The Mommy Vortex: Is Following Your Passion Practical?
What are you going to be when you grow up?” a mom of another student casually asked my three-year old at her “stepping up” ceremony into pre-school (there is a ceremony and trophy for everything nowadays, but I digress). My daughter looked at her and simply said, “Happy!” I don’t think my daughter fully understood what she was saying, but the other mom looked at me in surprise. “Well, good luck with that,” the mom said, a bit sarcastically.
I wondered then, for the millionth time since my daughter was born, what will she be when she grows up? I’m a planner. You know, the (admittedly) annoying type that thinks which pre-school you go to will ultimately decide whether you get into an Ivy League college. And yet, I also wonder, is getting into an Ivy League college a recipe for success? And will that type of success ultimately equate with happiness?
I mean, what if my daughter doesn’t want to go to an Ivy League—or go to college at all —or she wants to enter a career that is not monetarily lucrative? Would I discourage her passion for the sake of practicality? Is following your dreams always incongruous with making a decent living?
I am not the only parent of young kids weighing such heady issues at a time when we should probably only be worried about whether the park’s slide is too steep. Recently, Dr. Peter Bongiorno, a naturopathic physician and father of a four-year old girl, asked his readers in Psychology Today what he should tell his own daughter when she begins to consider career options: should she be true to her heart and passion, hoping that money would follow? Or be more financially practical about her career choice?
Dr. Bongiorno admits to exploring his own varied talents and idealistic dreams before realizing another passion for naturopathic medicine and healing, which he also admits is more practical path than his rock-band drummer days. Yet, after reading Forbes’ June 2011 cover story, The Ten Steps to Make Your Kid a Millionaire, Dr. Bongiorno questions whether his daughter should follow his own circuitous route or just immediately aim for a practical financial reality.
I think, as parents, we all want our children to one day have a stable roof over their heads and food on the table. But we also want them to be happy. Their career choices, as we all know, can significantly affect the twin dreams we have for our children of financial security and contentment. Given my own inability to reconcile practicality and passion, I don’t think I’m at all qualified to guide either of my children as they consider education and careers. I double-majored in English/World Literature and Government (and threw in a minor in Religious Studies), because I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be an author, an English professor, join the Peace Corps, or run for office.
I eventually opted for law school, for no other reason than that it seemed the most stable career choice, given that I was afraid to follow my true dream of becoming a writer and professor for fear of financial instability. Fear, I’ve learned, sometimes outweighs even the strongest passion.
While becoming an attorney afforded me with diverse and challenging opportunities in both the private and public sectors, the law certainly isn’t my passion (trust me, I’ve seen other lawyers who are truly passionate about what they do; while I admire them, I readily admit I am not one of them). I have not been unhappy; I still practice, albeit in a more non-traditional role. Yet, even knowing the financial stability I had early in my career (before children, that is), I still would not choose to go to law school if I had the option to go back and decide again.
That is a painful reality I would not want my children to face.
Knowing first-hand that practicality (and fear) can sometimes lead to wrong choices, I think I might answer Dr. Bongiorno’s question by supporting his theory that passion can lead to many types of success, including financial. Yes, I know there are many starving artists and actors out there, but there are also many really, really unhappy lawyers, doctors, and hedge fund managers, too.
So, I guess the answer for our children is somewhere in between. In truth, there is a range of careers that our children are likely interested in, some of which are viable and others that are not. But in the end, if you end up in a career or job that you despise, you cannot be fully productive, stable, or happy (and many of us can relate to this). I also think it’s a process—sometimes you have to study or work in a field before deciding it is or is not for you. You have to give it a go, so you don’t wonder “what if,” leaving regrets behind. That process is, arguably, expensive and impractical. But I’d also argue that trying then deciding not to pursue something is not a failure; instead it is a successful elimination that makes room for the next opportunity.
I think, then, that we have to expose our children to as many different career paths as possible. Encourage them to have a back-up plan, or two. And teach our children to be flexible in their thinking about how their education and talents will parlay into a life-long career (or into several different careers over a lifetime, especially for those who on- and off-ramp during child-rearing years).
Forcing our children to make choices about schools, majors, and professions without giving them the opportunity to experience different types of occupations and careers, or by not first allowing them to reflect on what their passions and gifts are, is a recipe for unhappiness. Even if they do have a great roof over their head.
The very practical (and somewhat overbearing) mom in me is screaming for me to advocate for a safe, financially conservative position that will withstand tough economic times. And yet, if I could go back and talk to my 18 year old self, I would tell her to follow her heart. So, for better or for worse, I will tell my children the same thing.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.