I recently read an article on Elephant Journal about that age-old question people tend to ask us when they meet us for the first time, “What do you do?”
The writer felt it was merely a way for us to sort ourselves into a hierarchy of who is the most interesting or who has the most prestigious job.
Basically, it boiled down to who was worth talking to.
I have found that question to be snobby and rude for many years now but not really for the same reasons as this author.
My Irish father is a man who loves to laugh, talk and, in a typical Irish fashion, he enjoys taking the absolute p*ss out of us. He is also a man I love and admire along with my mammy. They have faced some hard, hard times in their lives.
He reckons none of his seven children ever listen to him, but we do—sometimes.
Sitting my leaving cert exams, I was an under-prepared mess. I cried—a lot. I knew there were two chances of me getting into my ideal college course: slim and none. But my daddy came out with this gem, “It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, as long as you earn an honest wage. If you enjoy it and take pride in it you are far richer than most and don’t you ever let anyone make you feel less than.”
Not only did his words carry me through my exams but they also stayed with me long after.
I have been a full time carer for my son, Ethan, since 2008. Ethan was born in 2002, but at the age of six he was finally, and I mean finally, diagnosed with a rare genetic syndrome, called Hunter Syndrome.
I was told it is a fatal condition and a progressive one, meaning the older he gets the more care he will require. The word fatal, I can assure you, shakes a person to their core.
I left my job.
I loved my job.
It wasn’t a fancy job, it wasn’t a job that required a third level education but it was mine and I loved it.
Before my son was diagnosed, when people would ask, “What is it you do?” I’d reply by asking what they do? We’d laugh, they’d normally answer me and I’d nod and tell them I work with money. I never felt the need to say any more than that, as I’m sure we all feel our jobs do not or should not define us.
Yet we seem to allow them to by asking and answering that question.
After my son was diagnosed, I would answer by saying I am a stay-at-home mother. The replies to that were often rude or downright condescending. I have had people respond with,
“Oh, isn’t it well for you to be a kept woman?”
“So you must love Dr.Phil.”
“Wow, what I wouldn’t give to do nothing all day!”
“I didn’t think women still did that, I suppose you have dinner on the table at three every day too?”
I was always left feeling less than.
So I changed my tactic and started answer with, “I am a carer for my son.”
That brought a lot more questions my way which I really didn’t want to discuss with just anyone while trying to make small talk. People do squirm a bit when I mention Ethan’s condition in detail, which I will only do if I hear something along these lines, “Sure we are all carers for our kids but the difference is you get paid from the state.”
Yes, I have had real people respond like that to me, so you’ll have to forgive me for being brutally honest with them while I watch them realise how judgemental they are.
There is a way to shut down this over-used question about what we do, and I find it works rather well. With a smile on my face I simply ask them, “Why?” In my experience, this starts a whole different conversation which ends in one of two ways—either they think you are rude and just stand there looking like they have no idea what to say next; which is your cue to leave, don’t forget to smile!
Or this can lead to a lovely conversation about who cares what we do for a living, the real questions are “Are you happy with your work? Do you like it?” I do find that by the end of this conversation we have both found out anyway what our “job” titles are, but we have a mutual understanding that we are more than just this label, and perhaps a new approach to asking the question in the same way again.
When I am out having fun I don’t want to be asked what I do. I have my own reasons. There are more than a few reasons others don’t like it either. So let’s change it. Let’s ask instead, “Are you happy with your work?”
I am proud to be a mother, but I am more than that. I am more than a wife. These labels don’t tell you that I am a writer, a keen photographer, a comedian (on my great days), a social butterfly when I do get to go out, a nurse, a fixer of scraped knees, an expert on Hunter Syndrome, a campaigner, a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, a speech and language therapist, a know-it-all on children’s rights, a keen historian…and so much more.
We are all more than.
My daddy was right (shh don’t tell him!) Does it really matter what title you happen to have?
Author: Geraldine Renton
Image: Eric Ward/ Flickr
Editors: Khara-Jade Warren; Caitlin Oriel