Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

So what do you do?

I really hate this question. At social gatherings, in the school playground, chatting to people at the park, occasionally even when I’m doing the shopping – it keeps popping up like a particularly persistent meerkat. And I never know how to answer it. “I’m unemployed” or “I’m a stay-at-home mum” are both true statements but they only cover part of what I do. The same goes for “I do volunteer work” and “I write”. The trouble is that people usually only ask this question as a way of politely extending a conversation or so they can mentally file you in the appropriate box. They want a brief, concise answer and I don’t have one.

So what do I do? Well, the main thing I don’t do is have a paid job. I haven’t since the birth of my daughter in 2009, when I had such severe PND that I was unable to return to work at the end of maternity leave and eventually lost my beloved job as a result. Since then my mental health has never been good enough for me to return to formal employment. Many (including myself in harsher moments) would label me a benefits scrounger, someone spongeing off the state and hard-working taxpayers.

And yet I work hard. I work hard to support and care for my husband as he struggles with bipolar disorder and what can sometimes be crippling anxiety. I work hard to look after our two children, ensuring that they are healthy and happy. I make sure our meagre income covers the bills as well as paying for healthy food and adequate clothing for a pair of ravenous, growing youngsters. I keep our home clean and relatively tidy. I do voluntary work a couple of mornings a week, I write, I take the children to playgroups, parties, parks, the beach, days out. And I do all of this while dealing with my own mental illnesses (and hiding that fact from the children), and suffering from chronic back pain. Of course DH does these things too when he can but there are often times when, through no fault of his own, he can’t.

It’s hard. It’s really bloody hard. I’m lucky to have supportive family close by who help out when I need them. I have supportive friends at the end of the phone or online, and a brilliant GP who always makes time to see me if I need her. But I don’t fit into the neat little box that society would like me to. And I still don’t know how to answer the question.

Comments on: "So what do you do?" (6)

  1. What you do is more than one person’s work in every way – I know you know this, but it still deserves repeating. I have a very different set of circumstances, but I hate this question too. I stopped working five years ago, and I’ve noticed a real change in opinion since then. Perhaps it is just me,but what was once seen as a worthwhile existence is now met with either envy or thinly veiled contempt at my lack of apparent hard-workingness.

  2. “So what do you do?”
    “Well, I’m an accountant, chauffeur, nurse, healthcare worker, volunteer aid worker, cleaner, chef, entertainment specialist, science journalist, teacher, part-time surgeon, gardener, laundress, and peace negotiator. Did you say you sit in an office all day tapping away on a keyboard? Oh. My goodness. How terribly….worthy of you!”

  3. Pontificator said:

    Lots of people’s jobs are virtually pointless. ‘I stand on a trading floor all day playing with imaginary numbers’ versus ‘I’m helping two young children become the best people they can be’.

  4. …your short answer is: miracle worker (superwoman) xxx

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