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facts & arguments

TARYN GEE/The Globe and Mail

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It was a simple question.

A few years ago, in the fall runup to the Halloween season, with schoolyard chat centred on costumes and "what to be," my son came home from kindergarten and innocently asked me: "Mommy, are you a doctor?"

I quickly responded that I wasn't, and wondered out loud why he asked. That was my first mistake.

"Nate's mom is a doctor," he answered. I hadn't had time to respond before he added, "April's mommy is a doctor, too." He went on to list a few more names of his school friends (children of my friends, in fact) whose mothers were also doctors.

My first thought, naturally, was that I needed to get some less ambitious friends. But before I knew it, the next question was upon me. "Mommy, what do you do?"

How is it that a question posed by a four-year-old can cause an existential crisis in a person nearing 10 times that age?

As I paused to think of an answer, I realized I was at a loss. At the time, I was working at a university. Not as a professor – that would have been too easy. I worked in an administrative role; specifically in "development," what some might call a euphemism for professional fundraising. It's not something that resonates with four-year-olds. Frankly, judging by the usual reaction, it doesn't resonate much with adults, either. How was I going to explain it?

Not for the first time, I wished I had chosen a career that was easily defined. Why had I not taken my parents' advice and gone to medical school? Or maybe become a teacher, a police officer or superhero – jobs that are self-explanatory to inquisitive kindergarteners.

My husband owns a business. However, all my son cares about is that daddy has a forklift in his warehouse. Obviously, he assumes that daddy goes to work and drives the forklift. Why wouldn't he? Operating heavy machinery, that is serious work, something tangible he can get his head around. The fact my husband could no sooner drive a forklift than I could perform open-heart surgery is immaterial.

As Halloween neared, the question of "what to be" was rife in the air. When my kids asked me what I was going to be, I quipped "a mummy." The wit of my double entendre was lost on them.

My son quickly determined he would be a knight, a perfect complement for 10 kindergarten girls who would show up at school as princesses.

My own three-year-old daughter ended up being a fireman. This costume had nothing to do with any decision on her part to challenge the prevailing cultural norms. Rather it was all I had on hand after she summarily rejected all the princess outfits we scoured through as "not pink enough." Nonetheless, she was applauded by my progressive neighbours for eschewing gender stereotypes, and was greeted with cries of "good for you!" My daughter was oblivious. She was just out for candy.

But the question of "what I do" and "what to be" followed me throughout the school year.

Late the next summer, I did what any introspective individual grappling with this question does: I quit my job. Yes, in the midst of what some were calling the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, I left my secure public-sector job to go … home.

Of course, it wasn't simply about my career quandary. Like so many people faced with the conflicting pressures of young children, aging parents, crazy work schedules and crazier kids' schedules, my husband and I needed to make a change. It made sense in our case that I would stay home and he would work. I mean let's face it, someone needed to drive the forklift.

For the past few years, I've had a new response to the question "what do you do?" though unfortunately it is no easier to deliver. Interestingly, it is my husband who is usually asking the question now, but that's another story.

This year, as the air turns crisp and Halloween creeps up on us again, my children remain undecided about their costumes. Realistically, we have one, maybe two more years in which my son will still be young enough to want to dress up and run through the streets collecting candy.

Ironically, the approaching end of his trick-or-treating days is coinciding with my own urge to once again evaluate "what to be."

While my son wavers between Darth Sidious and Iron Man, I am exploring options, too. I have no idea what my next role might be. There is still a temptation to look at a narrow and easily-defined solution. I am smart enough, however, to know that given my lack of time, patience and remaining brain cells after having children, "doctor" is out of the question.

Thankfully, my apprehension about choosing a less structured path has faded with each passing year. Now the options, like Halloween outfits, are limited primarily by my imagination.

The one thing I'm sure of is that this Halloween I will once again be "a mummy." And for the time being, that is one outfit that suits me just fine.

Ann Cinzar lives in Kingston.