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