You Are More Than What You Do

Huda Al-Marashi

Huda Al-Marashi

Whenever I accompany my husband to a work dinner, someone invariably asks me, “And what do you do? Are you also a physician?”

Like many writers, I struggle with claiming that title, so I rarely mention it. I almost always quip that I’m employed by our three kids, or simply state that I’m a stay-at-home mom.

The reply is often, “That’s the most important job in the world,” or “Sounds like you have your hands full,” as if I’ve just confessed something that begs for affirmation. I’ve often wondered what it is about mothering that calls out the inner cheerleader in people. I’ve never once regarded one of my husband’s colleagues with wide eyes and said, “I bet that keeps you busy!”

Over time, I’ve come to find these congratulatory displays mildly amusing. I imagine its speakers thinking about their own mothers fondly and giving an energetic shout-out to mothers everywhere, “Go, Moms!” What bothers me about this sort of exchange is that I feel failed by my labels. The term stay-at home-mom feels like a lie or an over-simplification at best. I am rarely at home. I drop my kids off at school and then I write in the local community college library. I do this almost every weekday, but some days my kids are sick or off from school. Some days I might lend a hand to my parents or go visit a friend. Other days, I bounce between stores, post office, and the bank like a ping pong ball, and on those days especially, calling myself a writer doesn’t feel like an apt descriptor. I am the under-appreciated, misunderstood hero, Errand Girl.

At this stage in my day-to-day life, I have come to accept that mothering and all the tasks associated with it almost always win. Writing, no matter how much space I give it in my mind or even on my calendar, gets squeezed into whatever is left of my day. As a matter of principle, I agree with this wholeheartedly. My children didn’t ask to be born, and there is no greater responsibility than nurturing a young life. Intellectually, I believe that the job of parenting is enough, if not too much for any one person, woman or man. My challenge has always been the faith part, feeling and knowing that this is, indeed, true.

The last time my husband and I were at a work event, a female physician, a few years younger than me, asked me what I did for a living. When I told her that I’m home with my kids, she nodded, and said something about how she’d been meaning to give that a try.

Before I could stop myself, I added, “and a writer. I write, too.”

In that moment, talking to another woman, juggling a career and family, I wanted to have something to say that was more than mom.

I was duly punished. It had been so long that I’d called myself a writer in a social setting that I’d forgotten how painful the follow-up questions and comments can be.

Have you written anything I may have read?

I’ve got a story you should write.

I’ve always wanted to write a book, too. I just don’t have the time.

Maybe one day you’ll be famous like that Harry Potter lady. She had a kid and wrote, too.

And that night, the innocuous and most common question, “What kind of a writer?”

My dream is to one day answer this question, “The awesome kind,” with a fist pump and walk away, but mostly this answer makes me squirm. I write memoir, and there is just no way to say this without sounding self-important. I go to great lengths to write about myself all day long, and I’ve been doing so for the last ten years.

Just the word memoir makes people curious as to what happened to you that was so interesting that you could write about it for such an inordinate amount of time. And that makes me even more uneasy. You know that guy you just met in this very professional setting. I write about how we met when we were children and got married. He loves it so much he’s asked me not to use his real name and to disguise him as much as possible. He can’t wait for it to be a real book so I can tell people about it at just this sort of event.

That night, I gave my safety answer. “Creative non-fiction,” I said, and then explained what that meant when asked. To the follow-up question of, “About what?” I gave another stock answer: “I write primarily about the immigrant experience in America,” which is true. Thematically, at least.

I have always been a striver, a junkie for A’s and accolades. I had planned on degrees and titles, but the gift that motherhood gave me was that it shrunk my time down to the essentials. In the meager hours of the day left at my disposal, I knew that, more than graduate school and an academic career, I wanted to be left alone to read the books that matter to me, to sit with my thoughts.

What I really do every day is think. I watch the world bleed, my kids grow too fast, my parents age, and I try to find the thread of meaning in the madness. I scribble in my journals, searching for sense where there is no sense, connections when life seem random and pointless. Words are my flashlight in the darkness.

This will never be the kind of answer I can proffer at a dinner party, but then again, people are not dinner party answers. There are so many people in this world doing jobs that don’t lend themselves to tidy titles. Moms and dads making their households run. Sons and daughters leaving careers to be caregivers to aging parents. Volunteers powering up charities. Artists translating our world into media. And, then there are the people who have easily describable professions that are so much more than the work they do every day, too. We’ve failed as a society to create conversational spaces that honor the whole person. It pains me to consider all the dynamic, talented people reduced by social introductions, made to feel small merely because they cannot explain their lives in a sound bite.

While I loathe to make introductions more complicated, I wonder what we could accomplish just by improving the questions resting on the tip of our tongue. Perhaps we could ask each other things like:

What’s a typical day like for you?

What world issues are troubling you right now?

What do you do in your spare time?

What was the last book you loved? The last you hated?

Given the choice, cake or pie?

The ubiquitous, “What do you do?” has become a conversational cliché, a question so scripted that its answer has become just as meaningless as the how-are-you we ask of each other and its automatic answer of fine. We all know that we are more than the jobs we do every day. Maybe it’s time we started speaking like we know it, too.

Read more by Huda, here.

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on a memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from this memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, In Her Place, and Beyond Belief. Other works have recently appeared in The Rumpus Funny Women Column and the anthology Rust Belt Chic. Her poem, TV Terror, is part of a touring exhibit commemorating the Mutanabbi Street Bombing in Baghdad. She is the recipient of a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellowship, a program of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, made possible by the generous support of Cuyahoga County citizens through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.

5 Comments on “You Are More Than What You Do”

  1. Actually I have to add just the opposite. I try not to tell people where I work or that I work, if possible. Because that will definitely be followed up with “Who takes care of your baby?” Then I have to be apologetic and tell them about the “third” parties who I handover my baby to and believe me Ihave heard enough, with how can a mother leave their child and your poor baby exclamations! And so now I chose not to bring it up, unless pressurized to. I too like you hope that the questions we ask each other relevant uplifting questions.

  2. Aysar Rida says:

    This hits how many of us feel—we need to grow into individuals who are less interested in title and more interested in are passions and interests.

    Love it Huda!

    Great job

  3. YankeeMuslim says:

    I totally agree that it’s better to ask “What is the last interesting thing you read?” than “What do you do?” HOWEVER, I have thrown that line out in gatherings with young Muslim professionals, and sometimes the response is: “Actually, I don’t really read,” and then I feel like I’m coming off as a snob (also, I’m an academic so it’s an unfair advantage that my job is to read all day). So I think for some people, “What do you do?” is a safe feeler.

  4. gnureads says:

    As another writer, I know how you feel, sis.

  5. AKN says:

    I think this is a great reminder of how invasive and uncomfortable this question can be for some people. I’m used to it and yes I have my stock responses but it’s always nice to have those conversations when that questions comes around more naturally or when I can answer it with a fuller, more realistic response. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking that question, but like everything, timing makes all the difference.