“So What Do You Do?” An Existential Crisis

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The request was simple, but it was enough to send me into an existential crisis.

“Can you type up a quick bio? We want to add you to the staff page on our website,” the e-mail from my coworker read.

I had just begun to dip my toes into the workforce after two years of staying at home. I was barely ankle deep, just working from home for my former employer, a few hours a day on nights where my kids mercifully went to sleep at a reasonable hour. I hadn’t really even thought of myself as “working,” rather just making a little money with a side gig. It shouldn’t take too long to type a paragraph about myself, I thought.

I took a crack at it.

“Jackie is a stay at home mom to two toddler boys. Her specialties include applying sunscreen to moving objects and taking showers while simultaneously answering pressing questions such as, “why do I have a nose?” Her hobbies include discussing politics on Facebook while rocking her two year old to sleep, who yes, still needs to be rocked to sleep. Jackie’s most recent accomplishment is drying herbs in the microwave because she saw it on Pinterest and it looked intriguing, a task which took three hours and saved 35 cents.”

Accurate, but not professional. I sighed. I didn’t know how to begin the paragraph: “Jackie is…” I wasn’t exactly sure what I was anymore. For two years, I had done virtually nothing but be a mom every moment of every day.

I had left my job after the birth of my second son. He was a month premature, and my oldest had recently been diagnosed with multiple food allergies. The thought of sending them both to a daycare that would eat up the vast majority of my paycheck just didn’t compute. This new path had taken some getting used to, as I had always loved my work and missed having an identity outside of my children. But eventually the arrangement grew on me, and I began to appreciate the control over our lives staying at home gave me.

Second attempt:

“Jackie has worked in the field of policy for the past five years, if you ignore the fact she has stayed at -home for the last two of those. She graduated with advanced degrees in fields that most people would consider fairly useless, but were occasionally helpful on trivia night at the local bar. Her areas of specialty include economic insecurity, food insecurity, and insecurity in general about being a stay at home mom.”

When my former boss asked if I could work on a project for them, I jumped at the chance. It felt good to be working again, although it added a degree of busy-ness to our lives. I liked the idea that I could answer the question of “do you work?” with a yes, even though I wasn’t sure that was fair to say when I was only at my desk a couple hours each night. There were other rewards as well, however.

“Mom! Can I have honey nut cheerios?” my oldest asked as I started to head downstairs to work on my computer. I thought about it. He hadn’t had snack after his naptime, but it was also getting close to dinner.

“I dunno, kid. Ask your dad. I’m off duty,” I responded and quickly shut the door behind me. No negotiating, diapers, or mopping up gallons of water that were “accidentally” splashed out of the bathtub tonight.

Third attempt:

“Jackie is a freelance writer, and has been published online multiple times, much to the surprise of people close to her, which she is not sure if that is a compliment or not. She writes about a variety of topics, all of which seem to center around parenting, mothering, being a mom, and raising children. Her most recent publications actually include sites other than her Facebook wall.”

In one sense, I had been working a bit for the past year, freelance writing articles for parenting websites in the afternoon while the kids napped. I kept a running tally of how much I had earned, and one year of feeling like I was doing nothing but taking care of the kids and writing, I had yet to earn as much as my husband made in a week. But I liked the balance it gave me – the opportunity to have a voice, to contribute more to our savings than the loose change I found in the laundry.

And yet I still struggled if I could even introduce myself as a freelance writer. I squeezed in writing when I could, but that was far from spending hours a day crafting beautiful and moving prose that would land me in magazines and journals that belonged to the realm of Actual Writers.

I kept staring at the screen. I didn’t know how to answer the question of who I was, and what I did, but typing up ridiculous drafts seemed to help.

Before I had children, I suppose I always assumed I would stay at home. This was not a particular plan or even a dream, however, rather it was simply my experience of motherhood – most mothers in my family, my own included, stayed at home. It was all I knew, and it seemed like a reasonable path.

At the same time, I pictured a career. The field changed depending where I was in my education, but I always assumed I would be working, possibly in academics or doing research somewhere. I never imagined quitting my job to stay at home with children, because in my mind, these two futures existed in completely separate realms and I had never truly considered how they would play out when the time came.

When I found out that I was pregnant the same week I finished graduate school, the paths crossed rather forcefully, making me finally sit down and think about what I wanted out of my career and family life. At times, staying at home felt like a failure, like wearing a sign that said, “I couldn’t figure out how to do it all.” Now that I was working part-time from home, it was an opportunity to have a foot in one world and a toe in the other.

There is a part of me that wishes I had thought this through earlier in life, figuring out earlier what the best way to balance work and family would be, despite the fact that as a feminist, the idea of telling a young girl, “Pick a career based on what your future family prospects!” makes me shudder. The other part of me realizes that detours are okay, and that my biography can have multiple first drafts before settling on a finished version, or at the very least, an opening paragraph.

I eventually typed up some mumbo jumbo about my academic background and areas of research experience. I didn’t mention that I had been a stay at home mom for the last two years. It wasn’t really relevant information, although part of me felt a bit disingenuous leaving it off. I could be many things – mother, worker, writer – sometimes at the same time, and sometimes not.

I’ll figure it out as I go.

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