The dreaded question for women like me, what do you do for a living?

woman working from home, child in foreground

This essay is part of our original Women at Work series.

By Chiazo Obiudu

“What do you do for a living?” It’s a really dreadful question. How about this for an answer: “I live for a living.” I just live. I breathe. I eat. I laugh. I play. And yeah, I do some work as well.

A few years back, I found absolutely nothing dreadful about it; in fact, I looked forward to being asked that question. Because with pride, I would let the words slide smoothly off my tongue, “I’m a banker.” I was a banker for six very long years. And I hated every minute of it.

I had great friends there, the pay wasn’t bad and the respect I got from strutting my stuff in those stiff suits was priceless. But doing the same thing over and over again, attending to the same customers with unending issues was much more than I could bear. It got to a point where the paycheck was the only reason I had for getting up each morning, dragging my unmotivated self to work, then dragging a very tired body back home at night. And that was another major issue, the hours. I would leave the house as early as 7am and most often, by 7 pm, I was still on the road driving home.

At work, I would spend time with a few other colleagues lamenting our unfortunate situation, whining about how it was so hard especially with little kids at home. Then we would go back to our desks, muster a fake smile if we could, and continue dealing with the scores of customers that made it through the doors each day. We would complain the next day about how the demands of the job seemed to increase by the hour, how we had to get home late, and sometimes take work home too. We would return to our desks again, and repeat the cycle.

Then one day, I decided to do something about it. It was a Saturday and I had to complete another boring audit review when I told myself, “that’s it.” The job didn’t make sense to me anymore and even the glorious paycheck had lost its lustre. It was time to take my destiny into my own hands, step out of that claustrophobic box and into a bright future. I was excited, and just a bit apprehensive of what I had to face on the other side of the door.

I should have been more apprehensive, a lot more scared. I thought I had it all figured out. Go back to school while I start a small business. It was all beautiful on paper, and my sisters had my back. So what could go wrong?

A lot. A lot could and did go wrong. My small confectionery business crashed within a few months. I’d planned to start pretty small, then surely before long, I would make it pretty big. However, I think I started too small and apparently it was too malnourished to cope. I nearly died of shame; here I was, a one-time big-time banker, now struggling with an itsy-bitsy business. And I couldn’t even make that work.

My family tried to cheer me up, but I knew they felt disappointed too though they tried not to show it. I never thought I would regret leaving that dreadful job. I was so wrong. At one point I started making plans to return. When I knew I couldn’t, I just dropped off the radar, avoiding old friends and colleagues. I couldn’t deal with the pity I was sure they felt for me.

It also turned out that doing school with two small kids, a third one on the way and barely any help, wasn’t such a party after all. But after three difficult years, I was done. It felt great, but I still had no job. I searched and searched for a good one. Nothing. I couldn’t find the type of job I needed, one that would give me a level of fulfillment, a decent paycheck and more importantly, allow enough time for me to be a mother.

Over the years, I’ve had to answer different things to different people when the question of my job came up, because I couldn’t get myself to say I was between jobs, or in plain language, jobless. Sometimes I’d answer:

“I’m a student,” which worked when I was still in school.

Then, “I have a farm,” which I did at one time. But I spent much more money than I made from it the first year. And after a nasty bite from a vengeful ant and a rather abysmal harvest, I threw in the towel.

At another time, I told someone I was an investor, kind of true if you count the few company shares I purchased years before and a few properties that weren’t really yielding much.

It’s been a few years since I lost the title “student.” I have my Master’s degree now, thank God. I’m happy I did that, because I pushed myself hard to achieve it. I’m also happy doing the things I do now. I still don’t have a specific job title. But let’s see:

I cook and clean, which makes me a homemaker. I teach, mostly my kids, and I had quite the experience homeschooling them during the COVID lockdown. I write too and I play a mean game of Scrabble, which makes me a wordsmith, perhaps?

Yet, there is still a part of me that cares about what people think, how people see me. There’s a certain emotional security that comes with having a job title, a glamorous, important-sounding, official job title, as if it defines me, gives me identity. While I know deep down I’m much more than this, my heart still struggles and continues to dread when anyone asks: “What do you do for a living?”

Chiazo Obiudu is a creative writer and author. Her works have been published in Yellow Arrow Journal, Treadbikely amongst others. She lives in Nigeria with her husband and three children.

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