What Do You Do?

Just, there are times when I’ve just thought about, on my worst day, just, you know, leaving our house and going some place. Like checking into a hotel and just being in a quiet room by myself. Just sitting in a quiet air-conditioned room, sitting down, eating my lunch with no one touching me, drinking a Diet Sprite, by myself.

– Tina Fey

What do you do? This is one of our go-to conversation starters in North America. I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but usually, within five minutes of meeting someone in Canada, he/she’ll ask you what you do. Our answers define us and give the asker an impression of who we are. Based on the answer we may continue the conversation, or glaze over and move on.

Around this time last year, I was having a big struggle with the What do you do? bit. Most of my mat-leave friends had returned to their jobs, and I was beginning to wonder what I would do with myself as Gavin got older. Was it enough to be a “stay-at-home mom?” (World’s worst job-title, by the way.) Did I feel fulfilled in my own life caring for our son and giving him all of my attention at home? Was that enough for me? Generally, I was feeling that the answer to that was No. I wasn’t sure what I should be doing, I didn’t want to leave Gavin, but I felt conflicted. There were days when I thought about how incredibly soothing it would be to go to an office, drink a coffee and talk to grown-ups while I did some randomly defined work on a computer. My old job as an ESL teacher (not without its stresses) appeared retrospectively to be an Eden of relaxation in comparison to parenting.

As I struggled with this internal conflict, the bomb dropped, and our world was torn apart. My son needed me and it was a blessing that I didn’t have a job to disentangle myself from, and I signed on for my new role as a hospital parent. For the most part, the majority of people we know are aware of what we have been through and what Gavin’s journey has been. It is always difficult for me when strangers or new acquaintances ask completely innocuous questions about our life like, What do you do? The answer is so incredibly complex and layered, and yet, how do you lay that on someone who expects to hear, I’m a teacher, I’m a lawyer, I work in IT. Luckily, some of the answers have gotten easier. Where do you live? is no longer responded to with, At the hospital. Now I can safely say, and without tears, I live in the west end.

Tonight I joined Craig at a social event put together by co-workers and friends of theirs. Very few people there knew our story, so I was frequently asked, So, what do you do? I decided to keep it simple, and so I said, I’m at home with our son. And quickly deflected the conversation elsewhere. For the first time, I did not reveal to anyone what we have been through and so conversations stayed lovely and banal and tearless. I’m beginning to be in a place where I don’t need everyone to know all the details of our struggles.

But, when I think about What do you do? The answer is: I’m a nurse. I’m a doctor. I’m a physiotherapist. I’m a dietician. I’m a teacher. I’m a chef. I’m a cleaner. I’m a mama.

And. I read. I write. I do yoga. I garden. I learn about food. I care for the environment. I organize. I take pictures. I have adventures. I eat chocolate. I stay up late.

What do you do?

9 Responses to “What Do You Do?”

  1. Michelle Robinson says:

    Erica, I so love your writing & this is one I can really relate to. In Neve’s first & 2nd,and even third year I really grappled with this issue. Now I’m v comfortable with my status, but…..still not quite comfortable with letting go of writing ‘veterinarian’ where it asks my occupation on a form…. It is v common to observe a complete shift in people once they learn I am a Vet (or was…)
    We’ve decided to homeschool Neve this term, so new level of buying out of social/ economic expectations..Love xx

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am a stay at home Mom and I am proud to say it! If anyone has a problem with that, well, it’s their problem! Sometimes it is mundane and yes, I do miss working but I am so very thankful to have this time with my kids. Not everyone has this choice! I am truly thankful that I do! All stay at home Mom’s should raise their heads high and boldly state what they do! It is one of the most difficult and draining jobs!!

    I so love your writing Erica, you have a true gift!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    As women we are faced with many roles on a daily basis, those like you ‘labelled’ yourself – nurse & Doctor, lawyer, judge & jury, chef and server, etc. When it comes down to it, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter what we DO in the eyes of society? Nope. You are a wonderful person, in all of your roles, but your most important is Mama.

  4. Aunt Karen says:

    I personally think, “what do you do?” is a rude question. I usually wait until someone gives me a cue to ask this, or not. I would say, ‘Right now, I’m a Mom…and some day I’d like to be a writer.” You’re already a writer, and I think, as a proud Aunt, that you should continue this. Also, we are defined by our actions, not our jobs.

  5. Anonymous says:

    It’s hard to make everyone happy so good thing we don’t care to try! If one person is turned off by staying at home, when you’re back at work someone else isn’t afraid to be judgmental about that. There are a million ways to love your child, pick your own combination and enjoy your fleeting childhood adventure with them. And keep doing all the things you do ever so well Erica!

  6. Auntie Melanie says:

    What do I do? Well, one of the things that I DO is I admire my lovely niece who is a wonderful writer, Mom and all of the things that you mention! You are wonderful! – it was great to see all of you today, especially my dear sweet Gavin!

  7. Gail says:

    Happy Easter, Erica.

    I once thought that I didn’t want to be remembered as having tried to be a good ESL teacher! Earning a living isn’t the most important thing we do. My mother told me that on retirement she joined a swimming group and nobody was the least bit interested in what everyone used to do! Unfortunately our society has adopted that phrase(What do you do?) as the opening gambit when trying to make conversation. Maybe we need to invent something new! Or try the Chinese “Have you eaten?” which totally bewildered me the first time I heard it. Happy Easter.

  8. naomi says:

    I do a lot. That’s how I deal with the harmless curiosity of the newbies I meet. Of course, this gets me many sideways, narrow-eyed looks followed by long weird silences… but I always get a kick out of it:)

  9. Glennys says:

    Erica, I did get a laugh at your predicament and recalled the same problems when I was a stay-at-home Mum (which wasn’t that uncommon then) – and I had two retorts “I have the best job in the world – I look after my 3 children” or as they got older and we spent a lot of time driving to various acivities, I used to tell people I was a taxi driver!

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