If Your Career Is Your Life, You May Want to Rethink Your Life

In her 2000 book Ten Things I Wished I’d Known—Before I Went Out into the Real World, Maria Shriver wrote the following: “Even though you think your career is your life and your identity, it’s not and it shouldn’t be.”

I used that citation in the first book I ever wrote—about both the value and the demands of motherhood—to drive home the point that putting career before family is a mistake.

I had grown up with a mother who tried to combine a career as a stockbroker with raising two little girls at a time when few women did so. She ultimately quit to stay home with my sister and me, and unlike so many women of the modern generation who were taught to make a career the center of their lives, I got a different message.

“The needs of children are endless,” my mother would say. “You cannot do everything all at once.”

She was right, of course. But what my mother didn’t experience in her day was the double whammy modern women do. Not only is it just as impossible today to combine full-time work with motherhood without something (usually the children and the marriage) being shortchanged, America no longer values family.

That wasn’t the case in my mother’s day when family was first on everyone’s list—women’s and men’s. Indeed, she was an outlier for the times: most folks in her day settled down in their twenties. My mother was 34 when she married, and her decision to quit her job at 40 (ish) to stay home with us was not viewed as a subversive act. Today it would be, which is one of the reasons many women who want to stay home don’t. Who wants to be an outlier?

Yes, there’s also the money factor. But when we truly want something, we find options. Problem is, many refuse to entertain those options—or to even examine how they ended up in the boat they’re in in the first place so they can set about rerouting the boat.

At the end of the day, we all make choices in life, and no doubt the greatest one is when we decide early on whether to create a life that centers on family or to create a life that centers on work.

This is true of both women and men. There are many men, for instance, who are passionate about professions that aren’t particularly lucrative. Ergo, if they want to have a family they may be forced to choose a different career path—one that can comfortably feed a family. There are also men who work around the clock at big jobs in order to provide their wife and children with a nice lifestyle but who, as a result, forgo having any semblance of what the rest of us might call a life.

Still, it is women who get hammered with the message that a career should be first in their lives.

“I went to an all-girls high school,” writes one woman in this video earlier this year about motherhood and careers. “Massive pressure to perform. We had to get top grades so we could get into a good university and have a good career and, as they say, “be set for life.”

I remember distinctively being told by multiple teachers and mentors that having kids would hurt my career. Don’t you want to travel? See the world? Buy a house? Family was not even in the picture.”

As a result of this pernicious message, women—and by default, men—ignore their desire for love and family. After all, men take their cues from women, and women take their cues from a culture that tells them not to prioritize love. Before you know it, everyone’s putting love on the back burner.

Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist who teaches a course at Northwestern University called Marriage 101, says her students have absorbed the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success.

“Over and over,” she writes, “my undergraduates tell me they try hard not to fall in love during college, imagining that would mess up their plans.”

This approach to life and love is completely backwards. Life’s deepest meaning isn’t found in our accomplishments but in our relationships. A happy marriage and home life (for those who want it) is the single greatest investment you’ll ever make. It literally affects everything else you do.

Countless women have learned this the hard way. They’ve put their career first and foremost and as a result are either divorced or unhappily married. Or their kids are a mess. Or they forgot to even have kids and are mired in regret. Many of these women don’t know what they’d do if their career disappeared tomorrow—they are that dependent on it. Bottom line: they’ve given work far too much space and meaning in their lives.

Don’t let this be your fate.

Instead, put love and family at the center of your life. Stop placing so much stock in the pursuit of a career. Most careers are all-consuming and will take over your life until you don’t have a life left to live. Instead, find a job you enjoy, or think you’d enjoy (because unlike a husband or wife, your work path can change many times) and make it part of your life rather than your entire life.

Take all that energy you pour into getting degree upon degree into narrowing down what you want and need in a life partner. Because if you marry to the right person, it will add to your life immeasurably. The stability, companionship and intimacy of marriage will allow you and your life to flourish. No one ever talks about marriage in a positive light because as an institution, it’s dying. 

That may be. But why should you have to go down with the ship?

Those who put off love and family to focus so obsessively on their education and career often wind up regretting it. They find in their 30s that all those plans they made collide with trying to settle down. It’s much harder, especially for women, to find a spouse later in life. Not only must they compete with younger women, by that time just about everyone is carrying a decade’s worth of break-ups, trust issues and disappointments. That’s not a good place to start any relationship.

To be clear, this is not an argument for when, exactly, people should marry. What it is is an argument in favor of flipping our priorities as a nation.

Who you wind up with for the long haul and the family you will presumably create will have the single greatest effect on your happiness and well-being than anything else you do.

So the important question is, Have you created a life that reflects this?

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne is an author, columnist and relationship coach committed to helping women let go of cultural beliefs that undermine their happiness in life and in love.
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