“What do YOU do?”

April 23, 2010

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I find it odd that “What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask when we meet people. (I gather this is an American habit so I guess we=Americans in this scenario. I’m also guessing The Question was originally, “What do you do for a living?” since, if you really think about it, “What do you do?” is a weird thing to ask. Ya know what else is weird? Inserting a long, parenthetical statement at the very beginning of an essay. Onward.) I mean, it makes sense to pose The Question at work-related gatherings but it seems to have wormed its way into the first few minutes of any conversation with someone new.

Up until a little over a year ago, when I was employed, I at least had an easy answer to The Question, one that people seemed to like: “I own a women’s clothing and shoe shop in Newburyport.” Done.

When I first closed my shop (thereby ending my own job), there was a grace period when I could talk to people about closing the business and why I made that decision. When asked what I was going to do next I said something like, “I have some ideas but first I’m going to take some time off.” People seemed to think that was fine. “You always come up with something!” they said.

Now that it’s been over a year since I’ve been employed I have come to dread The Question — I’ve even gone out of my way to avoid situations where I know it will repeatedly be asked (no speed-dating for me!). As much as I don’t think that people should be defined solely by their jobs, much of my own identity was clearly wrapped up in being the owner of a small retail business. Giving it up felt like losing a part of my personality.

I quickly filled all those hours with the other tasks; when you have a young child, a mother with a health issue, a husband, a house, and a dog, there is no shortage of projects. But even though I was constantly occupied, I still didn’t know what I was doing. When people posed The Question, I’d awkwardly ramble on and then end with a vague reference to “some ideas I’m pursuing.” I’m pretty sure I was getting some smiles and nods while people were really thinking, “Wow, she’s really letting it all go!”

With all due respect to the self-described SAHMs out there, I never considered “I’m at stay-at-home mom” as The Answer. Maybe it’s because I worked for the first three years of my daughter’s life, which is when women traditionally decide to be a SAHM. I also have some issues with the SAHM label — specifically, the “stay-at-home” part doesn’t work for me. I’d be more comfortable with something like “the running around like a maniac, trying to get everything done in the few hours that you are in school so we can spend after-school hours baking and crafting so you will remember me as a FUN mom and not one who was always stressed and talking about how I missed yoga AGAIN and –wait, how can we be out of wine?!” mom. I know — too long.

Most importantly, being a mother is only part of what I do. I am also a caregiver and advocate, a writer and editor, a household organizer and cleaner, a cook, and a whole lot of other things. (Holy poop-on-a-stick, I sound like I’m channeling Stuart Smalley!) And I’m also incredibly lucky that some days I find time to make soup (yesterday), write a blog post (today), or plant some flowers (it’s on the list).*

Depending on the day, my mood, and who’s asking, I now reply to The Question with a variety of answers — it can be anything from “I’m taking some writing classes,” to “Some days I just walk around my house and pick things up all day.” (I like to have one snarky option on hand.) It doesn’t really matter what I say because, in the words of Staurt Smalley, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

Of course, he also said, “I’m gonna die homeless and penniless and twenty pounds overweight.” No! I will not go into a shame spiral!

*I’m not going to get into the reasons why it doesn’t make sense for me to get a “real job” at this point but, trust me, it doesn’t make sense.

  • herringbone68

    I'm in a similar boat re that question. I have a special needs child and we have therapies and appointments all week. It's not something you can leave to a babysitter. But I don't want to violate my daughter's privacy so I don't talk about her c0ndition or therapies so I seem to be a SAHM by *choice*. And actually, had we a lot of money, I think I *would* want to be a SAHM because I really do enjoy it. It's the best time of my life. But we are seriously po' at this point because of my lack of income. Because almost no one knows that I HAVE to be a SAHM, I do get a lot of “how could you stay-at-home?” questions and even some completely unsolicited and very defensive rants against staying at home and how important it is to work. I wish I could wear a button that says “Don't Ask Me About Being A SAHM.”

  • Sandy

    Well said, Lise! I was a SAHM for years, then returned to work in four different roles in a 14 month period before I packed up my stapler. Now that I'm a “freelancer” again, I get the same reactions. Since I had dipped my toe into the working pool, I was expected to stay there – or so it seems to me. Maybe I'm just putting this crap on myself. Help me, Stuart!

  • Jennifer

    This is so true! I also went to Vassar and we had some of the same friends (Sharon being the one that comes to mind). I enjoyed reading this!

  • lise

    Yes, I am replying a month later and you may never read this but I was struck by the similarities in our situations, and how the situation really colors my answer to The Question. My mother has early-onset Alzheimer's and I spend a lot of time either with her, or trying to help my parents in other ways (making food, research online, etc). it is not something I want to go on and on about to people because it is a private issue and also I would sound like I'm trying to be a martyr, but that takes up a lot of my time! And since I don't really want to discuss that I am left with my ramblings about assorted other activities which really aren't how I spend most of my time.

  • lise

    thanks for reading, jennifer! are you jennifer g, i wonder? :)

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