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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Incomplete Information
December 12, 2010 - 4:38pm

I am enrolled in two singing classes. One I attend religiously; the other sporadically — it’s held at an awkward time, but it’s inexpensive and helpful, so my deal with the teacher (and myself) is that I pay the full tuition at the beginning of the semester and come when I can. A number of people in the class have similar arrangements. As a result, there are often people I don’t know in the class.

Last week, I attended this class for the first time in nearly a month. There were two unfamiliar students among the regulars.

I had brought in two songs. The first was an art song that I didn’t know well, with some tricky rhythms and almost-repetitions. I sang softly and tentatively, listening for the piano to be sure I was on pitch and in time, because I was recording the session to study later.

I had been working on the second song in my other class, and I love it. There were some rough spots, but overall my joy in singing it carried it through. When I finished, one of the unfamiliar students turned to his neighbor and said, “Well, that was a Susan Boyle moment!”

At first I thought he was referring to the contrast between my extremely casual attire (I’d been hiking that afternoon) and the intensity of the song, but then I realized that the contrast was between the first and second renditions. Never having heard me sing before, he must have assumed, from my initial appearance, that I was a shy singer with a soft, wobbly voice (which is not actually that for from the truth, but I’m working on presenting as more gutsy, which I think came across in the second song).

I bring this up here because I think it is relevant to a recent discussion in this space. “Felicity” felt my post was “telling” in that I barely referred to my partner. She thought that might mean that I had edged him out of the parenting game, and then complained of lack of support. Others speculated that my son’s father might be unhelpful or unavailable.

Two things struck me about this discussion. The first was the civility of the comments. We really are a literate and kind bunch here (as opposed to the commenters on the article and the referenced blog posts). The other was that this was a wonderful example of a principle of Gestalt psychology.

When we are presented with incomplete information, we tend to fill in the blanks based on past experience. It’s a useful skill: this is why we’re able to recognize a friend who is wearing sunglasses and a hat; to realize that the band is playing a favorite song from the first few notes; or to refrain from entering our home because there’s “something funny” about the lock.

But we tend to forget that we’re making assumptions. I have, for example, greeted a friend by name only to learn that I was talking to her twin sister. I’ve also thought I was hearing Bach on the radio, when it actually turned out to be PDQ Bach. And the lock could merely mean that another family member was careless.

For the record: I don’t write much about my husband because he is a very private person, much more so than Ben or I, and I respect that. Maybe he is absentee; maybe he’s average; maybe he’s Superdad. You won’t read about it here.


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