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Margaret Hossack

I do agree with what you wrote. Now that I no longer work outside the home I hate that question - what do you do? My usual answer is "well.....nothing really." And then I feel annoyed with myself because I look after grandchildren, cook, clean, garden, do the accounts, sew, knit, quilt, crochet, help older friends, and so on. It's hard to find time to fit it all in. So why do I say I do nothing? Beats me! Is it because no-one actually hands me any money for my endeavours? I suppose I'm just a victim of today's society. I often tell my daughter who is a full-time mum, to answer that dreaded question with - I do one of the most important jobs in the world, I'm a mother.
ps. I adore your blog!


I completely agree. Whenever I have to fill out any kind of paperwork, I always have to check the unemployed box because I don't get paid for being a mom. I work hard raising and teaching my children. I think unfortunately there isn't much respect for being a stay at home mom, lots of people still think that it's not a real job, though I firmly believe it is the most important job in the world. Sometimes I fight the urge to tell people that I am a classically trained singer and have my degree in teaching voice, because to some that is more important, or at least a legitimate job. Nowadays, I don't usually mention it, because I love my job now and that's what is really important. I haven't taught since I had kids, I would love to one day, but right now my priorities are different. Of course there is the other side of it, who am I besides a mother. That's why I love blogging, it allows a little part of me out that has nothing to do with diapers and schooling, well not for the most part anyway.


I've never liked this question whether I've had a ready answer or not. Even when people are asking after jobs- these aren't the days of teacher or banker- half the time I'm not sure how my friends spend their working days even is I know their official title. And should anyone, men included, be defined by their job unless it's also their passion?

The question of self-identity is one that I've been thinking about as I've watched my mother sink into dementia. What defines a person? Is it how they spend their time or how they would want to spend their time? I'm thinking that it's a bit like daydreaming- you can think of yourself as an artist even when you've not got time or energy to create but if you stop thinking of yourself as one- will you even try?

Dark Puss

I am lucky enough to have a full time job as a senior academic physicist which exactly matches one of my passions. However I would not wish to be defined by job any more than I'd wish to be defined by my wife, where I live, the people I know or the books I read. People, most people, are not so simply split up into little boxes. I suspect you are correct that an easy route to placing us in boxes is to ask "what do you do"? meaning roughly "who employs you and what do you do at work"?

I, who knew you before you worked for money, never thought of you as defined by your degree, job or family life. You are just so much more than a mechanical sum of parts; I wish you believed it more yourself!

What fascinated me most about your post was that you felt the need to put in your opening sentence! Would you like to expand on that?


Hear hear! To the extent that I don't fit in anywhere, really. When my friends went to university, I had my first child and struggled as a single parent working in an unskilled office job in this country of old-fashioned ideals where women stayed at home with their children. When my friends started their career climbs, I felt lucky (as the daughter of a mother who had always worked in demanding jobs) to be able to stay home with my growing family while around me, a small revolution sent women scuttering off to part and full time jobs, but only based on what they had trained as when they were teenagers. No place for me! I found that although I enjoy domesticity and crafts, I also yearn for more knowledge. In my 30s, it was considered exotic that I decided to learn a new language and in my late 30s, catch up on university - dismayed, my environment wanted to know what job that would get me...?! That was when my non-Swiss friends started considering motherhood. And now, in my mid-40s, a wife, mother, grandmother, homemaker, translator, historian, knowledge sponge but so much more, too, I still don't fit in and I still have no answer to the question whose answer is always reduced to: just a housewife!

Ann Phipps

Retirement just magnifies all that everyone has noted. Now I am not a nurse, not a mother (more of a friend to my grown children), not much of anything that society admires. I am a wife of 45 years, and grandmother to six who live far from me, and a knitter. All satisfying to me, but when asked what I do in retirement, I reply "nothing".

Your Mother

A simple answer from the person who knows you best! You have always been at the "front" of the queue, you just never knew it! Yes, you admit to one or two skills but ofcourse, being you, they are"modestly" admitted; but the proof is always there to be seen by the many who are privileged to know you personally. You were a fine and clever lawyer and became an A1 mother to three great children - what they are to-day is down to you. The life you have since created for yourself is obvious to everyone who reads your daily column, and they don't know even the half of your capabilities. Your skill as a writer is patently obvious to all, but you somehow manage to combine it with wonderful cooking and baking and you don't even mention your charity work! Keep your head high and stay at the top of the queue. Love, Mum X


When people ask me what I do, I like to pick the answer that I think will make the questioner most uncomfortable. 'I'm unemployed' often works well (though not at the moment, because I do have a job of sorts). And if I'm asked my ambitions, I say that I aspire to be a lady of leisure, or alternatively a lady who lunches.


Roger that!

Barbara MacLeod

I know what you mean ... and a variation on it is: "And now that you are retired what are you going to do?" What is it about all this "doing"? Is it tied up to the Protestant ethic? To me, the question "And what do you do?" implies that the person ought to be or should be "doing" something. Socially "doing" nothing is like an empty map. It doesn't sit right; we need to fill it in.

Over the years I have often felt like answering (depending on what kind of day I have had): "My best ..." or "What I can with what I have..." or "Whatever it takes to have a quiet life"! And yes, it often meant deferring or, as you put it, going to the back of the queue.

Dark Puss

I couldn't agree more! Peter


I totally agree. I do loads of things but never know how to answer that question. Domestic goddess won't do and washerwoman sounds terrible . My husband suggests that I say I run a help desk for him , my children and grandchild and I knit while I answer questions and phone calls.

Dark Puss

As one might expect Cornflower and her readers, by avatar names I assume mainly (exclusively?) female, report depreseeingly similar experiences. What no one has addressed is why anyone is asking you such a mindless question in the first place! As a man (you'll have to take Dark Puss's word for that) I find I am rarely asked "what do you do" by people I meet, so why do you all get stuck with that question I wonder?

Keep on refusing to answer it is my suggestion! How about "And why do you care?" as a response?


Interesting post Cornflower, and one close to my heart, soul, temper etc. etc. And no apologies needed for the subject.
My experience is very different from yours, and from that of 'Dark Puss'. Since moving to my part of Devon my partner (male)and I (female) have discovered that whenever we go to a social do he is always asked 'What do you do?' while no one ever bothers to ask me. To me, this seems one step worse than your experience, as they have already decided that he is the retired businessman, (whatever) while I am just the boring little wife/partner at home. He gets annoyed at being asked because he knows it is just about him being placed in the appropriate social/income 'box' and I get annoyed at not being asked - mainly because of the assumption, but also as they won't get an easy answer from me - I do like to confoud status quo expectations. It does seem to be the main question that men (and women) ask men down here.

Side point. My cousin, who is disabled, gets very annoyed that people rarely ask what she does. She assumes they assume she doesn't do anything, but - despite years of disability awareness - they still ask 'What's wrong with you?'

Dark Puss

Dear CaroleJ I see you support my "box" ticking hypothesis. Knowing that I am a professional physicist will tell you very little that is useful, or indeed interesting, about me - I am not sure that it will help you to discover my social class or income; for the record I'm very rich and an Earl ;--)

You won't discover what I read (even if I read), that I love J S Bach, Hindemith, Wax Taylor and John Lee Hooker or that I play the flute. You probably won't assume (since I am male) that I have a lifelong interest in women's fashion photography and an extensive knowledge of goth/steampunk models nor that I have worked with some of them!

See how useless and insulting a question it is, so I ask again why is it asked of us?


...oh I couldn't agree more - in mid-fifties, after a full home life in three different countries, with three different languages and three very different daughters, three careers under my belt and about to set off for yet another new location...I am still wondering what i want to do and be when I am 'grown up'! S.


I remember being at a funeral, years ago, feeling very sad and not in tune with all the polite chatter going on around me. A very determined woman approached me, eyed me and said, "and what do you do?". In a totally uncharacteristic way I replied, "I exist!" The woman looked at me with disdain and said,"that's just not good enough." I have never regretted my answer, it may have seemed rude to my interrogator but, as it is so often, the question was totally inappropriate.
I'm touched by your mother's post, and certain that she is right, and most of us have these wobbles at times, when we are touched with existential questions, I think it deepens us as long as it doesn't become an obsession.

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  • Sidebar book cover thumbnail pictures are affiliate links to Amazon, and the storefront links to Blackwell's and The Book Depository are also affiliated; should you purchase a book directly through those links, I will receive a small commission. Older posts may also contain affiliate links to one of those bookshops. I am not paid to produce content and all opinions are my own.


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