This question never used to bother me before I left the workforce to have a baby. Then I had another baby, and then another one, and before I knew it, I was 6 years into parenthood and hadn’t technically returned to the workforce. I had done lots of other things (as well as bringing three little people into the world). I had nearly completed a Masters Degree, a diploma, and multiple postgraduate courses. My husband and I had renovated a one bedroom flat into a three bedroom home. I had trained with and volunteered for a national family support charity. I had set up a business, ran a busy evening practice as a solution focused hypnotherapist, and was neck-deep in co-founding another venture. But I hadn’t technically returned to the workforce. I’m not even sure what that means anymore. I seem to be working harder than I have ever worked, wearing more hats, getting less sleep.
That simple question, “what is your occupation?” arguably a relic from a bygone era of lifelong careers, never fails to reduce me to a spluttering puddle of self-doubt. What am i? Well here goes, although my answer unlikely to fit in the two inches the typical form allows..
I am a mother.
I am a homebuilder and homemaker.
I am a wife.
I am a homeschooler (thanks to COVID-19).
I am a journalist.
I am a writer.
I am a blogger.
I am a solution focused hypnotherapist.
I am a business owner.
I am a co-founder.
This list isn’t extensive. The occupation ‘mother’ in itself can be subdivided almost infinitely – into taxi-driver, cook, cleaner, playmate, procurer, coordinator, party planner, crafter, music teacher, and so on.
These roles occupy my every waking minute (and a good deal of my sleeping minutes too). They are my occupations. Yet not one of them alone seems to adequately answer the question ‘what is your occupation?’
When I am asked to answer this question in order to buy a house, get a mortgage, register a business, and pass through customs, I tend to scrabble through my collection of occupations like a lucky dip and bring out whatever comes to hand first. It’s a completely irrational decision-making process. And one that I come out the end of feeling a bit worse than before I went in.
Why are we still asked this question? Who wants to know? Is there a wrong answer? On a recent trip to Beirut for a wedding, after a quick toss-up between journalist and writer, my irrational decision-making process just so happened to spit out ‘writer’ – something I was hugely relieved about when my Lebanese friend explained what happened if you said you were a journalist. Presumably there are other answers that would raise eyebrows and lead to further questions, depending on who was asking: pickpocket, tax evader, fly-tipper, wine-drinker. Who knows? Although it’s tempting, I’ve never explored enough to find out, for fear of being hit by yet more life-admin.
So I wanted to reach out, to all those who are between occupations, starting new occupations, juggling multiple occupations, making do with one occupation until the next occupation comes along. You are not alone. Many of us grimace as we condense our whole selves into a 20 character box. Embrace the fact that your multiple roles and areas of value spill out and over the edges. Being occupied by many different things is entirely natural. After all, as the poet Walt Whitman reminds us, “you contain multitudes.”