There lies a great chasm between how I have fancied myself and who I actually am. Although I like to think of myself as some sophisticated, well-traveled woman of mystery, a recent trip to the doctor helped me realize that maybe I am no more immune to neighborly threats than poor Dorothy in the sepia-colored start of The Wizard of Oz.
To explain, rewind to early 2017. After crashing and burning in D.C., I had regained my footing in my hometown of Scottsbluff. An inauguration was on the horizon, and just as my beloveds had scrambled to arm themselves with handguns and AR-15s in 2013, I found myself similarly anxious to arm myself with a tiny piece of copper. That is, I wanted an IUD, which the memeverse insisted was on the chopping block of this new administration.
“You’re trying to get an IUD, too?” my Philadelphia friends chuckled over the holiday dinner of naan and curry I had prepared for them. “So is everyone back East. It’s the en vogue thing to do.”
A few weeks later – on the brink of my 30th birthday – my moment of vogueness had finally come. I took the Xanax specially prescribed for the occasion and had my best female friend drive me across sheets of ice and snirt to the clinic. Once there, the doctor was not pleased with the mildly sedated, sex-positive heap on her examining table.
“I wish you had consulted with me further before today,” the doctor advised forlornly. “So I could advise you more thoroughly of the risks.”
“More thoroughly?” I asked. “It’s like a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing, right?”
But no. Listening to the prognostications in my benzo-tinged state, it seemed as though the IUD promised nothing but trouble for someone such as me – that is, a young professional who was still unmarried and had no children or even a fiancé to speak of. I got the impression that it was just a matter of time before my unpredictable, womanly insides would set the IUD off, breaking it apart and puncturing everything in its path like some rogue TV antenna in a tornado. The prospect of getting stabbed from within was all it took to have me sulking back into the waiting room, where my friend flipped through a beaten Nebraskaland.
“Why aren’t you limping out here like a cowboy or something?” she asked.
“I didn’t go through with it,” I replied, defeated. “Can we go get ice cream?”
After a Dairy Queen sundae replaced the Xanax in my system, I resumed the comings and goings of my usual workday. Along the way, I encountered a Greek chorus of women who only echoed my doctor’s naysaying.
“I had one, in the seventies,” an older woman offered. “But I was already married.”
“I hardly felt it, but I already had my kids,” another explained. “It would’ve been really painful for you anyway.”
This was the resounding message. A gynecological “you’ll shoot your eye out.” I didn’t question it because I trusted my doctor, and I trusted the married mother figures around me. While I had spent my twenties with my nose buried in books and other things, these women had devoted their youth to raising families. I couldn’t relate to it, but I nevertheless felt the need to respect that they and their bodies had gone through something I had not. So I moved past my half-political, half-practical quest for that tiny piece of copper and swallowed my daily pill, again, without question.
Fast-forward to 2020. America did not become The Handmaid’s Tale after all. I’m in Omaha now, and my new doctor is puzzled but gentle as she reviews my medical history.
“So you have no plans to have kids anytime soon. Have you considered the IUD at all?”
“Oh, well, I have,” I begin. “But I guess there’s a lot of risks?”
“Because I haven’t had kids yet?” I stammer. “And it could drift away?”
We are wearing masks, but I can tell from the crinkles at the corners of her eyes that she is stifling a chuckle. My face gets hot. I’ve apparently said something stupid.
“I have LOTS of child-free patients – most of them college students in their twenties – and they LOVE their IUDs,” she assured me.
Mind. Blown. I start to cry. I had been bamboozled.
Since that doctor’s visit, I’ve struggled to pinpoint what, exactly, I had experienced in my hometown. I would not call it crab mentality because none of the naysaying seemed to come from a place of envy, resentment, or competition per se. But I realize now there was probably a certain, discernible delight in watching me nod, wide-eyed, as I took in the conventional wisdom.
And after further reflection, I realize I’ve seen this delight before. I’ve seen it at barbecues as a 9-year-old Native girl shares her plan to attend Georgetown, only to have an auntie warn her that all the girls there are rich and carry Coach purses. Those are $500, you know. And I’ve seen it as tourists ask where to go for some tacos, only to get steered toward the blander, chintzier option because the authentic place might be too “rough,” what with its tin roof façade and Fabuloso-scented floors and all. And I felt it as a 9-year-old poking around my elderly neighbor’s rosebed, confiding in her my dream of becoming an actress.
“But you’re only going to act in the good kind of movies, right?” she asked pointedly. Her big blue eyes searched mine for understanding, but I didn’t understand. I just nodded, wide-eyed, and held onto her words of concern.
The underlying sentiment in these moments is not envy, resentment, or competition. They are fears; fears too awkward too articulate.
I’m scared you will get to Georgetown and won’t look up to me anymore.
I’m scared you will discover cuisines I am too scared to try myself.
I’m scared your limited range will take you places you didn’t anticipate.
I’m scared to see you forego prime childbearing years in exchange for a career and sleeping around, Astrid G. Munn. Because maybe I don’t it see that often. I don’t know how the story ends for girls like you, and the uncertainty makes me uncomfortable because you seem so pleasant and fecund.
It is all something subtler and more insidious than crab mentality; more insidious because it always sounds so genuinely well-meaning and normal in passing, yet has the power to shape decisions, big and small, including those as deeply personal as family planning. I am tempted to say it is a variation of mansplaining – a little condescending and a little incomplete, but particularly endemic to the more isolated pockets of the Plains that raised and shaped me.
Can we call it Plainsplaining?
Whatever we call it, I do not know how to cure or cancel its powers. But it is a phenomenon we can all fall prey to. Even those of us who fancy ourselves as too smart for that.
Astrid is the Child and Family Managing Attorney at Immigrant Legal Center in Omaha. A native of Scottsbluff and former journalist, Astrid earned a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis. She previously practiced immigration law in the D.C./Baltimore area and personal injury law in Western Nebraska.