The Judgmental Advice Column: Friends and Movie References

Dear Judgmental Advice Column,

I have a friend who hasn’t seen as many movies as I have and doesn’t watch everything I watch on Netflix. We get along great otherwise, but they don’t get my references.

I feel like I’m always explaining things like who Pauly Shore is and which Ghostbusters movie had the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Usually, I have to clarify that it is not, in fact, “the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Michelin Man or something.”

As extreme as it sounds, this person hasn’t even seen every single sitcom of the eighties and nineties.

The mental exhaustion of this is taking its toll in every area of my life, as unlikely as that may seem.

Please help, Judgmental Advice Column.

Sincerely,
Baffled Buff

We can’t cross every bridge together, though we may try. Some bridges are meant for trains and not humans.

Dear Buff,

At times like this, it’s worth nothing that we all have our differences. If all our friends were exactly like us, what would be the point of having friends? Our beauty is in our diversity.

That said, there’s something you need to remember:

If someone hasn’t seen a movie that you like, it says everything about them as a person.

I used to have a friend–let’s call him Ted, which is also Ted Bundy’s first name–who enjoyed the 90s sitcom Step by Step, but didn’t know that Suzanne Somers was in Three’s Company many years before. As you can imagine, this was a horrifying and difficult situation to be in.

I was younger then, and didn’t handle the situation well. It’s still embarrassing to admit that I told him, “You should check out Three’s Company sometime. It’s a classic.” I wince writing this, thinking of how I said nothing to speak out against Ted’s cultural ignorance.

So, here’s my advice to you, Buff:

Don’t listen to this person’s flimsy excuses about not having time or money. Don’t let them fool you with some claptrap about “reading books” or “going hiking with my brother.”

Ask yourself, if the situation were reversed, would you let them say those things to you?

Remember that age is a common excuse for people like this. Only you can say how much leeway you can give this person for having been born ten years before or after you, or for not having lived through the exact circumstances that led you to see each and every movie you’ve seen.

If they haven’t seen that show you always forget you already told them about, remind them that it’s on Netflix. If Netflix has removed the show from their catalog, that is a regret they will have to live with the rest of their life. In this case, you could show them compassion.

But if they say they “still haven’t seen” A Very Important Movie, well, why not? Ask. It might be difficult, but you need to be the one to bring this issue to the light.

Another thing to consider, Buff, is that communication and respect are the foundations of all relationships. You can’t respect someone who uses the wrong preposition when quoting a movie.

You need to correct their misquotes, and let them know that this behavior is not ok with you.

But ultimately? This speaks to the sort of person who can’t be bothered to memorize an entire movie, absorb all the trivia from its IMDB page, and then watch every single other movie that those actors had even a two-second cameo in.

You can do better, Buff. You say this person is your friend, but you shouldn’t have to debase yourself by explaining your references to tertiary characters in Punky Brewster like some kind of animal.

I can’t say if they are beyond redemption–that falls to you alone. But if this person doesn’t remember the names of all the actors who played the Brady Bunch kids…

If they’re incapable of even distinguishing the Ninja Turtles from one another after having only watched the show sometime last century, as if telling apart identical cartoon turtles named after Italian painters isn’t something we all have to do every day…

You may need to think about what, exactly, your common ground is with this person.

You may need to excise them from your life.

You can always replace a friend the way Suzanne Somers was replaced on Three’s Company.

Best of luck, Buff.

Your friend,
Judgmental Advice Column

Read and listen to “A Cold Glow”

The Alone in a Room with Invisible People podcast recently announced that they will be doing their second annual Halloween Special, and you know what that means!

It means that I just remembered I never bothered to post about the fact that my story “A Cold Glow” was one of the flash fiction pieces included in last year’s episode. I have a history of doing this.

Yes, that is my “handwriting.”

You can listen to it here. “A Cold Glow” plays at 24:25, but if you’re in the mood to overload on Halloween flash fiction, this episode is filled with all types of Halloween stories. Case in point: “A Cold Glow” is a sci-fi story about a kid on a space station who butts heads with the station’s computer in his quest to carve a jack-o’-lantern.

I forget how many other stories are in the podcast, but I had a lot of fun listening to a bunch of them last year while driving out to various Halloween adventures. Werewolves, witches, vampires, hauntings–they’re all present and accounted for.

The text version of the story will have a permanent home here.

We’re a month-and-a-half out from Halloween, and this post is scheduled for Friday the 13th. Works for me.

Nine reasons to cut your own hair (besides saving money)

Haircutting shears, thinning shears, haircutting razor, comb

I perpetrated my first DIY haircut one night in my college dorm, in the grubby common bathroom. Some kind of hair-demon possessed me and whipped me into a frenzy that would not allow me to sleep or focus on anything else until I had less hair on my head. Instead of putting off the haircut until a more convenient time, making an appointment, or at least doing a quick internet search to learn what to do, I grabbed some hair from the center of my head, pulled it out to my nose, and chopped it off with what I assume were not actual haircutting scissors.

Only then, I realized my mistake and took to the internet. I forget if I Googled, or LiveJournaled, or possibly even went on AOL Instant Messenger, which hung on with the strength of the undead for many years after AOL itself became a clownish relic of the 90s. All I remember is that I told my friend Bonnie about the weird little hair-fangs hanging down my forehead, and Bonnie said, “Come over. I can fix it.”

This was accomplished with a great deal of mediocre pizza.

The lesson I took from my screw-up wasn’t that I should be patient and let a professional take care of things for me: it was that I should learn the skills Bonnie had.

I’ve now been cutting my own hair for fourteen years, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. My worst mistakes now have nothing on the hair-fangs of 2005.

People often cite money as a reason to cut your own hair. Do the math! Think of how much money you’ll save! Money has been a motivating factor for me, but after years of DIY haircuts, I’ve found other reasons as well. Here are a few to consider:

You are not a telepath.

How many people have a story about asking the stylist to “just take off an inch” and ending up with a drastic haircut? You can describe something to a stylist in detail, and you can bring pictures, but it’s hard not to lose something in translation. This happens even with pictures because a haircut on someone else must be translated to your own hair and head shape.

I’ve gotten more accurate with my descriptions since I started cutting my own hair. The last time I had a professional haircut, three years ago, I described what I wanted so well that I was disappointed: she gave me the exact cut I would’ve given myself at home.

You have long hair.

If you have long hair, you also have large margin of error. I might be biased (as a short hair person since the age of twelve), but I don’t see much point to hair more than half a foot past your shoulders. Nothing after that is going to change how you look. The hair around your face has more impact than ends trailing down your mid-back to your butt.

Every inch of hair you have beyond that “just past the shoulders” point adds to your margin of error. Unless you truly love the feeling of a ponytail long enough to tie your shoes with, consider the extra length to be breathing room.

Or an easy haircut.

Again, this applies to long hair, or at least long hair cut to a single length, no bangs, no layers. It also applies to a straightforward buzzcut. If you have an easy haircut, why not give it a shot?

Be a fearless badass.

Fearlessness liberates you, and cutting your own hair is a safe way to practice it. I’ve heard people who jumped out of a plane say how exhilarated and free they felt after finally doing it.

That’s nice. I’m still not jumping out of a plane.

I have a number of anxiety problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. I overthink everything. I don’t need my hair to be yet another area of my life that’s ruled by anxiety. Eff that noise–if I find myself over-worrying about my hair, I chop it off.

Satiate the hair madness immediately.

Even if you don’t cut your own hair on a regular basis, if you learn how to, it’s always an option that’s available. Such as if you are possessed by the same hair madness I had that night in college and need to cut your hair immediately in the middle of the night.

Cut your hair in stealth.

Last year, I decided to go back to a pixie cut. I had grown out my previous pixie into an undercut with a long top–too long, falling onto my shoulders. In pictures, I don’t look like myself. The hair demon, it turns out, was part of me all along. Twist!

I didn’t want the “You cut your hair!” attention that a sudden, drastic haircut brings, so I decided I would cut little bits at a time and stretch the haircut out over several months. Usually, this meant setting a timer for three to five minutes, and cutting off just a bit before taking a shower.

Only three or four people noticed until I made it past the one-year mark, made a mistake, and buzzed off a bunch to even it out.

Part of the reason I did this was also as a learning experience. I hoped that by cutting less at a time, I might better learn how to deal with some of the awkward, in-between lengths. The stealth haircut (also known as the slow haircut) worked out well in that regard too.

I learned that if you only cut a small section at a time and don’t like the result, it’s easy to see where you went wrong.

Express yourself.

If you wake up one morning and you’re not in a “having this stupid lock of hair on the side of my head” kind of mood, you can snip that thing off. When you cut your own hair, your haircut is more directly tied to your self-expression. Hair becomes another art form to explore. Your haircut can be a reaction to how you’re feeling. You can put away parts of your personality and bring other ones up front for awhile.

Avoid small talk.

Are you too awkward to have a stranger cut your hair? That’s been my experience for most of my life. Cut your hair by yourself, cut the small talk.

Then you can free the rambling, singing deranged person you keep under that awkward exterior.

Increase your independence.

Despite the fear so many people have, cutting your own hair is like anything else where you have the option of calling a professional versus doing it yourself. I’ve changed my own oil, jumped a battery, and replaced my car’s door handle with some help from youtube.

If I wanted, I could do all my own oil changes myself. But I have a small, low car, and it’s a hassle to get under there. Also, considering the cost of oil itself, I’m not saving an enormous money by passing that job off to someone else.

And ultimately, even after learning all the benefits of cutting my own hair, I’m more clear on when it makes sense to call a professional. Sometimes, you want to take advantage of how much easier it is for someone else to blend the hair on the back of your head. Maybe you like having your scalp touched. Maybe you want to get the fuck out of your apartment. Maybe you’ve calculated how many hours of your life it costs to make the money to get the haircut, and the haircut makes you happy enough that you don’t care. Or you hate cutting your own hair the same way many people hate vacuuming, and you especially hate cleaning hair scraps out of the bathroom sink.

For many years, my treat to myself on my birthday was a professional haircut.

There’s an attitude many people have that cutting your own hair is basically the equivalent of a sloppy chainsaw murder, especially if you’re a woman and your hair is supposed to be your crowning glory. I don’t like the assumption that you shouldn’t cut your own hair because you’ll fuck it up, and that you need to hand the job over to someone who’s had the proper training because under no circumstances should you ever set foot outside with a less than perfect haircut.

I don’t like the assumption that you shouldn’t cut your own hair because you’ll fuck it up, and that you need to hand the job over to someone who’s had the proper training because under no circumstances should you ever set foot outside with a less than perfect haircut.

Even worse is the assumption that you can never learn to cut your own hair; hairstylists are not human beings who attend schools, start out knowing nothing, and learn through reading and practice. They’re, like, mythical spirits of hair, and you can never learn to do what they do.

Those attitudes are willfully disempowering people.

Instead of looking at DIY haircuts with fear, it should be seen as another area where we have a choice. There’s a world of difference between choosing to call a professional, and being helpless to do anything but call a professional.

That’s a Kris Problem: when others refuse to use my gender-neutral name

Out in the world are others who have experienced the same social annoyances I have, like being asked if I’m sure I don’t want any dessert or being told to smile. The great proliferation of internet blogs almost universally ensures that I can find those people, learn from them, and feel less alone. I can realize why something bothered me, see how someone else solved it, or see how they chose to accept it. But there’s one social problem I’ve never seen anyone else write about.

What do you do when you’re a Kristin who goes by Kris, and others revert your name to Kristin the instant you find yourself in a grouping with a Christopher who goes by the phonetically identical Chris, supposedly to avoid confusion? What do you do when others refuse to use your chosen name the instant someone who ranks higher in the patriarchy shows up?

The name Kris written in varying sizes and styles over acrylic paint.

As a child, I signed all my drawings KRIS, written in capital letters that took up the entire back of the paper. I knew Kris was my name before I knew Kristin was. One day, at either daycare or Sunday school, I drew my picture, flipped it over, and wrote KRIS in my enormous, wavering crayon lines. When I took it home at the end of the day, I noticed the teacher had written “Kristin” in the upper right corner, in tiny, ballpoint penmanship.

Kristin is my full name. Kris is my name. But after that, I knew to go by Kristin at school.

Fifth grade was a year that even now, I remember being one of the best in my life. I had lived an entire decade, made it to the top of the school, and collected enough Lisa Frank stickers to trade with my best friends, who were all in the same class as me that year. High on the power of a ten-year-old, I took a bold stand: I wrote “Kris” at the top of a worksheet. Then I did it again. I didn’t stop.

I asked the friends who didn’t already call me Kris if they could do so.

One of them told me, “I can’t call you Kris. It’s a boy’s name.”

This, of course, is not actually true. It’s not even uncommon for Christines, Christinas, and Kristins* to go by Chris/Kris, although I didn’t meet any others until I was an adult. My grandmother and my aunt, both named Crystal, went by Crys at times. Since I called them “Grandma” and “Aunt Crystal,” the fact that they had the same name as me didn’t sink in until later. So when my friend said Kris was a boy’s name, it felt true.

My name was short and boyish, and I wasn’t supposed to use it. I was like Nancy Drew’s friend George. And we all know that George is the awesome friend because no one remembers the other one.

I was Kris.


I’ve wondered how no one else on this internet has this problem, or at least how no one has written about it. Or if they have written about it, why it’s been so hard for me to find.

There are several conditions that must be in place for the Kris problem to occur. You need:

  1. A female first name with
  2. a gender-neutral nickname, which
  3. is actually used by males as well, and
  4. is common enough that males and females (and those of varying gender identities) will encounter each other.

Which is to say, I thought that loads of people must have experienced this, but it may not be a common problem at all. Most other Kristins I’ve met go by Kristin. Who else has this problem? Jessicas who go by Jess? Danielles who go by Dan? Samanthas who go by Sam? I’ve only known one female Dan and one male Sam. But I’ve known loads of Chrises.

Here’s a scenario I’ve experienced repeatedly in group settings:
“I’m Josh.”
“I’m Ashley.”
“I’m Chris.”
“I’m Kris too.”
“Uh-oh, there’s another Kris.”

At this point, the meddling Josh or Ashley will propose a solution before a problem even comes up: “Well, you can just go by Kristin.” I don’t know why it falls to the Meddling Ashley to do this, but that’s the pattern. It’s never the other Chris.

This has happened at school, at more than one job, at family gatherings, and with friends. It’s happened even when my presence in a group predates the other Chris. Wherever there are Chrises, this has happened to me. The irony isn’t lost on me: I kept my name when I got married, but I’m constantly giving up my name.

Aside from my partner, no one is really aware that this happens. It’s a textbook example of a micro-aggression.

And aside from my boldness in fifth grade, it took me years to get to the point at which I decided to casually, if the moment was right, ask for people to call me Kris after they had already been calling me Kristin for quite some time.

I’m introverted and non-confrontational, so even something like “Hey, can you call me Kris? I’d really prefer it.” felt like a huge stand.

But my own personal, inner victory, the fact that I had asked at all, has most often been swept away by the responses I get. The typical response is for my request to be ignored.

Second place goes to: “Oh, but I’m so used to calling you Kristin.”

I don’t hate the name Kristin. Sometimes, in a particular mood, or when I’m at the DMV, it’s how I refer to myself. My parents call me by both names.

But the more I’m called Kristin after requesting Kris, the more the name irritates me. That’s because it’s not about the name itself; it’s about the blatant disregard, sometimes after repeated requests, that this is not what I want to be called. It’s someone talking to me while looking into another’s eyes. It’s being smeared like so much dry erase marker across a board.

That’s a Chris problem, Kris.

It’s much rarer for anyone to put in the effort to change what they had been calling me. But when someone does make the effort, even if I’m still Kristin about half the time, the feeling of being smeared disappears, replaced by the warmth and knowledge that I have been seen and heard.


When I worked occasional Thursday mornings at my old security job, I would come in as the sun rose. An hour later, a short, slim woman with sharp eyebrows would come in to help patients. A former librarian, she stored baggies of peanut butter sandwiches in her glove compartment the way others do granola bars.

Her name was Chris.

A few hours after that, another woman would come in. She was also small, with glasses and bobbed hair, and a sort of jovial matter-of-factness about her.

Her name? Also Chris. Now there were three of us.

We compared root names: two Christines and a Kristin. No one said, “Maybe you should go by Kristin,” or “You should go by Christine.” We made cheesy jokes about being a club, and laughed when someone said “Chris,” and three people turned around.

Never, in any situation with multiple female Krises and Chrises, has a Meddling Josh proposed that someone stop going by Kris.

We simply deal with any small confusions that arise because they aren’t actually a big deal.

I’ve observed in groups with two males of the same name that it isn’t an issue there either. Everyone gets used to Mike and Mike, or adds extra information to the contentious name. Then you have John One and John Two, Big Steve and Little Steve, Alex K. And Alex F., or Proper Dave and Medium Dave in Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather. It’s possible that John Two, Little Steve, and Alex F. have some simmering resentment over their names. But I’d rather be Kris Two, Little Kris, or Kris F. because that would mean someone listened to me. Even though my last initial isn’t F.


Here are some measures I’ve learned to take:

  • Introduce myself as Kris. Not even, “Hi, I’m Kristin. I go by Kris.” People who don’t know the name Kristin don’t call me by it.
  • Have my partner be a spotter, pointedly refer to me as Kris, and correct people.
  • Don’t assume that anything is a big enough hint. Don’t assume that using my preferred name online is a big enough hint. When I finally joined Facebook, I thought that using the handle “Kris Bowser” would be a hint. I thought that owning krisbowser.com would be a hint. But I’m sensitive to this, and apparently, it’s not a big enough hint.
  • Don’t even assume that setting your chosen name in 64-point Garamond on your wedding invitations–normally a full name kind of space–will be a big enough hint.

But I’ve learned to turn those outwards too:

  • Pay attention. Call people by the name they introduce themselves as.
  • Take a hint. Don’t assume that someone is typing their name a certain way for no real reason–assume it was a choice.
  • If someone asks to be called another name, give it a shot. Try. Don’t say I’m too used to the first name, as if I’ve never had to adapt to something in your life before.
  • Don’t assume a name is someone’s preference just because I hear others using it. Ask.

And don’t assume it’s not a big deal. You don’t know how strongly someone else holds their name preference, what it signifies, or how it empowers them.

Play tag, solve everything

Adults should play tag. I say this not to be cute or funny; this post isn’t meant to be the prose equivalent of a whimsical, chalk-lettered meme that says how we learned everything we need in elementary school. Rather, I propose that we all go out and play tag because it’s going to solve multiple problems, because it’s going to be fun, and because it’s logical to have fun.

A park by the road with trees.
You could look at this grass through a window. Or maybe there’s something you could do with it?

In elementary school, you have recess. Run outside, burn off some energy, skin your knees. Watch has in horror as some kid has diarrhea all down the right leg of his jeans, and thank the heavens that it wasn’t you, and that your OCD hadn’t developed yet, otherwise you’d be seeing microscopic bits of diarrhea in every hallway you walked down that Diarrhea Kid also walked down.

In middle school, you have recess. Loiter outside, take a half-hearted ride on the swings, trade the yellow cat Gigapet your brother found on the bus and named Becky for a purple puppy Gigapet your most treacherous friend** found in the restroom and didn’t name.

In high school, you don’t have recess. There is only lunch, which has become more socially terrifying than ever before, and gym class, which now has the effect of making you wish you were back to sitting in French class.

Sitting. That’s what we adapted to as recess disappeared.

It’s not so much that we learned everything we need in elementary school; it’s more that we fell into a rut since then. Movement becomes exercise, and exercise becomes penitence. And penitence leads to the dark side. Or at least it leads to unhappiness.

But maybe THAT leads to the dark side.

People choose exercises that they hate, and turn exercise into a chore. Where’s the good in that? And why is it considered a normal part of being an adult? Adult exercise takes repeated acts of willpower to pull off on a consistent basis, and I don’t believe in willpower. Or rather, I think it’s smart to eliminate the need for it from my life wherever possible.

Have you ever run down a leaf-covered trail for the sheer joy of it, as far as you could, until you could barely breathe, and stood watching the wind blow until it became your own breath again, and you could walk without your knees wobbling? That’s not a chore unless you make it one.

Running is only socially acceptable if you’re engaging in it for the sake of calorie-reducing drudgery. You have to wear the proper clothes; you have to complain. These days, in order to make sure people know you’re serious about drudgery, you need to wear a Fitbit. How do you know you did your penitence if you don’t have a record on your smartphone?

But I actually love running. I run in stores when I’m not supposed to. I run at work when I can find an empty hallway. Sometimes I want to run, to burn off energy, to calm down and exhaust myself enough that I can sit and write for 25 minutes.

Having energy isn’t socially acceptable either. We’re supposed to move the way everyone else does, which isn’t much. That goes for social gatherings, which are all about sitting and food, even if they’re ostensibly about something else like football or patriotism or role-playing games. We’re supposed to sit and talk, as if we haven’t sat enough already. This isn’t only about exercise either; it’s about movement. Does anyone else ever feel resentful of social gatherings because of the additional amount of sedentary time they add to your life? I’ve teased LARPers (live-action role players) in the past, but I kind of get it, even though I love my weekly Dungeons and Dragons and Sitting and Food gathering.

I recently heard a podcast advertisement for a new app that allows you to exercise for just ten minutes, anywhere you want. Guess what? You could always do that.

Forget consumerized institutional exercise. Gyms are cost-prohibitive; tag isn’t.

Which brings me to my case for tag. Here are some problems you might run into as an adult:

  • You need exercise.
  • You hate exercise.
  • You forgot how to have fun sometime in your late twenties, or maybe earlier if you’re one of those lucky folks who got a decent job right out of college.
  • You’re don’t get outside enough.
  • You’re awkward in group scenarios and need an icebreaker that isn’t an icebreaker.
  • You’re depressed.

Guess what? Tag will help all of those to some extent or another. We are supposed to solve needing and hating exercise with better willpower, with productivity hacks, and with putting on a new exercise outfit to make it seem fun, which works until there’s sweat on the new outfit. We’re supposed to try running in groups, which, if you have turned running into a chore, only means you’re doing that chore with other people, just the same as if you have friends help you move. Why not take the running group, forget target distances and times, and have fun? Instead of finding one solution for each problem, find one that takes down several at once.

The best way to solve a problem is to find the root cause. What if a lot of those problems had the same root cause, and that cause is a lack of movement and outside time? Even if that isn’t the root cause, it’s still preferrable to find one solution that will solve as many problems as possible, rather than generating a new solution for each problem. Outside time and playtime are both beneficial in so many ways, and if that wasn’t obvious, the science is there to back it up. But even if you couldn’t point to health or productivity benefits, would that matter? Shouldn’t feeling better and having fun be enough?

Remember how fun it was to play tag? Remember the life and death importance of running, of not being tagged? Remember how the tagger would be a finger-width away from getting you, but you’d stumble into a tree just in time, and the tree was goo so you were safe. You could breathe.

Goo. What did goo mean? What’s the etymology of the word goo? Was it supposed to be “goal?” Remember feeling awkward that you didn’t understand these things, but running anyway? In theory, you could run to goo and stay there for the entire game. But that didn’t occur to anyone because it was fun to move. You’d stumble across the yellow-painted lines on the blacktop, safe again, and stay only long enough to catch a little breath.

And if you went outside your normal social circles, you learned about different types of tag, like freeze tag. If tagged, you turned yourself to a human ice sculpture until someone else came to rescue you. And then there was TV tag, which never seemed to have clear rules, but involved shouting out names of TV shows. TV tags seems like an especially good one to pick up as an adult. I know a lot more TV shows now than I did when I was eight.

When I was a kid, I figured that one of the advantages to being an adult was that you could do fun stuff whenever you wanted because  no one could stop you. Granted, I didn’t see too many adults actually playing tag, or eating ice cream for breakfast, or throwing rocks at larger rocks to break them in pieces**. But I knew they had the power, whether or not they chose to use it.

People always say how the kids these days don’t go outside anymore. They don’t play tag. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that kids don’t have to play tag for adults to do it, and I know that no one toiling away at a treadmill has to approve either.

Let’s break everything. Let’s break the consumerized exercise and run like wild creatures. Let’s break our social gatherings and let them burst forth in a supernova from the kitchen tables they have centered around. Let’s break the idea that excerise is drudgery.

Take your ibuprofen first, if that’s what you’ve got to do.

You’re it.


*It was the 90s. We didn’t have the word “frenemy” yet. My assumptions about who does and doesn’t have recess also come from the 90s.

**Yes, I grew up in a rural area. Why do you ask?

The Mom Box

I spent thirty-two years as a person before adding diaper changes, wrap carriers, and checks to see if the baby is still breathing since five minutes ago to my life. In those thirty-two years, I accumulated a cluttered attic’s worth of the thoughts and idiosyncrasies that make up any life. Parenthood is a particularly intense addition to the list of things I am, which is a mom who is also an entire person. At least, that’s my view of it. Socially, I now exist in the narrow construct of The Mom Box, where my entire identity is filtered through a set of assumptions about mothers and motherhood.

It’s not a huge revelation that we have certain cultural ideas about what a mother is, or that those ideas aren’t awesomely inclusive. But encountering how those ideas manifest out in the wilds of social interaction has been a revelation for me. I encounter an unusual degree of surprise at things that I would think are fairly benign, such as having a job, writing, keeping my birth name, and enjoying hamburgers.

Yes, hamburgers.


Shadows of a parent and child on the grass
I meant to use a picture of a box so I could make a joke about “Shrodinger’s Mom Box,” but now I have to make a joke about being a shadow of my former self. Sigh.

“I understand now what you meant about starting to feel like a person again,” said my cousin’s partner at a cookout a few months ago. I had no memory of saying this when I brought my four-month-old daughter to their baby shower, but it sounds about right.

Most parents agree that the bootcamp stage wears off. Some told me it would be at one month—the time when my own breastfeeding difficulties peaked with stress-inducing feeding schedules meant to help an off-the-charts underweight baby. Some said it would wear off at three months or six.

During my three-month parental leave, baby demands took up entire mornings and pushed my morning coffee to one in the afternoon. I’d be lucky if I got a ten-minute break. And no, I don’t consider watching Doctor Who during an hour-and-a-half breastfeeding session to be a break: my muscles hated it.

My toddler, fresh out of babyhood, still needs a lot of love, care, and smartphone pictures of owls. Toddlerhood has proven to also be an intensive time. Already, I know it ends too. But I now have more breathing room than the ten-minute coffee breaks of my maternity leave. That’s obvious from the fact that I’m writing this currently-2,000-word blog post.

As the months passed, I found the other pieces of my personhood again. I’ve had this blog for five years—you can click through and see my identity as a person independent from my role as someone’s mother. I am well past the stage when entire days and all my thoughts are subsumed by childcare duties. Unless you ask anyone else.

Then the entire rest of my existence is negated.

Don’t have complaints. Don’t have opinions. Don’t have emotions.

“Here is a thing I’m bitter about,” I might tell you.

“But at least you have a kid,” you say.

Yes, that is nice. We have fun, the kid and I. But that doesn’t make me not bitter about The Thing, or invalidate any unhappiness. A toddler isn’t a panacea for everything else wrong in someone’s life. Bitter regrets and mental illnesses don’t pop like soap bubbles touched by tiny, chubby fingers.

“You cut your hair! That haircut must be a lot easier with a toddler,” you say.

No, it really isn’t.

A pixie cut demands more maintenance, whether that comes in the form of at-home haircuts (my choice) or extra trips to a professional. Motherhood is also not why I have this haircut; I’ve had a pixie for the better part of the last nine years because I like it. I like how it’s short and spiky. I like how it compels people to compliment my cheekbones, a part of my skeleton that I can honestly say I’d never thought about once, until I went short.

I gave my toddler the same haircut. Is that because she’s a mom?

No, it is not.


I’m calling it The Mom Box because it’s a sequel to The Female Box. I’m somewhat socially obtuse, and so it took me until my mid-twenties to even begin to understand the extent to which others define me by my femaleness, and filter all other aspects of my personality through this. I started calling it “The Female Box,” in my head, and I’ve noticed others have used this term as well. The fact that so many of us thought of it independently speaks volumes about the experience.

Here are some features of The Female Box:

  • Doubt that I can lift fifty pounds.
  • Suggestions that I might as well have a man lift something for me rather than bother doing it myself.
  • Suggestions that a man, who like me, is not a mechanic, will be able to repair my car when I can’t.
  • Questions about whether I plugged in the electronic device I’m having a problem with
  • Assertions that I do certain things because “girls always do this,” even when the thing in question isn’t something I do.
  • Being referred to as a “girl” past the age of thirty.
  • Surprise that I know how hand sanitizer works.
  • Questions about whether the typically-male job I am performing is actually my job, including when I was a security guard and wore a uniform.

The amount of gendered baggage that goes with motherhood was a huge deterrent to me becoming a mother, and one of the biggest reasons that having a child was such a difficult decision for me. How could it not be, when I had spent so long rebelling against every gender expectation I could? I told a friend of mine that I had to rebel against my own rebellion in order to figure out what I, myself, wanted for my own reasons.

Even knowing I would have to face The Mom Box, and even knowing what The Female Box felt like, I wasn’t prepared for quite how confining a space it is. When I talk about The Mom Box, think about The Female Box, and add an advertising line to it:

All that, and more!

Here’s my definition: The Mom Box is a social construct in which motives, choices, actions, opinions, lack of opinions, personality, emotions, identity, and gender identity are assumed to derive from motherhood alone rather than other aspects of personhood, and are also externally circumscribed by one’s role as a mother, or perception of one’s role as mother.


One day, some acquaintances–a young guy and an older one–were talking about fast food. “Are you a McDonalds or a Burger King or a Wendy’s person?” kind of thing. Five Guys came up. I mentioned that I like Five Guys because they make a lettuce wrap, and wheat spring-clamps my digestion.

Cue the older dude, with the absolute surprise of learning that someone has been making a time machine in their garage: “You like hamburgers?”

This isn’t someone who knew that I tend to be a healthy eater, and was a vegetarian over ten years ago. This is someone who didn’t know the first thing about me, including at that point, my name. Why would it be a huge surprise that I like one of the most popular foods in America?

I assume that in the Mom Box, the only foods I eat are sad little foil-covered cups of low-fat Yoplait yogurt and chicken breast with some kind of obligatory vegetable side dish, which I can tell you amazing trivia about, such as its Weight Watchers points value, and how it’s flavored with bottled salad dressing and celery salt, and how the vegetables are a pretty good price at Stop and Shop right now.

Further, I assume that the walks I’ve replaced my lunch breaks with at work are a dutiful substitution I have made because “they” told me to–not because walking fulfills about a dozen functions in my life.

In The Mom Box, I probably don’t talk about the recent workers’ strikes at Stop and Shop, and whether or not they were resolved. Or the creepy robot with the glowing eyes that patrols the aisles looking for spills of meatbag blood that it made itself milk to clean.

Obviously, that’s silly. Those robots don’t slice people open. They vaporize them with their glowing blue eyes! I saw it on the Today Show! Or whatever I’m supposed to be watching.

I didn’t think it was so surprising that I write–I’m a rather quiet person with a decent vocabulary and I’m told that I have competent, if occasionally awkward, communications skills marred by only a slight Massachusetts accent. But writing assumes expressing independent thought, putting something OUT into the world when I am only supposed to be taking in what others have told me.

And it goes on and on. I must be so busy! I mean, I don’t have as much alone time as I’d like, but I’m hardly swamped. I must have a part-time job because I have a child, not because I want to leave time for writing and freelancing. Sure, it could be both, but finding a part-time job I could pay my bills on and leaving that time for other pursuits was a plan that pre-dated the kid by three years.

As I’ve written this post, I kept asking myself, “Does this even matter if it amounts to a social annoyance? Or even social exhaustion?” In my life, this is my strongest experience with The Mom Box. I’m still in the early days, and have years ahead of me.

What opportunities aren’t mothers told about because of others’ assumptions? What conversations are we kept out of because we wouldn’t be interested? To take these questions slightly too far, what if moms are the people sitting in the cave in Plato’s Republic?

I can try to break the box; I can eat a hamburger and write and yell and punch through the cardboard. But I can’t control other people’s thoughts, or read them. Even though I should be able to do that. Fuck you, patriarchy!

People always ask, now that I have a child, could I ever imagine life without her?

Seeing as I had a life for thirty-two years before she came on the scene, yes, I can. Seeing as I have friends without children, yes, I can.

Seeing as I write fiction and therefore inhabit the lives of people who are not myself, yes, I can. That last one makes the implications of the question a tiny bit insulting. Or it would, if the question were literal.

But I’m not supposed to imagine a life without her—that’s the point. “Could you ever imagine a life without her?” isn’t a real question about my imaginative faculties; it’s a litmus test of how thoroughly I have left behind everything else that I was. Have I been properly dip-dyed in motherhood? Did I bleach out my residual personality first?

I’m not supposed to answer that I could imagine a life without her.

I’m not supposed to answer that sometimes I relate more to women who are childless by choice.

I’m not supposed to be writing this post.

Or, if I do write it, I’m supposed to add like three paragraphs of qualifiers in case you misinterpret and think I don’t really love my kid, when I already went a bridge too far by imagining a life without her. I’m going to note here that my toddler doesn’t Mom-Box me; she knows me by my words and actions, not by a set of stereotypes.

Back when I was in The Female Box, I thought I knew what The Mom Box was all about. But I’m still the same socially obtuse person who took all those years to recognize The Female Box. I needed almost a year to realize that people were acting weird because I had been put in The Mom Box. And I needed the entire thinking process of this post to realize I had the whole thing wrong. This one had a long thinking process, too. I wrote the first notes almost seven months ago.

My toddler loves a book called Not a Box. It’s about the imaginative possibilities of a plain cardboard box to be a robot suit, a pirate ship, or anything else. In the end, the rabbit-protagonist decides that it isn’t a box, but a Not-a-Box. It can be anything.

The Mom Box is also not-a-box, but in the opposite way.

A box is used to hold a three-dimensional item.

The Mom Box doesn’t permit three-dimensional items or people, which means it’s more of a folder. And you can only shove so many papers into a folder before the seams start fraying.