Language and Identity

The title of this post sounds like some kind of philosophical treatise, and indeed, having typed “language and identity” into a google search field just to see if anything came up, I discovered an extensive list of scholarly papers and books on the topic.

I scanned the list and clicked on one link – a book of sociolinguistic theory published by Cambridge University Press. That’s as far as I went in my search. I could either write this post or dive into sociolinguistic theory…

In my writing this morning, I suddenly became fascinated by the hold the term “stay at home mom” has had on me. I thought, what if I just stopped thinking of myself in those words? In truth, I only have one child left at home and she’s 17. I don’t spend a lot of time at home being a mom anymore. Its almost not true. Its actually kind of a cop-out. I spend as much or more time writing, working with photographs, making art, and engaging in all sorts of outdoor physical pursuits as I do in my responsibilities at home.

I could call myself any one of these things. I often do call myself a photographer. Sometimes people pay me to make photographs. When answering the question, “What do you do?” with the words “I’m a photographer”, the next question is usually, “Do you make a living doing that?”, and then I have to say “no”, and mumble my bit about wearing many hats and not really making a living doing any of them. That sucks… but I’ve already written a lot about the conflict between being and doing and how we have a long ways to go culturally before we value “being” over “doing”.

I want to return to this other idea that I’m tracking about language though because it seems relevant to the larger question. What if I simply refuse to allow the word “photographer”, or “writer” or “stay at home mom” to define me in any way. Sure, there is concrete evidence to the fact that I am a mother. There are three human beings on this planet who confirm that fact.

I never decided to be a “stay at home mom”, it just happened, so how did I come to let those words make such a prison for me. How does the word “doctor” or “banker” become a prison for the free human being trapped inside that identity?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame it on my beloved words, and on the possibility that we humans have come to let words define us and our experience in life rather than demanding that words actually serve our purposes.

There’s a campaign I’ve seen on social media lately to ban the word “bossy”, which, when I first saw it, I thought, “Yeah really!” because I was one of those little girls called “bossy”. But then I thought more about it in the context of this topic and I thought, no… the real problem simply lies in the power we give those damn words. (Its not lost on me that I’m sitting here writing this using words. Actually, I’m pounding words into submission with every [hard] tap of my fingers on the keyboard!)

The bits of backlash I’ve read to the “ban bossy” campaign definitely make this argument, that as a feminist agenda it generally fails because actually, a lot of empowered women (feminists?) don’t seem to mind being called bossy. In thinking about it, though it was a word used to shut me up when I was young, it doesn’t have that effect anymore and I take a secret pride when my daughters are called “bossy”. I think “good for you!”.

In my last post, I said that I had some theories about why its so hard for women of my demographic to value themselves and share their gifts with the world. I’ll add to my original thoughts that there are sociolinguistic challenges as well. I smile as I write those words because I didn’t actually know sociolinguistics was a field until today.

Though I write from the perspective of a 52 year old woman who has spent most of the last 24 years out of the workforce raising children, I know that each person, no matter how they identify themselves, faces challenges when they decide they want to break down the invisible structures that contain them within an identity they no longer want to live within. Interestingly enough, I can’t say what it feels like to stop identifying with the term “housewife” for example, because its one I refused to adopt, or “soccer mom”, because I didn’t take that one on either. Likewise, but for different reasons, I’ll never know what it feels like to try to shed the identity label “attorney” or “banker”, if one longs to be a poet.

There’s no getting around the fact that we humans seem to like to label things. It would be a problem if we stopped labeling doors, “restroom” in restaurants and had people wandering around opening doors to closets offices and storage rooms when they simply needed to use a toilet. But we don’t have a problem with a closet being remodeled to become a bathroom, so why do we have such a hard time when we want to change our own label, or wear a different one every other week?

“What do you do?”

This weekend, I’m clearly a writer. This is my second post on this blog in two days after almost three years.

I’ll also be a cook, a dog walker and a laundress. I have a half finished art project that I’ve walked by too many times to count. Now that winter is trying to turn into spring, my garden is begging for attention. I might get called in to wear my editor’s hat on Sunday night, or provide college counseling. I have photos that need editing for my farm blog and an empty refrigerator.

What do you do?

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