Mothers in the Workplace: A Catholic Perspective

IMG_1790Several weeks ago, a fellow Catholic mom shared a YouTube video with me featuring a conversation between Matt Fradd (the host) and Timothy Gordon (the guest). As the show unfolded, it became clear that Gordon did not believe that married women should be working. Considering the fact that I’m a stay-at-home mom, you might be inclined to think that I largely agreed with him. His argument is a convenient defense of my decision not to work. Honestly, to a certain extent, I do agree. I think women are usually more naturally inclined to be caregivers than men. I think women do need to seriously and prayerfully consider the call to be the primary caregivers of their children, even if it requires the sacrifice of their career. I think that in most cases, the traditional model of the family- mothers as the primary caregiver and fathers as the primary breadwinner- is ideal. But I also think that Gordon goes too far.

Notice that I say ‘usually.’ I say that women need to prayerfully consider staying at home with their children, not that they must. I say that in most cases, the traditional dynamic works best. It’s an ideal, but it’s not always realistic. It’s preferred, but it’s not always practical. Women might have been created by God with the natural impulses necessarily to care for children, but men can develop these impulses as well. Men are capable of caring for their children, and I personally believe that they can teach our sons and daughters lessons that we women cannot. My husband might be the breadwinner in our family, but he also knows how to make our children laugh, how to ease physical and emotional pain, and how to change a dirty diaper. My son will learn how to be a man from my husband, and my daughter will learn how to be loved by a man from her father. These are things that I am not as well-suited to teach our children.

I have had the unique opportunity to be on both sides of the fence here. For the first three years of our marriage, I was the primary breadwinner in our family. Andrew was working part-time and finishing a degree. Between his work, teaching, and studying, he cared for John alone two and a half days a week. He handled meal prep and serving, entertainment and bottle-feeding, diaper changes and bedtime routine on those days all by himself. He did it well, but now that those days are over, we can comfortably admit that I do it better. It comes more naturally to me. Andrew can do it all, but I actually find it easy to do. I actually enjoy it. I find life and passion in it.

As nice as it might be to stay at home with your children, not every mother can manage it. We certainly couldn’t while Andrew was in school. Even with his stipend and part-time work, we needed my full-time salary to make ends meet. Yes, we could have chosen a one bedroom apartment to save money, we could have chosen to live on beans and rice, but we chose to have me work instead. It was the better option for us, and I think we were right in making it.

IMG_1787.JPGI’m inclined to think that Timothy Gordon doesn’t believe that married women ever need to work. He would probably argue that we were living outside our means if we felt that I needed to work. We should have downsized our housing, changed our grocery shopping habits and possibly even our eating habits, and bought all our clothes from thrift stores (or maybe tried my hand at making some myself). Instead of working outside the home, I should have been taking steps to ensure that I never would find myself in such an unfavorable position.

I happen to think we live within our means. I don’t think everyone is called to that kind of life. Sure, I look for sales, I buy clothes on clearance as often as I can, and I tend to buy store brand to save money, but I generally don’t go beyond that. But I think I’m doing enough for us.

Obviously, Gordon and I see differently when it comes to moms who feel they need to work. But what about those who want to? If your husband makes enough that you could stay at home with your children, should you?

I think that this is a complicated question. I firmly believe that if a mother wants to work, and if it will not be to the detriment of her family, she should be able to. A mother might not need to work for financial reasons, but she might need to work for psychological ones. I legitimately needed to work after John was born for financial reasons, but even if I hadn’t, I think I would have done it anyway. During those first postpartum months, working helped with my anxiety. As I struggled to redefine myself in light of my new motherhood, my job served as one rock when so much of my life had been sent adrift.

Passion might also drive a mother to work. Most of my passions can be engaged in at home, while my kids sleep. During afternoon nap time and between my kids’ bedtime and my own, I make time to read, write, and run. But every Sunday evening, Andrew puts the kids to bed while I volunteer at our parish youth ministry program. I do these things for free, but I know of mothers who write books and direct youth ministry programs for pay. Would Gordon only approve of my endeavors because I am not paid? Is that really what it comes down to, whether or not I earn a paycheck? I don’t inconvenience my husband in the least with my writing, running, and volunteering. Am I not allowed to pursue passions while my children sleep? Am I only meant to be a wife and mother? What if I feel that I am called to more? Called to write? Called to serve? Called to minister to the young? I believe I am more than just a wife and mother, and I don’t think that makes me a worse Christian. I think it makes me a better one.

The Church has given us a few saints who were working mothers to serve as an example for us. Saints Gianna Molla and Zelie Martin were wives, mothers, and workers. St. Gianna was a pediatrician, while St. Zelie was a seamstress. They were not named saints in spite of their work, but partially because of it. Gianna wasn’t a saint just because she died giving life to her last daughter. St. Zelie wasn’t a saint because she gave birth to five religious vocations, one of whom became a saint herself. Each is the patron saint of their respective professions precisely because they saw their work as an opportunity to become holier. Their work was not a hindrance to their sanctity; it was part of their paths to sainthood.

IMG_1793So I praise Timothy Gordon for his efforts to ensure that his wife could stay at home with their children. I believe their children are blessed to have been given the chance to be raised by their mother. But I don’t think life is as black and white as he assumes. There are women who would like to stay at home with their children who legitimately can’t. There are women who could stay at home with their children, but don’t. There are women who do stay at home with their children, but also work from their home. And there are women who stay at home with their children, and the only “work” they claim is that of a homemaker. I think any of these women can be on the road to sainthood. I think all of these women can be answering the call of Christ and embracing their vocations as Christians. I think the Catholic Church’s stance on women, particularly wives and mothers, in the workplace is just as complex as the women themselves. To embrace such a black and white view of the world is to stifle countless women’s passions and gifts, as well as what Pope St. John Paul II called our unique “feminine genius.” The world is infinitely more beautiful when all women are given the opportunity to be all that they have been called to be.

Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!

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