So, What Do You Do?

“Oh, well, um; I’m not really sure?” *Pauses, stutters words, and in a second goes from a confident grown-up to a bumbling moron who can’t seem to string a sentence together*

Yes, that’s me.  All of the above.  If I am honest, I am pretty sick of that question and what it means.  It wasn’t until recently I realised just how much it annoyed me, and just how much we are defined by what we “do“.  Of course, it used to be a question that didn’t phase me at all; a question I could answer confidently in a nano-second with a very proud “Oh, I work in sales in London for *Insert name of BIG cosmetics giant here*”.  What a conversation opener, oh how interesting and engaging I was.  Yes, my job seemed to define me in social situations and I didn’t even care.

It’s only really when we are meeting entirely new people that this question even comes up.  Occasions and suchlike.  At one recent occasion, I think I was asked by each and every single female sitting at the table “So, Elle, what do you do?”.  It actually seemed to be the women that this was most important to, their stance the most aggressive on how we must be defined by our job title.  Granted these women were all mid-twenties, London-dwelling, fashionistas; so perhaps at a stage in their life when what they do is the be-all-and-end-all of their existence.  After all, it was for me once.  What they didn’t anticipate from me (at least, I don’t think they did) was my answer. “Well, I don’t really.”  Yes, I went there.  I don’t “do” anything; and what are you going to do about it?  Stare blankly at me, that’s what; forcing me to quickly follow up with “Well apart from a little bit of blogging and some stuff on social media.” (Didn’t mention the constant d*cking about on Instagram stories, wasn’t sure if they were ready for that?!).  Of course then I just open up a can of worms don’t I.  “Oh my, whats your blog called? What’s the subject?’

Me…. “F*ck, f*ck, F*CK!!”(internal dialogue, thankfully).  This is when I just say the name of the blog casually, as if it has no meaning or emotive reasoning behind it and just tell them it’s an interiors blog; all in a massive effort to get them to shut up and just move on.  Try asking me where am I from. How do I know the people who are getting married today?  Hell, just ask me where I live or pretend we are five years old and ask me what my favourite colour is? (Pink, by the way, but I didn’t need to tell you that did I?).  Just don’t ask me what I do and expect me to be defined by that as my title in life.

I used to think it was just “How many children do you have?” that sent me into a cold sweat and had me begging for the ground to swallow me whole; but alas, it would seem that this question has an equally awkward affect on me.  Luckily, I seem to have managed to fudge my way through most answers and swerved the conversation in a whole new direction upon being presented with this situation (again, and again I might add).  Perhaps it’s because what I “do” now is defined so much by Teddy’s existence.  Yes I am his mother, but now, as a direct result, I am also a blogger, fundraiser and general “let’s start this conversation about baby loss” enthusiast.  There I am being all bold on social media about how we all need to talk about this, and yet when faced with the question of “What do you do?” I can’t bloody do it, can I?  I suppose I just thought they wouldn’t get it; but perhaps that was me just judging my audience too soon and not giving them a chance. I also never want to kill the vibe by saying “Well actually, my son died last year, so I couldn’t go back to my career and now I do X,Y and Z instead; but no, I don’t have a conventional job.”  Do you see my dilemma here?  I don’t want to p*ss on anyone’s chips by telling them the whole truth; because the truth hurts.  Me.  It’s yet another adjustment I make to my life to protect myself emotionally; another form of self preservation in difficult social situations.  Another cross for me to bear, I suppose.

The truth is, I don’t really know where I am going with this, or why I have bought it up even;  but I am pretty sure that this question shouldn’t be used in the way it is to “define” us in social situations.  What happened to just being a good person?  A great Mum, or a wonderful sister to someone?  To being a great listener, or having the ability to make a room full of people laugh out loud (at you, or with you; I’m not really fussed either way….I am sure you’re fun to be around!).  Anyway, that’s what’s important, isn’t it?  What we do is merely a function in our day-to-day life and not what makes us who we are, surely?  I mean, unless you’re curing cancer, or saving Elephants from being totally wiped out by bastard poachers; in which case your job is pretty f*cking important, so please feel free to wear a t-shirt telling me what you “do” so that I can come and hug you.  What I think I am saying is this; just think about it before you ask that question; think about all of the other things you could ask first to get to know about a person before you ask that question.

So, the next time someone asks me,  I’ll probably just go with… “Me? I’m doing life.  How about you?”

Elle x


22 thoughts on “So, What Do You Do?

  1. I love this Elle. Too many people are defined by their work. I always get “oh so your one of those people…” usually followed by a judgemental look. But my job isn’t me at all! I’m a coffee loving sausage mama who’s obsessed with her camera but I can’t really use that as my CV title… or could I? Fab blog post again Elle and as always keep doing you because I think that’s a pretty fantastic job ☺️ xx

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  2. I love this post Elle, it’s so true. When I was trying for Harry the worst question I got was “you’ve been married for years, don’t you want children?” Which felt like a slap in the face. Now I get “do you not feel guilty working when your child is in nursery?” People are full of awkward and probing questions when really the answer to every question should be “I’m doing what I want/need to do in my life”. Love your attitude “I’m doing life, how about you?” I hope it catches on! Amazing! Xxx

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    1. Thank you Sophie. I feel like people tend to focus their questions too heavily on your lifestyle choices; usually surrounding children or where/ why you choose to work. Why can’t we all just work a little more at talking about other subjects, as opposed to getting in to judging other women on how they choose to live their lives? xx

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  3. Great post Elle. Interestingly I get a very similar thing even though I do have a “proper” job. I work part time with students with disabilities and learning difficulties and as much as I love it, it’s only a very tiny part of what I do and who I am. I’m a mum to two teenagers which can be equally if not more time consuming than my job and I spend a huge amount of time looking after my elderly mother. I used to work for magazines and in television regulation, I’m an interiors nut and I’m also a wife and dog owner and yet I seem only to be defined by the very small part of my life that I get paid for. Funny old world isn’t it? I love your instagram and enjoy your stories every day – keep up the good “work!” Sam (@divinespace)

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    1. Thank you so much for reading Sam and for sharing your experiences with me. It is indeed a funny old world, and I think we could all work a little harder not to be so judgemental of other peoples life choices and circumstances. xx

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  4. I couldn’t agree with this post more. I also don’t like this question as eleven months on since Evalyn has passed, I have quit my job and am just trying to find new ways to live happily again. I don’t think we should be defined by ‘what we do’. I hope that further along in my own journey, I can be defined by who Evalyn has made me become because whatever I become in the future, it will all be because of her. So I guess in a way, right now I am doing what she would want me to do – trying to live and be happy. xxx

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    1. That’s exactly how I felt after Teddy died too; like I needed to just try to live and be happy. I am absolutely sure that Evelyn would want exactly that for you too. I think sometimes we can put too much pressure on ourselves to conform, and going back to work “just for the sake of it” felt like exactly that to me. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, and I am really pleased to hear that my words resonated with you. xx

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  5. I totally understand and even can relate to this. Wonderful article. I moved from Australia to a foreign country a few years back and had to learn German and still haven’t really got a career like I used to have back home but teaching English. Having studied journalism also attempting to Blog as well this being extremely exciting field where I can express myself (or ramble on). Taking care of my two kids who need me and yet I feel not having a full time job is kind of like I am not part of the so called proper society. Like they think (neighbors, acquaintances etc) when is she getting a job? Only freelancer? This kind of annoys me. This definition of who you are supposed to be according to the rules. Well stuff it …

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    1. Wow, it sounds as though you have been on quite the journey! Good for you to choose to blog and be yourself. I think that being a Mum is one of the greatest things with your life and we must never undermine it. I can’t stand it when I hear the words “Just a stay at home Mum”. If you stay at home to raise your children you are a raising little humans to be equipped with everything they need to face the big bad world, and that is AWESOME! Thank you for reading, and for sharing; and I am so glad my words made sense to you. xx

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  6. Thank you. Thank you for writing this post xx It really resonates with me. So often the simplist questions stop me in me in my tracks too. ‘How many children do you have?’ Such an ordinary question! But one I have found so difficult to answer. Like you I was always so worried about what people would think or feel if I told the truth, but I decided to tell the truth as much as possible (not always easy) I am a mum, a mum of 3, but only my little girl Lois (2.5) lives. My first born, Maxwell, lived for 9 hours after being born prematurely and I gave birth to my 3rd boy who died at 16 weeks, in July this year.
    I am currently off work, the 2nd time for the loss of a baby … and the question, ‘what do you do?’ Or ‘are you having a day off?’ Explaining is so challenging.
    But I also wanted to say thank you for what you do do, whilst it doesn’t have a label necessarily (which I don’t think matters one jot!) it offers those of us going through something similar support, another voice and inspiration.
    Thank you x

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    1. Ali I am so pleased that my writing has resonated with you. Secondly, I am so very sorry to hear that you have had to endure the loss of not one, but two of your precious children. Thank you so much for sharing this with me, and I do hope that you are able to take as much time as you need away from work to help yourself to heal. Sending the biggest hugs. xx

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  7. This really resonated with me. I’ve been lucky to be able to be a stay at home mum. I had a difficult childhood and really wanted to ‘just’ be a mum to my two girls. I hate meeting new people or dinner parties where I’m asked the dreaded ‘what do you do?’ Thanks for writing so beautifully about it. Let’s hope it might make people think first……..

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    1. I am really pleased to hear that you think it should make people think twice about how they ask that question Katie. Our working life is such a small fraction of WHO WE ARE as a person. Being a Mum is an honour and a privilege, and we must never underestimate it as “just” a Mum; you are awesome! Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words. xx

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  8. Sorry this is a really long reply but I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time.

    I completely understand how this question makes you feel and I’m in no way trying to undermine those feelings but it is perhaps worth thinking about the intention of the questioner. I’m sure it can seem like people are trying to define you by what you ‘do’ but isn’t it just as likely that the questioner was simply trying to be friendly and make conversation?

    I understand that for you the “what do you do?” question is a difficult one. As I’m sure is “Do you have any children?” but do you really want people to stop asking these types of questions? And if you do, what would you prefer they asked?

    I’ve suffered multiple miscarriages and used to blog / read lots of blogs on that subject. During that time I read countless articles along the same theme; “Don’t ask me if I’m going to try for a baby, a girl/boy, a second/third child, when I’m going to get married / co-habit / start dating?” etc. I understand from personal experience that in certain circumstances answering those questions can be painful. There were times I thought I’d burst into tears when strangers enquired whether I had any children whilst I was still suffering the physical affects of a failed pregnancy. 
    For me, the children question was a painful one to answer. But the same can be true of almost any question depending on the circumstances of the questionee. “What did you have for lunch?” can be painful if you have an eating disorder. “Where do you live?” can be painful if you’ve recently had to move as the result of a divorce or financial problems. The people asking the questions aren’t trying to offend and I doubt they even care about the answer. They’re just trying to make friendly conversation. My fear is that soon the only legitimate form of conversation will be to talk about the weather, or worse, say nothing at all. With loneliness becoming a modern epidemic, shouldn’t we be encouraging small talk not making people go about in silence for fear of inadvertently offending?

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    1. Thank you for reading and for your feedback. Without wanting to cause any offence, I think you may have missed the entire point of this piece of writing. My point being that it is so often the first and only question that people use when trying to spark conversation with a total stranger? Perhaps if I were at a business networking event, then yes, absolutely appropriate; but at my best friends wedding where I am sitting in a bridesmaid dress? How about “So how do you know the bride?” or “Did you guys grow up together?”. The point is that four women sitting at a table separately asked me one question; “What do you do?”.
      As a society I believe that we place far too much weight on this part of our lives to define us as a person. What about our hobbies or perhaps where in the world we grew up? I find questions like that open up conversations about us as a person, that aren’t geared towards our social standing or imagined self-titled “importance”. I am all for small talk, and absolutely the art of conversation; but asking someone what they “do” and then essentially turning your back on them when they say they don’t have a conventional job or that they even dare not to conform as part of the “workforce”; it just seems a little too un-friendly and callous to me.
      Interestingly enough, I think sometimes (especially women in London, and I can say that as that was me, for a long time) seem to ask this question as a matter of social standing; to suss you out and find out what kind of earning bracket you fall in to. When my husband tells people that he works as an oil trader for a big investment bank, suddenly he becomes the most interesting and charismatic person at a table with everyone hanging from his every word; I can see him inwardly cringing at the attention it brings, and we often laugh about people’s keen interest in him as soon as they find out what he “does”. What they don’t know is that he’d probably rather talk to them about what he’s building at home or what project he has on in the garden; because those are his interests and what makes him, well him? Luckily he’s become a master at swerving conversations away from work too, as he realises that there are much more important things in life.
      All in all, there are just so many more things we could care to learn about people before that question. xx

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  9. Couldn’t agree with this more! I ended up taking a year off from work after suffering with crippling anxiety- but then, just to add to everything, I then started worrying about having to tell people I didn’t work! I dreaded situations where I would have to introduce myself to new people because I knew that was something that would come up! Gameshows started to annoy me too! I noticed everyone is introduced as ‘Dave, 50, a Plumber from London’ why do we need to know this?! It’s just for some reason built into society now that we are defined by our job title.
    After a year of not working though, I soon realised that the people that mattered didn’t treat me any differently and I suppose at the end of the day- that’s all that matters! ❤️

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  10. I’ve loathed that question for years. Obviously people are usually just trying to be friendly and show interest, but it’s an awkward question to be asked when you’re not holding down a traditional job, regardless of the reason. I prefer to ask people what they do in their spare time, I think discussing hobbies and other interests is a great way to get to know someone. And it often tells you much more about who they are than their “day job”.

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  11. I totally get you.
    I’ve definitely been that girl living in London who asks others what they ‘do’ and has been defined by it. That is, until various circumstances have basically halted my career.
    I’ve suffered with PTSD throughout my twenties and moved to the US with my husband for his job, having to go through all the paperwork to start working over again. There have been empty stretches of nothing on my CV over the last few years that I find it hard to explain to people that no; I’m not just lazy and there are legitimate reasons for this. Sometimes when I’m low I struggle to believe it myself.
    You’ve been through something so terrible, I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been and continue to be. You don’t need to explain or justify yourself to anyone! I know how painful these supposedly polite questions can be. Take care x

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  12. 13 years after the death of our daughter Keira-Louise, I still stumble when asked questions. When strangers see me with my daughter, I am always asked if she is an only child. Still after all this time I have to wait a split second. Do I say no I have 2 children, but one died and see them go red and wish they had never asked the question in the first place or do I say yes she is an only child and not have to go into the details of it to a complete stranger. I find if I say no I have 2 children but one is an angel, that usually stops all conversation.
    I can remember shortly after having my rainbow baby, we went to the seaside for the day and a lovely chatty woman selling ice creams peered into the pram cooing over my daughter and said is this your first? I was so flummoxed as to what to say, I just mumbled yes and got my ice cream. But on turning round my partners face was so hurt and he said “why did you not acknowledge our daughter” and I realised by trying to protect a strangers feelings I was hurting myself and my partner and also the memory of our daughters short existence in this world.
    So whilst I am aware people are just trying to make small talk, we should not be defined on what we do for a living, or how many children we have nor should we feel like we should spare their feelings when asked questions.
    I am proud to be a mummy to an angel xx

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  13. Its an interesting one Elle. I think people often ask that question (just like the question about whether or not you have any children) just to make conversation, without really thinking about the ramifications of what that question means for some people. I think lots of people (myself included) find social situations where you don’t know anyone really intimidating, panic, and then perhaps ask silly questions they possibly normally wouldn’t without thinking! Me, well I’m a New Zealander so I have a standout feature that people always ask me about as soon as I open my mouth….most conversations with strangers after exchanging names usually start out like this:
    Kind Stranger: So, what part of Australia are you from?
    Me: I’m actually from New Zealand
    Kind Stranger: Oh! well basically the same
    Me: *slight disgruntled noise* (no, I think you’ll find it isn’t)
    Kind Stranger: Launches into 20 minute long diatribe about how much they like Lord of the Rings, how amazing it must be to live in ‘middle earth’ and why are you living here when its sunny over there all the time (erm, parts of Australia again that one)…
    I personally find great conversation starters for getting to know people at a wedding are: ” and how do you know the Bride/groom” and “what do you get up to in your own time?”
    I also think sometimes that job question is used as a method of social placement, much like an accent often is over here (I get away with that one fortunately).

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  14. What do you ‘do’? – you’re a really inspiring advocate for infant and child loss. You’re a writer who raises awareness alongside inspiring people with interior design blogs and social media content. I know that’s not the point you were making, but what you ‘do’ is pretty damn important. I understand though. When you don’t fall into an neatly packaged box with a big pink bow on top people tend to baulk. I ‘do’ chronic illness and spend my days trying to keep myself as healthy as I can most of the time. That doesn’t tend to go down too well in social situations either! #awks x

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