do pilots wear dresses?

‘Mummy,’ my daughter asks. ‘When will I have an office?’ She mimes hitting the keys of a computer for a moment, before picking up her fork and digging it into the bowl in front of her. Her father and I look at her and both reach for our wine glasses at the same time. Has it really come to this? Is working in an office the pinnacle of our daughter’s aspirations? Does she really think that that is all there is? Time was she wanted to work in a jungle or be a fairy. We both take a gulp of wine, before carefully placing our glasses back on the table and turning to our daughter, who waits expectantly, spaghetti cooling on her fork.

It’s tough being a parent. We look at our children and want only the best for them. If we could wave a magic wand we would, ensuring a long happy life, with an interesting and well-paid career thrown in for good measure. The reality is, of course, that our children are going to have to find out things for themselves, make the same mistakes we made and confront many of the same choices when it comes to their working lives. (There are plenty of magic wands at our house, by the way - all pink, some with feathers, some glittery.)

‘You don’t have to work in an office, sweetie,’ says her father.
‘You do,’ she replies.
‘That’s true,’ he says, ‘but there are lots of other jobs out there.’
‘Do you like working in an office?’
Her father reaches for his glass again, buying himself just a little bit of time to think.
‘Not all the time,’ is his diplomatic reply.
‘Then why do you do it?’
‘Well, I like the work I do and I get paid to do it. But I’d rather spend more time at home with you,’ he replies winningly.

One of my hopes for my daughter when it comes to the world of work is that she doesn’t feel there are some jobs that interest her but that are out of her reach just because she’s a girl. When it came time for my mother to decide what she would do after finishing school her options were very clear: nurse, teacher, secretary. Given that two sisters were already nurses and she didn’t fancy the idea of sitting behind a desk all day, she chose teaching. She subsequently has told me many times not to become a teacher, advice that I, of course, ignored.

‘Why doesn’t Mummy get an office then, and you stay with me.’
Because mummy will never in a million years earn as much as me now that we live in Switzerland, might be the more honest reply, but instead he explains that mummy already works.
‘No she doesn’t.’
‘Yes, she does.’
‘No she doesn’t,’ our daughter insists, ‘she stays at home and reads books and plays the piano.’
At this point I look out the window. It’s true; I do read books, but not all the time! And it’s true, I do play piano, but I’m a music teacher. I have to play the piano!
‘Mummy works, too,’ my husband says, trying to reassure both our daughter and me. He turns to me and grins. I roll my eyes.

So here is the dilemma. Should my daughter wish to teach, will I tell her what a great idea that is while silently regretting what might have been? Or, should my daughter express a desire to do something entirely non-traditional, will I then tell her what a great idea that is while silently regretting how hard aspects of her working life might become? What if she chooses something that is highly paid but requires no creativity at all, or, what if she chooses something creative but continually struggles with balancing this against paying the bills? Or what if she chooses something but finds it out of her reach, for whatever reason?

I feel my daughter’s speculative gaze on me now.
‘Mummy,’ she says, ‘do I have to teach piano, too?’
She seems relieved when I say no. I explain that there are lots of different jobs out there and it doesn’t matter if you are a girl or a boy. Some involve working in an office, sure, but others are outside or at home. Some involve helping or teaching people, some are with animals, some are…’ My mind goes blank. How can I encapsulate the whole breadth of the working world in just a few sentences?

Then, of course, there is the thorny issue of the balance between work, life and motherhood. She has a mother who has been at home for most of her daughter’s almost six years. Unbeknownst to her, some of this time has been spent sneakily undertaking paid work and some of it has been spent despairing of ever working again. And the circumstances might have been entirely different again if we hadn’t been living in countries not our own.

As far as she is concerned, though, I don’t really work. I stay at home, bake cakes, make lunch, sweep the floor and play the piano. My future duties are also mapped out. My daughter has an oft-expressed wish to be the mother of her own little girl by the time she is seven and I have already been roped into babysitting duties for when she is at school or ballet, and – eventually – work, which, for now, means being just like Daddy.

She thinks for a moment, taking the opportunity to shovel in a few more forkfuls of spaghetti, before turning once again to her father.
‘Daddy,’ she says, ‘why don’t you drive a plane?”
‘I don’t want to,’ he says, caught off guard and sounding just like his daughter when she doesn’t want to do something.
‘Can ladies drive planes?’
‘Yes, of course,’ we both say at the same time.
‘Do you want to drive a plane?’ her father asks.
She goes silent, and for a moment, we think she’s grown bored with the whole discussion, and that her next question will be about the sky or trees or what kind of cake she would like for her less than imminent birthday.

Second-guessing your own future is hard enough; let alone that of a small child. Sometimes we joke that the best outcome would be for her to become a celebrity chef – lots of money and fame and the ability to cook delicious meals for her aging parents. My husband is also keen for her to become a drummer or double bass player just so he can have his own little rhythm section at home (the thought that she might have no interest at all in music is one he simply can’t entertain, and I haven’t yet the heart to tell him that a career as a jazz musician might not end up being in her top ten.)

In the end, I decide that our role, as parents, is to encourage her to explore the world of work with all the curiosity of one visiting a circus or a zoo. She doesn’t need to understand exactly what everyone is doing, but just enjoy the process of observing, of expanding her horizons, of asking those difficult and probing questions that make her parents reach for their wine glasses and fumble for an answer.

But then she puts down her fork, takes a sip of water and sits back in her chair.
‘Only if I can wear a dress.’