Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Smalltalk Warfare

There is a question, a common question, that I detest.

It's an innocent question, asked by people I've just met at a dinner party, a playgroup or committee meeting. I meet someone, we engage in the perfunctory and polite introductions, there is that awkward lull, and then I'm asked The Question:

"What do you do?"

I shuffle my feet uncomfortably, my mind casting around for an answer.

"Umm, er, I'm a Mom?" I say, shrugging apologetically.

Why do I feel so apologetic about saying I'm a Mom - like I should have a better, more interesting response? For some reason it feels wrong to answer that question with lively bits of information about myself - how I have a little jewelry business or I love to write - because that doesn't feel like I'm answering the question properly. Once I say I'm a mother, though, the conversation is always about the kids. Always. I feel like I slip into a kind of invisibility, like I'm an anecdote or an afterthought.

When someone asks me what I do, my subconscious starts screaming: I do everything and nothing! Why, what's it to you?

For some reason, that question feels like a challenge hurled at my feet. I'm defensive about it.

I'm learning, in recovery, to pay attention to things that make me defensive, because behind the defensiveness lurks something I'm not paying attention to, something I'm not owning.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why it's a mine field for me, this innocent question. It's because I spent most of my adult life, my pre-kid life, answering that question without giving it a second thought. "Me? Oh, I'm an Executive Recruiter for a Global Firm," or "I'm a District Manager for an Insurance Company." Easy peasy. I didn't get all shuffley and apologetic.

I get prickly because I feel like I should be all chest-thumpy about being a mother, that I should want to wear it like a badge of honor. I can't say the truth: Oh, Jeez. You had to ask. Well, I'm raising two beautiful kids and that should be enough, right? But it doesn't always feel like enough, but I feel like it SHOULD be enough and I feel a little lost some days. I think I'm having an identity crisis. I'm trying to strike that balance between being a Mom and Having A Life. I have a right to both, right? Don't you think so?

So I just talk about the kids. It's simpler, really.

What we do doesn't define who we are, it doesn't paint the full picture, and yet we wrap our identities around it, measure our own worth around it. When I worked in Corporate America this didn't bother me, because I could shed what I did like a cloak and do something else anytime I wanted to.

Becoming a mother has changed the game on me. It comes naturally to wrap my identity up in what I do, but motherhood isn't something I can ever shed like a cloak. Nor would I want to. But it's a journey to learn how to be a Mom and not lose myself in the process. I drank over this for years, feeling stuck and resentful, like I wasn't allowed to be anything but a Mom. Even when I worked, I was the Mom Who Worked. I mourned the loss of my free, independent and ever-changing identity.

Now I'm a Mom Who Makes Jewelry and Writes. The only difference is I have acceptance that I'm a Mom first. I embrace it, now. It doesn't define me, it's just the Most Important Thing.

If it were up to me, though, I'd eliminate that question - what do you do? - entirely. From now on, I wish everyone would ask: "What are you becoming?"

Because that's what really matters.


  1. That question was a hard one for me for a long time. Now I answer it by saying "I get to stay home with my kids". I have found that there is nothing I would rather do. I can go to the field trips, help in the classroom, make goodies for them when they want them, and just always be there. It wasn't always like that for me, but now I am in a good place.

    When people act like I don't do anything I want to say well what do you do? Oh is that all......

  2. I love this post. I know exactly what you mean.

    For me, it's answering a survey and the options are Not Employed or Homemaker. I definitely have employment, although not one that reflects my expensive University degree; and given the ever growing laundry pile, dislike for kitchen cleanup, and lack of carpentry skills, Homemaker is less a misnomer and more of an out-and-out lie.

    Now, if I only knew what I wanted to become...

  3. One of my favorite authors, Alain de Botton, has a book devoted to this very topic called "Status Anxiety". For a taste of it, here's a link to a sixteen minute presentation he gave about it:

    Brother Rob

  4. Great post, Ellie.

    I'm signing in anonymously because, well...I'm pregnant and no one knows yet. And a lot of my readers are your readers, so I have to be careful.

    I was always nervous when people would answer my question of, "what do you do?" with, "I'm a mom" because I had nothing in common with them. I had no kids, didn't know the first thing about them and frankly didn't care.

    I also witnessed the immediate dismissal of a woman when she came out as a SAHM at a party or a business event and that always pissed me off. Just because I was uncomfortable making small talk with people didn't mean the douchebag CEO's had to be blatantly rude.

    Now that I'm pregnant with my first child and planning on leaving corporate American to BE that woman, I'm ready for it. I'm ready to get bitchy with people who immediately dismiss me because I'm no longer a conversation value add. I'm ready to take on the man, because I know how the game works. I’ll smile my passive smile and shake hands with people who think I’m not worthy of their time.

    I’ll do that willingly because I know there will be lots of women just like me at the same party, who made the choice to be a mom. And who are so much more than what their occupation says.

  5. Wow. That is EXACTLY how I have felt. EXACTLY! I'm just now starting to embrace motherhood more because I know there will come that day when I'll yearn for these years and I'll probably have more time to focus on myself and my own interests than I want! :)
    I miss my independent self, but I think, without having had children, I would most likely be a self-absorbed, ignorant employee at a job I dislike! ;)

  6. I hate that question! Of course people ask it when I go to my husband's work functions. I say that I stay home with my kids and their eyes glaze over and they move away. Because obviously all I would want to talk about it my kids. Not the books I read, or the hobbies I have, or whatever. So frustrating.

  7. Ditto. Like Immahlady, homemaker is a misnomer for me. I think of myself more as a survival specialist. I make sure the kids are fed, cleaned, and aired and socialized on a regular basis. I also encourage their endearing behaviors and actively discourage those traits that would make someone want to chase them with a pitchfork.

    I have been told staying home with my kids is a waste of my degree. Not true. I may be home now, but I can't imagine not drawing salary forever. Besides the financial issue (social security my foot), I really enjoy doing what I do. But frankly, my dissertation never made me laugh, my degree can't hug me, and the doctorate I'm so proud of never loved me so much it cried when I moved out of visual range. And honestly? The degree may make me more employable, but the kids have made me a happier person-and ultimately, more the person I want to be.

  8. Never forget you are a "Domestic Goddess!" This usually fits in the space allowed in a questionnaire, and it feels great to say it.

    I'm in my 60's and still people ask me what I do. Laundry? Errands? Volunteer work? I think what they really want to know is what interests me, so I try to ask them first: "What interests you?" I have found that people have really great interests even if it isn't what they "do". Sports, reading, kids, travel.... you get it. We should all try to share each other's interests because it recognizes who we are as well as what we might like to become.

  9. I work halftime. I feel (and I know it's more about my perceptions than other's judgments) that I'm being judged either way.

    If I say "I"m a lawyer" I feel I get looks of judgment, imagining I work 120 hour a week and outsource the parenting to around the clock nannies.

    If I say "Mom" I feel I'm judged for not doing enough with my life.

    I often tailor my answer to whomever I am speaking to. If it's someone I will never see again, I'll say something like "I work for the government". Or I'll say I work parttime. Or I'll say I'm a laywer or Mom. Or work halftime as a lawyer AND fulltime as a mom.

  10. I work is sales and I often have to ask the "occupation" question for applications. I usually ask "do you work outside the home?". To me this can also work inside the home. I have had people ask....are you sad you don't get to stay home with your children...I reply no, staying home is way harder than what I do! It has been my experience people discount occupations they think are easy or they can do themselvs ex, homemaker, teacher, therapist, recptionist, server, childcare worker. All of those occupations are super underpaid and uber stressful. Hold your head are shaping the people who will be making the decisions for our world tomorrw.

  11. Perfect. And by the way, your real answer, in italics, is the one you should give.

    It will make the interesting people want to know you better, and the boring ones edge away, looking around to make sure there aren't any sharp objects nearby.

    Me, personally, I'm working on becoming a cat lady. I figure by the time I'm 75 or 80 I'll have it down pretty well.

  12. I feel exactly the same way. Thanks for writing it down and putting it out there! :)

  13. I so love this post, and loathe that question. I also loathe that people don't seem to know how to respond to me when I say I'm staying at home with my kids. For some it's like I'm from another planet... which frankly, I feel like at times....

  14. Awesome post....and, I like what you are becoming!

  15. I haven't made the transition home yet, but I'm already dreading that question. My mother used to say in response to what do you do: "As little as possible." She thought it was funny.

  16. I like the last question about what are you becoming? I have veered away from the stay at home moms groups because they are too child focused but it's odd. You can still be a wonderful mother and still be a person as well, an artist, a creative writer, etc. I like to have my answer mapped out ahead of time. Maybe practice before you are asked. I used to say "I am a freelance writer and a mom, but I am not currently writing!"

  17. Oh, I HATE that question. I'm not a Mom and I'm not employed because apparently no one wants me working for them, and the LAST thing I want to do when I'm out being social is talk about how frustrating the job hunt is, but how else can I answer the question? I'm no longer a student, so even that out's been cut off. It's just frustrating!