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A Dual Vocation
Working moms? Moms who work? Can we be done with this conversation, please?
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When I was a young journalism intern in DC, bright eyed and bushy tailed, wearing a dress I’d snagged at Ann Taylor Loft and uncomfortable heels, I had the chance to interview a congressman.
I really can’t remember the specifics of the conversation leading up to it, but at some point, he off-handedly tossed out that it was interesting I wanted to become a journalist. His wife was at home, which was, of course, “where women should be”.
I stuttered awkwardly—it was not my Obianuju Ekocha moment (never, and I mean never, have I ever seen such an exquisite clapback). He rolled his eyes, called me sensitive, and exited the interview.
I’m from a liberal hippie-dippie city; my mom worked and all the moms I knew worked. In high school a handful of moms had part-time jobs and I met a handful who stayed home, but the vast majority of women in my life worked. I’ve loved to write since I could hold a pencil—I always hoped I’d be a working writer. I was never interested in staying home full time without any kind of income.
I am so tired of having this conversation. I’m just over it, in both a lighthearted I’m-over-hearing-about-Kylie-Jenner way and a deep, spiritual, over it. I have reconciled this with the Lord. I feel he desires me to do what I’m doing. Me and Jesus are cool about the whole working-mom thing.
So I find it odd that so many people—well—aren’t.
Below, a short list of what I’ve been asked about my life, a balanced blend of working and parenting.
Don’t you miss your kids?
You really feel called away from them? You feel like Jesus wants you to be apart from them?
Aren’t you wasting your degree by not working full time?
Do you feel dumb for spending all that money on a college degree?
Is your family disappointed you never became a journalist?
The answer to every single one of those, for the record, is no.
All Catholics are called to be sacrificial. Women, in particular, are called to be maternal—St. John Paul the Great claimed it as one of the pillars of the feminine genius. There is no good faith Catholic that believes their life won’t require sacrifice, and the taking up of a cross.
The question is what those sacrifices are.
Is the sacrifice saying that you will eschew the passion of your heart? Is the sacrifice saying that you will spend some time away from your kids, even though you wish you could be with them every moment? Is the sacrifice saying that your job becomes more flexible, and that you don’t climb the ladder as quickly? Is the sacrifice that you don’t utilize your college degree because you became a mother to a child that really needs that full-time attention?
I can’t make grand generalizations, but I can speak of my own life: it isn’t lacking in sacrifices. You and I have different hearts, but my heart does feel called towards an occupation away from my kids. I am not the mom that leaps out of bed longing to do crafts and gaze into my childrens’ eyes; I am the type of woman that longs to sit in coffee shops and eat expensive bagels. I am the kind of person who gets excited about subscriber statistics and less excited about Sesame Street. My work is far from a burden—it’s actually one of the most natural joys I have.
And that is ok.
Me, grabbing your shoulders, pulling your eyes to mine: that is ok.
There is another type of joy, too. A less natural one, but no less sweet. One that has taken work, cultivation, prayer. A joy that comes from sweet snuggles and slow mornings. A joy that blossoms with after-school snacks and lunchbox notes. A joy that does, in fact, find itself jamming along to Daniel Tiger (Daniel > Elmo, fight me).
That might be your more “natural” joy.
Me, grabbing your shoulders, pulling your eyes to mine again: that is ok.
“I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our lord's living garden.” - St. Therese of Lisieux
It’s okay that we’re called to sacrifice in different ways, as long as we’re considering the needs/desires of our families in that decision and as long as we’re taking it to the Lord. It’s okay that you and I are naturally joyful in different scenarios. It’s okay that God’s plan for you looks different than his plan for me. It’s okay that you’re able to decorate for the class party and I send my daughter with a stack of paper plates. It’s okay that your kids go to daycare, as long as it’s a safe, caring place. It’s okay that you spent a lot of money on a business degree and now find yourself homeschooling. This shit is all okay.
This isn’t just me preaching to follow your heart or whatever. The Bible reminds us often that the human heart can be fickle and deceitful; while it sounds nice to “follow your heart”, the truth is that plenty of people follow their hearts right into sin. I’m not just telling you to do #WhatMakesYouHappy.
Nowhere does the Catechism claim that employment is incompatible with motherhood.
2433: Access to employment and to professions must be open to all without unjust discrimination: men and women, healthy and disabled, natives and immigrants. For its part society should, according to circumstances, help citizens find work and employment.
Popes have spoken on working motherhood—quite a bit, in fact.
Pope Pius XI wrote that “The same false teachers who try to dim the luster of conjugal faith and purity do not scruple to do away with the honorable and trusting obedience which the woman owes to the man. Many of them even go further and assert that such a subjection of one party to the other is unworthy of human dignity, that the rights of husband and wife are equal; wherefore, they boldly proclaim the emancipation of women has been or ought to be effected. This emancipation in their ideas must be threefold, in the ruling of the domestic society, in the administration of family affairs and in the rearing of the children. It must be social, economic, physiological: – physiological, that is to say, the woman is to be freed at her own good pleasure from the burdensome duties properly belonging to a wife as companion and mother (We have already said that this is not an emancipation but a crime); social, inasmuch as the wife being freed from the cares of children and family, should, to the neglect of these, be able to follow her own bent and devote herself to business and even public affairs; finally economic, whereby the woman even without the knowledge and against the wish of her husband may be at liberty to conduct and administer her own affairs, giving her attention chiefly to these rather than to children, husband and family.”
Read that again—carefully. It was a lot. But what is the pope primarily concerned with? A woman working in a way that is detrimental to her family, which is her primary vocation—just as a man’s primary vocation is his family. Neither parent should take a job or career that would harm their family. I would never tell a woman to go get a job without telling her husband (again, just as I would never tell a man to go get a job without telling his wife!)
There’s something to be said for the time that the pope was writing, as well; not that God’s natural law changes, but that the jobs available for women now are much different than they were at that time. Women can work in ways today that still allow them to be present for their children/husband and to care for their homes.
Pope John XIII wrote that “Women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers” and Saint John Paul the Great spoke in a similar vein: “The true advancement of women requires that labour should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role.”
It’s a very feminist viewpoint: that women’s occupations should allow them to still thrive in their family units. Pope Benedict also wrote that “while those who wish also to engage in other work may be able to do so with an appropriate work-schedule, and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress, with negative consequences for one’s own equilibrium and the harmony of the family.” It brings to mind the importance of issues like paid parental leave, flexible scheduling, and fair wages.
Saint John Paul the Great also thanked working women in his famous Letter to Women: “Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life-social, economic, cultural, artistic and political.”
There’s also, of course, our great legacy of working mother saints. St. Zelie. St. Gemma. Blessed Anna Maria Taigi. Blessed Eurosia Fabris Barban.
Try as you might, YouTube preacher—look under every rock you can. There is no official church teaching banishing women from working outside the home.
So, both are morally allowed. But which is preferable?
I wanted to find some kind of study I could hold up—42% of kids whose moms were orthodontists became serial killers. 15% of kids say they wished their moms stayed home and made them gourmet meals for dinner that consisted of chicken nuggets and extra ketchup. 90% of kids got their teeth brushed at night, no matter how their parents spent the hours of 9-5.
But to measure an upbringing—impossible. How do we quantify something like that? How can we put to numbers how fulfilled, faithful, fed children are? I know really good mothers whose kids ended up in prison. I know moms who tried their best but failed in serious ways whose kids are absolutely thriving. If there was some type of magic trick that would make all of our kids saints, some hack we could implement, some recipe we could try, we’d all do it.
I can’t quantify the beauty of a morning spent in footie pajamas. I can’t quantify the way my daughter squeals when I pick her up from daycare. I can’t count the number of Good days and Hard days; every single day is a mosaic of both, clashing and creating beauty. This isn’t an equation.
For every study I found that said daycare was linked to early behavioral problems, I found another that said it actually helped kids develop healthy relationships. For every study I found that said staying at home with kids was linked to joy in mothers, I found another that said it increased postpartum depression. There is no scientific consensus to be had. We can’t go to the numbers for this one.
It is undoubtably better for my kids to eat a three-course meal with vegetables and lean protein every night, but they do occasionally get macaroni and cheese. It is undoubtably better for my kids to get zero screen time, but they are familiar with the above-mentioned Tiger Named Daniel. It is undoubtably better for my kids to go to Mass every single day, but they only go on Sunday’s. That’s because they aren’t the only ones in the family.
It is undoubtably better for my husband and I to get 8 hours of sleep a night, but we’re often woken up by the cries of our kids. It is undoubtably better for my husband and I to go on a weekly date night that’s out of the house, but we can only manage monthly right now. It is undoubtably better for my husband and I to exercise every day, but that exercise sometimes looks like just lifting kids in and out of cribs. That’s because we aren’t the only ones in the family.
Family life is sacrificial. Whether or not the mother works is going to be a sacrifice for someone.
There is no great consensus, but there is a situation that’s going to be right for your family. Mine, today, looks like working part-time. Your family needs to figure out yours. One that helps every person in the family thrive and be the best disciple they can be.
I’m tired of this conversation, but I feel the need to engage with it as long as it’s being tossed around like a volleyball.
Because there are entire circles of people, entire groups of friends, entire communities where working mothers are shamed.
And there are entire circles of people, entire groups of friends, entire communities where stay-at-home moms are shamed.
The audacity we continue to have to proclaim the validity of others’ choices, when the magisterium of the church has consistently and faithfully proclaimed those choices not morally illicit, continues to astound me. I suppose it shouldn’t, because…sin. But it does.
I’m not here to “give” anyone permission; I can’t do that and you don’t need it from me. I have no authority over you and your life.
I am here to do what I said earlier—to grab your shoulders, to tell you it’s ok. Those desires you have to work outside the home are okay. They do not make you a shitty mom. They do not make you a shitty Catholic.
Everyone loves Jeremiah 29:11. How could you not?
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
But I love what comes after, too, in Jeremiah 29:12-14.
Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you, and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
You will seek the Lord—and his plan for you—when you seek him with all your heart. And there he will be found, waiting to help support your family, waiting to help you fulfill your vocation, however that looks today.
On My Nightstand
Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII's Most Highly Decorated Spy by Larry Loftis: A great book about the most decorated spy during World War 2—a woman, a mom, and a total badass.
Lessons From the Cheese Nun: I mean, is that the greatest headline you’ve ever read or what? Love, love, loved this interview with a Benedictine nun who makes cheese.
Defending Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution: As a diehard Helen Alvare fangirl, I loved this interview with her for The Pillar and I so look forward to reading her latest book! “Catholic institutions were not explaining to the public why a hospital or school or social service felt an obligation to observe the most important commandment – to love God and one another as He has loved us –in both the sexual expression and the social charitable arenas. Too often, outside observers insist essentially that these organizations ‘shut up and sing,’ by which I mean, that they simply provide their services in the same way a secular institution would, and shut up about the family stuff.”
In case you missed these Letters:
That Time I Stopped Praying to God - for everyone
How Jen Hatmaker Lost the Plot - for subscribers
31 Things for 31 Years - for everyone
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