It seems my face has finally caught up with my hair, which has been gray/white for a couple decades. What I thought was the most uncreative question in the American small talk repertoire, “What do you do?,” has been replaced with “Are you retired?”

Maybe they are okay questions for the lucky few who have or have had a career that is or was their passion—commercially successful artists, writers, and musicians; and my forester father—but it is my completely-without-scientific-back-up theory that the vast majority of us work to earn a living. And even if we are lucky enough to love the work, the question forces us into defining ourselves by it.

My daughter and daughter-in-law had a baby a week ago. They are a social worker and a teacher respectively. I expect if someone asked them today what they do, they would joyfully respond that they are Elliot’s mothers! But a few months from now I daresay they will say they are a social worker and a teacher.

The years I didn’t have paid work, I could respond to “what do you do” with “I am a stay-at-home mom.” (There was a conversation stopper.) When I started working I could recite my job description or name my employer. Since I often job bundled, it was awkward. And I feared that when they found out I wasn’t an astronaut, they would lose interest. Sometimes I tried to reframe the question and answer with what I enjoyed doing outside of being a mom or working, which was usually met with a polite smile that didn’t quite reach the inquirer’s eyes. While some will argue that “what do you do?” could mean “what do you enjoy doing?,” we both know that is not the intention of the question.

But now this new question: “Are you retired?” I’m on the borderline of being old enough not to be working (and I’m certainly not wealthy enough) so sometimes “or are you taking a break?” is tacked on by the questioner who doesn’t want to be offensive. The problem is, I don’t know the answer to either question.

“Retired from what?” is the first thing that whips through my head when I hear the question. I never had what I considered a career, so the follow-up question if I say yes is: “What did you do?” Which year, I wonder? Am I retired from motherhood? Yes. From life? No. From earning a living? I don’t know. I have a very part time job (I tack that on in hopes of seeming less slothful—maybe to myself), and I am a family caregiver; but neither defines me, or even explains what I do with my time—or what I would like to be doing with my time. It doesn’t say anything about what makes me happy. It doesn’t speak to my emotional state: that I am a little lonely; but no one wants that information anyway.

But what if the question were: “what makes you happy?” or “what do you enjoy doing?” or “what are you passionate about?” Restoring a garden, would have been the answer in my previous life. Exploring the historic cemetery. Solo camping. Mountains. Back roads travel around my state. Photography. And of course, writing. And I can say writing in response to this question without the assumption being that I make a living at it, or that I should be. And then I would ask the question in turn and be a whole lot more interested in the answer than in where a person works. My experience is that most people can’t answer those questions, though. They’ve never been asked or, sadly, considered that they are passionate about anything.

And so I surround myself with people who have passions and who are more interested in mine than in whether or not I have a paycheck. And I am vowing again to reinterpret the question when I am asked, and to guide the “interviewer” to tell me something they enjoy; and hope a more interesting conversation will evolve.

I just have to figure out how to reshape, “Are you retired?” I’m on hiatus from thinking about it.

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