Distinguishing Vocations from Occupations

There seems to be a never-ending stream of articles advising women on how to navigate the tension between professional and domestic life. Scholarly and popular magazines, religious and secular publications, as well as both bloggers and professional journalists offer a plethora of recommendations. They range in perspective from Brandeis University Professor Linda Hirshman’s 2005 screed exhorting women to marginalize family life as much as possible in order to maximize their power and money to Baylor University Professor Elizabeth Corey’s writing in First Things where she throws up her hands and says there is no possible reconciliation of the conundrum. Any woman who attempts to live in both the professional and domestic worlds is doomed to be tragically conflicted.

The problem with these and most other similar discussions is that they frame the issue as a woman’s problem. Perhaps because women are only recently a significant part of the workforce, their adjustment to the dual role of mother and breadwinner seems more unsettled than it does for men. However, as St. Thomas University Law Professor Elizabeth Schiltz writes in her chapter of the book Women, Sex, and the Church: A case for Catholic teaching, this is not an issue limited to women. Both men and women are required to balance what she terms our private and public vocations. She defines public vocations as, “our responsibilities to live and witness as Christians in and to the various social institutions to which we belong—the Church, our local communities, our places of employment, our country, and our world.”

Professor Schiltz goes on to point to the many resources of the Catholic Church that speak to both men and women as they respond to what she calls “dueling vocations. For example, in both his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatum and his 1995 Letter to Women Pope John Paul II commends the contributions of women in both their private and public capacities. Perhaps part of the “genius of women”, as Pope John Paul II terms it, is to provide the impetus to reform the workplace and make it more supportive of families for both men and women. In order to do that, women who care about families are needed in the workplace. Such a restructuring is called for in both papal documents like Familiaris Consortio and the many publications of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered in the Catholic Framework for Economic Life.

While I greatly appreciate Professor Schiltz steering the conversation to include both men and women, as well as highlighting the great contribution women can make to economic justice, I would tweak her approach to the concept of private and public vocations. In her work, she seems to weigh the two equally and strives to meet the seesaw of their competing demands. I would not characterize domestic and professional lives as equal callings. Instead, I would say we are each called to live out a vocation. Some will be priests. Some will be consecrated religious. Some will be married. Some will be single. Within these vocations, we also live out occupations. For example, a priest may also be a physician. A sister may also be a teacher. A husband and father or wife and mother may also work as a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or any number of other jobs. There is no doubt that the way we conduct our occupations will impact our vocations. Our challenge is to keep our occupations in perspective so that they never overshadow our vocations.

This means that mothers and fathers need to be clear about what the vocation of marriage and parenthood entail. Through marriage we are called to serve God as a couple and to lead each other to heaven. As parents we are called to transmit faith, instill virtue, and prepare our children to journey in this temporal world in a way that eventually leads them to eternal life. There are many ways a mother and father can work outside the home without compromising this vocational mission. But rest assured, there is no financial reward or professional prestige that can replace this mission.

My husband and I walked this path as we raised our four children. He was an Air Force test pilot and I was a physician. We started out with us both working full time. We continued this as our children were born, utilizing both day care centers and in-home childcare providers. After my fourth child was born I cut back to part time. My civilian career allowed this in a way my husband’s military career did not. This was not a decision based on strict male-female roles, but rather a choice made in the best interest of our family. Through frequent military moves I continued to practice medicine part-time, but eventually found that even that was having too great an impact on our family, so I stayed at home full time. Only after the nest began to empty did I re-enter the workforce.

When my youngest was four he had his first trip to the dentist. The dentist asked my son what his father did. My son proudly proclaimed, “Daddy flies jets!” Knowing that I was a doctor, the dentist then asked my son what his mother did. He replied, “Mommy does the dishes!” Certain that I would be disappointed, the dental staff could not wait to report this exchange. And I must admit, at first I did feel a twinge of chagrin. But upon further reflection I realized that this was exactly as it should be. To the outside world doing the dishes may have sounded mundane compared to being a doctor, but what our family needed at that moment was for Daddy to fly his jets and for Mommy to take care of the home fires. In my son’s eyes, I was first and foremost his mom and nothing could trump that.

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Our family experience points to a reality that is often omitted from discussions of balancing work and family. None of our choices are set in stone. Our vocations as spouses and parents require constant analysis and evaluation. What worked well at one stage of our family’s life may need to be adjusted at another. Just because I choose to work outside the home now does not mean I am committed to working outside of the home forever. Choosing to stay at home with my children now does not mean I will never develop my professional life. We do a grave disserve to each other when we are judgmental of each other’s choices. There is no place for the so-called “mommy wars” in a Christian community. Instead, we should be praying that every mother and father find the grace to see what is required at any given moment in order to be the kind of parents they are called by God to be.

Unlike Elizabeth Corey who views the orientations of professional and domestic life as diametrically opposed and irreconcilable, I believe the two can actually be complementary. Sometimes my children need to see me engaging the world as a doctor, writer, and teacher as much as they need to see me in the bleachers at their soccer games. At other times, it is far more important for me to be wearing an apron than it is for me to be wearing a lab coat. There will always be competing demands, but by keeping the primacy of my vocation over my occupations in focus, I can prayerfully and rationally discern which demands must be met and which can be left unfulfilled.


Dr. Denise Jackson Hunnell is a Fellow of Human Life International. She graduated from Rice University with a BA in biochemistry and psychology. She earned her medical degree from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. She went on to complete a residency in family medicine at Marquette General Hospital, Marquette, Michigan. Upon completion of her training, Dr. Hunnell served as a family physician in the United States Air Force. She was honorably discharged. She continued to practice medicine all over the country as her husband’s Air Force career kept them on the move. In order to better care for her family, Dr. Hunnell retired from active clinical practice and focused her professional efforts on writing and teaching. She has contributed work to local and national Catholic publications as well as to secular newspapers including the Washington Post and the Washington Times. She also teaches anatomy and physiology at Northern Virginia Community College Woodbridge Campus. Dr. Hunnell serves as an elected member of the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Other affiliations include the American Academy of Family Physicians, The Catholic Medical Association, and the National Catholic Bioethics Center. She received her certification in health care ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center in 2009. Dr. Hunnell has been married for nearly thirty years to Colonel (ret) John F. Hunnell, an Air Force test pilot. They have four children and are blessed with three grandchildren so far.
Articles by Denise:

  • Ruth Curcuru

    The thing that always strikes me in this discussion is that people see it as normal for Dad to go to work; the question is whether Mom should, or not. What seems to be forgotten is that at the end of the nineteenth century, most men didn’t “go to work” anymore than most women did. They worked on family farms or in small home-based businesses. Dad may have worked in the fields while Mom kept house, tended the garden and children, canned food, made clothes, washed clothes, cooked meals etc. but they both worked, if you define “worked” as producing economic goods.

    Men moved out of working at home before women did, and those of us of a certain age grew up when “everyone’s” mom stayed home, and really wasn’t an economic producer (not saying that raising kids isn’t valuable, just that it doesn’t put food on the table), but that time period was a historic anomaly.

    • D Hunnell

      I am curious as to why you describe the activities of Mom in the late 19th century as producing economic goods but the stay-at-home moms of the 20th century as not adding economic value. From my own experience, I have found the second income is never as large as you expect because of the costs associate with working outside the home. As I cut back on the hours spent earning a paycheck I also gave up paying a housekeeper and cleaned my own house, cooked my own food instead of eating out or buying restaurant food, did my own laundry instead of sending items to the cleaners and took care of my own children instead of paying for day care. All of those things were “economic goods” when I payed someone else to do/produce them so I think they should be considered “economic goods” when I do/produce them.

      The bottom line is that both parents need to jointly take a hard look at their vocational responsibilities as parents as well as their economic realities. They then devise the best plan for their family at a particular moment that meets their vocational, economic, spiritual, and emotional needs. That may mean Mom, Dad, or both earning a paycheck. My hope is that we can stop viewing this as a decision for only women to make and start viewing it as a discussion for both men and women.

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  • Katie

    Great article. Thank you, Dr. Hunnell.