The past few months, I’ve heard many stories of families trying to establish a new rhythm of working from home while simultaneously caring for their kids. Not surprisingly, they are chaotically busy. Appreciation for child care providers and teachers has been enthusiastically expressed in many online tributes; families have had to shift expectations as parents juggle multiple roles and responsibilities that are not easily mixed. This has caused me to reflect on my own family situation where my current full-time job is to care for my kids, which in-and-of-itself keeps me quite busy. As I’ve reflected on the adjustments we’ve all had to make during this season accompanying COVID-19, and how I’ve often downplayed the impact it’s had on me and my family, an encounter I experienced over a decade ago came to mind.
It was the start of 2008, I had recently moved to Washington, DC and was a couple days into an internship for a member of Congress. I felt way in over my head being surrounded by so many smart, important, and powerful people. I had tagged along with a colleague to an event in one of the house office buildings and was doing my best to be helpful while also attempting to be as invisible as possible, so as not to draw attention to my inexperience. I don’t remember the specifics, but I was standing near a staffer from another Congressional office who struck up a conversation with me. In the course of our brief exchange, he inquired into my opinion on a subject. In my haste to make it known I was at the bottom of the proverbial food chain, and wanting to be clear I was in no way qualified to provide a valuable response, I smiled apologetically and replied, “Oh, I’m just an intern.” The specific details of the inquiry which provoked my casual comment are hazy, but I will always remember his response. He looked straight at me and kindly but firmly said, “You are never ‘just a.’ There are so many people in this town who will try to put you down, don’t do it for them.” I was speechless.
I have often thought back on that exchange and wondered if this individual had any idea how profound his words were to me. My capabilities to navigate capitol hill did increase marginally during my time working in a congressional office, but the real impact of those words has continued to influence me years later, especially when navigating situations where I’ve felt inadequate or underqualified.
However, despite trying to incorporate his advice, I have still often found myself qualifying my introductions. “I’m just a coordinator,” “I’m just an assistant,” “I’m just a stay-at-home-mom.” It is almost a subconscious, automatic addition, as though I’m not entirely convinced of the importance of my roles and responsibilities, or I feel the need to highlight that I’m unqualified or insignificant in the grand scheme of things. However, I have become increasingly aware of how I feel after adding this particular qualifier, and how I perceive others’ response to me after qualifying my introduction. Suffice it to say, “just a” is never a helpful or positive addition.
Part of the instinct to qualify my position stems from the value that is placed on titles. It’s something I inherently dislike and yet have found myself getting completely caught up in. For example, it mattered to me when I was promoted at work that it came with a title change; it mattered to me how my title was perceived in relation to those around me; it mattered to me how far I’d come in my professional journey. It’s ingrained in our culture, we naturally inquire into someone’s title and job responsibilities or we rely on our understanding of a title to assess a person’s perceived importance. I’ve allowed myself to get caught up in placing too much emphasis on my position, to the point that I practically believed my title defined my value. What’s more, I’ve caught myself placing too much weight on the perceived value, or seeming lack thereof, on titles and responsibilities of those around me. The COVID season, particularly with the discussion on “essential versus non-essential employees,” has caused me to reflect more deeply on where we find our value and how we recognize value in others. What I desperately want to overcome is the seeming tendency to allow titles, roles, and responsibilities to be a marker for value of myself and others; what I have been working to change in myself is to eliminate the habit of focusing on what I’m “just a” and instead focus on who I am as a person.
Because while it is a tempting qualifier to add in various scenarios, I’ve realized the “just a” habit is worth breaking. I have found that “just a” prevents me from living fully and proudly into whatever role I’m fulfilling at the moment, regardless of perceived notion of value or importance related to my title. “Just a” limits an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for people who fill positions we often take for granted. The “just a” qualifier reduces individuals to roles and responsibilities while simultaneously downplaying the truth that we all have intrinsic and immeasurable value simply by being human; we are all more than the title we offer in an introduction.
So, I’m doing my best to catch myself and exclude the “just a” from my description. The truth is, one of my current roles is a stay-at-home mom, which is a complex and challenging role I am proud of and grateful to have an opportunity to experience. In the future, my role will change, but my value as a human being will not. Because, regardless of what my title and responsibilities look like, I am never “just a” anything.
Wendi, her husband, and their two kids are currently perfecting their best “ya sure you betcha” accents, having recently relocated to northern Minnesota. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters and a member of the podcast Moms Who Wine.
*photo credit: personal photo*