Capturing life in words…

The Yardstick Question

I walked into a stuffy, upper middle class echelon charity event the other day and did my psych/mental health thing. I cannot help but do the “analyze thing” in environments such as these.

As we mingled about in a large room with a cup of coffee or glass of chilled wine, the idle chit-chat commenced. Conversations were born off something as mundane as, “Good coffee”, and then the polite banter begins. Whether meeting people for the first time, or seeing those you have not seen in years, inevitably the same question arises. It is unavoidable. Having done a fair amount of intervention or therapeutic support in my days, I also know this question alone can elicit some charged emotions in some people. I have had clients discuss their feelings in how people respond to their answer of this question. Their answer alone could cause individuals to silently “dismiss them” in a polite, often unconscious manner.

When a fair amount of back and forth commentaries have been exchanged, the eventual, “And, what do you do?,” emerges.

Seems harmless, I know. However, reactions to the response vary– especially in an environment where many various professionals are roaming. I can speak to the reactions of various roles both personally and professionally. I have been everything from wife and mother to Director of Memory Care. And I experienced the same result reported by clients and friends.

Recently I chose to take six months off work to attend to my children’s needs. I found it very interesting how my status changed during this short Sabbatical. Despite the hard-work, critical thinking and time management skills, ability to multi-task and emotional health required to do be a successful homemaker, wife and mother, this role is not embraced. In some circles even frowned upon. Even though I was a Master’s prepared mother who chose to spend some time at home, it elicited little respect from the “employed” population. Suddenly, my insightful comments regarding the issue at hand, such as sexual trafficking in the Midwest were met with pasted on, polite smiles. They may as well had a neon light saying, “Isn’t it cute how the housewife and mother is trying to join in? How could such a patsy truly understand when her world is about wiping snotty noses?” At other times, it was almost condescending. “Oh dear, I could never do that!” or “It takes special people to stay at home– I’d go crazy.”

However, now I have returned to working as a licensed social worker outside of the home, and my response is “I work at XXX Organization as a therapist and am home part-time with my children,” I am immediately included as one of them. “Them” being The Professionals. And since I am managing multiple roles, I am even given those kudos for balancing so much on my plate, and am asked thought provoking questions and my opinion holds status, power and their attentive respect. Body language shows respect and equality towards me versus the turning somewhat at an angle and looking about the room. So I “get it” when people share they are discriminated, marginalized or disempowered. I have been there at various times in life.

Yet, we do not have to give these individuals that power. In working with clients who have been hurt by the dismissal of “the working professionals” I reiterate role placement and the importance of keeping boundaries intact. Strangers or loose acquaintances should not have the power to determine one’s value and worth. I talk about keeping sidewalk people out of one’s kitchen Here and other effective techniques.

The question of “What do you do?” is socially constructed, or developed by our culture.

I have a friend who is a professor at a large university in the Midwest, USA. She is originally from Romania and came to the U.S. after working as a nurse for several years in Romania. She now has a doctorate in Social Work, with a focus on community and leadership. She has used her wonderful talent to assist both our country and her own. I conversed with her over what I have dubbed “The Yardstick Question”. I shared verbal and non-verbal responses I personally have observed, as well as those clients have reported.

Her observations and descriptions were analogous to mine and my clients. I specifically sought her perspective, as she has lived and travelled several countries. She was firm in her conviction she had not been asked The Yardstick Question so frequently until she came to our nation. Her comment, in her delightful Romanian accent was “I find this question of what ‘I do’ to be quite rude.”

America is allegedly a democracy and also a society of capitalism. Capitalism’s negative side effect is often, the less wise or more superficial individual will use annual income as the calibrator of success, human value and worth. Money is equated with importance– a sad side effect of our capitalistic nation.


Bruno Mars smoothly sings out a best seller with a main line, “I want to be a Millionaire so fu****g bad!”, speaking for the majority. The reason is capitalism, although inherently provides many pros, also endorses and promotes greed. Individualism and looking out for numero uno is belched out to young people whose ink is still wet on their MBA. And it has been the norm for so long, we don’t even notice.

Those who have seen Donald Trump (who by the way, if you look at his hair piece, it truly mimics orangutan hair. The similarity is quite surprising!) in his moments of selfish glory, will evaluate any and all events, people or collective entities, such as companies. He and, evidently television networks, believe his ability to collect money makes him an authority in all subjects. Now before I throw Don-Don under the bus, we must remember our socialization rewarded little Donnie to become an insensitive, calculating, intelligent, superficial jerk. In addition, his callous behavior is still rewarded– as noted by his having an entire show of executives begging for his stamp of approval. The infamous phrase, “You’re Fired!”, was randomly heard across talk shows. Capitalism’s flaws blurred values and the Donnies of the world have some perceived ability and status.

Little Don-Don was one of many children encouraged to become doctors or lawyers, where they will be slave to the system but they will make the upper echelon and live in six-figure wonderland. And indeed will they wonder. As middle age comes about and they have achieved the six figure life, with the glorious house and a family, men and women alike wonder, “Why do I feel unfulfilled?”. Sure, they can feel the moment of pride when The Yardstick Question is thrown out there, yet after awhile, the status loses its’ gleam.

The bottom line is we all have a moment where we look back on our lives. Once the degrees are obtained, the children are raised, the house is paid for …. and the glimmer has lost its oomph, we are …. truly left standing metaphorically naked and judging our own life. We either feel good about it, or stabs of guilt, pain and remorse. And it’s too late. Life doesn’t give many do-overs. What’s done is done.

So despite what society and capitalism endorses, we need to embrace what we value and live it! Then we will smile with calm peace at the end of the journey versus begging the heavens or universe for a do-over.

Written by L M Thomas, MSW, LSW

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This entry was posted on November 2, 2013 by in Uncategorized.