Just Another Jenny wrote about "I don't know how you do it:"
There is nothing that prompted this post except memory. For some reason this phrase bubbled to the forefront of my mind and I remembered the pain it can sometimes bring:I don't know how you do it.
Lots of us have heard it from time to time. I don't usually experience it as "painful;" rather, annoying (not this again). But I have heard it mostly in reference to aspects of my lifestyle about which I do not have ambiguous or negative feelings. I remember hearing it while I was a graduate student in engineering school, for instance. ("I don't know how you do..." what? Math?) And I hear it now about home education and about raising five children. I channel the slight annoyance into bemusement and, I'm afraid, into a tiny sense of superiority which I really should try to quash.
Of course you don't know how I do it. That's why I do it, and you don't.
No, I don't say it out loud, but I admit to thinking it. It's not good because, though interior, it represents a retaliation in kind. I am hitting back with the same stick that is being waved at me.
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Jenny is in a situation significantly different from mine, but one that attracts "I don't know how you do it" from mothers in situations that are more similar to mine:
Usually the context of this phrase is when a mother who normally stays home with her children has had to leave town without them for a few days. She is struck by how much she misses her children and how happy she is to be reunited and then the fatal phrase is uttered:"I don't know how you working mothers do it. I missed my children so much. I could not do this everyday."
It stabs. The intent is almost never malicious. It is an innocent wonder at how such a burden could consistently be borne. The problem with voicing such a thought is not that it isn't reasonable or true. The problem is that it very reasonable and terribly true.
I think I've put my finger on what the "problem" with this vocalization is. The "problem" is not that it is true and painful. It's not even that it is an expression of pity; genuine pity is not necessarily negative (although it can be).
Jenny is probably correct that it is not said in malice, but I think she is not correct that it is innocent. The intent may be unconscious, but here's what underlies "I don't know how you do it:"
It is an othering statement.
If you don't like the slight "buzzwordiness" of the term "othering," you might try substituting the term "invalidation;" it is the same sort of thing, although personally I think the verb "to other" is a quite concise use of the English language to express what is going on here.
Like many other examples of "othering," IDKHYDI exists in an ambiguous point on the spectrum between unconscious and intentional. People do it on purpose, and people do it without realizing it, and there is usually plausible deniability ("I certainly didn't mean it that way, she was reading too much into what I said to her"); so it is impossible both to give careless speakers an appropriate benefit of the doubt and to call people out when they cross the line.
And so othering goes on, blithely, and no one is willing to do anything about it, because come on, what are you going to do?
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Here is a decently written introduction to "othering:"
By “othering”, we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us”. Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.
"I don't know how you do it" is precisely a way of dismissing other women. And yes, it's the same kind of thing as lumping into one group everybody who votes for that other political party. It's exactly the same thing that creates "death by a thousand cuts" in the workplace, in the community, for people who visibly belong to minority ethnic groups or who have visible disabilities.
It quite literally says: I am unable to have empathy for you.
You are so different from me that I am not able to imagine myself walking in your shoes. I will not make any reference to trying.
It appears to be a compliment: your abilities are beyond my imagination; but it is in fact a backhanded compliment: your personhood is beyond my imagination.
It imagines that your unimaginable skills must be made possible only by the existence of some deficiency: the working mother must lack a certain maternal love for her children, the mother of numerous closely spaced children must lack self-control or intelligence or self-respect, the parent of disabled children must be somehow "special" herself for God to have sent the children to her.
(Whatever; it couldn't happen to me, says IDKHYDI, because I, unlike you, am normal, normative, mainstream.)
It says: You must be different from me in some fundamental way. You are a different kind of person, because "I could never" be the kind of person who would "do what you do."
It says: If I were in your situation, I'd do things differently.
It might even mean: I could never get into the situation you've gotten yourself into. That's why I don't bother to imagine how I would cope: because I know that I wouldn't get into your situation. I don't have to imagine how I could do that, because what has happened to you would never happen to me. I am not the kind of person that you are, the kind of person that would let that happen.
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This is why I say it would be better if I quashed my internal reaction ("of course you don't know how I do it"); the internal reaction is a retaliatory othering, one that says, "Oh, I'm 'the other' to you? Well, guess what, sister; you're 'the other' to me, and I rather like it that way."
The source I linked above on "othering" is called There Are No Others; it has not been updated in a while, which is too bad, as it seemed like a really good start. From the same page I linked:
The concept behind this site, then, is that
Our intent is to raise people’s consciousness about othering behaviour, to make them more alert to these thought patterns, and to encourage alternative ways of addressing the problems that we often seek to avoid by dehumanising any one group.
- a) humans have an undeniable and insidious inclination to engage in “othering” thought patterns for the purpose of self-preservation, and
- b) learning to avoid and counteract these thought patterns is integral to greatly reducing the world’s hatred and suffering.
I want to be aware of mental "othering" and "othering" behavior in myself. It may be true that we naturally do it, as a form of self-preservation and group preservation, naming certain people as our neighbors who are like us and "othering" different people, for safety. But being human, we are more than natural, and we are called to constantly ask "who is my neighbor?" and acknowledge that the answer is "anyone." There is no good excuse for dehumanizing anyone, even a little bit.
This might be a good Lenten calling for anyone: search out the othering, mental and vocal, and search out the invalidation, the defense mechanism. Notice it, and try to root it out wherever it occurs.
Everyone is fully human?
Even those people?
Now try to behave as if it is true.