Let me tell you about my most recent coaching client, Karen, who contacted me about her marriage. Karen is a mother of four, as well as a physician. She makes 400K per year. Her husband Dan has an MBA, and originally both he and Karen worked and put the first two of their children in daycare. When they saw it wasn’t working out, they decided one of them should stay home.

Dan became the stay-at-home parent. Though it was not what he wanted to do—he thought it would be better if Karen stayed home, but at the time Karen didn’t agree—Dan turned out to be a great father. The family lives on a farm (not a working farm, a hobby farm), and the children were homeschooled. That part of the story is all good.

Twenty years into this arrangement—although it’s always been touch and go—Karen and Dan’s marriage is on thin ice. Neither is happy in their respective roles. Here’s what Karen had to say:

When I was growing up, my mother stressed the importance of getting a good career as a woman. I believed this message. It seemed sensible to me at the time to be able to take care of myself.

But our role reversal has caused enormous conflict. I am jealous of the fact that he gets to stay at home, and he is jealous of the fact that I get to go to work. I lack respect for him because I’m bringing home all the money. I regret that I’m not a at-home mom and wife, supporting my family instead of leading them. I leave the house at 4:30 am and get home at 6:30 pm. I am too tired for sex at night. My husband tries to lead, but I take charge because I’m the breadwinner.

The feminist message is so strong. We are all influenced by it. It is not good. It is not right.

Karen listened to her mother and culture tell her to “never depend on a man” and to make a career her number-one focus in life. Today, she regrets it.

Reject cultural messages that conflict with your core desire

We all make choices in life, and the greatest one is when we decide early on whether to create a life that centers on family or to create a life that centers on work. This is true of both women and men, but biologically, the sexes are different.

Despite this fact, women get hammered every day with the message that career should come first. “I went to an all-girls high school,” one woman comments on this video about motherhood and careers. “Massive pressure to perform. We had to get top grades so we could get into a good university and have a good career and, as they say, ‘be set for life.’ I remember being told distinctively by multiple teachers and mentors that having kids would hurt my career. Don’t you want to travel? See the world? Buy a house? Family was not even in the picture.”

As a result of this pernicious message, women—and by default, men—ignore their desire for love and family. After all, men take their cues from women. Unfortunately, women have taken their cues from a culture that tells them not to prioritize love. Before you know it, everyone’s putting love on the back burner.

Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University who teaches a course called Marriage 101, says her students have absorbed the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success.

“Over and over,” she writes, “my undergraduates tell me they try hard not to fall in love during college, imagining that would mess up their plans."

This approach to life and love is completely backwards. Life’s deepest meaning isn’t found in our accomplishments, but in our relationships. A happy marriage and home life—for those who want it, which most do—is the single greatest investment you’ll ever make. It governs everything else you do.

Too many women have learned this the hard way. They put their career first and foremost and as a result are either divorced or unhappily married. Or their kids are a mess. Or they forgot to have kids and are mired in regret. Many women don’t know what they’d do if their career disappeared tomorrow—they’re that dependent on it for their self-worth. At the end of the day, they’ve given work far too much space and meaning in their lives.

Put love and family first

Don’t let this be your fate. Stop placing so much stock in the pursuit of a career, and put love and family at the center of your life. Most careers are all-consuming and will take over your life until you don’t have a life left to live. Instead, find a job you enjoy or think you’d enjoy and make it part of your life, rather than your entire life.

Take all that energy you’ve poured into your professional life and put into narrowing down what you really want and need. Because if you find the right person with whom to share your life, it will improve your life exponentially.

Women who put off love and family to focus so obsessively on their education and career often wind up regretting it. It is never too late to shift your priorities. No matter what stage of life you’re in, you can make a change.

Your relationships at home have more effect on your happiness and well-being than anything else you do. The question is, Have you created a life that reflects this?

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