Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"What do you do?", "You should...", and other anxiety-inducing phrases.

In the last two years, there have been a lot of conversations in my life that start with, "so, what do you do?" If any of you are wondering, here are some answers I usually give.

Most often I say something like, "I'm here in Leiden because my husband works for the University, and I'm not working full time, and it's been nice to have one of us at home, handling the heavy lifting of moving and adjusting to a new place. But I do teach violin lessons, tutor English students, and babysit."

If they're a teacher or a student I might say, "I'm a bit of an academic out of water at the moment. I study English Literature, but here isn't exactly the best place for me to do it, so I'm working on my own for now." I might add, "I did get to present at a conference in Scotland last year and that was great, and last year I wrote about once a week for an online Shakespeare news source." or possibly, "I just got hired to teach Shakespeare online at a homeschool academy online, so that'll start this fall."

At church I sometimes answer, "Many different things. I am pretty involved in my church, I play in the praise band, help run several of the ministries, organize the church library, and things like that. I'm often lumped in with the moms, because I'm not working full time, but I don't have children, so it's an interesting position to be in."

I know I am not the only one who dreads this question, and hopes my answers don't invoke pity or fear. That would be a tragedy.

Sometimes I give answers saying that I've been looking for work. Mostly not, because when I say I am looking for jobs, I am so often flooded with advice. I tell the sad and laborious stories of applying for many jobs, following many leads provided by friends every one of which hasn't worked out, and respond to many, many, many sentences beginning with the phrase, "you should."

That word, "should" is such a tricky word. I've been tutoring a Spanish speaker who is hoping to improve her English, so we've been working together. She has many questions, often questions on how to ask questions, and I find myself using the word should again and again. "How should I get there?" "Where should I put my coat?" And she asks about it, and so I explain, "we use it as a polite word, to ask someone's opinion. What they think is the best thing to do." And I realize that when someone asks with that word, "should" as in, "Where should I" or "what should I?" one must value the other person's opinion. When I resent the "you should"s around me, I dislike them because I feel like other people are not appreciating my own struggle. If they don't know my difficulties, don't know what I've tried, of course they will not be as effective at helping me. I am a little ashamed of my dismissal of the quick opinions of well meaning people.

Ashamed and anxious. Ashamed because I don't want them to think that I haven't tried what they see as obvious solutions to my long term problem, but also anxious that I do the very same thing. This anxiety as raised a lot of questions in my mind and heart.

How much do I judge other people by their jobs, their accomplishments?

Am I looking down on people whose work isn't as intellectual or stimulating as my personal preference?

How much of my identity have I tied to my occupation?

Have I always been jealous of other people's successes?

When did I stop seeing free time as a gift? a joy?

In what other ways have I devalued the basic everyday work of people who serve others?

How can I broaden my respect and appreciation for the people around me?

These are all questions I'm still thinking about, but that last one I can answer at least in part. And it's something I want to answer well, because maybe in five years I'll have a more normal answer to the question "What do you do?" but I hope to have learned enough to ask different questions myself, so I can listen better and judge less. I think that we can grow in respect and appreciation for each other by listening. By asking questions about people's lives, not just where they'll spend their time this week, but what's made them who they are today. What they hope for, what their struggles have been, how different things affected them, or how their life might be different or similar to your own. If we build understanding, we can get to a place where we want to know people's advice in our lives. We want to know it because we are friends, we know each other and trust each other. I think that can be a beautiful thing.

Anyone else struggling with these same issues? Wishing your story was better heard? I'd love to listen.


  1. Clara, this is odd, but last night as I went to bed, I found myself thinking of you and wondering how you were managing this aspect of living in the Netherlands. I realized that when you decided to stay on for five more years, I had been excited for you, because it is what I would want in your shoes (I think). But I had not thought enough about the position this would put you in as an intellectual, as an artist, as a woman.
    This post resonates with me. I am ashamed of how badly I accept advice—"accept" is probably too generous a verb, in fact. I have such a dislike of "should" sentences that I intentionally remove them from my writing and conversation. In my case, these "shoulds" are often related to my health (migraines) and to beginning a family. I want to become more gracious in response to these well-meant, if distressing, expressions of concern. And get to the root of *why* I feel so burdened by the advice.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing.

      As a side note, I should say we will only be here for three years total. We were originally going to stay two, and were offered up to five years at Owen's review this fall. We chose three years because of several things. While we do love it here, we do miss friends and family (who we'd assured with, "only two years, don't worry!") and there really is a frustrating lack of professional options for me here. So we decided to extend it only one year more than we originally planned, returning Aug 2016. Sorry for not making that clearer.

      But I hear you about medical and family planning "shoulds." No migraines in this household, thankfully, but a whole slew of food allergies, including gluten which... is such a touchy issue. And the "shoulds" around having babies are just toxic. I feel like every day I read something about how women were made to bring forth life. And, I mean, I do want to have kids some time, but still it's very upsetting to have that preached at you like it's your only purpose. It's also clear how appealing my own situation looks to friends who do want babies, and how they absolutely would be taking advantage of The Netherlands' excellent maturity care.

      Thanks for thinking about these things. That "why" is the hard one for me too.

  2. Oh Clara, I can relate to so many of these thoughts. Working part time and freelance sometimes makes me feel judged from both sides. Some people I talk with don't seem to understand why I'd want to do anything besides take care of my baby and others seem to be annoyed that I'm not working full time, as if being home with my kid is setting back the entire feminist movement. It's rough. I LOVE your insight into the difference between advice feeling good and helpful vs. anxiety inducing, and the idea of building community and friendships. I really enjoyed this post. <3


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