Woman on top: why restrict identity?

Beth Cooper Howell
Beth Cooper Howell

Since having kids, the only thing left that is mine alone – my personal identity, beyond “mom”, “working mom”, “wife” and “graduate” – is the fact that I am a journalist.

This label is one to which I cling with rabid force. While growing up, I was “bad” at so many things: sport, maths, boys, fashion, rock-solid friendships, dancing and being cool.

The one genre in which I shone was the arts – and so, I have hoisted my sail in that direction since scooping a gold star in a speaking competition, and an A for essay-writing.

Labels help define who we think we are and where we think we belong.

I emphasise “think”, because actually, we tend to turn labels into “being” words; we forget that beyond what we “think” we are or may become, there’s a perfectly blank canvas of lost opportunities behind our “label” personalities.

Because I really didn’t enjoy maths and almost flunked it until finally dropping it mid-high school, for years I would not attempt to learn Microsoft Excel and was afraid to do my own accounts.

Having an “artistic” label has been a smart excuse for avoiding anything number-oriented.

Then, a year or two ago, I discovered that if I did at least part of my tax return myself – and courageously stared down the SARS barrel by becoming educated in tax law, expenses and how stuff is calculated – I might just make a little money (which was mine to begin with), rather than be ordered to cough up more.

The tax/SARS/numbers label didn’t fit my personal identity, but it had to be done. And since adding “empowered and educated taxpayer” to my quiver, I am no longer afraid to add, multiply and divide.

British wit, author and media personality Stephen Fry was quoted saying something most interesting about labels recently: “Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it – that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is a truth in that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think that you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”

For more than a decade, I clung to journalism as the successful remnant of pre-motherhood.

Even if I were rich, and didn’t get paid to write things, I would write anyway, because that is what my label said that I did – and without my label, I was afraid of how I would present myself to the world.

But Fry and Wilde are right. Imagine a world in which we were “doing words”, rather than “things”? When this week, I grow vegetables (and may continue to do so forever, or not), and most weeks, I write? When I am clearly a female, but am engaged in “mothering”, rather than being known as “a mother”?

We are nouns, it’s true, but being verbs means that, like Fry, we never know what we will be doing next.

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