I have always found the mountains to be comforting. Never have I been intimidated by their jagged peaks or rugged edges. They don’t feel sharp; to me, they feel safe, a refuge to calm my busy mind. So it’s really no wonder that with an infant and toddler at home, my mental state craved the solace of the mountains. I strapped my infant son to my chest, and my toddler shrieked with glee, stopping along the way to pick up rocks. She then proudly displayed them as if they were gold. The spring weather in Albuquerque was cooperating, which was a nice change from the usual blistering wind. And I felt at peace. Walking back to the parking lot, my son awoke from his nap against my chest, blissfully wiping the sleep from his eyes and swatting at the cover over his head. I unsnapped it as we saw the car, so he, too, could enjoy the spoils of our nature adventure. I grabbed my toddler's hand as we passed a stranger. As I looked down to find her sticky hand and clasp it, the lady passing snarled, “you need to cover that baby’s head.”
“He’s fine, thanks,” I murmured, obviously annoyed but trying not to let my kids catch wind of anything less for our joyous outing.
I kept walking and fumbled for my key fob to unlock my car. That’s when it happened. The strange hiker became unhinged. She began screaming at me, spewing toxic hate about my mothering skills. I grabbed my daughter and carried both children back to the car. Once they were safely buckled and the door was locked, I cried in my car. How could this snapshot of my life be the vision a stranger has about me?
Fast forward five years, as we said goodbye to my son’s archery tutor this week, I spotted two men outside the building. It had already begun to turn from a dusky to a nighttime sky. My stomach knotted, and my pulse increased. I grabbed my son and made a beeline for my car when I heard one of the men ask me the time. I murmured 7 pm and dragged my son close to me at a faster pace. I made a snap judgment because I feared for my son’s safety.
So what’s the difference? Did that woman fear for my son’s safety while we were hiking? Did I look like such a horrible person that I would subject my own child to a sunburn or worse? I admit that my hair was likely in my go-to messy mom bun, and the bags under my eyes have taken permanent residence. But she accused me of trying to hurt my child. And here I was, accusing a stranger of hurting my safety with his mere presence.
At what point in human evolution did we reach snap-judgments? Is this the new fight or flight response? Today, someone made a snap-judgment about my research project about women’s self-assessed competence. One could argue she misconstrued or cherry-picked my words to rile up a group of women to protest MY mere presence. But I am past the point of arguing. I’m exhausted. Her words cut through me like a knife so sharp from the initial insult that I was too stunned to feel anything. But, when I looked down, I was almost sure that I would see blood pooling on my body. This research has been visceral for me: To put how I feel about myself on paper, to see the statistics, to know others feel the same, as per the evidence. So visceral that when I looked down to assess the wound she inflected, I half expected to see my own heart exposed.
The outpouring of support for my work has been a positive light. But the one comment still nags at my heart, pokes right into the deepest area of insecurity. It hurts, bad.
No one is responsible for my feelings- not the lady hiking on that Spring day 5 years ago, not the man in the parking lot, and not keyboard Karen. I’m not even mad at any of them, I suppose. I don’t know what this feeling is, but it’s worth exploring.