When I think about who I was before, and who I am now, one word always come to mind: confidence. I was so sure of myself in all things. In many areas, it was well-founded. In comparison to the kids I went to school with before college, I was exceptionally hard working and motivated. School came easily to me, and I loved to be challenged. College, my first post-college job, all went as I expected. I loved grad school, and did well. I’ve said all this before. I lost a lot of that in the past few years, through grief and more general disappointments.
But I think that because of who I used to be, I am particularly sensitive to overconfidence in others. I am just amazed by anyone who is so sure of themselves that they can, without hesitation, judge others, especially for their decisions. I, of course, do it too, but not all that profoundly and usually only in conversation with Josh. I am not at all sure that I am that wise.
Women from my undergraduate institution can be the worst culprits when it comes to thinking themselves wiser than others. I went to an elite all-women’s college on the East Coast. The winter issue of our alumnae magazine included an article about fashion. I didn’t read it. I thought about reading it before commenting about it here, but then I figured I should just stay with my original inclination–disinterest. When I saw it, I thought, “Huh, I bet this will spark some self-righteous letters.” I don’t actually read the articles in the magazine all that often, but the editors have made some interesting choices recently. An earlier issue, last year at the most distant, was about how alumnae who haven’t reached high stations in corporate America or the government, or whatever it is we value as a class of educated women, feel about their particular accomplishments, or lack thereof. It’s an old joke that the we are a motivated bunch, but kind of striving and unimaginative when it comes to career choices. I think of myself as very different from that stereotype (as I’m sure most of us do.) So, while you need look no further than my closet and really limited accessory collection to know that I wouldn’t read an article with fashion advice, even if it was written by a woman from my college, I thought, “Cool, I’m glad they’re giving an alum in that field a look.”
Sure enough, this month, the editor’s column addressed several letters criticizing the choice. I admit to deeming the letters obnoxious and petty. One woman called the pictures “a waste of space” and continued, “Our magazine provides a forum for many of the world’s most educated, intelligent, experienced and articulate women to express themselves on a variety of topics. Fashion is not one of them.” Another woman asked whether the alum shouldn’t be devoting “her intelligence, and our time, to something more important,” and concluded, “Please don’t waste trees on this useless dreck.” Seriously. It’s an alumnae magazine. The young alum is creative and apparently very successful. I think it’s cool she’s making a success in a field she loves, but it’s not my thing, and that’s about the level of profundity I think the article should have inspired for someone who’s not interested in it. I’m sure plenty of people enjoyed the article.
Is this part of the culture wars, the war on women, the mommy wars, and the whole lot of petty things we do and say to one another on a regular basis as part of our personal discourse around them?
The story of my confidence makes me think so. Longtime readers of my blog will remember that I have a very conflicted relationship with one of my graduate school mentors. Last summer, we had a confrontation at a conference that hurt me. I tried to talk to her about my future plans, but stopped short of telling her my plans to quit academia. I had only come to that decision a few weeks before we saw each other, and I was very nervous about coming out with it. I started by trying to tell her about my writing plans. She mocked them–saying they were “fun”plans I should do once my real work was established. I tried to talk to her about our plans to move to the city–she snidely derided them as a plan for me to become “simply a mom who drives Samuel around to Hebrew school.” The mom and the Jewish comment upset me. Not because she’s at all anti-Semitic–she would have said the same thing had I said we were concerned about any faith or sports or anything that put family ahead of career. But because in that second I realized, “She doesn’t know me at all.”
I am Jewish before I am anything. Once I decided to become a parent, I accepted the obligation to make sure my son gets a good Jewish education, that he knows and grows up as part of a strong Jewish community. Not everyone feels that way, but it’s no secret about me. I came straight to grad school from Israel. I was still in the process of leaving orthodoxy when I entered grad school. I never pretended, or thought, or could have led anyone who knew me at all to believe I cared about being an academic historian more than being Jewish and having a Jewish family life.
A few weeks ago, I finally told this mentor my full future plans in an email. I hadn’t been evading it–this was an incredibly busy, difficult year and I just never had the time and brain power to do it.
She has not answered my email. She had previously responded passive aggressively when I told her I was pregnant again. I don’t know if it was because I waited until I was in the week 30s to tell her–again, that was stress. I just don’t send out, “Hey, I’m pregnant!” messages. It just comes out in the context of other things or when it becomes obvious.
Now she’s clearly ignoring me. So apparently I’m not the only one with a crisis of confidence in me. I don’t know yet how I feel about that. In my youth, I’d have been defiant. Screw her for thinking I can’t succeed at whatever I want. I feel a bit of that now. Definitely hurt, too. It’s not the first time we’ve clashed over our different plans for me–so that’s not new. But I was a little surprised by the email silence. And so it goes.