Starting Over

“What will you do?” she asks. Right there in the middle of Cub Foods while shoving a box of Cheerios into her cart.

After the question has been asked a few times, and you aren’t taken so off-guard by it, you stop your stammering and searching for an answer and instead you watch the woman asking the question. She’s squirming, her eyes dart around; she’s scared. She isn’t asking, “What will you do?” she’s asking “What will I do?” and she’s hoping you have an answer.

All of us go around asking the question, hoping someone knows for sure. “What will I do?” The world is open with possibilities. I can do anything. Which “anything” will I choose? Haven’t I done this before? I remember a time long ago when the world was my proverbial oyster, waiting for me to crack it and fetch my pearl.

In college, we all wore our “majors” like a badge. I WILL be a doctor, I WILL be a teacher, I WILL be a therapist. Then comes wife and mother. Stay-at-home-mother. The role is easily defined, the uniform is comfortable, and the hours sometimes suck. The days flow into each other, time counted by erupting teeth, first steps, sibling births, Halloween costumes and Gymboree classes. You don’t realize that the days have become years until you’re in the middle of an interesting chat with another mom in the library, at the park, in the cereal aisle of the grocery store and you mention that your youngest will be going to kindergarten next year.

“Oh? What will you do?” She asks. At first you laugh — what does she mean “what will I do?” Then the meaning of the question hits your stomach like that last slice of Chuck E. Cheese pizza you shouldn’t have eaten. Sure, you’ve thought about it, but not enough to come up with an answer on the spot like this. So, your answer is vague, but not worried.

“Oh!” you laugh. “I have TONS of things lined up. You know, it will just be the mornings in kindergarten,” you remind her. “Maybe I’ll go back to school for my Masters when my daughter is in first grade,” you offer up. “Or, well, I could teach, and have summers off,” you point out. “Because it’s important for me to be home when the kids are.” You smile.

She nods. Go back to school, or teach. She’s run through those ideas already. It’s not the answer.

So different from the world that we set out to conquer when the ink on our diploma was still wet and we were sizzling with the passion of youth, ready to take any position offered to us just so we could be wage-earning adults. Now, we’ll ease into it, only mornings available at first. And we’ll need our summers off, and we’ll need to be home after school, and when there are field trips. Or when the flu is going around. We have a lot of demands. I guess they’re met, one way or another, because mothers do it. Every year a whole new group of them is released into the work-force to try to find that pearl a second time. A little less hurried and with a lot less to prove, letting those days turn to years, until your youngest starts applying for college.

Then it will come again. Will it be in the cereal aisle next time? Probably not. More likely it will be in the radiology waiting room dreading our annual mammograms when the other mom asks which college your daughter is applying to, and then gets that same terrified look in her eyes when she asks, “what will you do?” You know already — you’ll turn your daughter’s room into a home gym, or a sewing room…but not right away, because she’ll be back for holidays.