WANTING IT ALL: It can be threatening to be asked 'what do you do?', particularly if you've just seen a mark on your trousers where your toddler has wiped her nose

WANTING IT ALL: It can be threatening to be asked 'what do you do?', particularly if you've just seen a mark on your trousers where your toddler has wiped her nose - So, what do you do, then?' Whenever I meet anyone new, this almost invariably gets asked.

by DEBBIE SANDFORD, formerly worked at McKinsey and Random Housebut is now happy to be out of a job
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

So, what do you do, then?' Whenever I meet anyone new, this almost invariably gets asked. It's a friendly opening gambit, a way of engaging further with somebody. But for someone in my position, it's not always an easy question to answer. If you are not in paid employment, particularly if you've just noticed a nasty mark on your trousers where your toddler wiped her nose, it can seem threatening. When I was considering leaving work, I spent a fair amount of time worrying about how I would answer this question.

Many people just speak of their professional experience. One woman told me within five minutes, each of the first three times we met, that until she had children she used to be a partner in her husband's law firm - subtext, I do have a brain and I used to be somebody worth knowing. But it seems sad to me to feel you need to describe yourself in terms of what you did in the past.

I often try to make a joke of it, saying 'I have a wonderful time' or 'I've taken early retirement'. I've trawled around friends to find other typical responses. They include: 'I'm doing advanced practical research into persistent sleep deprivation', or (from a man): 'I manage my money'.

These may set a light, conversational tone but they are quite defensive.

It's as though we really have to justify our existence if we are not doing something out of a careers manual.

Of course, how I feel about describing my life varies; some days are better than others. It also varies considerably with the person I'm talking to. Getting back in touch with my old schoolfriend Emma, herself a non-working mum, did not pose any problems. But going back to McKinsey alumni reunions can be more threatening. Before the last one I had to do the old confidence pump - looking in the mirror, reciting under my breath: 'You're as good as anyone else in the room ...'

The reactions I get to what I am doing vary too. With non-working parents I am usually welcomed with open arms in a sort of 'blitz spirit', as my friend Alyson, mother of two-year-old Matthew, describes it. In fact, non-working acquaintances have gone out of their way to tell me how pleased they are that I've stopped. Because, of course, most non-working parents feel they're having an experience others miss out on.

If I am talking to a working mother the comeback is usually 'How fantastic!' accompanied by weary, wistful looks. Maybe they are just saying this to please, but the number of detailed questions I answer (including 'How do you tell people what you do?') indicates to me that there are a lot of employed mothers out there that would give up work like a shot if they felt they could.

Men and women without children occasionally respond like this too, but more usually the conversation turns quickly to something else and, often, situation permitting, they will drift off to talk to somebody else. It's as if some people are either uninterested or embarrassed to ask you more about your life. I accept this is partly because it can be hard to know what to ask about a life at home, but asking no further questions only makes me feel invisible - as though the questioner thinks I have nothing to say for myself.

Men also have a tendency to judge you by the money you make. For example, now that her children are at school my friend Mitzi describes herself as an artist. She reports that when she says this to a man, the next question is invariably: 'Do you sell your work?'

Depending on my mood, when confronted with someone who appears to be uninterested in me because I don't pull in any dosh, I might indulge in a spot of rather juvenile name-dropping - for example: 'Well of course, when I was at Harvard ...'

This is particularly satisfying if the names I can drop are better than those available to the person doing the snubbing. But in my more mature moments I simply move on, reflecting that it is their loss, as I feel much more interesting since stopping work; I read more widely and have far more time to reflect on the world and its idiosyncrasies.

One of these is that successful working women who are single-minded enough to have worked continuously as their children grow up have something in common with men; their identity is bound up with their work in a way that is traditionally masculine. They define themselves through their work; it is an essential part of who they are.

Meanwhile, I have always felt uncomfortable about the 'what-do-you-do?' question. Although I have enjoyed my career, there was a psychological distance between me and any job that I had. When I woke up the day after I had finished work, with no new job or course or defined new beginning to go to, I felt very free. Nobody could pigeonhole me, define the essential me as someone who did this or that kind of job. All the signs were there from the start; I was obviously never cut out to be a managerial hotshot.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

What Lego robots can teach us about motivating teams

People crave meaningful work, yet managers can so easily make it all seem futile.

What went wrong at Debenhams?

There are lessons in the high street store's sorry story.

How to find the right mentor or executive coach

One minute briefing: McDonald’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy.

What you don't want to copy from Silicon Valley

Workplace Evolution podcast: Twitter's former EMEA chief Bruce Daisley on Saturday emails, biased recruitment and...

Research: How the most effective CEOs spend their time

Do you prefer the big, cross-functional meeting or the one-to-one catch-up?

6 rules for leading a remote team

Our C-suite panel share their distilled wisdom.