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.