So, what did you actually do in work today dad?
Describing what you do for a living to your children can sometimes be a tough job
Published 27/09/2010 | 05:00
The mums were half way through the first coffee morning of the new term when one of them discovered that they had her all wrong. "You clean houses, don't you?" fired the thin-lipped brunette sitting opposite. "Er, I clean my own home, if that's what you mean," she retorted, slightly taken aback, "I work as a stockbroker, actually."
A hush came over the table as thin lips cracked a smile. "Well, maybe you should tell that to your little girl," she rasped, "I hear she stood up in class the other day and told the teacher that you're a cleaner and her dad's a CEO."
She isn't the only parent to be so woefully misunderstood. I heard a child one time say that her mum was "a liar"; turned out she was a lawyer.
Confusion as to what exactly mum and dad do when they go out to work is common among the very young but their interpretations can be endearing.
There was the politician's daughter who told classmates that her father was out "ruining the country" while she was at school, and the little boy who believed that it was his father's job to "fix broken hearts". His dad was a cardiac surgeon.
For little Emily Joye (seven) and her sister Meabh (five), there's no mystery about what their dad, Lar, does all day. As a curator of military history at the National Museum, he has been bringing them to his work place since they were babies.
"I have photographs of them sitting in planes and tanks from the Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition back in 2006," he says. "They don't know that I project managed the exhibition or that I wrote the text panels and selected the objects for display, but they know that what they see when they come here is my doing.
"Ask them today what I do at work, and they will talk about 'exhibitions' and 'museums'. These words are second nature to them, as our holidays generally involve trekking across Europe from one museum to another and walking around galleries. This is what we do as a family. It's what they're used to."
While the two girls are clearly familiar with their dad's job, they're not so sure about what their mum, Colleen, does when she's working as an executive director at the Fulbright Commission.
"Emily says I give money to students who want to study in America or Ireland," says Colleen. "But Meabh, who's fascinated by Barack Obama, believes I give people money so they can go and live where he lives."
Meabh is also convinced that her mum spends a large part of her working day playing with the stamp on her desk.
"That's what she likes to do when she visits my office, so she presumes I do the same," laughs Colleen. "Both girls think the receptionist in our office building is my boss. That's because he gives them chocolate and he's in charge of organising cars."
In his work as an epidemiologist, Professor Ivan Perry designs research projects to study causes of disease. While that may sound complex, it seemed perfectly simple to his son.
"At the age of seven, he thought it was my job to try and remove the salt from crisps," explains the professor.
"He understood that I was working on ways to improve the diets of kids for whom salt was an issue, so he tied that knowledge in with crisps, which were a favourite snack of his at the time. It wasn't until my daughter reached her teens and came in to help me in the office for a couple of hours over the summer holidays, that my children learnt that much of my day is spent working on a computer."
Another whose child has an endearingly simplistic view of his working day is Peter Caslin, CEO of Financial Risk Solutions.
"My nine-year-old daughter believes I spend my time doing 'hard sums' in the office," he says. While the actuary's job spec is undoubtedly more complex than that, he's happy to go along with this description.
Explaining what you do in work to your child can be particularly challenging for those employed in strictly adult zones. A counsellor with the Dublin Well Woman Centre explained to her young child that her job involved showing people who love each other how to express it better.
She said she taught people how to hug the people they love most, and her child was satisfied with that.
When it comes to some of the more unusual trades, kids are likely to grasp the essence of what's involved if they're allowed to become familiar with it, according to Geraldine Lundy, a mum from Tubercurry, Co Sligo.
"When our kids were small they understood that my husband, Jarard, stuffed birds, fish and animals to make them look alive again," she says. "His workshop was beside the house so they were carried in there as babies and as they got older they would toddle in and out to watch him.
"As a result, they were totally familiar with what he did and as they got older, they appreciated the artistry involved."
The trick, it seems, is to keep the job descriptions simple and to keep them real. Funeral director David Fanagan says that when his children were young they understood that it was his business to bring people home.
"It wasn't until they were older and experienced the death of a grandparent and of members of their friends' families that they really grasped what it is I do," he says.
"A few years ago I was watching the movie 'The Wedding Planner' with my daughter, when she remarked that my job was similar to that, as at it's core it was all about event planning. She was right, except that wedding planners get 18 months to do their job, while we get three days.
"I think my kids are proud of the work I do, so I was delighted when my son told me recently that he too would like to get involved in the business when he leaves college. He will be the seventh generation of my family in this line of work."
It didn't take the Fanagan kids long to appreciate the irony that while their dad worked in the funeral business, their mum worked in ante-natal training, so while it was her job to help people come into the world, it was David's task to help them on their way out.