This was inspired by the prompt, “The hardest thing…” And as I wrote it, I had the chance to say, “Wow! My life is *awesome*. Even though I still don’t know the answer to the question.”
It was the buzz of the elementary school playground in the week leading up to career day. “What are you going to be? When you grow up, I mean. What are you going to BE?”
“Uh, I dunno. A reporter, maybe?” One year, I went as a vet, because my mother had a stethoscope and a lab coat. I donned it as if it were a costume for Hallowe’en, not (as They seemed to think) the Most Important Thing in my life.
Even if it has haunted me for the last 20 years, I feel incredibly fortunate that this is my hardest thing. How many people have had the luxury of considering it year after year, the chance to try so many paths?
I have had many adventures finding out what I’m *not* going to be. For several years in my late teens and early 20’s, I thought I was going to be an engineer. Cool problems, professional job, corner office and a Jaguar… what’s not to love? (That was my 17-year-old self’s reasoning.) But I kept asking, “Why?” at inopportune times, so it turned out that I wasn’t going to be an engineer.
I then spent several years trying to be a physicist. Once again I found myself asking the wrong questions (“But what is this good for?”) I found out that I wasn’t going to be a physicist either. I’ve tried on other jobs to varying degrees of success. I was an OK software developer, a good business analyst, and (possibly) a talented curriculum developer. I did very well when I went back to study education. I liked sociology and anthropology and developmental psychology, but I didn’t have the detailed mind necessary to become a historian.
Then, over the years, I discovered that we have to “be” more than just what we do for a living. I discovered that the number of identities I could choose (even at the same time!) was nearly unlimited. I have been a runner, an adventure racer, a swimmer, an actor, a singer, a purveyor of fine spices, a board member, a volunteer, a student, a pagan, a blogger… the list goes on, but lists are boring.
Just two more, then: I’m a good mother and a bad beekeeper. If I had to choose only one of those to be good at, I think I made the right choice.
When I’m feeling most perplexed, it helps me to remember that my mother (now 67) still isn’t quite sure how she wants to answer that question, even after a career of being able to answer it in a clear and uncluttered manner. (“I’m a physiotherapist.”)
Therein lies the problem. “What are you going to be?” implies that there is a single clear answer. Ideally, it should be one, or at most two, words. It should make it easier for other people to know what to talk to you about, and what sorts of questions to ask you. It should certainly not take a paragraph or more… who has the time? “Hone your elevator pitch,” they tell me.
When we grew up, it shifted slightly. Party small-talk: “And what do you do?”
Even when I was working, it was always in strange knowledge-economy jobs. The ones that didn’t exist when we were kids. “I… um… Do you want the long answer, or the short one?”
When we moved for my husband’s tenure-track job, and I gave up my last run at a career, which was finally going well, and I was actually enjoying, I assumed that it would be a matter of time before I managed to find something. After all, I have done so many things. I’m so experienced, so qualified. Surely such a resume could be tailored to something nearby. And after three years, it was. It was tailored to the position of library assistant at a small rural branch… a job which required a high-school education, and paid less than the childcare I had to pay for to be able to go to it. It was interesting, but not challenging, work. I got to feel that I made a difference. But when I ran the hard numbers, I had to admit that I couldn’t afford to do it for the sake of the library, and I came back home.
Back to dreading the casual question, “What do you do?”
It took me a great deal of effort not to answer, “Nothing.” I could be the mommy-track poster child. Leaky pipeline, what have you. Here I am, long-time liberal feminist, hard-core physical science and social science backgrounds, home with the kids, blogging, trying to find a voice. The kids are all going to be in school this fall, and running them to after-school activities is not going to suffice.
The short answer these days is, “I’m a writer.”
Here’s the long answer: I question, consider, examine, and interrogate. I read, think, and write. I’m working on a book about peace. I grow vegetables, feed chickens, and host potlucks. I love extravagantly. I watch my friends’ kids when they are in the hospital having babies. I raise my own kids so that they will be caring, whole, and generous members of the community. I do my best to eat ethically, and if not ethically, at least healthfully, and if not healthfully, at least together. I sing, dance, do yoga, and paint. I meditate. I do tech for the local community theater. I put this absurd amount of education to work making sense of the world to the best of my ability, and then take my understanding back out to apply it.
The follow up question these days seems to be, “Oh. Can you make a living doing that?”
That one, I don’t know yet. But it sure does make a good life.