“What Do You Do?”
When I attended my 10th college reunion (mumble mumble mumble) years ago, I fully expected to have a lousy time. I imagined a room full of poised, sophisticated people, jabbering in foreign languages (I was a foreign language major; these days, the only words I use are “Do it now,” “Don’t argue with me,” “Can’t you move any faster than that?” “Eat your peas,” and any word comprised of two or fewer syllables).
I visualized fabulous successes—judges, politicians, a best-selling novelist or two—the usual visions most women have when facing their peers 10 years after the heady years of college graduation, when anything seems possible, years after marriage has dimmed the gleam in the eyes, after childbirth has rounded and softened the once-smooth and taut figure, after struggling to survive in the real world has stolen the hopes and visions of a glorious future you carried out with your diploma. And I dreaded it. While it wasn’t nearly as dreadful as I anticipated, it did leave a bitter taste in my mouth.
I know I haven’t lived up to my “potential”—it would be hard to forget, with my mother reminding me every other day I could have been someone important; could have made a lasting contribution; could have done so much more than she did. But usually, I’m proud of the road I took back then. I had three beautiful daughters, a wonderful husband, a nice house that wasn’t usually too filthy, friends, community—all the things that really make life a joy to live, rather than a chore to endure. And I have never apologized for the choices I’ve made—not even to my mother. My lasting contribution is my girls—as they grew and became mothers themselves, they shaped the future and brought a part of me along with them. It was a good life. And I was happy in it.
So why, when all my college “friends” asked me what I did, did I immediately, without hesitation, without thought, say, “I’m the Managing Editor for a small press magazine, and I do freelance writing and editing as well.”? Why was I afraid to say, “I’m a stay-at-home mother and damned proud of it.”?
Why did I do this? Probably for the same reason every other mother there listed her job first, and then her parental status. Because there was – and still is — more importance placed in doing “something” — and raising children is not seen as actually “doing” work, because the sweat is not visible to the naked eye; the scars are mental rather than physical, the contribution unnoticed until farther into the future than most of us like to imagine—raising children is considered peripheral to your “real” job.
I liked my editor’s job; even though the pay was lousy and the hours long; I could have made more money and worked shorter hours doing something else. I was able to work from home, for one thing, long before it became popular as “flextime.” My work-life balance was excellent – I wasn’t tied to a time clock or schedule (except issue releases)—so I was able to go into the kids’ classrooms whenever help was needed; attend award ceremonies; and have lunch in the school cafeteria with my daughters.
The “outside” job freed my creative side in a way folding underwear and wiping up orange juice spills never could. It made me a more pleasant me—but it was by no means my sole reason for being. As a matter of fact, that was peripheral to my “real” job—raising three lovely little girls, helping them grow strong and confident, turning them into wonderful adults who can now pass it on to their children. I was not just “raising a bunch of kids” then—I was given the future in trust, and I reveled in the privilege given to me.
No job holds more power than that of Mom. With one look, or a strategically toned word, Mom can crush whole cities of Barbies, and destroy Lego cities faster than Godzilla downed Tokyo. For control addicts, there are chores and homework supervision, lectures, curfews, clothes budgets. For image-enhancement specialists, try sorting, washing, drying, ironing and folding a week’s worth of clothes—if Mom don’t, no one looks good. Or even cared for. For those who crave diversity in their lives, consider the job description of Mom: nurse, caregiver, budget-planner, chauffeur, Ms. Fix-it, cook, bottle-washer, laundress, tailor, tutor, teacher, penal officer, mentor, role model. How can one be bored when we have so many jobs to fill?
Granted, the pay is low—in fact, it’s non-existent. At least cash-wise. But mom would rather get her deposit of hugs, kisses, sticky-fingered loving, art works made from paper bags and crayons hanging on the fridge, laughter, smiles—even the tears and screaming and unhappiness are welcome. You can look at that as the income tax of your salary—necessary if not pleasant. So you don’t have all the new clothes everyone else has. So you can’t afford a big screen TV, like “everyone else has.” What do you mean we can’t afford Bimini again this year? Disneyland and blue jeans and the 16” black and white give us more joy than riches or fame or material possessions every could.
It’s too late to change my answer for that long-ago reunion. And my kids are now grown, flown the nest; the husband is making another nest with another family. I have a “real” job now, working in the real world for real money. And prestige (ha).
But here’s the thing – at my next reunion, college or otherwise, I will have something to report. I am a writer, a published author, homeowner, community volunteer, and other important-sounding nouns. But when I answer that inevitable question, my first instinct will be to say, “I’m the mother of three fabulous, smart, amazing millennial women, and the grandmother of five exquisite little charmers.”
And for the two daughters who have chosen the stay-at-home-mom lifestyle, and every other mom and dad who see the kids as the job and the job as peripheral, I say, “Good for you.” Go proudly into the world and brag, “I raise kids. What do you do more important than that?”