"What do you do?" I finally asked the woman in front of me at the Harrods checkout.
"I'm president of the domestic side of my household," she deadpanned.
"President of...?" I replied, sure I had not heard properly over the noise in the large department store.
"Of the domestic side of my household" she repeated. "I am a stay-at-home mom," she smiled.
Amused by her response and embarrassed by my own, I laughed. "Welcome to the club!" I continued, in an attempt to affect a sense of solidarity.
The clerk handed her some items, she told me it was nice to meet me and we went our separate ways.
We had struck up a conversation -- while waiting on an inefficient clerk -- after noticing our common American accents. She had excitedly told me about visiting Jerusalem with the Pope a few months prior when she found out it was where I had grown up.
Intrigued by what kind of a job could take this American woman living in London all the way to Jerusalem with the Pope, I could not resist asking her what she did.
Her answer -- not one I had anticipated -- resonated with many of the issues I grappled with as a stay-at-home mom. I found it interesting that the same occupation could be either romanticized or stigmatized exclusively along the fault lines of beliefs, socio-economic class, education, and, often, ethnicity.
Amongst the ultra-wealthy, being a stay at home mom was seen a status symbol. Amongst the professional class, it was seen as old fashioned and an insult to feminism. Amongst the highly educated it was respected if the woman had made the choice to stay home herself, but it was sometimes also seen as a waste of academic degrees and an economic burden on society. Other times, class, education, and wealth had no influence on the matter; ethnicity alone determined whether staying at home was revered or ridiculed.
In this case, being a stay-at-home mom was given a certain level of respect based solely on the way it was presented - on the mindset.
I appreciated that this woman had not given me a boxed semi-conscious answer to what is often a stay-at-home mom's most dreaded four-word question. She had scraped the cheap plating off and given a more direct - and amusing - response.
Ironically, we normally ask "what do you do" as an indirect way to gauge what the person does to earn money, how much money they earn, and how we compare to them on a socio-economic ladder.
This woman's answer, however, rendered that line of analysis moot. She seemed both satisfied and amused with being a stay-at-home mom. She was at terms with and even proud of who she was. So who was I, or anyone asking that question, to judge?
I could not help thinking that had she told me "I'm president of this NGO" or "I'm president of that corporation" I would not have flinched. I would have probably nodded, maybe asked a follow up question or said "oh, how nice", and then moved on. Yet the fact that she treated her life as a company with many departments, and herself as the president of the domestic division, struck a chord with me.
Why didn't we all look at our lives that way? I know that cooking, putting away dishes, changing diapers, driving kids around, and grocery shopping are not that glamorous. But what about writing and rewriting slides? Crunching numbers in excel? Doing online research and cold calling people? Presenting papers to boards and bosses? Are any of those activities that much more prestigious or productive?
On one side we are (I hope) producing knowledge and wealth. On the other, we are producing human beings, members of society. Can we truly say that one is more or less important than the other?
In fact, the world has so many different lines of "employment" from a job in the traditional sense to less traditional roles -- think artists, chefs, entertainers, authors, all the way to mothers and housewives, presidents of a household. If we choose a domain that we are passionate about, then we can excel at what we do. If we excel at what we do, then we each become a president of our own little domain.
It's easy to stigmatize or romanticize the different paths we choose. The true challenge is to dig deep enough beneath the surface to understand each others choices or, at the very least, respect those choices we don't understand.
So the next time I find myself about to label or judge, I will take a step back and remember this woman's answer. I will remember the kind of world I want my daughter to grow up in and I will play my part in creating that world.
Because at the end of the day, I hope that when my daughter grows up and is asked "what do you do?" whether she says "I'm president of the Google of her era, I am a teacher, an artist, a baker, a doctor, or I am president of the domestic side of my household" she will be greeted with the same level of respect and acceptance we each deserve for making the best choices we can given our situations.