How To Answer That Irritating Question From New Acquaintances: “And What Do You Do?”
For better or worse, people tend to “buy” whatever we’re selling about ourselves (after all, who knows us better than we do?). Without realizing it, we are constantly projecting our internal beliefs about ourselves. And other people receive those cues and respond to them. You’ve surely had days when you feel, for no apparent reason, more attractive than usual. You haven’t changed your hairstyle, and it’s not a new lipstick. You’re even wearing the same outfit you’ve worn a hundred times before. And yet, on those days when you feel attractive, people seem to see you as more attractive. If you think of yourself as dependable, people often depend on you, and if you exude self-confidence, others’ confidence in you grows. But the reverse is true as well. If you believe that you are boring or stupid or unable to make good decisions, somehow others sense this and accept it as true. What we’re talking about is self-esteem, which is not simply who we are, but how we feel about who we are.
One of the foremost ways women gain self-esteem is through their occupation, and how they feel about it determines, to a great extent, how others view it as well. When you’re employed outside the home, you’re never stuck for an answer when asked by a new acquaintance, “And what do you do?” You simply answer, “Oh, I’m a (lab technician, accountant, waitress, U.S. senator).” You don’t spend much time worrying about how your occupation will be perceived—you take pride in your work and it shows.
But ask the average at-home mother about her occupation, and you may get a very different result. She’ll often give one of two types of responses, both of which indicate that she believes her profession is unimportant, unappealing, and unacceptable.
The first type is what I think of as the “defensive response” and it sounds like this: “What do I do? Oh, I’m a chauffeur, activities planner, chef, nurse, teacher, interior decorator, landscape designer, nutritional expert, maintenance engineer, and child development specialist.” Ugh! This is the equivalent of asking a surgeon what she does for a living and being regaled with every single detail of her profession from the day she entered medical school up to and including this morning’s gall bladder operation. It’s too much—an answer like that either bores you silly or, worse, makes you wonder what’s the matter with her that she’s trying so hard to impress you. But of course, a surgeon would not feel the need to give such a defensive response—she would correctly assume that: one, you already know what a surgeon is, and two, being a surgeon is a perfectly respectable, even noble, profession. The at-home mother who lists each and every one of her many duties is trying too hard to justify her career choice, justification which is simply not necessary.
The second (and worse) type I call the “apology response.” In this one, the at-home mother won’t quite look you in the eye, and she may stammer a bit before saying in a mousy little voice, “I’m just a mom.” This response lets you know that what she’s doing is not, even in her own opinion, very important. So it practically insures that no one else will think so either. Further, it seems to imply that any nitwit could do the job with great ease, which is certainly not true. So why sound so apologetic? When I talk with at-home mothers I typically find them to be caring, thoughtful and hard-working women who ponder long and hard before making their career choice. They routinely make numerous personal sacrifices of time, energy, and money to do what they feel is in their children’s, and society’s, best interests. Perhaps one of the reasons they don’t get medals is that the “apologizers” among them relinquish the respect that such sacrifice deserves.
So what is a good way to answer those new acquaintances who ask, “And what do you do?” Just look them in the eye, smile in a friendly way, and say, “Oh, I’m presently a full-time mom.” That’s it. No apologies. No needless justifications. And no explanations, except to those who express a real interest in how you made your decision, how you like being at home, how you manage on one income, etc. By stating your profession simply and directly, you reflect self-confidence and the kind of pride one would expect from a woman who believes hers is a genuinely important occupation.
I know what you’re thinking: but it’s hard when society doesn’t give much support to those of us who are at-home mothers. You’re right. It is hard feeling undervalued in a society that seems to equate personal worth with the size of the paycheck. But before you get stuck in those feelings, take a moment to remind yourself of your original reasons for choosing to be a full-time mom. They probably had a lot to do with meeting some pretty important needs—your children’s need for consistent, nurturing, loving attention, and your own need to know that you’ve done the very best job you could to provide a stable, healthy, environment that allows them to grow into terrific adults. Those things, I suspect, are still at the top of your priority list. So does it really matter so very much that some people don’t, and never will, understand and applaud your choice? No matter what you do with your life, there are always those who feel the need to criticize or second-guess. Forget them. Instead, remember the old saying, “no one on her deathbed ever wished that she’d spent more time at the office.”
Another point to remember is one that really takes the pressure off. People, alas, are far more self-absorbed than you realize. In fact, they’re often much more concerned about what kind of impression they’re making on you, than the reverse. So while you’re worrying about how to answer that “And what do you do” question, keep in mind that the questioner is probably hoping she doesn’t have a stray piece of spinach stuck in her teeth! And she’s almost certainly wondering how she’s going to respond to your questions. Rather than focusing on whether or not she’ll find you fascinating, ask her about her life. The best (and quickest) way to be judged interesting is to be interested.
There may be times when you decide you want to present other sides of yourself, and the “I’m presently a full-time mom” answer doesn’t quite suffice. Perhaps you’re thinking about re-entering the work force and you want to network a bit. In that case, feel free to add, “And before this, I was a (physicist, or ditch-digger, or whatever).” Or perhaps a lighter touch is what is needed: “I’m a recovering computer programmer.” On another occasion, you may want to share more of your personality, which you can do by disclosing on a more personal level, as in, “I’m a full-time mom, and while I mostly love my job, there are days when I’m a ‘woman on the edge’.” If the person you’re talking to is a parent, or has spent any time at all with children, this will probably elicit a knowing grin.
The toughest time to answer the “And what do you do” question may be when the person asking is a mom who is employed full-time outside the home. Whether you know it or not, your answer just might make her feel a little defensive, and she may begin trying to justify why she is not at home with her kids. Women are such masters of guilt when it comes to their children—if they’re employed full time, they feel they “should” be at home; when they’re home full-time, they feel they “should” be out earning a living. While it may be tempting to grab the opportunity to turn the tables with an “Obviously I care more about my kids than you do about yours” competition, pass it up. Parenting, no matter how it’s done, is a tough enough job without having to endure the criticism of those whose choices are different. Remember that this is one of the reasons you’ve dreaded the question about your occupation in the first place.
In the final analysis, there is no one lifestyle that is right for every family. You made your choice for perfectly valid reasons having to do with what fits yours. So when people ask, “And what do you do?” don’t even hesitate. Tell them, simply and directly, that you’re an at-home mother. If you believe your job is important, and convey that belief with pride and confidence, you just might find people responding with the respect you deserve.