The Problem of Conservative Catholic Motherhood

July 10, 2015
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Image of Mary statue with baby Jesus

This month, the Canadian Opus Dei website features an interview with a woman who graduated from Harvard University. Sounds intriguing. But if you are curious about the sparkling career path of this obviously talented conservative Catholic woman, then here are two other pieces of information: she is married and has children.

That is all you need to know, and the rest of the story is predictable: Emily Marcucci has never worked outside the home. She got engaged while still at Harvard and went on to start a family straight away after getting married. She now has eight children. Her Harvard credentials serve mainly to say that "look, even a Harvard grad can choose to stay home"!
Her husband Michael has a different story. After graduating from Harvard University he went on to get a law degree, and he is now a partner in the Boston office of a global law firm. The average annual partner compensation in his law firm is about $526,000, but you don’t get a dime without putting in the time, as one legal blog makes clear:
“the typical associate who is “in the hunt” for partnership...[is] likely to bill 2,300-2,400 hours per year. Typical partner hours for the same firms are at the same level — and when one includes the time that partners spend developing business, managing clients, and administering the firm, their total time is typically higher than total time for associates.”
Mr. Marcucci has surely been putting in his time: not long ago he was named a "Rising Star" by Law & Politics magazine and New England Super Lawyers. The Opus Dei interview features a photo of Mr. Marcucci surrounded by all his adorable children, but I do wonder how present he has really been in their lives while he climbed up the whip-snapping law firm ladder.

Still, maybe I am the only conservative Catholic who has a problem with this seemingly heart-warming story of a beautiful and pious family.

What future should conservative Catholic girls aspire to?

Here is my problem: the Opus Dei website is filled with similar stories, and taken together, the majority of these stories present a certain ideal conservative Catholic family.

This ideal family typically shares three characteristics: (a) stay-at-home mothers with (b) many children, and (c) husbands with high-earning, demanding careers. (Yes, there is a nod to other kinds of families on the Opus Dei website, but these portrayals are not nearly as prevalent as the ideal family that I just described. See here for more.)

In other words, the ideal Opus Dei family is a snapshot from the 1950s. Which isn't bad, mind you. As a stay-at-home mother myself, I recognize the value of having a parent at home with the children full-time, especially with small children.

But my concern is that this arrangement is being presented as an ideal of Catholic piety, leaving girls with the impression that if they have families one day and want to remain devout in their Catholic faith, then they should aspire to a life in the home rather than a career in the world. (Oh, and it won't hurt to marry a doctor or a lawyer, either).

Meanwhile, Catholic boys are being presented with a completely different implicit message. They are being told that as the future providers of their families, they should strive to excel in their careers, and perhaps enter lucrative fields so that they can build wealth for their future families. Yes, they should spend as much time with their families as they can manage, but the outlook is far more forgiving on that front.

The ideal mother and the ideal father

These implicit messages are in fact a religious redux of the traditional stereotypes that have been around for a long time in our society. Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte discusses these stereotypes in her book OverwhelmedAccording to these societal stereotypes, the 'ideal mother' is a homemaker who does all the work associated with the home and with child care, while the 'ideal father' is a rather distant provider figure who is busy being the ideal worker in his workplace.

Many people might think they are far too modern to be influenced by such outdated stereotypes, but Schulte cites studies which show that these traditional parental roles continue to influence almost everyone subconsciously. Even at the start of the 21st Century, the 1950s continue to define our societal understanding of what mothers and fathers are 'supposed' to do.

To a large extent, these stereotypes have been responsible for the "guilt" of the working mom, which is in turn a catalyst for the phenomenon of "intensive mothering" and Martha Stewart-syndrome, where working mothers scramble to meet the demands of the 'homemaker mother' stereotype. Enter the very real feeling of exhaustion and overwhelm of many working mothers. (Read my book review of Schulte's book here)

Adding religion to the mix

Perhaps surprisingly, the Catholic Church is very clear that it does not require mothers to become homemakers. You will not find any Encyclical which directs mothers to reject the life outside the home. In fact, Familiaris Consortio says the following:
in the specific area of family life a widespread social and cultural tradition has considered women's role to be exclusively that of wife and mother, without adequate access to public functions which have generally been reserved for men....There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women's access to public functions.
My concern is that with its version of the ideal family, Opus Dei is adding religious weight precisely to the "widespread social and cultural tradition" which Familiaris Consortio describes. 

It's true that the life of a homemaker is a life in imitation of Mary, the Mother of God. She also similarly lived out a 'hidden' and self-sacrificial existence in the home. For instance, in an Opus Dei interview, one homemaker mother says
I recalled a book that was read to me when I was a child. There one could see the Virgin Mary cooking, sewing, cleaning her home in the presence of her Son, still a child. I loved those images of a very beautiful and smiling Virgin and an adorable Child Jesus. My work consists of continuing, in my own way, Mary’s work at Nazareth.
But this leads to the question: does this make women who choose to work outside the home just a little less Mary-like, perhaps just a little more worldly or selfish? Are they perhaps getting their gender roles mixed up, trying to imitate St. Joseph rather than Mary? 

In this way, the choice of becoming a homemaker risks being presented as the more religiously 'perfect' choice. 

The Church says it's okay for mothers to work outside the home

Familiaris Consortio continues on to say:
...the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human.
Opus Dei rightly gives that "clear recognition" to the maternal and family role of women. But at the same time,  Opus Dei and the rest of conservative Catholicism needs to beware of fusing too closely with the "widespread social and cultural tradition" which has kept women in the home, but which is not in fact a part of Catholic teaching. 

It is good to present 'homemaker mother' role model to our girls. But we also need to make more visible the many mothers who have remained solid in their faith while managing to "harmoniously combine" work and family. 

Towards a new understanding of family harmony

To give hope and alternatives to the next generation of Catholic women and men, we need to start thinking outside the box. 

Yes, even conservative Catholicism needs to move beyond the social and cultural stereotypes of the 'ideal homemaker mother' and the 'ideal provider father'. A return to the 1950s is neither a viable nor a fair solution to the excesses of feminism and to a world in which children are raised by strangers while both parents work.

This doesn't mean that we will now embrace the secular whirlwind where kids are shipped off to daycares or raised by nannies. Children do have a natural 'right' to be raised by a loving parent first and foremost, and that consideration needs to be part of the "harmony" of a family work-life balance. 

For instance, clearly a situation where both parents work like Mr. Marcucci would not be a harmonious situation for the children. There are many other arrangements I can imagine would not work for children's well-being, such as extremely short maternity leaves, and so on. 

In fact, finding that "sweet spot" among work and family duties is a work-in-progress for many families. But this is precisely why we need to hear a lot more about those Catholic mothers who have achieved a "harmonious combination" of work and child-rearing.

A starting point for shifting our perspective is to understand the "harmonious combination" of work and child-rearing as a family enterprise, not merely the responsibility of mothers. 

On that note, I'd love to read more about families where the mothers, rather than the fathers, are the high-income earners, and where the fathers have stepped up to the plate and helped with the childraising duties. 

I'd love to read about families where the parents trade shifts and alternate child-raising duties.

I'd love to read about families where grandparents or other extended family help out with the children some days while both parents are working.

I'd love to read about Catholic mom entrepreneurs who work from home or who are otherwise making it work.

I'd love to read about Catholic parents who stayed home for a time with small children, but then transitioned back into the workplace as the children grew older.

I'd love to read about other creative solutions that have enabled Catholic women to keep their footing both in and out of the home, and enabled Catholic men to work decent hours outside the home so that they can have a strong presence for their children in the home more often.

And to be fair, Opus Dei already knows all this, and they are already on that.

Now, we just need more of it.

for those readers who may be wondering, I am not a member of Opus Dei, but I am very friendly with them, and I do have some good friends who are involved with this personal prelature of the Catholic Church. 

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