Years ago, while visiting my in-laws in Belgium, my father-in-law walked my husband and me a few doors down to meet a neighbor. My husband shook hands with the man, and they exchanged pleasantries. As my husband introduced me, I smiled, nodded, and shook hands; my French isn’t great, however, so I didn’t enter the conversation.
Even with my limited language skills, I could tell after a minute or two that my husband and the neighbor said nothing about their work. So I quietly and casually asked my father-in-law in English, “What does he do?”
My father-in-law paused. Then he whispered to me in English, “In America, one of the first questions people ask each other when they meet is ‘What do you do for a living?’ But here in Belgium, people don’t ask that.”
He thought for a minute. “Unemployment is high in Belgium, so they must want to avoid putting someone in the position of admitting they aren’t working.”
Suddenly, I worried that my husband, steeped in American culture for most of his adult life, would slip up and ask what the man does. Fortunately, he kept to topics such as the weather and our travels. But I’ve never forgotten my father-in-law’s observation. Even to this day, here in the United States, I hesitate asking people that question. After all, I myself struggle to answer it simply or confidently. Why would I force someone else to?
When waiting to board a plane a week or so ago, I stood behind a young woman who turned and grinned at me. “I should have stayed in my chair a little longer,” she observed, nodding at the long line ahead of us. “I had plenty of time.”
“Me, too.” I replied. “Boarding was just as backed up on my last flight.”
Our interaction shifted to the then-recent election. She said her friends were watching throughout the day as results rolled in, but she couldn’t because she was so busy. “I didn’t have time to turn on a TV,” she exclaimed. “I was working!”
Curious, I decided to throw caution to the wind. I asked her the question: “So, what work kept you from watching? What…do you do?”
“Oh, I’m a lawyer.” For some reason, I didn’t anticipate what would naturally follow. “So, how about you?” she asked. “What do you do?”
I hemmed, I hawed. My first thought, especially given her impressive career, was to admit that I don’t work—at least not in the way she thinks of it. Then I wondered if I should mention home education or the composition class that I teach once a week. I thought about borrowing Kathy Peel’s term and calling myself a “Family Manager.” Finally, because I was on my way to meet up with The High Calling editorial team, I blurted out two of my many roles: “I’m a writer and editor.”
She asked what I write, but before I could elaborate, we were funneled single-file into the narrow airplane aisle. Our conversation abruptly ended as she slid into her seat.
After inching past a few more rows, I shoved my backpack into an overhead bin and plopped into 23A, considering my “work” in more detail.
I’m a writer, yes. And an editor. But most of my daily life focuses on domestic tasks and family needs. I’ve stayed home to care for my children, planning and preparing meals, educating them, organizing birthday parties and vacations, hosting Thanksgiving and counting down to Christmas, doing the dishes, cleaning the bathrooms and buying toilet paper again and again and again.
Above the clouds, soaring toward an editorial retreat, I tried to imagine life as a full-time editor. I dreamed of an office with a door that shuts, a desk, a rolling chair, and a dog-eared copy of The Chicago Manual of Style readily accessible on a nearby shelf. What would it feel like to work all day long with words, with authors, with people who love stories and ideas? My part-part-time work with The High Calling provides a glimpse. I think I’d like it.
But reality is that for 18 years I’ve scrunched my writing and editorial tasks into any little gap I can find in my days, and the combination of it all—the school lessons, dishes, parties, toilet paper and emails about upcoming “Family” articles—all of that together adds up to “what I do.”
Indeed, I flew home to dirty dishes, misplaced study guides, and the sudden realization that Thanksgiving was a week-and-a-half away. After a few days, I managed to release career envy and wistful canyon memories, focusing once more on life right here on our suburban cul-de-sac.
I knew I was back in stride when one day this past week, I proctored a test, accompanied my daughter to physical therapy, contacted two authors about articles for The High Calling, fixed lunch, cleaned up from lunch, folded a load of laundry, mediated a sibling dispute, and then drove to Kroger to buy a turkey, toothpaste, and toilet paper.
Yes, I thought, as I heaved the turkey into the freezer. This humble work is what I do…and it is good.