Career costume

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My daughter Nora complained about participating in “career day” this year at her school. The entire class was charged with showing up dressed in a costume that best represented the career he or she hoped to have as an adult. For my 9-year-old, this task didn’t hold the same thrill it did in previous years when she wore the obvious (and somewhat unrealistic) attire of the princess, the ballerina.

But this year was different. She approached it very seriously.

“How do you dress like a teacher?” she asked me.

“How are you supposed to look like an artist? Real artists don’t walk around with a paint brush. A teacher doesn’t have a costume,” she scoffed in disgust. “It just seems silly.”

“If we find the right thing, this will be so much fun!” I tried to persuade her as we sifted through her closet, trying to find something that might constitute career clothes. I was positive that if she found the right thing, her attitude would change. My concern in her participation was admittedly a little more about my being cast by other parents (or teachers) in the role of the neglectful working mom who didn’t bother to read backpack mail, who hadn’t even known it was career day.

“No,” she said, still unconvinced. “No one will know what I am and I don’t want to have to explain my career costume.”

I wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to be, but yes, I could certainly understand that.

“What am I supposed to wear if I’m planning more than one career?” she asked, building her case.

She had a good point.

“Or, if I decide to go as an artist, I might be an artist who has to work an extra job. And I might just wear jeans.”

Yes, she had many good points, in fact. So I didn’t push her, and we didn’t do career day. Not because my daughter felt limited, but very much the opposite: She feels limitless.

Much like my daughter’s concerns over costuming her career, I spent a good many years of my adult life worrying about perception in relation to jobs I’ve held, or the ones I haven’t held. I still do, sometimes. As a working mom, my distress came from the concern that what I did 40 hours a week wasn’t in line with where I thought I should be; that it was not a good indicator of “who I was.” I disliked feeling as if I had to give a personal history as an explanation to why I might be working any given job I was currently working. Alternately, I worried about putting in too much time at work and falling short as a mother, failing my daughter by leaving her for eight-plus hours at a stretch in the hands of strangers at a daycare. And last, just to utilize that extra bit of in-between time I had on hand, I hassled myself about creating an identity outside of my job and outside of being a mother, throwing myself into extracurricular activities that I felt confirmed my worth as an individual, ultimately overextending myself.

Career day (or lack of career day, as it may be) made me think about all of this. And I’ll be honest: Well into my 30s, I still haven’t identified that one thing that I really want to do yet. My job, in my mind at least, remains quite separate from what I might consider a career. On some days, I still find this very difficult; it’s a hard, cold fact to come up against in a world that praises experts, a society that rewards specialization. But I think I’ve finally made peace with the fact that I’ll probably never get asked to speak at career day, or win the award for my multiple years of continuous service in my field. And while there’s a tremendous amount to be said for those things, I’m better off realizing my own strengths, discovering, as many intelligent and industrious women do, that maybe I’m just not a one costume kind of girl.

As a friend wrote in a recent email, “Let’s get together over something that isn’t work … we are more than our jobs, you know!”

I was happy to get the invitation and the affirmation.

“Yes!” I agreed, as I quickly wrote back to her. “We are…and thank goodness!”

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.

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