Sorry this is a bit long, but the main thrust is in the title.
I have been in the Church for a little over 2 years, and like many converts, I was inspired by the lives of the saints. This inspiration caused me to strongly consider religious life and/or the priesthood almost from the beginning of RCIA, and this is a process that has continued to the present. I have had multiple conversations with different vocations directors, visited some religious communities and done lots of "cyber discernment."
During all this time I have essentially dismissed the whole idea of the vocation to marriage. This is not to say that I haven't been attracted to marriage--there have been plenty of times I've sat in church thinking about how great it would be to fill a whole pew up with my own kids, or what life would be like at home with a wife and children. But then I would put it out of my mind, considering it a distraction.
The other day I finished a 3-day retreat at a nearby monastery, the 3rd visit I've made in about a year. Everything went fine, and I ended with a conversation with the abbot, in which we talked about life as a monk and what would be expected of me and what I could expect from them, etc. He mentioned the monks who had various roles in the community (priests, campus ministers, music directors, professors--the abbey sponsors a college), and kept saying that they all considered themselves monks first, and everything else second. That gave me pause, because I had envisioned myself more as a professor who would happen to be a monk. I started to wonder if maybe I was attracted more to their apostolate than to the community itself.
On my drive home, for the first time since my conversion, I couldn't think of anything except married life. It was exceptionally strange, thrilling and...hard to describe. I don't know where it came from, but it opened a whole new avenue of possibilities that I had not considered at all. Should I have been considering this vocation all along? Is it a sign, or a distraction?
I realize there are a number of issues here that would be best taken to a spiritual director (if I can find one--down here in the South they're hard to come by), but I really wonder: how do you differentiate between a natural desire for marriage and the vocation to marriage?