What do you want to be?

Every time C takes an interest in something, I find myself wondering if this will be his thing, if this will be the passion that sustains him. He likes to build with legos and magnatiles, so I think “he will be an engineer.” I visualize his life as an engineer, taking him all over the world to design bridges and infrastructure. He says “can we play music and have a dance party?” So I envision his life as a dancer, a choreographer, and do research into local dance schools and dance camps. He turns over a bucket and bangs on it with two tinker toys, so I ask my musician teacher friends what they charge for lessons. He helps me make pizza, so I picture him in a pro kitchen, while he shouts orders and people call back ‘yes chef.’

Dave read some article a while back about how mothers tend to imagine more about what their children will do when they grow up than fathers do. He said “I don’t worry about that stuff, do you?” And I said the truth, which is that I think about it all the time. Will he find something he likes? Will he find something he likes that is sustainable?

When my brother N was little, like maybe teenager little, he was interested in all kinds of things, things to be when he grew up. He couldn’t be all these things at the same time, and some of the things were in direct conflict with the other things. I had all kinds of suggestions for how to combine the things into a profession, but then I realized he could see all those paths too, and how to follow a passion wasn’t really the problem. He knew how to follow a passion. I told him, instead, imagine what you want your life to be like, on the daily, how you want it to operate, do you want to hang with friends? Do you want to come home every night or be on the road? Do you want a steady income or are you okay with instability? Do you want alot of free time or do you want to work late hours? We talked about that conversation recently, and he said he’d actually thought about it. He has a pretty chill life, too. Over Christmas we got a chance to see his new place, and sit and chill with him and his girlfriend a bit. He takes alot of joy in his life, and I’m so proud of him.

I wonder why I project professions onto C instead of a life in which he is happy, or a life that is not locked in, in which he has room to explore new places, new feelings, new ideas. When I was a kid, on track for college since kindergarten, the question of what I wanted to be when I grew up loomed large. Aunts and uncles, family friends, teachers, would ask “what do you want to be when you grow up?” It was a big question, and it needed a big answer. My answer was always different, and I think I suited it to the asker, so that I would appear some way to that person of which I thought they would better approve. I wanted to give the right answer, and it didn’t matter to me that the right answer was different for everyone, or that really there wasn’t one, or that a person becomes a grown-up and is like “Really? This is it?” Being an adult now who deals with kids, I can see that kids do stuff like this all the time, suit the answer to the asker, and it’s easy to spot, but you have to pretend you don’t notice. Subtlety comes with age.

It never occurred to me to take my own advice, to decide what I wanted my life to be like and to let everything else follow from that. There are people that focus on one over riding passion or career, and let the wake of that booming ship be their lives. I didn’t quite do that, because since I was 19 I’ve had a partner in that life, a partner who is much more interested in what his life is like than what his profession is. We live in New York, where the question “what do you do?” is as ubiquitous as “what’s your rent?” This is what happens when I hear that question:

scenario a:
Random person: What do you do?
I just laugh, and wait for the person to say something else.

scenario b:
Random person: What do you do?
Me: What do I not do? I do lots of things. What do you do?

scenario c:
Random person: What do you do?
Me: I write.
Random person: Do you get paid for it?
Me: Sometimes.
Random person: Then what do you really do?
Me: I write.
Random person: I meant what do you do for a living?
Me: I write, and I am alive when I do it.

It’s like the classic thing Americans ask each other, because all but Native American Indians are a product of immigration or forced migration:

Random person: Where are you from?
Me: I’m from the Northeast
Random person: Where are you really from?
Me: New York and New England.
Random person: I mean your family.
Me: From the Northeast. We’re yankees.
Random person: What about before that?
Me: Before that when?

Typically all this questioning means the person wants to talk about themselves. So I ask what they do, where they’re from, and listen to them talk about it. It leaves me free to zone out and imagine what C will be like at parties. Will he rue the questions or will he ask them? Will his life fit into the socially acceptable definitions of success or will he have to make up his own meanings, like I do? Will he like the moments in his day or constantly wish for them to be different? I’ve had both, and both felt like clarity.

I watched a young man in church today. He was seated right behind us, and C kept talking to him. He was with his parents, he’s about maybe 14. I’ve seen them there before. His dad says “do you want to sing?” And the boy says no. The dad says “you have a great voice, let’s hear it.” And the boy says no. I remembered being his age and being in church. I never wanted to sing. I felt like everyone was looking at me, and that people would think I Was something when I would sing, that they would think that like I cared about things, about things like church, or God, or being part of a wider community, or whatever it was that I thought they would think.

I realized today that for so long in life, it seemed like all the focus was on me. But it wasn’t. It was just my own focus, which was so big as to blot out everything else. A person’s own focus blots out the focus of others on themselves. It’s just that, in youth, your focus is so big, and everything is coming at you so fast, and so loud, that it doesn’t seem possible that anyone could see anything else. You feel huge, and you can’t possibly sing in church.

C sings in church. He thinks its cool. Someday soon, he won’t. We share an intimacy now that we won’t later. I hope he doesn’t end up feeling like his flaws take up the focus of a whole room. Is there a value in asking a kid what they want to be? Maybe, when the time comes, I should ask him instead what he wants to do, and not just when he grows up, but now.

C the baker.
C the baker.

5 thoughts on “What do you want to be?

  1. Lib, breathe through it just breathe through it all and laugh if you can; laugh at yourself, C, your husband, life – just laugh at it all and be happy it’s all going on

    1. That is the sweetest. Don’t know if it’s really true though. I fear that I’m much better at being thoughtful and considerate about parenting when he’s sleeping and I’ve had a glass of wine.

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