The other day I took my three month old out in her stroller for a wander around the park. Since my toddler boys were out with daddy, it seemed like a great moment to have some time together, just the two of us.
The sun was bright, the breeze was soft, and the mosquitoes were blessedly absent. I unbuckled my girl, freshly lathered with SPF 30, and sat down with her on a bench by the pond. Not long afterward a woman paused by us with a warm smile.
“How old is she?”
Accustomed to the attention a baby draws, I smiled back. “Three months.”
This was followed by the usual banter about diapers and baby clothes and the like. Then she asked something I didn’t expect.
“So, is it just the one baby they have you looking after?”
My smile fades a touch. “Sorry?”
“I used to nanny for a while too, but that family had four kids.”
It was then I realized the woman didn’t think the baby on my lap belonged to me. Even worse, she thought I was the hired help. I’ll admit that it’s unusual for someone with black hair and dark eyes to have a blond, blue eyed baby with skin that practically glows in the dark, but still. This falls under the category of seeing a woman with a larger stomach and asking when she’s due.
When I informed her of the mistake her apology didn’t much match the disbelief on her face. She wandered away rather quickly with something urgent to look at on her phone. Hopefully she wasn’t checking the local Amber Alerts.
The worst part is that she condemned me for the rest of the afternoon to think of all the things I should have said but didn’t, certain word combinations that would’ve even impressed my cousins in the Marine Corps. But it also got me to pondering assumptions and the conclusions we make based on them.
The woman saw dark-haired me holding a fair skinned, blond baby and based on this visual determined several things all at once: 1. The baby wasn’t mine. 2. Nor was she related to me. 3. Nor was she the baby of a friend of mine. Her conclusion: Based on these assumptions, and her own history, I was the employee of the baby’s parents.
We’re all influenced by our past, the people in our lives, and our interaction with the world. Through these experiences we form categories of thinking to interpret and understand the things we see. It’s all instinctual if you consider our Neanderthal ancestry. Visual cues told us who was a threat, who was part of our tribe and who wasn’t.
This all led me to consider how such thought processes impact writing. Our ways of thinking bleed into our stories, after all. What we consider to be common sense or a universal truth may in fact be a social construction based on ways of thinking that are considered normal in our personal sphere, some (or none) of which might be shared by those who read our work. I’m not saying writers should exclude who they are from their writing. On the contrary, that’s what makes each story unique.
Let me put it to you this way: That woman in the park thought I was a nanny caring for the child of (in her mind) a classical Midwestern family. A limited and boring analysis of what she saw. The more interesting story is that a Hawaiian girl lived abroad in Holland and, while researching European immigration policies, met a sweet Dutch boy, married and moved to Minnesota where she was blessed with three very blond babies.
As a writer, passion and inspiration get the words on the page for me. Equally important is the practice of challenging what is considered “normal”. Categories of thinking inhibit creativity and lessen the vibrant nature of storytelling. Since books are the medium through which writers engage with readers, we owe it to them, ourselves, and the craft to poke a few holes in established logic and see what happens. And isn’t that what makes this writing thing fun anyway?