Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cats and Children

When people ask me "Do you have any children?" my usual answer is, "No, I have cats." Since you can't hear my tone of voice or see my smile when I say this, let me assure you, I have nothing against children really, it's just that I couldn't imagine trying to think about childrearing in an apartment this small. I love my cats, and if you met me, you might call me (as many people do) a Cat Lady. My other alternative answer to this question is, "Fuzzy children."

In this age of privacy rights and whatnot, it's illegal to ask a job candidate if s/he has children. But just because an interviewer can't bluntly ask, "Do you have children?" doesn't mean that they won't find out otherwise and use your parent-status to weigh their hiring decision. Na'ema Suleiman tackles this problem in her quest for a teaching position in the Chronicle Careers column today.

It was the tail end of a two-day campus interview. To me it felt like at least the fifth day. I was suffering from a sinus infection as well as the exhaustion borne of being polite and chatty for too many consecutive hours. As I tried to chew fairly large pieces of raw spinach in an engaged, intelligent, and polite manner, the young, single faculty member on my left asked casually, "So, what do you do in your spare time?"

In my mind's eye, there I was, driving the carpool home from school, helping my children with homework, attending school performances, watching endless soccer games. Had I been in better shape physically and emotionally in that moment, I might have easily recalled some of the activities I enjoyed before I had children. I could have waxed eloquent about cross-country skiing, or mountain biking. Instead I stammered, "Ah, I don't really have that much spare time."

And that is when I looked around the table and realized, with terror, that everyone knew why. Something about what I had said, or the way I had said it, had managed to inform everyone present about my family situation. I might as well have said, "Actually I have three small children and spend most of my off hours meeting their needs."

In a fairly lame attempt to rescue me from my own stupidity, the middle-aged professor who was sitting on my right chimed in, a little too loudly, "Cats! She has cats."

Long after the interview ended, and my letter of rejection arrived, I continued to replay that scene in my mind. I knew I could have done better, and next time I will be prepared. But what was most disturbing was the sense of shame I felt in that moment.

I had to laugh at this a little, because were I sitting in the hot seat (in the beginning of my professional life), I would have mentioned my cats. I might not have mentioned how much I fawn over them and treat them as close to children as one can with non-speaking fuzzy critters, but I definitely would have mentioned my cats.

I used to think mentioning my fuzzy children would endear me to a group. And yet, I've discovered that cats are not a creature to bond over with most people. Dogs, on the other hand, are a readily acceptable topic of shared interest. I love dogs, but I don't have one (as in the case of children, there is no room in my apartment for a dog). So I have stopped talking about cats when I interview. And though it's difficult, I try not to talk about them at all outside of close friends, family, and my husband. A lot of people associate women who love cats with the incoherent rambling transient Cat Lady from the Simpsons, or single women who are too pathetic to go on dates or get married. Neither image is flattering, particularly to an interviewer.

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