“So What Do You Do?”

“So What Do You Do?” April 10, 2013

Several weeks ago I introduced myself to the mother of one of the children at Sally’s preschool. “So what do you do?” I asked her after we exchanged names. We went on to talk about our respective careers, but this exchange brought my mind back to an exchange I had years ago when my mother tried to explain why retirement was being so hard for my grandfather.

“The first question men ask after they meet each other is ‘what do you do?’” she told me. “And once they’ve retired, that’s gone.” For women, she explained, it was different. When a woman stays at home, without a career, my mother was saying, that’s normal. That’s how it’s supposed to be. When a man stays at home, without a career, in contrast, that’s abnormal. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. At the crux of what she was suggesting was that a man feels some lack of fulfillment when he stays home and has no career, but a woman doesn’t. A man without a career is emasculated, but a woman without a career is just, well, a woman.

Now of course, my mother intentionally and counterculturally adheres to very traditional gender roles, and while these ideas are still in some degree present in mainstream society they are not quite so stark. But they’re still there. Men are expected to have careers. Women are allowed to have careers, but they are not expected to to the same degree that men are expected to. And while the idea that a woman can stay home, raise children, and find fulfillment there is usually fairly accepted in society, the idea that a man might similarly find fulfillment staying home is fairly foreign.

The thing is, if a woman can find fulfillment at home, there’s no reason a man, whether in retirement or otherwise, shouldn’t be able to do the same. And, conversely, if staying home has the potential chafe men and leave them without fulfillment, it has the potential to do the same for women. The trouble, of course, is that my mother, with her embrace of traditional and “complementarian” patriarchal gender roles, thinks that men and women are so fundamentally different that they are wired by their biology to be fulfilled by fundamentally different things. I don’t think this is the case. Rather, to the extent that there is a difference, I see that difference as socially conditioned.

With this brief excursion, I want to bring this back to where I started. It was only natural for me to ask the mother of one of Sally’s preschool friends what she did, because I already knew she worked full time. But this moment made me think about how I approach women I meet. Back when I planned to be a stay at home mom I recoiled at the “so what do you do” question, because I felt that it implied that choosing to stay home and raise children was illegitimate. This makes me think twice before asking a woman what she does.

If I meet a woman I know is either single or childless, I generally ask “so what do you do?” first. But if I meet a woman and know right off that she has children (for instance, if they are with her, or I meet her at a moms group), I usually avoid the “so what do you do” question, at least at first, because the odds are decent that she stays home with her kids and I don’t want to offend her. So we usually talk about our children first, and only later get around to who does what or who stays home or who thinks of being what in the future.

In essense, if I meet a woman who is not married or does not have children, I approach her as I would a man, asking her almost immediately what she “does.” If, however, I meet a woman who has children, I generally start not by asking what she “does” but by asking her about her children. But it occurs to me that I would not do the same on meeting a man whom I knew was married or had children. I think this is reflective of a simple truth: As long as women are single or childless, they are generally seen as just as capable and ambitions as men are. In contrast, as soon as women marry or have children it is assumed that they are focusing their primary energies elsewhere.

But now I’m wondering if I’m not perhaps being complicit in this gendered distinction in my reticence to ask women “what they do.” Or, perhaps I should start with family-oriented questions with everyone I’ve newly met, including men (obviously this is different when you meet someone in a professional setting—in that case you start with work first regardless for fairly obvious reasons). And so I’m curious, what are your thoughts on this?

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