How can Catholic moms balance work and family?

June 15, 2014
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Image of mom and daughter on computer

Jumping right into the heart of controversy, here is my question: how can a married woman, who wants to sincerely follow the Catholic faith to the fullest, balance working outside the home with her role as a wife and mother?

Now, I know several great Catholic women who in different capacities work outside the home, and I believe that some ways of working outside the home are perfectly fine for mothers. It would be wrong to arrive at the conclusion that women must become homemakers and stay in the home forever after getting married. I chose to stay home myself, but I am absolutely not trying to say that all women must make that choice in order to live out their Catholic faith.

On the other hand, it is definitely a thorny, tricky question trying to arrive at the proper balance of work and family life from a Catholic perspective. The main limitation on any career, it seems to me, is the imperative of staying open to life in a marriage, and then being responsible for raising that new life. Here’s what I mean:

We are supposed to have babies

Once we get married, the Catholic Church teaches that a marriage ought to remain generously open to life whenever prudentially possible. This means that NFP is not to be understood as a “natural” form of contraception! No, we are not supposed to be using NFP as an “organic” alternative to artificial contraceptives like the pill or condoms (by the way, some secular people do use NFP this way). Let me unpack this further:

  • If the finances are tight, if there are serious health issues or other major difficulties that would make it hard for the parents to care for a new life at that time, then the spouses have a total right to use NFP to avoid pregnancy (while still not using artificial means, thereby remaining open to the possibility that God has a different plan). They can do this until circumstances improve and they are able to care for a new baby again.

  • On the other hand, unless they have such serious impediments presenting themselves, it is not okay for the spouses to say: “hey, we’ve got two kids so we’re done, let’s stop there.” If the spouses could actually afford to raise 8 kids and if they have no other serious issues standing in the way of more babies, then they should not be using NFP to avoid conception. Otherwise they are actually participating in the contraceptive mentality and turning NFP into the “environmentally friendly” equivalent of using artificial contraception. 

What about the mom wanting to launch her career? Well, I am not a priest but my hunch is that it would not be okay in most circumstances (unless the family depends on her income) for the mother to cite the desire for a career as a good reason for shutting the gates of the womb, so to speak, and using NFP to avoid having more children. In other words, the Catholic mother cannot say “well, we have four kids and I am 35, so now we are done with having children because I want to focus on me and go ahead with my career”.

What this appears to mean (and correct me if I’m wrong), is that once a woman marries, she should then be open to having children for the rest of her fertile years, as long as no serious difficulties present themselves (financial strains, health problems, etc).

The result is exactly what happens in many Catholic families - women bearing several children until their fertility runs out in the late 30s or early to mid 40s. It also means that many practicing Catholic mothers in their 40s still have infants or very young children at home.

BUT - follow the logic here - if moms keep having small children, and they are committed to raising those small children in the early years, then where does that leave space for their careers? In effect, it appears to mean that a married Catholic woman without fertility issues will end up being available for a career only when she is in her late forties or older. So, for a Catholic mom, 45 or 50 would be the new 20, the time when she could finally go out into the world and start working.

Does that mean Catholic moms can’t work outside the home?

No, I will not end with the conclusion that mothers can’t leave the home until they are almost 50. That would be completely unfair.

Some people do claim this as the Catholic position, and they argue that the woman’s role as the wife and mother is to stay in the home while the husband provides for the family. In my opinion, that is confusing traditional cultural practices with religious teaching (which is not unusual, incidentally - people fairly often believe that something is required by religion when in fact it is merely a cultural tradition).

I believe that Catholic mothers can indeed choose to work outside the home, and if they choose to do so, it does not mean they have been brainwashed by feminism (as I have seen others suggest). Women have a lot to contribute to our society with their intellect, skills and abilities, and they do not have to employ 100% of their talents and energies only on raising their own family.

Happily, in reality I see various possible arrangements being made by Catholic families, which do allow mothers - even the mothers of large families - to work outside the home at least to some extent.

Dad is a parent too

The main acceptable alternative arrangement, I believe, is labour-sharing with the father. For instance, I see some Catholic families working out arrangements where the parents “change shifts,” so to speak. When the mother is out working, the father is home caring for the children, and vice versa. That way the children are always cared for by at least one of their parents.

While this arrangement can place more strain on a marriage, because the spouses might see each other less often, it might actually even strengthen the relationship and attachment that fathers have with their children, because they experience times of being the primary caregiver. It’s great that we are living at a time when many men are much more open to such arrangements.

Grandparents can help out

The other possible arrangement that might work to some extent is the use of extended family, especially grandparents, to watch the children while the mother is working.

This kind of labour-sharing has been used for centuries, of course. Back when most people lived in villages with extended family all around them, parents did not experience the kind of pressure they are under today, to single-handedly raise their children and juggle all family responsibilities only among two people. It used to be common for grandparents and even great-grandparents to help watch and raise the new generations. Aunts and uncles, and even long-time neighbours who had become like family, also used to help out.

Today in our mobile society, the nuclear family is often very much isolated, and many people don’t have the option of getting the extended family involved in helping with their children. Grandparents and other family members may live far away, and neighbours hardly know each other in many of our large cities. Urban sprawl has often placed even good local friends out of easy reach.

For those who still do have the option, the use of extended family is a good arrangement in smaller doses.

Unfortunately, I have also seen this taken to extremes that I don’t believe to be in the best interests of the children. For example, I know grandmothers who have become, for all intents and purposes, the mothers, raising the kids all day, every day while the mother is AWOL. It broke my heart when one grandmother told me that her granddaughter whom she watches constantly, tries to call her “mom”.

If the children are being raised by the grandparents most of the time, then they are still being robbed of a deeper relationship with and primary attachment to their parents. And the parenting of grandparents, while it is often a good addition to the parenting of parents, is actually not a great substitute for the parenting of parents - grandparents may not share our faith or values, and they tend to have less energy, be more permissive, etc.

What about paid caregivers?

For those without other options, what about the use of paid caregivers, such as daycare or nannies? (I am not talking about the use of occasional babysitters, which is surely done at some point by most families).

First of all, there is no official Catholic teaching on this. It is in the prudential judgment of Catholic parents to figure out the best way to raise their own kids, and the option of paid caregivers is not precluded by our faith.

At the same time, it does strike me as not exactly in the spirit of Catholic teaching to have your children be raised by strangers so that you can both pursue your own careers. Working to bring bread to the table is one thing, but working for reasons of personal choice is quite another thing. Even if you are doing great good in the world, your own children are paying the price at home.

As Catholics we believe that each person is called to the service of others, but as mothers this would appear to mean that we place our children first in our lives and focus on raising them, especially in their earliest years, even if we have to sacrifice our personal ambitions for that time period.

So look, you can do what you want, but how different are you being from your secular neighbours if your family looks like this: parents at work full time, small kids in daycare or with nanny?

I think we all know at this point that such an arrangement is not ideal, and that children often pay the price in the short and long term. It might not be a price that is immediately evident - your children will continue to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they might perform well at school and in their activities. But I do believe that a lot of research confirms just how important parents are to their children in the first few years of their life, and there are indeed psychological and emotional consequences, among other things, to being raised by paid caregivers.

As practising Catholics, it does seem to me that we should be setting a higher standard of childcare for ourselves, and that we should be willing to sacrifice more in order live out our vocations. Otherwise, I question the extent to which we are putting our energies in the wrong places. Our vocation within the family is supposed to be primary, and this goes against the current practices of society.

Can Catholic women have it all?

The honest answer is that no woman has it all, including the secular moms who are trying madly to balance full-time jobs with being moms: I have seen these women have lots of regrets down the road about not developing close relationships with their kids.

For practicing Catholic moms, remaining genuinely open to life in a marriage will often mean more compromises than are necessary for secular moms. You will likely have more children, and if you keep having babies who need their mommy above all else, then your career will probably end up snoozing in the back seat while you focus on your vocation as a wife and mother.

But while Catholic moms may not “have it all,” they can have the most important thing in life. I don’t want to sugar-coat it, but there is great happiness to be found in raising great kids. As much satisfaction as your job can give you, the ultimate reward in life is surely having wonderful adult children that you can be proud of. Conversely, if you do everything else in life well, but your own children turn out rotten, then how much joy can a parent really feel in life?

What’s more, Catholic moms can still have a slice of the working world pie, if they desire it. There are various alternative arrangements for childcare that can allow these moms to have a leg out in the working world, though probably not as CEOs of startups working 80-hours per week. Which might be a good thing, because research has shown that workplace stress is as big a killer of women as of men.

Photo: GSCSNJ via photopin cc

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