My husband works for an engineering firm that builds power lines, substations, airports, trash incinerators, and other cool stuff. He brings home videos he produces of huge helicopters carrying pieces of equipment high up in the air, or of a giant auto transformer being lifted by cranes from a freight liner onto a tractor trailer. The trunk of his car is full of traffic cones, safety glasses, and helmets, and he spends days out in the field with tough construction guys wearing steel-toed boots talking about blueprints and bucket trucks and digging schedules.
My son is four and thinks that his daddy is just the coolest guy on earth because of — among other things — the helicopters and the bucket trucks and the construction hats. His pretend-play usually involves talking on the radio to “my Joel” and “my Chris” — the imaginary versions of my husband’s very real colleagues. Or he stomps around the living room wearing his rain boots, reflective bicycle vest, and a construction hat, carrying a toy broom around as his digger. He begs his dad to bring the traffic cones in from his car so that he can set up a safety parameter in the middle of the room.
I work in publishing.
An exciting field for sure. Flashy? Not so much. I mean, just look at these neatly printed and stacked manuscript pages. Are those page proofs over there? And what about that daring cover design? And mama, is that a bouncy exercise ball you are sitting on all day?
That was the most exciting part of my son’s visit to my office a few weeks ago — the exercise ball. And I really can’t blame him — my job is not as exciting as his dad’s, at least not to the untrained, four-year-old eye. But I’ve been struggling with somehow conveying to him that I too work and that my work matters, despite the lack of heavy equipment. On our way home from preschool every day I tell him about meetings, new books, computer problems, and usually his answer is something along the lines of “can I play with dada’s helmet when we get home?” When we read at night we talk about the authors and illustrators we like and how their books came into being and that mama makes books just like this at work. “One more story” is usually the response and I really can’t complain about that.
I know that my job is a lot more abstract than the very visible and very large power lines and equipment my husband points out everywhere we go, but I wonder if my son will ever see me as more than the woman who rubs his back when he can’t sleep or who packs his lunch bag every day. Not that those jobs are not important, of course, but they don’t completely define me as a person, as a mother, as a woman.
Neither does my office job, to be fair.
And that’s where I think maybe the secret lies. No matter how much housework my husband does, he is very much defined by his job, his head-of-the-household responsibilities both by choice and by necessity. He talks about work in the evenings like it’s the most important thing in the world and in his life. The stress, the meetings, the travel, the colleagues are all very vivid in our minds because we hear about them in great detail all the time. There are stories every day about clients and bosses and deadlines, told with a lot of animation and passion.
To me, work is work. I go to the office, do a great job, enjoy it, but then I leave it there. It’s just one thing I do during the day, between drop-off and pick-up, dinner, taking care of my own parents, or writing for my own pleasure. Whatever happens in the office does not have a huge impact on my day or my mood — both because nothing dramatic usually happens and because I don’t let any kind of work drama get to me or define my day.
I go back and forth between thinking that maybe I am showing my son a more rounded and grounded way of looking at work — sure, it’s important, but it’s not everything — or that maybe my husband’s all-encompassing passion is a better way of demonstrating the importance of finding work that is meaningful and that you are happy to do every day. Do I want my son to think of work as “meh, it’s nice,” or do I want him to live and breathe it every moment of the day like his dada does?
I am not sure the answer is clear — at least not to me. The fact that he is a boy will probably have an impact on how he views work and what his role will be in his family. Maybe if our roles were reversed with my husband I’d be the one with the crazy work stories and the cool colleagues. It’s hard to know.
I hope that as my son grows he’ll “get” more of what I do — both at home and at the office — and I also hope that he’ll keep his enthusiasm for what he thinks is cool and exciting at the moment.
I hope he’ll be just as happy and comfortable pursuing his career as doing the dishes and putting his kids to bed.