Nearly every parent who’s working to support a family feels constrained by their career choices: Providing financial security for your children usually takes precedence over fulfilling your own dreams and aspirations. If you’re especially fortunate, you don’t have to choose or compromise. But many of us do, even though most of us never start out thinking that way about our working lives. As kids, we aspire to be doctors or astronauts or pop stars, and only as adults–and particularly as parents–do we begin to adjust our career decisions, first to the realities of the workforce and later to the needs and demands of other people (partners, spouses, parents, children).
My dad is an accountant. When I was very young, he served as a comptroller and then started working in small accounting firms, eventually moving out on his own. The older I got, the clearer it became that accounting wasn’t my father’s passion, even though it paid the bills. When I got to college, it struck me that he spent an awful lot of time doing things he didn’t particularly like. And this observation motivated me to think differently, and pursue career paths I’d find more fulfilling than he seemed to find his.
There’s been a lot of debate in recent years about “passion careers” and “dream jobs,” including whether they’re reasonable things to pursue in the first place. But those conversations typically focus narrowly on individual (and implicitly unattached) job seekers, with seemingly little to say to working parents whose career choices are always influenced by concern for their kids. In reality, though, opting to find purpose and fulfillment in the work you do can benefit your children in unexpected ways. It just takes a shift in perspective to understand how.
Vocation versus calling
The past 25 years has witnessed a boom in positive psychology research, a field pioneered by psychologist Martin Seligman, who pointed out that researchers were mainly focusing on mental illness and neglecting to understand what good mental health consists of. A number of researchers, like Ed Diener, for example, have extended into the workplace the focus that Seligman argued for, and there’s now data to help us distinguish conceptually between “vocations” and “callings.” A calling is a motivation to engage in activities (at work) that serve a broader purpose, often to the benefit of other people or society at large. A vocation is a job that satisfies that calling.
Research suggests that people who have a calling and view their work as a vocation are both more dedicated to that work and happier at work than those who don’t. Crucially, it’s all a matter of mind-set; the ability to see your professional life this way is independent of the specific tasks your job entails. For example, people working at animal shelters and clean dirty kennels may still feel that their work benefits abandoned animals.
If you have children, chances are they’re sensitive to the ways you talk about work and react to its pressures. They can see when you truly love the things you do, and when you’re just punching the clock. And even if you never make your feelings toward your work explicit, you’re nonetheless teaching them a lot about how they should view their work lives as they get older.
There’s nothing wrong with simply using your job to pay the bills–your kids rely on you to do that. When there’s something else that you’d much rather be doing for a living, you might hesitate over how changing course might impact your household. But while that’s always a good instinct that’s worth considering carefully, it’s not a watertight rationale for playing things safe.
The eyes of beholders
Indeed, taking measured, purposeful risks can benefit your kids as well as you personally. Perhaps all that means for you is enrolling in an evening class toward an advanced degree. Many of the graduate students I teach are parents who tell me how wonderful it is to study alongside their children. Yes, that may mean pulling back on some family activities in order to make time, but you’re giving something back in the process: Your kids gain a model of lifelong learning in action, all in the interests of pursuing meaningful work.
Plus, building a work life that’s rich in desirable challenges can feed back into your home life in surprising and positive ways. Research on motivation suggests that our overall attitudes toward our own lives depends on what we choose to notice about them. When you’re pursuing positive outcomes at work, you’re more likely to take note of the good things elsewhere in your life. The reverse is true, too: When you spend your working hours grinding your teeth and weathering daily catastrophes, you’ll zero in on all the downsides to the rest of your life, too.
The point here isn’t that you should strike out and take careers risks unthinkingly or selfishly. It’s that you should think more intentionally about the risks you do and don’t take, because your children internalize all of that anyway. So start just by paying more attention to the ways (good, bad, and middling) that your professional life influences your family life. You may come to conclude that pursuing your calling is one of the best parenting decisions you can make.