As I descended the staircase of my office building yesterday, a thought popped into my head about the work I do. I’m usually inclined to say “I’m a lawyer” when someone asks me what I do for a living, where I work, what I do for work, etc. I let that three-word descriptor marinate in my gut for a minute, and it did not feel good. It felt slimy, like a genteel expression of “I’m a sleazy profiteer who peddles fantasies of justice! So what do you do?”
The irony of feeling this way about “being a lawyer” is that I actually love the work I do, in terms of the subject matter and the people I serve. I help parents get special education programming and services for their children. That should make me feel great—and thankfully, it usually does, or else I wouldn’t have lasted long in this profession. But my preference would be to do this for free, just because it’s a good thing to do for parents and children in need. If I had a passive income source or became independently wealthy, I would just volunteer my time as a special education lawyer. There are lots of problems inherent in working as a lawyer, and those are the aspects of the work that make me feel more like a well trained pitbull than a human helping other humans.
Anyway, I thought about discarding my identity as “lawyer” or “attorney” and replacing it with this: “I practice law.” I can embellish that as needed, but the important thing is to shift away from identifying who I am and instead identify what I do. In fact, I should identify the work I do as only ONE of the many activities in which I am engaged on a regular basis. I practice law. I also write, and sing, and have various other hobbies. I indulge in anime and dream up my own storylines that I want to turn into a graphic novel someday. I manage a household along with my husband, and I do art projects with my kids. I waste time on the Internet, and I drink rarely but joyously. I fret about how long it’s been since I last cleaned the bathroom sink, and I make doctor appointments and vet appointments alike. I am also a mother.
But did you catch that? Why does it feel much more comfortable, more serene and just—right—to identify as “a mother”? And in contrast, how many mothers would describe what they do as “mothering?” There is no “practice of mothering.” It’s not usually described as something you do; it’s just as something you are.
Labeling someone is a way to assign a shorthand descriptor of a person that’s easy to understand. It also helps to distinguish some types of people from other types, if only in the most illusory sense: after all, there is no reason why a mother can’t also be a professional athlete, a teacher, or a car dealership owner. But the brain likes shortcuts for quick information retrieval and processing in a variety of contexts, so “mother” will often stick as the primary identifier in the absence of a more predominant label.
Another more sinister interpretation is that it feels better for me to identify as “mother” because it draws attention away from the fact that I don’t spend most of my day “mothering,” as a verb. Between 8:30-5:00 on a typical workday, I’m not engaged in the practice of mothering. Sure, there’s the odd call home from the school nurse or mid-day errand run for something kid-related, but what I spend most of my time doing is practicing law, not practicing mothering. But call yourself “a mother” and that moniker sticks 24/7 and 365. That way, I can say that I’m a mother, and that I also happen to practice law. It shields the sad, sad fact that I spend way too much time lawyering and not enough time mothering.