Is It Selfish to Choose Passion and Work Over Family?

  

we did spend a good part of our income on household help.  I don’t regret that at all.  Baby-sitters allowed me to preserve my sanity, to the extent that I have it.  I always had at least three hours in the morning to write.  I couldn’t have given up writing.  I think I could have enjoyed a marriage without children, though I’m very glad I had them; they’ve enriched my life enormously.  But I don’t think I could have had a satisfying life without writing.  Thankfully I didn’t have to make the choice.

~ Norma Klein, author of 30 novels, from Women Who Write by Lucinda Irwin

 

Above is the writing fortune cookie I chose randomly out of a bag on the last night of an inspirational writing class.  I had the option to put it back and choose another, but I didn’t.  I found it perfectly poignant.  I shared the fortune with a couple of people. After each of them read the quote, I felt a strong urge to throw in the disclaimer, Not that I want to wish away my own kids.  For the line that sticks out to me, I think I could have enjoyed a marriage without children, seems to require a qualifier, some proof that I have my priorities straightEven Norma Klein can’t leave it alone.  She adds, though I’m very glad I had them; they’ve enriched my life enormously.

What if your passion and your family are two different things?  Is it selfish or essential to find personal fulfillment outside of family life?

Mommy vs. Career Woman

My husband read my fortune and honed in on the words, my sanity, to the extent that I have it.  He knows I need hours of introspection to stave away the rubber room. He does his best to help me get them, but…life would be much easier if I just focused on being present for the children and him (the gig I agreed to when we married in 1996). 

To be honest, I happily gave up my career woman title for a turn in the mommy seat.  My generation, following closely on the heels of the feminist movement, was told we can and should compete to the best of our ability.  Do well in school and use your brain to achieve  high ranking positions that earn lots of money.  You have choices. Choose to be powerful.  I tried and hated the business world. I couldn’t wait to ditch that scene.

As an introvert, I thought it would be glorious to hideout in motherhood; no more deadlines, aggressive co-workers, forced teamwork, and false enthusiasm. In other words, no extroverting beyond my comfort zone.  I found joy and happiness in the early years of my kids’ lives.  Babyhood and toddler days were sweet and magical.  I could love and nurture in my quiet introspective way, then enjoy downtime while the kiddos napped. My babies grew into children with minds of their own and vocabularies to express them.  Again I was faced with deadlines (homework, school projects), aggression (sibling rivalry, opposition to food selection, bedtimes, hair brushing), teamwork (everywhere we go we’re five people, pain in the ass at restaurants where most tables are for four) and the understood rule to remain enthusiastic and pleasant even when I was at the end of my rope. I loved my children and their spirits but I was dying on the vine.

Then I found writing.

Writing:A Solitary Passion

Writing led me to a haven of introverts and a world of inner-well being.  Writers became my heroes and companions.  They understood my desire for solitude. It was not selfish to spend hours reading, writing and pondering. I felt introspective rather than self-centered.  I did notice one thing.  The majority of my writing compadres were single.  Hmmm.

Stephen King, prolific horror writer, is not single, but in his style book/memoir On Writing, he claims his self-reliant wife as one of his secrets to success.  She takes care of things while he holes up in a quiet space spinning stories into and out of nightmares.  His wife is a saint, but is Stephen King selfish? 

I remember my urge to leap to Elizabeth Gilbert’s defense when a female relative labeled her selfish based on her epic memoir Eat Pray Love.  In the memoir Elizabeth chooses to divorce her husband and forego children in order to embark on a journey of spiritual seeking. She travels, eats, meditates, and searches for the meaning of true love, on her own.  True she makes friends along the way and ultimately finds a boyfriend, but not until she has had a year to herself.  Out of that solo sojourn came a bestselling book that resonated with thousands if not millions.

Can You Have It All?

I see others struggle with the freedom or family choice.  A writing classmate, a young woman in her early twenties, questions the plausibility of living the artist’s life and having a family.  It seems darn difficult to do both. She wants the autonomy to travel around the world, draw, write and reflect but also craves the experience of love and belongingness.  She is not alone.  According to a 2009 survey in Elle Magazine of 2000 women turning thirty, these young women are horizontally ambitious.  Looking for excellence in all areas, with an emphasis on being happy.  In Why I Envy Generation Me Who Choose Love over Career and Children Above Status, 40-year-old Lorraine Candy, editor of Elle Magazine, tells tales of her corporate climb (spending her honeymoon on the phone, hiding her pregnancy until she couldn’t).  She is openly jealous of the generation that follows hers.  They don’t have to claw their way to the top or be 1950s stay-at-home moms.  They are selfish – but in a good way. It seems there is more living and less striving. I can see the beauty in this setup – joyful living with less stress. Letting love lead instead of society’s expectations.  Still there is a compulsion to do it all (excellence in all areas).  Is a balance possible?  

Stay Single, Less Choices

More people are opting out of the family category altogether. The latest figures point to a trend in single living.  According to Psychology Today’s article, Americans Just Want to Be Single?, in 1970, 40.3% of households included mom, dad, and the kids, and only 17.1% were 1-person households. In 2009, as has been true since at least 2000, there are more 1-person households (27.5%) than married-with-children households (20.6%).  Why the increase in solitary households?  Economy? Choosing to marry later?  Or maybe the single life is just plain satisfying.

Two Ways to Change the World

I know many people find complete fulfillment in raising a family.  Nurturing, child rearing and marriage tick all their passion boxes.  That is a beautiful thing and certainly easily digested by the majority. I agree raising children well can improve the world. But is there courage in rendezvousing with something that makes you feel alive outside of family?  I’m not talking about adultery, sky diving or gambling.  I’m talking about something that gives you a purpose beyond family commitments.  Is it not possible that what you choose could be the very thing that helps the world evolve?  Ultimately, making the earth a better place for children to inherit. I imagine doctors, scientists, artists, musicians, athletes and other professions that require a high degree of concentration and involvement, wrestle with this conflict constantly.

Passion and Work Lead to Compassion

Words of the late Brenda Ueland, author of If You Want to Write and mother of one, sum it up for me:

 …if you are always doing something for others, like a servant or a nurse, and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good.  You make them physically more comfortable. But you cannot affect them spiritually in any way at all.  For to teach , encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate, or advise a husband or children or friends, you have to be something yourself.  And how to be something yourself?  Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.

 A therapist friend gave me the term self-ful to use in place of selfish.  I believe it is self-ful to delve deeply into areas that you deem important. I’ll still hesitate when it comes to closing the door on the study and shutting out my family.  It seems to be an ingrained guilt, but being self-ful leads to more living and less striving. Writing fills me up, has flexible hours, helps others and sets an example of independence for my children. Practicality requires that my children’s needs come first ,but I take passions (everyone’s)seriously.  I am not advocating neglect of families. I am advocating for personal fulfillment in order to positively and spiritually affect those around you. And if your sanity is preserved because of it, well, all the better. 

Does family always come first in your life?  Have you personally benefitted from endeavors outside of family?  What if we all did what we loved (provided it’s not illegal;) within or without our families?

Interested in other posts and articles about the passion and family debate?  Check these out – Touring Without Guilt and Being Passionate about What You Do: Requirement for Success or Complete Falsehood?

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12 Comments

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  4. Debbi
    August 30, 2011

    Thank you soooooo much for saying that!!! I sent my cover letter to a friend who works with statistics…man can you see that she’s on the techy side. She took my soft flowing letter and turned it into a machine spitting out facts. The head hunter wanted heart, and he did get back to me saying he loved it and to send it. I think I need to fix a few things grammer and flow-wise, but I like it as is. The facts should come from the resume. Thank you Thank you Thank you!!!! I specifically said I loved three different aspects in three different sentences all starting with love and was second guessing.

    Reply
  5. Debbi
    August 26, 2011

    I don’t have a husband and kids, but I don’t feel I have anything to offer in conversation or otherwise to friends and family if I don’t work on something I love whether it’s a project, volunteering, reading, writing, creating, photographing, etc. I need “fill my well” in order to give anything of substance to another person.

    Reply
    • brennagee
      August 26, 2011

      We all need something to put “fire in our belly.” It makes us more interesting and more satisfied. Which, as you said, makes for better connections with others. Thanks for your comment Debbi.:)

      Reply
      • Debbi
        August 29, 2011

        Fire AND stress! I wouldn’t be as stressed though if I didn’t want to succeed in this arena so badly…but man…sometimes it’s more than my body can take. I am however moving forward as planned. Applying to three jobs between today and tomorrow. Regarding the one I want, I’ve been working on a cover letter, with LARGE anxiety breaks, for three days. I’m hoping that will get easier as I go. Moving into a realm you have never navigated before leaves questions everywhere…how do I target the interviewer, which jobs can I truly succeed at, what key points will grab them on the cover letter, how do I list the key points while showing my passion, where do I find the positions that will intrigue me, how do I consolidate past experiences to create solid examples to interview questions, etc. etc. etc.

        Reply
        • brennagee
          August 30, 2011

          Don’t be afraid to say how much you want the job, either in the cover letter or at the interview. Any UNIQUE experience you have will stand out, even if it’s experience from your personal life. Everything gets easier the more you do it. The unknown and changes cause a lot of stress. Action dissolves fear my dear. You are on your way! Good luck!!

          Reply
  6. Roberta
    August 21, 2011

    Loved your post, Brenda! Your points hit close to home….hiding out in motherhood… that’s me most of the time. However, it is empowering and refreshing to take “me” time. I just started learning tennis this summer. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I am enjoying it.

    I’m going to remember your quote, “What others think is none of our business”…love it! Thanks for sharing

    Reply
    • brennagee
      August 22, 2011

      I used to feel like I was hiding out in motherhood because I couldn’t handle other more assertive (business) careers. Now I feel like motherhood is ultra challenging and courageous work. There is finesse and artistry in doing it well just as there is in doing something that feeds your soul outside of family. Roberta you carefully craft stability and fun in your family. I admire that. I’m glad tennis is filling you up as well. You choose family and passion. The results are incredible.:) Thanks for reading and commenting. I truly appreciate it.

      Reply
  7. jenny
    August 19, 2011

    Great post Brenda! I love all the different aspects of my life and journey, too…. The good bad and downright ugly have contributed to who I AM. My koids have brought immeasurable joy to me, as has love, volunteerism, hobbies and even work. I think its great that you take Brenda-time when you need it. You’re leading with a confident self-ful example that is good for all your loved ones in your circle. Cheers to you!

    Reply
    • brennagee
      August 19, 2011

      Thanks for reading Jenny! 🙂 It does take all aspects of ourselves (even the shadowy parts) to be self-ful. All we can do is love and live. What others think is none of our business.;)

      Reply
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