Wednesday, June 24, 2009

And What Do You Do?

Its a fair question and a good opener. It's natural for people you've just met to want to know how you fill your days. Frankly, I'd like to answer them. Instead I'm awash in dread and self-loathing. This well-meaning question, asked with sincerity, reaches my cochlea as, "What do you have to say for yourself?" I'm in trouble, but I'm not sure why. It's the same feeling I get when police lights flash behind me. Busted.

My inability to answer this question will surely reveal that I am but a sack of meaningless cells, oozing across the intellectual horizon, falling formless through the sewer grate of the unambitious into the Dead Sea of mediocrity.

Its not that I do nothing; I do many things. I even do two of them well. But I don't go to a job and a job is how we answer this question without grappling, over the chips and hot dip, with existential questions of self and identity.

I used to have a job. I was a production manager for a company that made wee jeans for tiny Hollywood starlets with impossibly erect nipples and toddler waists. And though the stress of that job made clumps of hair stay behind on my synthetic office chair long after I'd stood up, I had no problem identifying myself to the world. That's what I did, that was me.

Then I fell in love and moved to Cleveland where I discovered they don't keep fashion. I'd stepped off the reassuring, orderly pavers of a career path and into the drainage ditch of freelance employment. Then came kids and freelance became no-lance as the demands of motherhood overtook the demand for sporadic and meager income. At the fatal intersection of motherhood and isolation, a gruesome casualty was made of my creative and employable selves.

The void created a suction into which every shitty household responsibility flowed. Not only the obvious and immediate demands for snacks and entertainment, laundry and groceries but all the other tedious chores like waiting for service people, arguing with creditors, finding tenants, mowing rental property lawns, sorting through soggy papers, smog checking the cars, getting the trash to the curb, creatively paying bills for which there was no money, making appointments for my family's many orifices and keeping the house from physically sinking into the morass. My toddlers became children while I was on hold with the health insurance company.

So, when people ask politely what I do, such a rush of hostile embarrassment floods my temples I actually go blank. What the hell do I do? Certainly not nothing, but rather, nothing you casual-stranger-I-may-never-see-again wants to hear about. No one balancing a paper plate on their knee wants to hear a lengthy and angsty account of the many ways I've served my family, or the myriad ways I've made other people's lives possible and pleasurable.

So I started coming up with pat answers as a diversion. I say things like, "I'm an angry pleasure portal for my husband" or "I enjoy sex with animals" or "I'm a geisha girl for my children." Sometimes I'd call myself a writer. Sometimes I'd say Fabric Arts. Sometimes Property Manager. Though all of these were accurate, none of them felt true, and none of them expressed the yearning I felt for a definitive answer that would make me feel like my life wasn't slipping away on the banana peel of housewifery.

All of this can sound like sour grapes. Poor me, living a life of freedom and privilege, well fed and loved, enjoying the luxury of being able to raise a family without going to a job. And to anyone who feels that I'm grousing without basis, I say, with love, take a drink of my ass. The work of being a parent is hard, really hard, but losing your identity is painful and disfiguring. We need only to look to Michael Jackson for proof of how deadly this condition can be.

This fall my kids head off to school together on a bright yellow school bus, creating a new kind of sucking void. But into this space I already sense not the rush of a million thankless chores, but a stream of new ideas about myself. My saggy identity is being reshaped in the dryer of opportunity.

I'm already practicing some new answers to the age old question, and I'm pleased to say, they sound just like me.


  1. A New York friend of mine moved to Seattle a while back. As most New Yorkers do, he would always open with "What do you do?". More often than not, the answer would be "I ride mountain bikes", "snowboard", "rock climb", "play music with my friends". It drove him crazy. He simply did not know what to make of, or how to catagorize, people who didn't define themselves by their jobs. I told him it was good for his soul to struggle with this.

  2. Ms. Tobin HaydockJune 26, 2009 at 10:51 AM

    Anne Lamott who? And she's my favorite-ever-author....

  3. As an employed person with no kids, I can also say that even for me, the answer usually sounds like "I do this, but I'd rather do that" or "Lately I'm working on this, but soon I will be doing the other" or most often my response is "What do YOU do?", because my life also feels fragmented and more complicated than can be comfortably answered to a stranger.

  4. As a house husband of 14 years I always answer with "Trophy Wife" and then act disgruntled that they couldn't figure that out for themsleves. I mean clearly a body like mine doesn't just happen it's made ... by one little chocolate at a time.

    This is the toughest most thankless job I've ever had and a bad day of parenting is indeed a bad day. I think the only people who can really appreciate what the job entails are those that have done it ... for at least a couple of winters ... with sick children ... that don't want to be potty trained. On the flip side this is probably one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Keep writing!

  5. I was newly married, facing the same doubts. I was at the market, chatting with the butcher, when he suddenly asked me, across pale rows of pork chops, what I "did". "I'm a writer," I blurted, lied, invented. I had to say something, right? That fixed my fate. I'm really really glad I didn't say proctologist.

  6. 'sme, debbee pee.
    looking forward to hearing what happens after the yellow school bus pulls away.
    I think ours is the only (or at least one of the very few) countries where anyone asks ,"What do you do?" In other parts of the world, it is as if one has asked," what are you doing?" and is answered with dead stares...maybe it is time to move to Mozambique.

  7. The novelist Tom Berger (Little Big Man) was researching Plains Indians for his novel. He read somewhere that their question was "where do you come from, where are you going?" Some months later his car broke down deep in Indian country. A figure approached out of nowhere. Berger Introduced himself and explained his plight. The Indian studied him briefly then asked, "where do you come from..."

    Interesting to think about how you would answer if asked...

    Or, you could just do the childhood singsong thing. "J, my name is Jessie and I come from Jupiter, my father is a juggler, and I make junket."

    But - the truth is -you are a writer. Get used to it. Sorry. Not just a - but one all the same. And very, very good at it.

  8. Great post. So many people can answer that question but are terribly unhappy with what they do. I like to ask people what they do for fun. I absolutely adore this line: At the fatal intersection of motherhood and isolation, a gruesome casualty was made of my creative and employable selves.
    It's one big fancy sacrifice.

  9. Jess- Thanks for this. I recently met someone dealing with the meltdown from multiple auto-immune diseases. I broke the ice with "I don't ask what people do anymore after reading a friend's blog post. What's your story?" She seemed to noticably relax as I said that.