An honest take on life and parenthood

“What do you do?”

on May 31, 2014

“So, what do you do?” asked Claire, as she introduced herself to me in The Corner Bakery. Claire was one of my castmates in the Listen To Your Mother Providence show, which we would later perform around Mother’s Day.

“I am a mom and…uh…I write,” I said, as I squirmed inside. Swiftly, I shifted the focus to her.

“What do you do?” I asked her.

“I’m a psychotherapist in private practice,” she said.

Then, I am ashamed to say, I ran away from Claire. I used the pretense of placing an order for dinner at the register, just to avoid further conversation about my profession. She drifted back to our group.

Fortunately, Claire is a therapist, so she probably just identified me as just another potential client, ripe for the picking. I hope she forgave me for my rudeness.

“What do you do?”

This innocent question sends me into a tizzy.

It is so American, so East Coast, so necessary for new acquaintances to place us. They are simply showing a friendly interest. I know this, but the question still causes me angst for multiple reasons.

The question isn’t a problem for many people.

They are lawyers or doctors or teachers or nurses or software programmers or business owners or artists. They have a clear profession or work for an organization which sparks immediate recognition.

But for those of us who have yet to find professional fulfillment, and who have also left the workforce or scaled back on hours and responsibilities to raise children, this question presents an awkward dilemma.

“What do you do?”

For those of us who are mothers, but also have higher degrees, we find ourselves vulnerable to the judgment of others when we say we are home with our children, or that we have dialed down professionally because of the demands of motherhood.

In my particular case, the feelings intensify because I am still seeking my path.

“What do you do?”

The question makes me feel uncomfortable because the answer feels so amorphous.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being a mother. For some women, motherhood is enough. But for me, it can’t be my only profession.

I feel bemused about still searching for my professional calling. I just celebrated my 43rd birthday, and I thought that I would be well established in a career by now.

I invested precious years of my life and hundreds of thousands of dollars in my education, and yet here I am, still knocking around, searching for the answer, and paying back student loans to boot.

Here is the other kicker: I have this crazy education that I’m not using directly. I rarely mention my educational background to new people because I feel embarrassed that I am not living up to my credentials.

With an English literature degree from Yale, an MBA from MIT Sloan, and a Master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School, I’m supposed to be doing…I don’t know…something important. Changing the world. Making a difference. Running something.

Yale's Harkness Tower

Yale’s Harkness Tower


Back in my 20’s, I thought I knew what I wanted to do, and was focused and driven. But my ambitions did not work out the way I originally envisioned.

Instead of changing the world, I ended up changing lots of jobs, and later, lots of diapers.  There are proverbial poopy diapers in the workplace to change too, but after experimentation in many different jobs, I never found the right fit.

Now in my 40’s, I have changed tack. I am pursuing a creative path, writing and drawing and painting. It feels good and it feels right, but I still feel conflicted. I have trouble owning my creative side as a professional identity, because I trained to do other things that were more concrete, with a surer paycheck and more impressive title.

In my bad moments, I sometimes wonder if my education was a waste of time and money. Should they have given my precious spot at Yale or Harvard or MIT to someone better able to utilize it?

These are all famous schools that carry certain expectations and assumptions along with them, as a recent article from Slate points out with a good dose of snark: ( .

When you tell a stranger or new acquaintance that you went to one of these schools, you are playing a form of social Russian roulette.

Will they say something that will instantly stereotype you as a lock-jawed blueblood who casually drops Shakespeare quotes with a superior chuckle, or as a fashion-challenged, socially awkward geek who writes out the proof for E=MC2 for downtime fun, a la The Big Bang Theory?

Or will they just nod and move on with the conversation, which is what you pray they will do?

You are loath to reinforce the perception that people from these schools are pretentious a-holes who need to tell you where they went to school, who then become a target of contempt forevermore.

You may also have the voices of family members ringing in your ears, who tell you about so-and-so and how they forget where they came from, and what horrible people they are today.

So you do everything you can to downplay it. You don’t want to be THAT person.

If you are female, a degree from one of these schools complicates dating. It takes a self-assured guy to absorb that information and not say something insecure and cutting when he learns of it, and to look at you for who you really are as a person and a woman.

When I’m with my former classmates, I’m cool. We are friends. We all understand the weight of expectation associated with these names, and how privileged and lucky we are. We know that we put our pants on, one leg at a time, just like everyone else.

We know that these stereotypes do not hold today in the way they once did, and many, if not most, of us are proof of that.

We know that there are brilliant people out there, far more intelligent than we are, who did not attend these schools. Many of them are our own parents. It keeps us humble.

However, if I am being honest with myself, I know that these hang ups are my own and no one else’s.

Even my innocent Pooh, who is only four years old and can’t tell the difference between a Harvard grad and a Heffalump, can trigger an embarrassed reaction from me on the topic.

Last year, when she was just three, we drove up from Providence to visit the Boston Museum of Science. As we were zipping along in Cambridge, the Charles River glistening in the sun, we passed Harvard’s elegant white spires and MIT’s iconic dome. I pointed them out, and told her I had studied at each.



“Wow, Mommy. You went to a lot of colleges!” she said from her carseat in the back, shaking her little round head from side to side.

How did I feel in that moment?

I felt…wait for it…sheepish. Not proud.

I felt sheepish in front of a three year old, people.

What is UP With that?



A year later (i.e., now), I decided to take a hard look at myself. Why was I afraid to own it?

I concluded that it was simply out of my own insecurity and a deep suspicion that I did not deserve or earn this marvelous education, and that my admission was a fluke.

Yes. All three times.

Even though I had no money, no connections, was not a legacy, did not hire professional help to complete my applications, did the all the work for each degree, and even busted my butt to complete two Master’s degrees in three years instead of four.

Absurd, I know.

I then forced myself to look at the Pooh. If she had gone to one of my alma maters, I would want her to claim it and be proud of it. To say to herself and others, “This is mine. I earned it. Thank you. Thank you very much.” Just like Elvis.

Finally, I asked myself the following question: do I want her to remember me as someone cowering in a corner, ashamed to claim her educational pedigree, just for fear of what people may assume about her?


I want her to be proud of me, and to think her mommy is a badass.

So here is my new resolution (which scares the bejeezus out of me): I am owning it.

No longer will I relegate myself to the unassuming shadows and say vague things about where I went to school or what I do.

Even though I am still finding my way professionally, I will call myself a writer and an artist. If it changes, so be it. Who the hell cares anyway? It wouldn’t be the first time. If asked, I will say where I studied without apology or qualification.

Because to apologize or hide would be a disservice to all of the inspiring friends, classmates, and professors I have had, and an insult to all of my hard work.

Because I owe to it my daughter.

And because most of all, I owe it to myself.

4 responses to ““What do you do?”

  1. This is incredible. I hate telling people where I went for the opposite reason. Johnson & Wales is not taken seriously, and people think I’m a party girl idiot. But I need to be proud. Even if I never use my degree as intended. Becasue I did it, Damn it. Thank you for writing this.


  2. You have so much to be proud of…look at how much you have accomplished and what you have built, and how many people you have helped. You are an amazing role model for your daughters!


  3. […] via “What do you do?” | adventureswiththepooh. […]


  4. Ariel says:

    So spot on, Wendy! You are courageous for being so authentic and honest (on top of being super-intelligent, etc). Not sure I would say the same for many of our Yale classmates.


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