By Wendy O’Connor
For as long as I can remember, I knew I would have a grand passion in my life, and for the better part of my life, I assumed it would be my career. If I had a husband or children, I thought they would be ancillary to my work. The women's college I attended helped foster this notion that the greatest personal fulfillment came from a career, whether as a prize-winning scientist, an executive of a Fortune 500 company, or a brilliant scholar doing groundbreaking research at a prestigious university. Among my peers, marriage before the age of thirty-or at least before one's career was solidly off the ground-was seen as the last resort for those whose professional lives had stalled prematurely, and having children before attaining a partnership or corner office was tantamount to admitting you just couldn't make it in the "real" world.
I bought into this philosophy and spent my college years searching for the subject of my grand passion. I looked for it in mathematics, music, and art history. Although I enjoyed these disciplines, studying them was still work. I guess I believed that, just as there was a great love waiting for me, so too was there some subject matter that would carry me away. I imagined a profession so fulfilling I couldn't wait to get up each morning. It wouldn't be simply a job, or even a career, it would be a calling, and it would be so significant that everything else in my life (well, maybe not my great love) would pale by comparison.
Having failed to discover my life's work at a liberal arts college, I did what many well-intentioned but misinformed college graduates do: I went to law school. This, I told myself, was it. Law was the answer; in law school I would find my life's work. This time studying would be a joy. Wrong again, I realized early on, but not wanting to quit, I stuck it out, and three years later found myself a junior associate at a litigation firm in Philadelphia.
This is it, I told myself once again. Law school was theoretical, but this was the real thing. About three months into the job, I knew I was wrong-really, really wrong. Quitting was out of the question, however, because I was now supporting my great love, who was in medical school. Besides, everyone kept telling me what a terrific career I had. I smiled along with them and kept waiting for it to be fun.
Somewhere during the five years in which I practiced law, I realized it was never going to be fun. It occurred to me that even if I were able to select only those assignments I wanted, the practice of law was not for me. I stuck with it until my second child arrived, at which point quitting seemed acceptable. After all, it was difficult enough to balance my career with one child, let alone two. Now that my husband, Michael, was a doctor in private practice, quitting was financially feasible, too.
More than two years later, people still can't believe I "gave it all up" to be home with my children. When people learn about my former profession, they are usually flabbergasted that I'd leave such a "glamorous" career to stay home to change diapers and chase an active toddler. I am still asked when I plan to return to "work," as though what I'm doing now is play. Most people assume I'm just holding my breath waiting for my younger daughter, Allie, to head off to kindergarten so I can get back to the real work of my life.
They are wrong. I'm not sure what I'll do when Allie's in school all day. Maybe I'll practice law again, but maybe not. In the five years I spent working as an attorney, I was always aware of all the other things I would rather have been doing. I was never like some of my colleagues who arrived at 7:30 each morning, left at 8:30 each night, and worked every weekend just because they loved it so much. What's more, until a few years ago, I never felt that way about anything, except being with my husband, and I haven't figured out a way to make a living out of that yet. It was a little disappointing, this failure to find a grand passion. I felt as though if I'd only tried harder, at law or something else, I could have found my calling. Then one day it occurred to me, with a shock, that my work as mother and wife and homemaker had become my grand passion.
I'll bet a lot of young women at colleges like mine would scoff at the notion that caring for one's children, home, and spouse could constitute a grand passion. The job of homemaker doesn't get a lot of respect, especially among young women anxious to make their mark on the world. And if you'd told me fifteen years ago that this was what my life was going to be about, I'd have been mortified. What kind of contribution is that? I'd have wondered. Nobody wins prizes for motherhood or gets asked to speak at commencement exercises because of her parenting skills.
Caring for my children, making my family my number one priority, must be my grand passion because I'm giving it my all, every ounce of my strength and energy, without even thinking about it. The work has been so freeing and so meaningful that it's hard for me to imagine any job that matters more or has greater potential for personal fulfillment.
When all is said and done, I won't go down in history as one of those great women I studied in college. My grand passion, it turns out, isn't one that pays well, and it won't win me any awards or prizes or public adulation. Making a home that is peaceful, warm, and welcoming for my family, and being here for my kids-whether or not they recognize the value of it-fills me with deep joy. This is what matters to me. This is where I belong. I've finally found my grand passion in the most unlikely of places: right here at home.
This article originally appeared in the February 1998 issue of Welcome Home.
Article Copyright 1998 Wendy O'Conner. Reproduction or dissemination of this work -- or any part of it -- is expressly forbidden without the written consent of the author.
2011 bio update:
After eight years at home with her three daughters, Wendy returned to the practice of law in 2002 on a part-time basis and later resumed her duties as a full-time litigation attorney when her youngest began kindergarten. Wendy and her family live in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, where her husband, Michael, is a family practice doctor and actively participates in caring for their children and home. Although Wendy finds her legal career rewarding and stimulating, she has never regretted the time she spent at home with her children; she continues to believe it has been the most significant and fulfilling experience of her life. "Some of those days at home were long, lonely, and frustrating, but I would not trade them for the world," she says. Now that her kids are older (daughter Caitlin is a junior at Mount Holyoke College), Wendy enjoys more free time to cook, read, power walk and spend time alone with Michael, but her time with her kids is precious as well. "My children are the great joy of my life, and I am so very grateful for all that being a mother has meant to me." Wendy and Michael’s daughters are Caitlin (20), Allison (17) and Hanna (12).