The Upside to Assumption

It was bad enough that I was in one of my least favorite places on the planet, but the tech at my doctor’s office couldn’t resist going the extra mile.

“So, how old are your kids?” she asked.

In the few moments we’d been in the same airspace, I’d said nothing about kids or family. Had she been a bit more observant, she’d have noticed I wasn’t wearing a ring — something which might‘ve hinted at any existence of a family that I’d helped create, although rings aren’t necessarily an indicator of such things these days. Perhaps this is why she assumed.

You know what they say about those who assume.

Without hesitation, I responded with, “I don’t have kids. Why do you ask?”

I could have left it at “I don’t have kids” which would’ve punted the awkwardness back her way quickly enough, but I chose to go deeper with the “why do you ask” part, just for fun. Naturally, she didn’t answer the question.

“Oh, um…I’m sorry,” was all she said.

In truth, her question didn’t bother me. I wasn’t offended. Her assumption is what was annoying, though I understand that many of our assumptions are based on what we’ve come to know as the norm. I had the same assumptions about myself 15, 20 years ago.

The other day, I asked someone if she had any plans for the holidays. She said no, then asked if I’d be celebrating with my family, or with my husband’s.

Did I miss something? When did I get married? Again, assumption — for one reason or another.

I’m aware that the marriage-less, child-free path that I’m currently on isn’t the norm, but it’s hardly the rarity that it used to be. Comically, I came across a write-up just tonight about a book that deals with the sans-kiddos topic.

Henriette Mantel’s introduction to No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood recalls a memory from her earlier years that made me laugh out loud.

“Years ago, I remember watching The Tonight Show with Joan Rivers, who was the guest host. Gloria Steinem, who was about forty years old at the time, was her guest. In her usual obnoxious way, Joan said to Gloria, “You know, my daughter has been the biggest joy in my life and I can’t imagine not having her. Don’t you regret not having children?” Gloria Steinem didn’t miss a beat. She answered, “Well, Joan, if every woman had a child there wouldn’t be anybody here to tell you what it’s like not to have one.” Joan looked at her like that thought had honestly never crossed her mind.”

The article also calls out another writer’s recollection of when her eight-year-old niece asked whether writer Andrea Carla Michaels — then nearing forty — was married.

“Aunt Andrea, are you married?” I said, “No, are you married?!” She seemed alarmed and asked, “Why would I be married?!” and I said to her, “Well, why would I be married?” She folded her arms and said, “You’re weird.” “Good weird or bad weird?” She grumbled that she hadn’t decided yet. But it was already so clear to her at eight that people were married and had kids, and if you didn’t, you were “weird.” It’s amazing how young those attitudes start. This “chat” with my niece didn’t prepare me for the now-daily shock of being mistaken for someone’s mother. I overheard my other ten-year-old niece Alexa patiently explaining things to her six-year-old brother, who was piecing together family relationships. He asked who I was the mother of. Alexa dramatically turned to Ricky and exclaimed, “Aunt Andrea is the mother to no one.”

I’m no stranger to weirdness — which is good, because that’s exactly what some people think of us unmarried gals. It’s not necessarily bad — it’s just weird.

Once upon a time, I sat next to a woman on an airplane, and she called me weird — weird at the ripe old age of 11. She was a nut herself, tossing her hair and clutching a script in her hands that never had a page flipped — yet which she was stuck on for most of the flight. I’d been dubbed “weird” because I had an aisle seat and kept glancing out the window whenever Nutjob’s daughter would open it. Nutjob didn’t want the window shade open, and kept slamming it shut. When I finally asked if she’d mind opening it as we were getting ready to land, I was met with, “Yes, I would mind, and I’ll tell you why. I think you’re weird.” Nutjob didn’t realize my parents were a few rows up, so I promptly tattled and let Mama Bear handle things as we exited the plane.

To be fair, I also know many happily-paired-up ladies who don’t find anything weird about those of us without husband or offspring. I’d venture to say they’re the “live and let live” type, versus the type to quickly assume.

Regardless of whether we’re paired up or not — or have kids or not, assumptions can run rampant when it comes to these topics. But there’s an upside: they teach us a lot about where someone else might be coming from, about other perspectives, about the status quo, about norms — even about what people think of us. I like to think that something as silly as an assumption can be a good thing, so long as our takeaway is anything but anger toward the other person. Maybe we’ll find patience or understanding when we’re met with an assumption, or maybe we’ll just laugh it off. Maybe we’ll mull it over after the fact when we have time to think and come to a conclusion that didn’t present itself at the time said assumption was delivered. Whatever our response, there’s a learning tucked in there somewhere, so be on the lookout. Yes, people who assume really can make an ass out of you and me when we’re short-sighted, or they can do exactly the opposite in the wake of reflection or dialogue.

Here’s to the good that assumptions can bring.

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