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You know that dreaded question at parties? I have an answer! No, wait, I have two.

November 12, 2010


Bodleian Library, Oxford

Yes, you know the one. Sooner or later it always gets asked. Try as we might to avoid it, in a conversation with a stranger at a party it comes as surely as death and taxes.

‘So…what do you do?’

Doesn’t your heart sink when you’re asked this? Perhaps yours doesn’t. Mine always has. My answer has varied over the years – and the reactions have varied with it – but I always have that same swooping sense of a sinking heart. Whatever it is we ‘do’ – i.e. as a job, to keep food on the table – for most of us it is probably the least interesting thing about us. Whatever you answer, it pigeonholes you according to the interests and prejudices of the listener, which is why I hate being asked. At various times, for example, I’ve been able to answer truthfully, ‘I’m a coulis chef’, ‘I’m a doctoral student’, ‘I’m an executive search consultant in the City’ (‘You mean headhunter?’ ‘Well, yes.’ ‘Oh.’) and, these days, ‘Oh…I’m just a mother.’ (I’ll come back to that one.) I’ve done one or two other random things in my time, but I have never felt that what I happen to do for a living is the key to my personality. If it were, I think I’d be in trouble. Headhunters: well, they are thrusting wide boys with a bulging address book, a knack for schmoozing and a vast expense account, but not much in the way of a code of ethics. Isn’t that so? But wait, a doctoral student: that’s an intense geek with a frighteningly large brain and limited social skills, who is still at university because s/he can’t handle the real world. So those two couldn’t be the same person. Let alone the same as a chef, or the girlie (whom I have also been) at the front desk in a private art gallery: blonde (obviously), well-spoken, but clearly a bit dim or she wouldn’t be working in a place like that, would she. Telling you what I do for a living actually doesn’t give you any idea about the sort of person I am. In fact, it might well give you entirely the wrong impression. But it’s too late: the question has been asked, the answer given, the judgement made.

Then there’s the mother thing. To reply ‘I’m just a mother’ is a crime against the sisterhood. I know! I agree! So why do I say it? Well, maybe to disarm the person who might secretly think precisely that, but is now put in the position of having to come to my defence. ‘Oh come, you mustn’t say just, we all know it’s terribly hard work raising children’ etc. etc. (Which patronises us both, come to think of it.) But also because, while I passionately believe in the importance of raising my children myself, I have plenty of friends who work in paid employment and who, with the help of a complex web of nurseries, after-school care, nannies and relatives, are raising children just as happy and well-adjusted as my own. And they are contributing to the family income. Having once had a career of sorts, complete with a business card with letters after my name (‘Look, look! I exist! I’m quite important, see, I have my name on a bit of cardboard to prove it!’) I know that I’m not alone in experiencing a loss of identity once I was at home all day with a baby or two, and the highlight of the day was a trip to the corner cafe to compare notes with some other bewildered new mums. So I’m afraid that, yes, there is a bit of me which, despite my better judgement, feels like I am just a mother. Even though it’s the most important job in the world. Even though I also ‘run’ a ridiculously large historic house. Plenty of other women (although, again, with paid support) seem to manage that and a good deal more on top.


Ephemera Inc. 2005

The worst thing is filling in forms where you have to record your employment status. ‘Housewife’ makes me want to kneel down in my flowery polyester pinny and put my head in the oven. ‘Homemaker’ is hardly any better. So a year or so ago, feeling mutinous in the face of another official form, I invented a new term for my status. Ladies and gentlemen,  you see before you a Futures Investment Portfolio Manager.

Futures: because that’s what children are.

Investment: because lord knows we invest an infinite amount of time, love, care and cold hard cash on them.

Portfolio: because we have more than one of them; and

Manager: because I am.

Thank you. I tried it out recently on a very senior City type at a dinner party full of vertiginously high achievers. For a whole two seconds, he looked seriously impressed. Then, when I lost my nerve and translated it, he burst out laughing –  which I realised was a much better reaction. It had broken the ice, and after that we got on very well. Stay-at-home-mums, you may borrow my job title with my pleasure. Just remember that you read it here first.


Nevertheless, that doesn’t get us away from the problem of being defined by our employment. I am just as guilty as anyone else of asking other people what they ‘do’. It’s a way in, an obvious door on which to knock. But I think I have found an alternative. I was talking once with a girl at a book-signing. The author was a mutual friend who has led an extraordinary life, and the girl was someone I knew a very little and liked enough to want to get to know better. We made the usual social small talk, complete with the exchange of the obligatory question. It got us nowhere. I forget what either of us were ‘doing’ at that particular point in our lives, so it clearly wasn’t very interesting to either of us. What was interesting to me at that moment, I remember, was a subject I was researching with a view to writing an article. I was enthused to the point of obsession with this subject. So I tried the same on her. ‘Never mind what you do for a living. What do you do for love? What are you excited about at the moment?’ She looked a bit nonplussed, poor thing, so I illustrated by telling her a little about my own current enthusiasm, until she got the idea and lo, she did indeed have a passion. It turned out that she and her new husband were passionate about healthy living and nutritious, locally sourced food, and were determined to open a little wholefood sandwich cafe in town. They had found a premises and were spending every spare moment of their evenings and weekends doing it up, painting it, fitting it out, sourcing organic suppliers and, in short, planning for their future. It was her dream, and she was working to make it her reality. Talking about it, she lit up. Listening and questioning, I got to know her better in ten minutes than I would have done in ten hours of social small talk.

This could be a risky strategy, of course. If you ask a stranger at a party about their passions, you could get backed into a corner with some fairly uncomfortable answers. Or you might have to listen to thirty years’ worth of pent-up excitement about heating systems. Sometimes, we are all too tired to manage anything beyond the formulaic social exchanges. May I suggest, though, that next time you are feeling a little bored at a party, and someone asks you what you do, you reply, ‘Let’s not talk about what we do. Let’s talk about what we love.’

And if that fails, you could always tell them that you are a Futures Investment Portfolio Manager.


See also: Obviously, I’d never do this

32 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2010 1:22 am

    Ditto – very well said. I was a “stay-at-home” mom and I wouldn’t ever go back to change that for anything. Those years home raising my children were priceless. Sure, we had to go without some stuff and my kids didn’t have expensive sneakers and clothes, but they had me!! What more would a kid want 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 12, 2010 10:03 am

      Hear hear!

  2. Margaret Lambert permalink
    November 12, 2010 3:14 am

    You cover a lot of very familiar territory this time, and I don’t have a map to offer. I like your turn-about, to ask them instead about their passion.

    I remember when my mother and I were asked what my grandmother’s employment had been, for her death certificate. In reality she had spent decades reading, writing her friends, planning dinner and napping in between. We settled on “Officer’s Lady”, as my grandfather had been a Colonel.

    I still don’t think that a woman who lives to 94 should have their life summed up in a word or two.

    This website may be what you are seeking:

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 12, 2010 10:05 am

      Thanks so much for the link, Margaret. I have duly corrected the image title!

      I guess that none of us like to think that we could be summed up in a few words. ‘Officer’s Lady’ is a rather wonderful synopsis though.

  3. November 12, 2010 1:17 pm

    Very well said dancingbeastie! Definitely going to try this strategy in future, much more interesting than getting stuck in mindless small talk, and I love your new job title 🙂

  4. Dee permalink
    November 12, 2010 2:37 pm

    very good title and synopsis of a mother’s role, which reminds me of similar cases in my country. Feeling rather annoyed by the sad/pitiful looks she received when she had to answer a similar question (usually followed by the comment: “oh, so you don’t do anything then?”… she had 5 children), the wife of a French politician once launched a fairly similar title for herself: CEO of un Unlimited Liability Partnership. I like your point of view on Futures though!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 12, 2010 4:28 pm

      Hello D! That is a wonderful title, very good. I would like to promote myself to CEO, but not if it means having five of the little beggars…!

  5. Jean S permalink
    November 12, 2010 8:42 pm

    and all this time I thought you were Queen of the May!


    okay then….I much prefer the idea of asking people “what are you having fun with?” instead of “what do you do?”

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 12, 2010 11:06 pm

      Queen of the May is my superhero alter ego…shh, don’t tell…. 😉

  6. Erika W. permalink
    November 14, 2010 1:10 am

    I hope I’m not breaking copyright law but you have reminded me to look for a copy of ‘The happy Housewife” on the internet and to share this article with you from The Daily Telegraph:

    Dotty household economy is an obscure and dying art, writes PAUL SLADE
    THE New Year is traditionally the time for turning over a new leaf and planning to look after the cents. But it is all too easy to go over the top.
    In 1974 Bramber Parish Council decided to go without street lighting for three days as a saving. Afterwards, the parish treasurer announced that electricity to the value of £11,59 had been saved, writes Stephen Pile in The Book of Heroic Failures.
    However, there was a bill of £18,48 for switching the electricity off, and another of £12 for switching it on again. So it cost the council £18,89 to spend three days in the dark.
    Magazines such as The Penny Pincher in the UK and a raft of columnists vie to provide money-savings tips in every area of life.
    There is nothing wrong with that, but it has to be said that the advice on offer does sometimes seem to inhabit a parallel universe to our own.
    Take, for example, The Penny Pincher’s recent article on “30 Uses for Old Jeans”. Among the suggestions are: stuffing your laundry into the legs of an old pair of jeans before heading for the laundrette; cutting them into strips “to make rope”; and using bits of denim to replace the soles of your slippers.
    My favourite is: “Cover a waste paper basket with a jeans leg.” Why?
    Dig a little into the past, and the tips on offer become even more surreal. Take, for example, Hilary Davies’s Household Hints, which was published in 1981.
    She has the following tip: “In the evening when street markets are packing up, collect discarded orange boxes and use them as stacking coffee tables or, hung sideways on the wall, as display shelves.”
    I rather doubt that Hilary has orange boxes tacked to her own walls, but she evidently thought them quite good enough for her readers.
    While you are visiting the market, you may also want to keep an eye out for stale bread, as suggested in Mary Davies’s The Housewife’s What’s What. Stale bread, it seems, is an excellent aid for cleaning wallpaper.
    Peckish after all that effort? Mary can help there too. Just soak your stale – and, by now, filthy – loaf in cold milk and water, rebake and “it will come out much fresher”.
    Mary was writing around the turn of the century. For a handy tip on how to prepare your revitalised bread, we must return to 1981 and Household Hints. Hilary has been pondering the vexed question of how economically to prepare three slices of toast when your grill is big enough for only two.
    Naturally, she has an answer: “Save time and fuel by grilling as follows (1, 2 and 3 are the pieces of toast; A and B are the sides): 1A, 2A; 3A, 1B; 2B, 3B. This may sound complicated but it isn’t.”
    I hate to rain on Hilary’s parade here. But, if life is – as Katherine Whitehorn once remarked in the foreword to Shirley Conran’s 1970s mouldbreaker, Superwoman – too short to stuff a mushroom, it is certainly too short to embark on making toast by a method requiring high mathematics.
    Nor does such surreal advice stop at the kitchen. Helen Simpson’s 1934 volume, The Happy Housewife, turns our attention to the problem of despatching flowers round the country without recourse to Interflora.
    She says: “To send flowers by post, the stems should be wrapped in damp cotton wool, and the flowers packed in a box lined with moss.”
    Yes, that’s right, you’re going to have to go out and find some moss. And yes, it probably will bring on your lumbago again.
    But never fear, AC Marshall has the answer in the 1937 The Home Encyclopedia – get someone to give your back a rub-over with a hot iron.
    The iron should be applied over flannel covered with a sheet of brown paper, Marshall thoughtfully adds. He evidently feared that, without this warning, his readers would dismiss anything but direct contact between flesh and burning steel as unduly wimpish. Other advice I have come across in the past is to buy tinned food in bulk from a cash-and-carry, storing it in wardrobes throughout the house, and putting candles in the fridge to make them last longer.
    Picture the scene. There you are, your jeans stuffed with dirty laundry, your wastepaper basket snugly encased in denim. A friend, who has just popped round to iron your back, is looking forward to a tasty and nutritious snack of freshly-rebaked dirty bread.
    But with a fridge full of candles and a wardrobe bulging with tinned food, you have nowhere to keep your clothes.
    The answer is obvious: hang them from the orange boxes. – © The Sunday Telegraph Top of page

    We certainly wouldn’t have time for outside work. Busy with our old jeans alone could fill up our days.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 14, 2010 11:59 am

      This is priceless! Thank you so much for passing it on. It did make me giggle and it’s interesting to see just how invaluable a book ‘The Happy Housewife’ actually once was.

      But you know, I *have* tried cleaning old wallpaper with stale bread, and it does work! Didn’t eat the bread afterwards though, profligate hussy that I am.

  7. November 14, 2010 12:01 pm

    I did laugh at your alternatives! I shall try and remember to ask what someone’s passion is. As you say much more interesting than what they do for a living – which often is what they HAVE to do rather than what they WANT to do! I get great amusement at the expression on people’s faces when they ask “Do you work?” and I tell them what I do. Again perceptions of people with disabilities not being able to lead full, *happy*, functioning lives! Other friends are telling me that once you reach retirement you can become invisible. People hear the word “retired” and switch off, dismissing the person. Yet today I have watched the ceremony at the Cenotaph, and have seen photos of our local Remembrance Day ceremonies and seen the “retired” proudly marching and wearing their medals. Lives are full of many experiences and you’re right – we move through different phases, but each are equally important!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 14, 2010 7:11 pm

      Yes, you’re so right. Do you know, having seen a glimpse of your amazing ‘life on a small island’, it never crossed my mind to think of you as having a disability! Impressively ‘able’ by any standards, I would say! I watched the Cenotaph service too – always find it terribly moving, though this year also a bit shocking that WWII veterans are now in their 90s, and there are no WWI veterans left. Watching them marching, some a little shaky but all so dignified, I did wonder about their various life stories.

  8. jane permalink
    November 15, 2010 12:51 am

    Oh I loved this post. How fascinating and how right you are. I haven’t had nearly as interesting a career path as yours sounds but I always baffle people, especially senior doctors, by telling them that I spent 4 years on the beautiful Scottish coast studying philosophy before starting med school. “Oh, that must have been interesting”, they usually say (by which they mean: “That sounds entirely useless, AND you’re probably hhopeless at science, whyever did they let you?”) Fortunately for me, though, I’m not entirely hopeless at science (and nor, I would think, are most philosophy students), and I think I learnt as much about human beings during that course as I am doing at med school. But people do love to pigeon-hole however they can, and it’s funny-if frustrating- to watch them try.

    Asking people what they love is an excellent idea. I shall pick an appropriate looking candidate and give it a go, i think! Although now I am wondering what answer I’d give myslef, and realising that it would literally vary from hour to hour. I pity the poor new acquantaince who would get to hear all about how much I love the simple pleasure of really good mashed potatoes, but this evening – I honestly do.

    • jane permalink
      November 15, 2010 12:52 am

      (I missed a word, I meant ‘let you in’, not let you, oops!)

      • dancingbeastie permalink
        November 15, 2010 12:09 pm

        Now you have me salivating for mash! You’re not the only medic I know who started with an arts degree. One friend, who is now a psychiatrist, was studying for a post-grad degree in Classics when I first met him. I’m sure it has made him an even more thoughtful and empathetic doctor than he would have been anyway. As you say, non-science subjects are also about human nature: they are the Humanities, after all. Several of my friends (at the very same place on the beautiful Scottish coast!) read modern history before going on to law degrees, which grounding stood them in very good stead. I sometimes think it should be compulsory for politicians to have a degree or a career in anything other than politics before they are allowed to be electable. (Not that a background as a chemist made Margaret Thatcher abound with natural empathy, but then you know chemists…. 😉 )

  9. November 15, 2010 2:28 pm

    Hi Dancing Beastie. Thanks for your comment on my blog, and sorry I missed you at the Kinrossie event. Have been feeling quite a stalker recently, meeting up with Vintage Squirrel and Primrose Hill, and travelling there with Andamento. I do like our blogging double identities! As for occupation, I say full time mum but I am always conscious that it’s almost suggesting that mums who work are not full time mums whereas I’m sure there is never a moment when the wellbeing of their children is not at the forefront of their minds. I’m not sure I’d convince anyone that I was anything with the words Futures and Portfolio in it – I am rather more dishevelled these days than I was when I was in full time employment. But I like the idea!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 15, 2010 7:40 pm

      Yeah, I must say if I had a job interview tomorrow, I wouldn’t have the first idea how to dress the part. My daily uniform is jeans, jumpers, wellies – anything warm and dog/child-proof. Can’t help having the sneaking suspicion that my very together-looking friends in paid employment are somehow much more grown-up than me…!

  10. August 22, 2011 3:04 pm

    I LOVE this post. I found you in a roundabout way (through a comment on one of Wife in a New City’s blogs) and laughed out loud. I love your attitude and your writing style – I cannot WAIT to call myself a Future Investment Portfolio Manager. I’ll let you know how I get on 😉

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      August 22, 2011 7:40 pm

      Hi, thank you, and thanks for visiting. I have been enjoying reading some of your blog too – so vivid – goodness, it takes me straight back to when I was a mother of a baby boy!

      Very best of luck with that Portfolio…:)

  11. January 12, 2012 7:43 am

    Came here from your wormhole post. Just to say, with authority, speaking as one – working motherhood is the biggest con trick ever invented. Nothing in the uneasy cohabitation wins. There are three elements in it: work, motherhood and you, and the one that loses most every time is you.
    Care to swap?

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 12, 2012 12:05 pm

      Funnily enough I was talking this over with a friend only yesterday, in the park after school. She is a researcher working from home these days. Between us, we have tried several combinations of work and parenting, and agreed that guilt is the common thread. I feel guilty at not actively contributing to the family income – but on the other hand I feel that we are lucky that we can afford for me to be a full-time mum. My friend and I were saying that women should be encouraged to be full-time parents – but then you don’t want to go back to women being pressurised into giving up their careers when they get married. There’s no perfect solution. But no, sorry, I wouldn’t swap – I know how lucky I am. 😉

  12. Lisbeth permalink
    March 22, 2013 12:14 am

    I just came across your blog tonight and am thoroughly enjoying myself and you! I’ve been trying to feel good about answering this same question for the last 11 years and I love how you’ve done it. A local hospital that has been nationally recognized for it’s women’s center and maternity care lists a stay at home mother as ‘unemployed’ on their admittance forms! Unemployed!! The poor clerk always looks chagrined when they say their software doesn’t have a category for us so they just check ‘unemployed’. Now, I will be a Futures Investment Portfolio Manager! I’ll be surprised if they have a category for that! Thank you for the laugh!

    • March 22, 2013 11:57 pm

      You are most welcome, Lisbeth. ‘Unemployed’ really makes me steam at the ears! I am happy to have provided you with a more realistic job description. 🙂

  13. Helen permalink
    March 23, 2013 1:31 pm

    When my (now adult) children were younger I used to answer the ‘what do you do?’ question with, ‘I’m doing research,’ meaning research into the effects of ‘full-time’ mothering on the under-fives, under-sevens.. under-whatever age my oldest was at the time.
    In some circumstances I might ask someone if they are doing ‘paid work’, but usually I would ask, ‘How do you spend your time?’ which often leads to some interesting conversations along the lines of, ‘My job is …., but in my spare time I love to…..’

    • March 23, 2013 5:59 pm

      What a wonderful answer, and what inspired questions. Thank you for those: I will borrow them in future if I may!

  14. Nib's End permalink
    February 6, 2014 5:04 pm

    I too, arrived here through the wormhole. I really enjoy reading your thoughts; I identify with many of them, but you articulate them so well. Being an introvert, small talk used to make me miserable. Then I started asking people what they like to do. It feels like I am digging for gold and it is such a pleasure when I find it.

  15. Nib's End permalink
    February 6, 2014 5:18 pm

    May I just add that when asked what you do you could say that you are happily engaged in the oldest profession in the world. Even though you mean land management and motherhood, it could lead to some very interesting responses.


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