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Work • Sorrows of Work

How Parents Get in the Way of Our Career Plans

For most of human history, what we did for a living was decided for us by our families. We would either directly copy what our parents did, or else we would reverentially accept their suggestions for what we might do.

Only for around the last 200 years have we been choosing jobs for ourselves – and we’re still at the dawn of learning some of the complexities involved.

On the surface, most families claim to have no interest in their children doing any job in particular. The standard line is that they simply want us to be happy.

But we are not as free as this sounds. We are always hemmed in by what can be termed ‘family work scripts’, scripts that guide us – often very subtly but also very heavily – towards certain occupations and away from others. Part of properly growing up – which may sometimes happen only in one’s 50s – involves learning to find a way round the scripts we’ve been handed.

At the most benign level, our family work scripts are the result of what our families understand of the working world. Every family has a range of occupations that it grasps, because someone has practiced them and in the process brought them within the imaginative range of other family members.

Yet it isn’t just a case that our families might not know about certain jobs and so cut us off from them. They might also be positively hostile or suspicious of other jobs. We’re liable to have received many little messages indicating that certain careers are inferior – and therefore beneath us, dangerous, phoney or not quite right for our sort of station in life.

Whatever lip service might be paid to gender equality, families are also highly talented at sending out covert messages about what a ‘real’ man or a ‘real’ woman should honourably do.

Yet more darkly, families may say that they want us to succeed, but would be highly threatened if we did so. A choice we make might remind someone of one of their failed ambitions. Our success might make them feel like a failure. We might try to sabotage our chances of winning so as not to leave a loved one feeling crushed.

Often without realising it, we are being heavily controlled by our families. Controlled not by harsh words but by something far more poignant and yet far harder to extricate ourselves from: by our ongoing desire to be a good child, to please those who brought us into this world, by love. Love can control us as much as force or the law ever did.

We are liable to try to be good children not just because we feel love but because we fear losing love, because we live in dread of being cast out if we were to dare to what we really want.

But here is the good news for timid good children. Parents very rarely disown their progeny. It certainly seems they might in our imaginations forged in childhood. But the adult reality is that families are extremely good at threatening to break apart, but then forgiving one another, and accommodating the most extraordinary challenges and tests.

We can’t know all families, but we can guess that almost anyone could do a lot more than they think, a lot more that might be a bit ‘bad’ in the eyes of the elders, and still be forgiven.

We owe our parents respect and kindness. We do not owe them our lives. We should dare, when the pressure has become unbearable, to leave their script aside.

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