It’s not what you do, it’s whom you serve

September 25, 2008 | 30 comments

One day this summer one of the girls stopped by during the kids’ naptime to talk with me about something that was on her mind, and caught me at a particularly busy time. As we sat there, drinking lemonade over ice at my kitchen table, me listening to her discuss the details of a problem she had with one of her friends (instead of doing what I had planned for that hour), it occurred to me that this is the sort of situation that would have led me to feel deeply conflicted in my old life.

Sure, helping these girls is nice, the thinking would have gone, but what about me? I’m trying to work on that article I’d like to get published, and that is an important goal for my personal fulfillment. I like to help the girls, but…do I really have the time if I’m going to be serious about developing a writing career? Is it worth it to spend so much time with them if it means stymieing important personal accomplishments?

Over and over again, the same scenario kept playing out: I’d follow my heart and get myself in situations that required selfless giving (say, getting married or having kids); but then logic would kick in and I’d realize that too much selfless giving was going to get in the way of meeting my personal goals, the pursuit of which I “knew” to be the meaning of life from the values I’d learned from our culture. I’d end up stressed out about how I was going to balance it all.

The main problem was that the prioritization was not clear at all. If I set aside some of my duties as wife and mother to focus on pursuing my own projects, that would be good, because the meaning of life is to do stuff that’s fulfilling to you personally…right? Yet my heart kept pulling me in the direction of focusing more on motherhood and family, which was odd since obviously I’d lose my whole identity and have nothing to show for my life if I wasn’t accumulating bullet points for my resume. I was confused. There was a constant tug-of-war between my brain and my heart, and I didn’t know how to get out of it.

This is one of the biggest areas where the Christian worldview changed my life.

A couple of years ago some Catholic readers responding to this post introduced me to the concept of “vocation, ” that every single person is called to one of the vocations that God has given us — the most common being married life, the priesthood or consecrated religious life — and that each of us is to discern to which vocation we are called. What I found most interesting about this whole concept (and, frankly, shocking and slightly disconcerting at the time), is that your life’s vocation isn’t as much what you do as much as it is whom you serve. This worldview basically said that each of us is put on this earth to serve others, and your vocation is simply a matter of discerning whom you’ll serve and how you’ll serve them. In other words, there is no living for yourself. There’s no optimizing your entire life around what you feel like doing.

“WHAT?!” I thought. “But I like optimizing my life around what I feel like doing!” This was a major, cataclysmic change in thinking for me. And I wasn’t sure I was on board with it.

I thought that what was being pitched here was a life of drudgery that would quickly send spoiled, lazy people like me to the mental hospital. I took it to mean that you literally can’t have a moment to yourself, that you must turn all your hopes and dreams over to the dustbin and work yourself to exhaustion to do whatever other people want you to do.

What I realize now is that I completely misunderstood the concept. I came to see that this worldview is not an expression of absolutes, but of prioritization. To live a life of service does not mean that you never take time for yourself; it means that taking time for yourself isn’t the entire meaning of life. It does not mean that you turn your hopes and dreams over to the dustbin; it means you turn them over to God.

It was only very hesitantly that I put this concept into practice in my life. Slowly I began to embrace the fact that the defining purpose of my life is to be a wife and mother, that to serve my husband and my children and my parents and the world around me was what God wanted me to do…that it was even what he wanted me to do far more than write great articles or books or blog posts (even if those articles and books and blog posts were in an effort to bring glory to him). It was one of my first big exercises in trusting God to accept this premise that selfless service of others is objectively a higher life priority than seeking personal gain.

I tested the waters hesitantly. Ever so slowly, I deprioritized the activities that were all about me — not cutting them out entirely, just recognizing their proper place in my life. When I found myself in a situation where I had a choice between doing something for someone else and doing something for me, unless there was a good reason not to (e.g. if I were feeling run down and genuinely needed a break), I began to choose service. All the while I worried about was that this would be the end of my hopes and dreams, that all the little hobbies and projects I’d so enjoyed would fall by the wayside as I gave and gave and gave with nothing left for me. Once again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What I found was that God always, always gave me what I needed to feel personally fulfilled. Sometimes it was just barely enough, but it was enough. I found that when I was finally willing to admit that my personal goals like writing or getting published were a lower priority than my call to marriage and motherhood (not unimportant, just a lower priority), that’s actually when God really began to bless my efforts in those departments. Though I had less time for it, the time I did spend on it bore fruit like never before.

So as I would spend those days this summer listening to the girls talk to me about whatever was on their minds, for the first time I really felt the peaceful order the Christian worldview has brought to my life. The conflict was gone. I didn’t have to wonder if my time would be better spent trying to get something published as opposed to listening to a little ten-year-old tell me about her worries about the fifth grade. Though sometimes it was a painful exercise in trust, I knew that God would help me make up time “lost” talking to the girls if that’s what I needed. Finally, I had a clear prioritization that put an end to that tug-of-war between my head and my heart, and I realized that my heart had been right all along.


  1. Sarahndipity

    Great post! I’m a cradle Catholic but I struggle with the same things.

    Ever since I was about 10 years old, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I still write poetry and have gotten a few poems published. I’ve also always known that my vocation was marriage and motherhood, and got married and had a child at a pretty young age. Sometimes I struggle with trying to “balance it all.” I worry about whether I’ll have time to write if I have more children. But I also think that the mere act of having children makes your priorities change. Personal fulfillment isn’t as important to me as it was before I had my daughter. It’s not that it’s not important, just less important. I think it’s become even less important since I found out we’re expecting #2. I still worry about finding time to write and have a hard time just giving it over to God. I guess I just need to not worry about it so much – I have my whole lifetime to write, after all. Easier said than done, though!

  2. Milehimama

    Hey Jen,
    I tagged you for a fun meme (no existential crisis required).

    I love the definition of vocation – who you’ll serve and how you’ll do it. I think my boys think of “vocation” as a “career”, which is not helped by my describing it as “life’s work”.

  3. SuburbanCorrespondent

    Sigh. If only I were as articulate as you, I would be able to tell you just how special this post of yours is to me…it crystallizes everything I’ve been trying to figure out for years.

  4. Dean

    Another homerun! Your reflections touch reality in a most honest and helpful way. I hope these make it into your book so that we can have them to refer to whenever we need them. You help me with my faith. Again, like you, I am finding that Catholicism has so many beautiful teachings that even as a Presbyterian minister I never came close to knowing.
    I start my day at the office- teaching where students walk in even as I think about that book I want to write- readiing your blog.
    Dean in Wisconsin

  5. Anonymous

    Jen, you wrote this:
    “Though I had less time for it, the time I did spend on it bore fruit like never before”

    In literal terms, does that mean that when you reprioritized mothering over writing, you began to see material success – publications, blog hits and so forth – in your writing career? Or was it that you saw an improvement in writing, or that it was easier or faster to edit etc? I am curious.

    Regarding the vocation subject, one thing that has always troubled me: is it possible to have two vocations in life? For example, Margaret Thatcher served England as their prime minister, but she also had children. Leading a country is a commitment to public service that goes way above and beyond ordinary time demands, one might then assume that her vocation was to serve the people of Britain. Yet as a mother, certainly her service was to her children.

    I have had a hard time coming to grips with the vocation issue, because it so often translates as a “calling” – one true purpose – whereas the lives we live seem to be nothing but multi-purposed.

  6. Kevin


    Good post.

  7. The Koala Bear Writer

    I’ve struggled over the past year and a bit with feeling like I come third on the list… that I have to put my husband and daughter first and then have no time or energy to do anything for myself. Yet lately, as you say, serving them has brought me more time for myself. I’m getting back into my writing career and even playing violin once again. Who said God couldn’t work wonders with time? 🙂

  8. Flexo

    Yet my heart kept pulling me in the direction of focusing more on motherhood and family, which was odd since obviously I’d lose my whole identity and have nothing to show for my life if I wasn’t accumulating bullet points for my resume.

    What is the very first act that the All-Powerful did? The absolutely first thing that God did in history (setting aside the total mystery of His eternal existence “before” time began (realizing that there is no “before” if there is no time))?

    The very first thing that God did was to create and prepare a home for His family. The second thing He did was to have a family, to have children.

    If the all-powerful guy who can have anything He wants made family His number one priority, perhaps that should tell us something about where our priorities should lie.

  9. Michelle

    Great post! I have very much struggled with my own vocation as a wife and mother. Mostly because my friends are convinced that staying home with your kids and running a household is not a vocation (which they vocalize often enough and loud enough). But I think it was when one of my friends commented that she wouldn’t know what do if she had to be home with her daughter all day (and going to work was a break)that I realized that my friends were wrong. My vocation is to be a wife and a mother. Raising my children (and definitely teaching them the importance of serving God, loving them, and giving them my time)is the most important and fulfilling thing I can do.

    My struggle is different these days. It’s more about balancing everything. Which is harder being pregnant with the second baby. Trying to run the house, plan my sons first birthday, and give my son as much of my time as he needs. Your post reminds me that in our vocations we all serve God and that He provides all the fulfillment we need. Something that I sometimes forget.

  10. Kim

    Another fantastic, thought-provoking post. I’m having a hard time with serving my family versus taking time for myself, and with my two little ones (one *very* little), there’s a lot of serving going on. Thanks for putting it in words this way. I really have to start practicing turning my thinking in that direction.

    I also want to say this: I *love* SteveG. His comments in that link were so amazing, as they always are, and I simply love hearing his perspective.

  11. izhilzha

    The challenge, then, is discerning one’s vocation. I shall have to think about this at greater length; I am no minister, nor am I married with children. If I had to take a stab at my vocation, I would have to point to the strong conviction that I am supposed to be serving other artists. That’s what drove me to Los Angeles, and what continues to fuel my writing and my attempts to move into the entertainment industry.

    Hard to tell, though, when everyone else sees such a calling as “fulfilling one’s dreams,” whether this is truly a vocation. (I imagine if it were only my desire speaking, I would be much, much more ambitious, but only God knows if that’s true.)

  12. Tami Boesiger

    I completely relate to this post, Jennifer. I’ve had all the same feelings you express here. I know the pull when unexpected guests show up on your door. I tell myself over and over again to do what is right, to put others ahead of myself. It isn’t always easy, but I know it makes God smile when we care for His children. Thanks for the reminder today.

  13. Pentimento

    Thanks for posting this. It’s very helpful to me in my own struggle to be as decent as possible a wife and mother.

  14. Gina

    Your post reminded me of one of my favorite short stories, Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” Have you read it? If not, I hope you get a chance to do so; I think you’d really enjoy it.

  15. Carrien

    You know, if I were to ever consider converting to Catholicism it would be precisely for this understanding of vocation.

    It’s something not understood or taught in such a comprehensive and helpful way in most Protestant circles.And it’s so important.

  16. Shannon

    Jennifer, I’ve been right there in that boat many times before. Unfortunately, I have made the selfish choice a lot instead. I’m going to save this blog and look at it often because it’s so well-put and important. You are a huge blessing to these girls, even if they don’t understand it or recognize it at the moment.

  17. Elizabeth

    This has been a journey for me, too.

    I have found that the more I choose service and others, the I feel less grabby, needy and desperate FOR MY personal fulfillment. Somehow, my needs are met organically and in the flow of every day life.

    I love how God works that out!

    And also, I find that the things I used to think would bring me happiness are growing “strangely dim.” They sort of slough off me like dead skin, falling away, and I don’t hardly miss them anymore.

    All that’s left is praise to a Savior Who knew so much better all along! Isn’t He Good?

  18. Stacy

    I really look forward to reading your posts, as they truly make me think long and hard about my life as a Christian.

    Although I grew up Catholic, I left the church for many reasons and found happiness with another Christian religion. But, I do very much appreciate your thoughts and views.

    Best of luck to you!

  19. Mum-me

    “To live a life of service does not mean that you never take time for yourself; it means that taking time for yourself isn’t the entire meaning of life. It does not mean that you turn your hopes and dreams over to the dustbin; it means you turn them over to God.”

    Thankyou for the phrasing – this is what I’ve been trying to explain to someone but have not quite been able to put it the way I meant it to sound. This sums it up perfectly.

  20. newine

    Great post! (It resonate with men too — at least this one, a work-from-home, work-at-home dad who’s found joy in the “small stuff”.) The idea that I can figure out what long-term personal goals will be best for me *and* figure out how those fit together with everyone around me is, when you think about it, an impossible burden. It’s such a relief to be able to inquire of the Holy Spirit which ones are glittering junk and which ones are storing up real treasure in heaven.

  21. mary ellen

    Thank you for the lovely reflection on the meaning of vocation. Whenever I pray the second joyful mystery of the Rosary – the Visitation of the Blessed Mother to Elizabeth – I pray for the virtue of prompt charity. Then, when I am given an opportunity to grow in this virtue (e.g., someone stops over unexpectedly or one of my kids is especially demanding), I grumble and complain and fume about never having a chance to do what I need to do because of all these blasted interruptions. Every once in a while, in the middle of my pity party, I will envision the Blessed Mother going in haste to see Elizabeth and I will be silent. At these times, I feel great peace. Now, to have the times of silence outnumber the times of grumbling. That is the difficult part.

  22. meandmom

    Thanks for this wonderful post! It inspired me to consider re-defining what my “vocation” is.

    I recently had to go back to work after being a SAHM for 10 years. I felt that my vocation was ripped right out from underneath me as I fully enjoyed the servitude of motherhood.

    This post inspired me to look at my current situation as a tweaking of my vocation, not as a surrender of that vocation.

    So helpful, as your words often are.

  23. Karen E.

    “I found that when I was finally willing to admit that my personal goals like writing or getting published were a lower priority than my call to marriage and motherhood (not unimportant, just a lower priority), that’s actually when God really began to bless my efforts in those department.”


    Same here.

    That God. He’s just so maddeningly *right* all the time. It could infuriate a person if it weren’t for all the spiritual fulfillment going on ….

    Great post.

  24. planty

    Excellent post (and thank you as it points me, yet again, at what should be my priorities!)

    I posted on my own blog a while ago a struggle I was having and questions I was asking myself which your post answers beautifully.

    Thankfully God keeps providing me with pointers and reminders when I start questioning again!

  25. Woodrow


    Wow! Thanks for this post! I’m discerning a call to religious life, and all these obstacles I didn’t know were there keep showing up. However, thinking about it in terms of “who I serve” instead of “what should I do” rather takes the stress out of it. Thanks once more for a great post.

  26. Abigail

    Such a great post!

  27. Kate Wicker

    Great post and something I need to meditate on from time to time. Your definition of a vocation is right on.

    One line of thinking that has really helped me in my writing life is to think of words like babies. They come in God’s time. I have to let the Lord lead me in my vocation as mom and wife AND as a writer.


  28. Stretch Mark Mama

    I follow this story line with interest as it parallels my life quite closely. We have neighbors with three boys, all the same ages as my two boys, and they are low on boundaries and high on maintenance. I so badly want to reach their hearts but it always costs me something. I asked my husband tonight to “solve my problems” (in regards to the neighbors) and he said, “Life is not so much a problem to be solved, but a tension to be felt.”


    (And I reaaaaaally don’t like relational tension.)

  29. Tara Sz.

    Hi Jen,

    Every now and then I wander back through your archives, and this was one of my favorites. Thank you for expressing this Truth so eloquently.



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