Career Guilt and the Dreaded Question: “What Do You Do?”



I wish I were a dentist.

Imagine this conversation, if you will:

New Acquaintance: What do you do?
Me: I’m a dentist
New Acquaintance: Cool.

Dentists have it so good.

I cringe when I get asked what I do.

Sure, it’s just a conversation topic, but how about instead you ask what books I’m reading or what captivating podcasts I’ve heard lately? I have some cool hobbies I’d love to tell you about. I’m a member of a wine club, a book club, and the local alumni chapter for my alma mater. I write for a serialized fiction platform that’s pretty interesting, and I had a short story published recently. Any of that has to be more exciting than what I do.

For me, the question “what do you do?” comes with a lot of baggage.

Had I stayed in publishing, I could have a Director or even Vice President title by now. I could be representing the next New York Times best-selling author. I might have an admirable career, breaking glass ceilings and mentoring young women. I’d definitely still have my office with the unobstructed view of the Empire State Building.

That path wasn’t sustainable for me, though. I was burned out from the long commute spent wedged between middle-aged man-spreaders in trains that often had no heat in the winter and no AC in the summer. There were the weekly meetings and sales goals, the never-ending pitch letters, and so many rejections. And did I mention the awful, terrible commute—two hours each way? And this was before I became a mom. So I left.

After a couple of missteps, I ended up answering a job posting for a part-time office position. It was supposed to be temporary. That was seven years ago.

All this time, I’ve carried a lot of guilt about my career path.

I feel selfish that I took such a drastic pay cut to work part-time when I could have been contributing more to my family. Because of this, I’m equally embarrassed that I spent so much time and money (mine, my parents’, my husband’s) on my education to not leverage it into a successful career. I feel guilty that I was given so many opportunities to succeed — promotions, titles, trips abroad — and I left it all on the table. And I’m ashamed that I teach my son to respect women as his equals, but day after day, he witnesses me washing dishes and doing laundry.

I should be doing more with my education and my ambition; I feel it all the time. But if I swat away the embarrassment and shame… I’m actually pretty happy with the way things turned out. That happiness is short-lived though. My contentment is yet another source of guilt.

Truthfully, I kind of like my job. I’m certainly grateful to have it.

I enjoy the people I work for. They’re fun and generous. They paid me the entire time I was out on maternity leave, and they asked me to decide when I was ready to come back. They’ve supported me as a parent and understand that snow days and Halloween parades happen during business hours.

Even now, when some months I make more money from writing, I stay at my “day job” because it’s more than a steady paycheck. It lets me do the things I wouldn’t otherwise have time for. I like to meal plan, grocery shop, and cook dinner without taking away from my weekends or my family time. I’m home to put my son on the bus in the morning and off in the afternoon. I take him to soccer and swim and yoga and whatever else he’s trying out this month. Some afternoons we meet up with friends. Other days, we just sit on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and watch a movie together.

Working part-time allows me luxuries that a big paycheck and a fancy title just can’t compete with. Flexibility. Low stress. Time with my son and husband. Time to myself. I have to believe that there’s no shame in that.

But to keep the conversation moving, I might start telling people I’m a dentist anyway.


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