Recently, while drafting a letter to my niece, I was hit with an existential wave that nearly broke my crayon. I suddenly realized how early we start defining ourselves by work and how my letter was part of the problem.
Of all the titles I’ve held, my favorite is ‘Aunt Samantha’ as I’m the proud aunt of seven, soon to be eight, nieces and nephews. Most live far away so we keep in touch in various ways, depending on their age. With my 7-year-old niece in Arkansas, we write letters (and have weekly dance parties which I strongly recommend). In a previous letter, we exchanged sentiments about school subjects and I started to ask her “what do you want to be when you grow up” but I struggled to finish the sentence.
I never realized it starts that early. By grade school, we are already learning to define ourselves by work. When asked what we want to be when we grow up, we learn quickly that adults are not looking for us to say happy, balanced, or healthy. They are looking for us to say a profession. No wonder we grow up to define ourselves by our jobs.
After seeing this hidden flaw, I couldn’t finish the sentence. I scratched through the words and tried again, thinking about what this young girl will learn from her aunt, directly and indirectly. I opted to ask what careers interest her, if she plans to have a dog when she is an adult, and what recently made her happy. I am certain the rest of the world will be pushing her to a life of imbalance, because that is our culture, but in that moment I committed to being one person who will never do that to her.
I learned the family dog ate the letter shortly after she read it, but writing it was still an amazing reminder that we do not have to be defined by our profession. In the year ahead, and in this life, what do you want to be?