So. What Do You Do?

First Offspring went over to a friend’s place to play the other day, and when I picked him up, the friend’s mother and I chatted for a while, as the children jumped on the trampoline together, eking out the last moments until First Offspring had to leave. The mother and I discussed the beginning of the new school term in about three weeks, when her youngest child was going to start full-time school.

‘I’m looking for a job,’ she said, ‘and it’s stressing me out already. I need to find something where I can work school hours, but also leave early, on the days they have early finish, and if one of them’s sick, I’ll need to stay home with them. Plus I’ve been home looking after them for the past five years, and so how do I explain this big hole in my CV?’

We talked about different jobs, what we had done pre-children, and what sorts of expenses are associated with working versus staying at home. She mentioned that they’d need another car, which meant there’d be an extra registration, another insurance bill, and all the associated costs with the upkeep of another vehicle.

‘It’s interesting,’ I agreed, ‘because it’s always something you think about, when you get a bit of time back once the children start school, and you think, ‘oh, going back to work is totally going to increase our income,’ but then when you factor in the extra other things you don’t consider, like the fact you have to have new work clothes, and that you end up probably buying more takeaway or pre-made meals, which cost more money… sometimes, I think, if it’s a second income for your household, you’re actually better off staying home and saving money, than going out to earn it.’

This is not to say that all households should be single-income. Obviously, there is a tipping point: if both breadwinners are on a high wage, then it is worthwhile to even work part-time. But for the kinds of work many people do to supplement the primary income, from a financial perspective, it’s sometimes not worth it. Yet it feels oddly lazy, in this society, to say that you’re home taking care of the housework and the cooking and the washing, when the children spend six hours at school everyday. There is an expectation that the primary carer will get work of some sort–usually out of the house–once the children start school, and if one chooses not to take that path, that choice is met with surprise by some, disdain by others.

Of course, it’s not lazy to be the person taking care of feeding the family and keeping the house clean. If nobody does that, it begins to fall apart fairly quickly. It’s a really worthy, valuable place: being home to keep things in order, make sure bills get paid, perhaps grow some of your own food.

But then, you have to meet people for the first time. And what do they ask, when you meet them?

So. What do you Do?

I dread that question.

I dread it, because I don’t really know what to say. I don’t want to say I’m a high school teacher, because I’m not, right now, and I probably won’t be (in any great capacity) for a while. And I don’t really feel like a proper teacher, either, because I’ve only a couple of years under my belt. I don’t really want to say ‘stay-at-home-mum’ because I… just don’t really like that term. It’s as if it’s a life-sentence until my children are 18. ‘You must STAY AT HOME. MUM. STAY.’ Yikes.

I don’t want to say I’m a writer, because, well, so far, nobody really pays me for anything I write. Plus, it’s pretentious (because, again with the lack of payment). And also, I’m worried that people will then ask if they’ve read anything I’ve written, and I have to decide whether to mutter, ‘uh… it’s unlikely,’ or to change the subject.

Why are we so obsessed with what people ‘do’? When we were younger, we used to ask far more interesting questions to potential friends and acquaintances. We used to ask what their favourite colours were, which music they liked, what they liked to do on weekends, what were their favourite foods. And when you think about it, these are much more important questions to ask than what someone does as a day-job. When you ask what someone does as a job, you’re using their response to pigeonhole them into a stereotype which probably doesn’t reveal very much about their real personality. It certainly reveals less than finding out that they like stargazing, Mötley Crüe and felafel.

I remember some years ago, being unemployed for a period of a few months, and I needed to claim unemployment benefits to be able to make ends meet. In keeping with welfare law, I met with a case worker once per month, to discuss my jobseeking efforts, and for her to pass on any relevant positions or opportunities. One Monday, I had quite an early appointment, and my cheerful case worker sat down with her coffee as I joined her at her desk, and she opened my file.

‘How was your weekend?’ she asked. ‘Do anything fun?’

Do? I thought. But I’m unemployed. I don’t ‘do’ anything. And I’m not supposed to be having fun! I’m unemployed!

My lack of employment was such a source of shame for me. I felt so worthless, like such a loser, because I had nothing to say, when people would ask, ‘what do you do?’ And even though I had a fair amount of time on my hands (I was jobless, after all!), I didn’t have the energy or the motivation to do all the things I would dream about doing, when I went back to work a few months later. I didn’t read much, I didn’t garden, I didn’t write. What did I do? A whole lot of nothing. I absorbed all the disappointment from within and without, and it didn’t do me much good at all. For the sake of my mental health, it’s just as well I did find a job.

I wish we could get past defining people by what their job title is. It’s not to say that we should discourage people from working–far from it. Most people like to have purpose, and many of us like to be paid for it. But if someone is not working full-time, or out of the home, or in any job position at all, then that doesn’t make her or him any less interesting or valuable. It certainly doesn’t define that person, and neither should we.

What do I do? The Hokey-Pokey, at times. A mean chickpea curry. Some weeding, now and then. I do all sorts of things, and my job is one of them, but it’s by far not the only one. I’m so much more than that.


19 thoughts on “So. What Do You Do?

  1. I so agree with this! I hate the “what do you do?” question. I feel like people think that not working outside of the home isn’t good enough, or that it implies things about me that aren’t really me.

    • Yeah, I really don’t see myself as a typical stay-at-home-mum, although I clearly tick a lot of the boxes! I remember when the term ‘Domestic Goddess’ came around to describe someone who was a housewife and how much I loved it. It’s all about connotations and what you’re happy with as a job description… I’m yet to decide that for myself, I think!

    • I’m sure it’s a way of conversation, kind of like talking about the weather, and most people don’t mean anything bad by it. I know from my own experiences that I was always very sensitive to not working when I was unemployed. But on the other hand, it would be good for us all to appreciate that there are ways to enjoy life and contribute to society without necessarily working full-time 🙂

    • Sometimes I think, my life must certainly seem boring or mundane compared to others… and I suppose it is! But I get joy from it, which is really one of the most important things!

  2. You hit on so many important issues here–working vs. not working, going back to work after child-rearing, whether working is worth the associated costs, when one dares call herself a writer. I’m not really qualified to comment on the part about kids, since I don’t have any, but I can SO relate to this issue of when we can legitimately call ourselves “writers.” Then there’s the issue of defining ourselves by what we DO, as opposed to who we ARE. All the doing sometimes exhausts me. Great post, my friend.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

  3. Thank you for another wonderful post! Here’s something we don’t talk about much…but I’m going to talk about it. Five years ago, before we had kids, my husband and I had a joint income of over UK£60,000. Then the girls were born, seventeen months apart, and I stayed home. Our income went down to £30,000. Then we decided to have a major lifestyle change (read my blog for the gory details). My husband quit his job and I went back to work. Our annual income now is about £27,000. We no longer own a house, or a car, or most of the stuff we used to own. But we own a boat and we’re in the process of moving onboard full time in a couple of months. And we are happy and living life to the full.

    So, my husband’s at home all day and the girls are now in school – the older one full-time, the younger one three days a week. And the first thing people asked when the younger one started school was ‘So is your husband going to get a job now?’. (We’ve even had a family member claim that my husband’s ‘not contributing to society’)

    Let me tell you, he has a job. He has the most important job. Without the work he does this ship would sink. He cooks, he cleans, he bakes fresh bread every day, he sends the girls and I out every morning with packed lunches, he washes the clothes, he does the shopping. And when the girls come home from school he reads with them, and teaches them maths and plays with them.

    On top of all that, he supports me emotionally. He gives me the space to get on with my work, to spend long hours in the office if I need to, and to write (we’re all WRITERS). Our lives are hectic. I can’t imagine how much more hectic they would be if we both worked, and had to negotiate the logistics of school runs, childhood illnesses, etc. Between us we could be earning three times our current family income. But it’s not worth it. Who needs the stress?

    Now…so long as he keeps baking me that delicious bread!!
    Keep on writing,

    • “Between us we could be earning three times our current family income. But it’s not worth it. Who needs the stress?”

      I’m disabled. For most of my adult life, I worked full time. My last job was an office job. When I started having multiple seizures at work (despite taking antiseizure medication) my employer put me on unpaid medical leave for a month. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was able to get the rest I need, when I needed it, without the added stress of my boss breathing down my neck because I “wasn’t productive enough.” I asked my employer if they’d be willing to make scheduling accomodations for me when I returned, and they said no. I told them I’d have to tender my resignation, and their response essentially boiled down to “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.” Money’s been very tight ever since (I left work six years ago), but, as I said, it’s absolutely been worth it in terms of my health. I’m making half on disability what I was when I earned a salary, but I’m so much happier, it’s no contest.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story (and I will check out your blog tomorrow, when it’s not quite so late over here 🙂 ) and I agree, it’s not about the money we have, or whether we have full time work. It’s about how you spend the money you DO have and more importantly, the time you have. Life’s short, and while I definitely see the appeal of working many hours at a job I love, I also want to be able to have time to volunteer, and parent, and bake, and do all those other things. I can’t imagine having the time, or the mental energy, if I were to work full-time in teaching, for example.

      It’s really wonderful that you and your husband had the courage to go against the grain and do what worked for your family. I think it’s also important for children to be able to see that there are all sorts of work in this world, and many, many of them do not involve getting up every morning and going in a suit and tie to the office.

      Your life sounds like an adventure, and I wish you all the best in it!

  4. Stereotypically, our jobs defines our persona to some extend. Of course, we are more than our jobs regardless how important it is. Even the President. So take the question as an opportunity to define yourself, the way you want people to know. That clarity (albeit challenging) helps both the sender and receiver to have meaningful engagement.

  5. It’s complex isn’t it. I feel the asking – “what do you do?” is as much laziness in conversation, as much as anything else. And there’s certainly much too much emphasis on the ‘doing’ – is this simply a way for people to feel important? Mind you, I’ve had plenty of time to mull this over, since having an illness that precludes me from the workforce, and having to deal with the associated loss of identity that brought about. I truly believe I’m a better rounded person because of my experiences, and while I have no trouble filling in my days, I avoid the ‘busyness’ dis-ease as much as possible!

    • I think you’re right about being better rounded. And the question and the response are probably laziness, as well. It’s easy to say that you’re whatever you are, rather than talk about what you really enjoy. And I guess we all want to feel like we have a role that matters. And while of course it’s unfortunate you’ve been ill, I’m glad that there has been something good to come out of it! That’s a very healthy perspective to have 🙂

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