a 15% discount on the subway—
and that I spent a lot of time with them.
I did. I’d drop one off at nursery school, walk down a picturesque village street,
pick up some bread from the bakery,
stop for Mass at a majestic old church,
spend a little time at the playground with the little ones,
and walk home in the fresh air. Yes, I changed diapers and did some mundane and occasionally very hard or disgusting jobs. I suffered from culture shock. I wasn’t a full-time bon-bon-eating slacker. But I was my own boss, setting my own schedule. I got lots of time outside,and I got to spend nearly 24 hours a day with my kids, which was precisely what I’d been hoping to do since before they were born.
My husband, who made all this possible, had to put on a suit every day (it wasn’t a suit-friendly climate), get to work on time, spend hours and hours each day sitting in an office,
and keep enormous numbers of colleagues and bosses and students happy with his performance. Oh, and earn a PhD. He had to finance all the diapers I changed, all the groceries I selected, and all the strollers I wore out on those picturesque cobblestones. On him fell pretty much all the paperwork
and all the big-picture worries attendant on charting our course
—because even if I’d had his natural bent for big-picture thinking, I was hopelessly, and not so unhappily, mired in the details of bearing, feeding, changing and reading stories to the babies.
(Besides, being the eldest of eight, I had some inkling of what I was getting into by having all these kids. My husband was the baby of two, and deserves a hefty amount of credit for sheer bravery.)
Yet people made hilariously unfounded judgments, good and bad, about us both. They assumed I’d rather be working at a prestigious job but was being sweetly longsuffering about it. They assumed my brutal husband had pressured or forced me to forego birth control--or that most of the kids were “accidents,” but I was heroically being nice to them anyway. They had formed a wholly imaginary picture of my life.
This reminded me (strangely enough) of an epistemology class in grad school on “construction.” Some contend that much of what we mistake for objective reality is actually “constructed”—by prejudiced individuals or by society at large.
(Ivy Leaguers are notorious for getting exceedingly carried away with this idea. When my husband was at Harvard, we ran into people who truly believed that every single difference between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, and--above all--men and women is merely “constructed,” none of them real or innate.)
Now, the mind indulges in legitimate “construction” all the time. Lots of it is mixed into what we think of as just plain perception. Think, for example, of a sofa and chairs that partially obscure a rug.
All you’re literally seeing is the exposed part of the rug: an irregular swath of red.
You then take your knowledge of rugs, furniture, and three-dimensional objects and use it to construct something besides what you actually see: the hidden portion of the rug. You know--at least, you instantly assume--that the full rectangle is there, and you interpret what you do perceive in light of that.
You see what you expect to see.
Now consider what happens when it’s not just a sense impression, but the state of someone’s mind, argument, or soul that you're interpreting.
Lots of “constructing” goes on here, too—perhaps so reflexively that we don’t realize we are interpreting, rather than just receiving data. But here are some of the factors that can easily interfere with even the most well-intentioned perceiver:
- Projection: As Caryll Hauslander says, “We usually judge people by our own reactions, fears and desires….we attribute to them motives which we would have in the same circumstances.”
- Our own defects: As Jacques Philippe and Michel Esparza note, what aggravates us most about ourselves is what we’re most prone to detect, and least able to tolerate, in others.
- Our "investment" in the person we’re criticizing. We may exaggerate the flaws or strengths of our own child, or student, because we care so deeply about how they turn out. If we’re passionately concerned about a child's honesty, we may agonize over every toddler fib, or else twist ourselves in knots trying to explain away a baldfaced lie.
- On the other hand, love can give us insights into someone's character than no disinterested stranger would ever discover. So indifference can lead to distortions, too.
- A possible sense of responsibility for the moral upbringing of the person in question. We not only feel strongly--we feel responsible. Our judgment can be further clouded by the belief that the presence of bad traits is evidence of our own failure or defective genes. The object of our criticism then gets the brunt of our frustration with his own actual flaws, plus our frustration with our own perceived failure to eradicate or prevent them.
Well, then, is there hope for rational converstion? I think here is, as long as we watch out for:
- The danger of taking our own impressions of other people's virtue, viciousness, motivations, and intentions at face value, but also
- the danger of appointing ourselves Psychoanalyst in Chief, attributing ominous complexes of projection, anxieties, and defense mechanisms to people who are just trying to get through the afternoon, or have a conversation with us.
So next time you see a young mother running errands with her kids, remember:
Everything you know is wrong.