How can such a simple question be so tough to answer? Here’s the simple answer: I am a stay-at-home mom and photographer. But behind that answer are 264,957 other little answers that all contribute to what it is that I do.
The idea of what I “do” used to be so easy to answer. I grew up wanting to be a teacher, and a teacher is what I became. I taught junior high and high school English at two very different schools – first at a tiny high school in central Illinois, and then at the only all-girls Islamic middle school and high school in the country. Those two experiences left a lasting impact on me. I value these experiences so much, and love that each was brilliantly unique and meaningful. As I had worked for most of my life to become a teacher, in my eyes my identity was simply “a teacher.” And truthfully, I liked that. It was easy.
My classroom in 2011, My Halloween costume as Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter
Then my husband, Will, got an offer through his company to move to California and everything changed.
I found myself in a brand new state at a time when teachers were getting laid off left and right. What was I going to do? I had always been a teacher. It wasn’t just what I did – it’s who I was! All of the sudden I had to make a big decision.
When I decided not to even attempt to get a full-time teaching job in California, a lot of people didn’t understand the decision (thankfully Will wasn’t one of them). I mean, I don’t really blame them. We didn’t have kids and there was no “real” reason for me not to get another full-time job.
Except I didn’t want one.
Soul Searching in the Badlands
So I did some soul searching. And Target shopping. And Amazon shopping. And socializing with the same cashiers at the hardware store and Hobby Lobby day in and day out. I had to decorate our new apartment, after all. I thought about a lot of potential jobs to pursue. But when it came down to it, I wanted to do something that I loved and would give me flexibility when we did decide to have kids.
I really felt like I lost a big part of my identity that summer. For a while, I kept my toe in the teaching pool by tutoring as much as I could. In fact, I still tutor one student that I have taught for the last three years. Teaching her brings me the same joy to see her succeed week after week as it did when I had a classroom full of students.
During that time, I slowly let go of the idea of the teacher I thought I would be. I called my family and friends and shared my growing dreams of being a professional photographer. Even though I had always loved photography and had been working with my DSLR since college, I knew I had a lot to learn. I went back to school and got my Certificate in Wedding and Portraiture Photography. As I developed my identity as a photographer, I started my own business and became a mom! My life had changed completely!
Credit: Shannon Carlsen Photography
And now that we do have a son, I am extremely grateful for the flexibility. I get to be home with our 14 month-old, Henry, during the week, and I can go photograph clients on the weekends. It’s the perfect setup for our current situation, but it does make answering that daunting question a little more complicated to answer.
For perhaps the first time in my life, I genuinely want the question “What do you do?” to mean something more than an occupation. I want it to mean what I am doing to make the world a better place. I want the answer to the question be something my son will be proud of one day. Sure, I’m a photographer and a mom, but I want to be more. I am more than an occupation.
When I look back, I realize that my answer has never been simple. It’s always been complex. I’m just aware of that now.
My Little Henry at One Week Old
Life has really changed since moving to California. I like to believe that I am still teaching even though I no longer have a classroom. For my former students that I am still in touch with, I continue to try to teach them how to be kind, caring, respectful, and fulfilled people. Most of the way I teach them is simply through being a good example; social media is a powerful tool, and I want them to see that it’s not about how you fall – it’s about how you get back up. And when I get texts or emails from them saying that something they learned from me (either in the classroom or elsewhere) has made a difference in their lives, I know that my years in the classroom were impactful and well spent.
Photography gives me so much joy and a purpose that I am proud of each and every day. And being a mom is sincerely the best (and most difficult) job I’ve ever had. I love where my life has taken me. I love the friends and connections I’ve made, the family I’ve gotten closer to, and the twists and turns in my second career path.
And most of all, I love what I do.
Beach Baby Henry at Six Months Old