By Carolyn Woo
When students and professionals, men or women, have sought my advice on careers, one key point I mention is to not give up family for work. As Mother’s Day arrives, let me share my experience.
Our sons are now grown. Ryan is a young clinical professor of medicine specializing in geriatrics, and Justin seeks his way to make God real and lives holy in a secular culture through the path of graduate theological studies. These choices emanate from a strong faith, the desire to touch, heal and minister, and discipline that hones natural gifts into skills.
I pray daily for their holiness and health. I know this sounds lofty and unreal, but these have guided my petitions since 1996.
That was when, facing different career options, I enrolled in a three-week executive program — ostensibly to develop leadership skills, but primarily for time away to deliberate. Still undecided at the end of the program, I was close to panic. But a question, completely unrelated to the task at hand, lodged itself in my head.
The question: What would I want for our two boys? The answer: That they know their gifts as blessings from God, work hard to cultivate these gifts and never use their gifts to put people down but to lift people up.
I felt great peace even though I did not get a direction arrow for the fork on that career path. These three points guided many choices. As one example, we did not want the most exclusive high schools for our sons as much as a strong faith culture, respect for authority, exposure to people from different economic strata and ability to celebrate others. A proportionate sense of achievement and humility were just as important as solid academics.
When they showed no interest in gifted programs at prestigious universities during summer vacations and instead proposed unstructured time to play sports and read, we listened. I abandoned my busy grid of daily academic and sports programs that made the summers “productive” and the sons “competitive.”
For a Chinese mother, to pass up on “gifted” affiliations and opportunities required a re-programming that opened up appreciation for alien concepts such as relaxation, downtime and vacations. As a result, the boys started each academic year with energy and commitment. Not once did we have to check on due dates for assignments.
I worked a lot of hours and have no regrets. I draw tremendous energy from the aesthetics and ethics of doing a good job and have flourished in the opportunities offered to me.
What I have learned is that I could have managed my stress better, set boundaries and switched off work issues when I was with the family, given warning when I was preoccupied and about to blow, and apologized when I took it out on them. People often focus on managing time, but we should pivot our attention more toward managing stress.
Today, we so enjoy our time together with the “boys” and the range of conversation over books, politics, religion, faith, society, comics, sports, etc., and their examples of faith-filled lives. I recognize that my sons and husband are God’s special gifts to me and his manifestations of love, compassion, fidelity and agency.
Whenever I am formally introduced at conferences and speeches, I am proudest of that last line: mother of Ryan and Justin. It is by this that I measure everything else.
Carolyn Y. Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services in the United States.
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