I made it all the way to 37 years of age before I was consciously aware of being a statistic. That’s a long time to be clueless. You may be wondering what was the Aha! moment that shattered my shell of ignorance. Even if you’re not wondering, I’m going to tell you.
There I was, a new mother, hacking my way through the jungle of post-partum depression, desperately trying to remember to talk to my baby. The parenting books emphasize how important it is to talk to infants; it helps strengthen the mother-child bond and it helps build the baby’s vocabulary. However, one my clues to the fact of my post-partum depression was that I had nothing to say to anyone, and certainly not to this strange, newborn creature who couldn’t begin to carry her end of the conversation.
My solution: I read out loud to her, mostly from the Washington Post and Sports Illustrated, publications that I rarely got to finish otherwise. It seemed like the perfect solution.
There we were one late fall day, hanging out on the couch. GForce was snuggled up on my chest, and I had the Post spread out in front of me. I had already completed reading the front section of the paper, where most of the world news was. GForce seemed unperturbed by the relentlessness of the tragedies that were unfolding across the globe. That seemed like a good sign.
As we moved onto the Metro section, I began reading an article about the rise in the number of unwed mothers, both nationally and in Virginia, where we lived. “Heyyyyyy, wait a minute!” my foggy brain blurted. “I’m one of those UNWED MOTHERS!!!!”
You’d think that the conversation I’d had with the hospital clerk about what GForce’s name should read on her birth certificate would have alerted me to my unwed mother status. This was, after all, the document where I told the clerk to put “unknown” under “Father’s name.” Which wasn’t 100% true, since we had named the donor “Scott,” for his Scottish heritage, one of the facts we knew about him from his two-page profile that the sperm bank had shared with us.
I suspect that the fact that I was partnered at the time obscured my awareness of my unwed status. After all, while it was true that GForce had no father, she had two mothers, and an enormous network of family, neighborhood, and church folk who were ecstatic over her arrival. My pregnancy wasn’t a result of a one-night stand, or recklessly unprotected sex with my fingers crossed, or a product of my ignorance about how it is that women get pregnant. It was carefully planned, under a doctor’s supervision. I fit none of my stereotypes for unwed mothers.
For whatever reason, it wasn’t until I was reading out loud to my infant daughter an article about unwed mothers that I realized that I was one, and that my freshly-minted daughter was one of those babies born “out of wedlock.” Ever since that moment that shattered my paradigm about “those people” who are unwed mothers, and “those children” who are born out of wedlock, I’ve had a much broader, more diverse, and vastly untidier mental image of the people behind those statistics.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on being a statistic lately, what with my status as one of those jobless people affected by this “jobless economic recovery.” If I hadn’t been laid off in March, today would have been my 10th anniversary as an employee of a large multinational corporation that, twice in the last three years, has filed patent applications for its methodology for increasing its global workforce (and, not coincidentally, reducing its US-based employment footprint).
So, instead of being in the shrinking statistical pool of US-based employees who have worked for my former employer for 10 years or more, I’m in the expanding statistical pool of people now receiving extended unemployment benefits. As for my unwed mother status, I’m now in a statistical La La Land. While I’m legally married in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I’m still an unwed mother in the eyes of the Federal Government.
Not only do statistics not tell the whole story, they actively obscure all kinds of other truths. As well they should. After all, as digits, statistics don’t have any feelings about or investment in the stories they tell. That’s the job of sentient beings who actively use their cognitive abilities — such as many-but-not-all people, and also dolphins. How about this: the next time you cite a statistic, imagine that the story you’re telling with it is about you, and see if it changes how you would tell the story.