Self-Labeling or Self-Limiting?

This article was previously published and awarded Editor's Pick on Open Salon

I've written about cognitive linguistics in the past:

According to Wikipedia, Linguistic Relativity is the idea that: "the varying cultural concepts and categories inherent in different languages affect the cognitive classification of the experienced world in such a way that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it." 

The classic example when I was in college was that because snow and ice are such a prominent environmental reality for indigenous people living above the arctic circle, their language has evolved many different words describing snow.  Because they have precise language to describe very fine gradations in snow conditions, their children learn early to recognize and experience snow conditions differently than the rest of us. This precise vocabulary for snow shapes how the speakers of these languages perceive and experience snow.

I am a linear thinker, and I like having labels for things.  My daughter’s middle name is the scientific term for a particular snow condition.  Yes, really. It’s beautiful.

How we label things matters. Consider that the DSM used to list homosexuality as mental illness. Fortunately this is no longer the case, but the potential for harm from such labels still exists. Today it seems as if almost any quirky behavior can be classified as mental disorder and render interesting-but-healthy people vulnerable to discrimination.

As an interesting-but-healthy person myself, I’m never sure how to self-label.  Unfortunately, labels come with all kinds of baggage.  For example, I never know how to answer strangers’ innocuous questions about my career. This is one of the first things new acquaintances ask, and with good reason. People want a one-word answer that will tell them which pigeonhole is mine.  This will give them clues about my social status, wealth (or not), politics, interests, intelligence, work ethic, and so on. It’s a quick and dirty way to parse new people into preconceived social strata, and I tend to do this myself when I first meet people.  

Saying I’m a stay-home mom hasn’t worked out well in the past.  I tried this once at a holiday party peppered with really cool, artsy, hipsters. The person who asked what I do quickly cast me in with the Untouchables. He seemed to think I just lie around all day letting my brain atrophy and couldn't possibly contribute anything meaningful to the conversation

Not that there’s anything wrong with lying around--I wouldn’t mind being horizontal more often. I don’t know any stay-home moms who just sit around wallowing in ignorance. I’m sure they’re out there, but I suspect they're rare.

If I say I have a degree in Anthropology, they tend to imagine this:

I have actually done interesting and exciting field work in the Middle East, but I wasn’t looking for the Holy Grail. Also, if Sean Connery had been there, I might still be following him around the desert. My current reality disappoints fans of Indiana Jones.

If I say I am a blogger, people picture this:  

I neither smoke nor live in my mom's basement. Also, I use a smaller computer--a MacBook.

If I say I am a writer, people think I write novels.

I would love to write books, but right now my attention span is very truncated.

I have never self-identified as a writer because the label doesn’t quite fit and because until recently I had never been paid.  Saying I’m a writer seems to imply that I earn a living doing that, but for me it’s more of a hobby.  People want to know my source of income.  They want to know if they can mingle with me without embarrassment.  

Now that I’ve received the validation of being paid to write, I’m very tempted to call myself a writer.  I could say, “I’m a writer," with an air of mysterious sophistication-as if my backpack holds leather-bound notebooks filled with the next great American novel, written by hand-rather than snacks and diapers.

Ultimately I’m complex, and I don’t want to limit my options.  It pisses me off that I hesitate to just call myself a stay-home mom and let the bigots drift away.  I’m mad at society for undervaluing parents, teachers, and childcare workers, and I’m mad at myself for falling for it.  I’m sure there’s a mental illness for this, but probably no pharmaceutical.

My Trophy Husband thinks I should come up with a short sentence.  Something like, “I’m a contributing writer for a couple of science and critical thinking web magazines." I agree, but I need to practice the delivery. "Contributing writer" sounds exciting and sexy-like I'm carrying Science around in my backpack. Which, come to think of it, is true. And there's plenty of room for snacks and diapers in there too.