THE BLOG
10/10/2009 04:44 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What do you do?

This week, I'd like to feature a guest blogger, my friend, J. Lorraine Martin. Lorraine is a frequent blogger for us at www.HomeBy3.com and one of my oldest and best friends.

Years ago, I was reaching for the artichoke dip in the buffet line at my husband's company holiday party. The question came--and it's the proverbial question that always arises at these sorts of affairs--"What do you do?" I didn't know this woman, but my bias was already kicking in with my internal mantra going something like this: "Don't let her be some powerful working professional, like an attorney or consultant, blithering on about her nannies and maids, and the fatigue she feels because the company cut back on expenses, forcing her to travel coach class to Europe."

At that time, I was home full-time with three school-aged children. I had imagined rejoining the paying workforce at some point, but when you've been out of that world for over a decade, you're not exactly greeted with applause and the red carpet roll-out; it's more like a ghost town with rolling tumbleweed.
However, if I'm honest, another reason for my thwarted career trajectory is that life placed a beautiful baby boy in my arms years ago, and despite my hopes and dreams for him, I would eventually learn he had autism.

And so I find myself standing in that buffet line contemplating the answer to "What do you do?" Armed with a PhD in people pleasing (should I add that to the resume?), I smile and try to hide my insecurities. I share that I am a stay-at-home Mom.

She drops the dreaded A-word. "I'm an attorney." Thud!

I try to tell myself, "Keep an open mind. Maybe she's delightful!"

She goes on to let me know that she's a partner in the blahdie-blah-firm, and has children too, but couldn't imagine staying home. Hmm, delightful is not a word I'm thinking of at this moment. In fact my grave error hits me: I should be at the bar, not the buffet line. She catches her slip and tries to salvage the conversation with the standard reply, the one I am always given at these types of events.

"Oh well, you have the most important job in the world!"

I often imagine saying "So, if you truly feel it is the most important job in the world, why aren't you doing it full-time?" I'm not defensive at all, right? I laugh and make a joke, dodging the jab. She enquires of my children's ages, and curiously asks me "So what do you do all day? I mean really, what do you do?" She asked in bewilderment, as if I was some creature she couldn't fully fathom.

Dismissive and witty retorts always come to me later. I have vowed the next time I am insensitively asked this question, I will say "I eat bon-bons and watch soap operas all day, of course. We all know that is what we stay-at-home moms do."

Unfortunately, I nervously babble about all the errands one can get done when the kids are in school; I can hear myself and realize I have ruined it for stay-at-home moms everywhere. For goodness sake, I sound like Madge the dutiful housewife. I'm certain that it appears like I spend all of my time buying toilet paper and cleaning supplies followed by floor mopping and scrubbing toilets. Then later I make dinner in my apron and hair curled just so; this is after I soak my hands in Palmolive to keep them looking soft and supple.

In a final rally to save myself and plant the thought that stay-at-home moms are living life in ways equally as prestigious and challenging as making partner at the firm, I dropped my own A-bomb.

"I home school my autistic son; he recently was kicked out of his school, and I was out of options for him."

Nothing puts blank stares and awkwardness in a conversation more than saying the word autism. Her pained face and stammering left me with mixed emotions: the sorrow that very few could understand my life, possibly merely pitying it, and the redemptive feelings of seeing her smugness evaporate. She stammered a few words "Oh...that's tough." And then the obligatory, "Hey, my drink needs refilling," followed up by the insincere closing, "Nice to meet you!"

At that time, I was yearning for an in-between solution, but felt very limited by the demands my autistic son placed on my time; even though I eventually found a school that could help him, I am still often asked to hang near-by in case he needs to be picked up early. Short of finding a caretaker with the combined skills of Mother Teresa and Mary Poppins, I have come to accept that I am the most qualified person for this position.

Along the way, I have learned that we mothers needn't be throwing competing ideological rocks at each other. Like any challenging and important calling, motherhood brings complexity and no definitive pathway. I have numerous friends who stay-at-home full-time and miss nothing from the corporate world. Another friend and I were recently sipping Cosmos together. She happens to be an attorney, amazingly finding a way to be a mom of an autistic child and make partner at the firm. We celebrated in our triumphs and shared of our sorrows along the way; our roads have been different, but each road has been equally valid and right for us.

Fortunately, I have recently found a creative and rewarding outlet where my words and experiences are valued, and my work is not confined to an office or set hours. I now sit in a coffee shop near my autistic son's school typing away at a keyboard, transforming a place that once felt utterly confining and limited, to a place of freedom as I fulfill the childhood dream of being a writer.

So instead of dreading the next corporate cocktail party, I'm imagining walking in, fulfilled and empowered, bantering with the corporate jet setters, power players, and name droppers. I think I will even wear high heels, a strand of pearls, and an apron, proudly serving homemade bon-bons.

J. Lorraine Martin is a graduate of the University of Florida and a frequent blogger for www.HomeBy3.com. She also enjoys humorously reflecting on a variety of life topics at her personal blog www.cheeselesspizza.blogspot.com

Sherry Moss is a Professor of Organizational Studies at Wake Forest University and a co-founder of www.HomeBy3.com, a niche online job board which offers free job postings to organizations wishing to advertise flex-jobs to attract the formerly-professional stay-at-home Mom and other individuals who'd like to work flexibly. To learn more about HomeBy3, visit www.HomeBy3.com or email Sherry at sherry.moss@HomeBy3.com. Please email and share stories of how you or your organization are taking advantage of work flexibility.