Monday, November 18, 2013

What do you do?

Cleopatra's lips are kissed
while an unimportant wife
writes, 'I do not like my life'
underneath her shopping list.

'So, what do you do?'

I have been asked this question many times in the last few months.  My oldest child just started primary school, which means meeting lots of mums at pickup and children's parties, and my husband just started a new job, which means meeting his new co-workers.  The initial conversations all seem to involve the query about what I do 'for a living'.

It is a difficult question to answer.  I can reply, 'Nothing,' but that response would not be accurate.  I can say, 'I'm taking a career break,' which is a bit closer to the truth, but still implies that I don't do very much. 

The reason for my supposed inactivity is twofold.  My husband's new job meant having to move farther away from the job I had.  I could have commuted, but as our car has recently decided that it doesn't want to work all the time, I am glad I decided not to go that route.  Also, our youngest is still at home and the idea of not having to madly scramble when childcare arrangements fell through seemed more relaxing than the previous mix of pre-school, nursery, part-time nanny and occasional babysitter which led to panicked phone calls and lots of cash spurting from our bank account like the final gushes of oil from a drying well.  So now I am the childcare; the buck stops here.

But a break implies that I am considering other career or educational options.  And I'm not.  I enjoyed my job and I would happily take another one in the same field.  My husband and I both work as teachers but there were no jobs going in my subject area at his new school and there weren't any other jobs available that are part-time and close-by.  As teaching is seasonal, the jobs come in cycles unless a teacher gets sick and they need someone right away.  It seems ghoulish to wish ill upon other teachers, so in the meantime I trying to write a book.

Ah, I can guess what you're thinking.  And that's why I don't respond to 'What do you do?' with 'Oh, I'm working on a book' because I don't want to seem like a pretentious git or a dilettante who needs to sound important.  So if I use this rejoinder, I hope for a follow-up question on what the book is about.  Then I can say that it is a history book and that I have written two others.  I can assure the questioner that they would not have heard of them unless they were especially interested in Irish politics.  And then we're fine.  But if I don't get that follow-up question, I tend to blather on and, if I get bored listening to myself, I can imagine how the poor person I'm talking to must feel.

I could say that I am a 'stay-at-home mum' or a 'homemaker' but these terms bother me and I am not sure why.  The lack of status?  No earning power?  The inability for the person receiving that answer to define you, to figure out something about your personality based on the job you have chosen?  Perhaps it is the silence that sometimes greets that answer, especially from women who do work - the assumption that we will have nothing interesting to talk about from that moment further.  So if I choose that answer, I always feel compelled to add a 'but' to show that I am involved in something else.

My husband reassures me that it will only be for a year, that another job will come along and if it doesn't, there is always the book.  The verse above is a spoof of a W.H. Auden poem called 'The Fall of Rome' and it comes from Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates.  I read the book a long time ago and have forgotten a lot of it, but I think of that bit of it every so often when I am doing the everyday Sisyphean chores of a household, chores that get completed only to begin again almost the moment they are done.  Sublime revelations out of the mundane.  I hope these posts can provide an outlet for me whilst wading through dry academic material (and piles of laundry) and maybe some mild entertainment for you. 

We'll see, won't we?


  1. You could just have fessed up to the fact that you are plotting the overthrow of civilisation.

    1. Shhh... you'll blow my cover. And I haven't yet decided on suitable attire: dressy military garb (with medals and robes), active military garb ala Fidel, basic jumpsuit, robotic supersuit, Game of Thrones... Lots of decisions to make.