The Worth of the Working Mom

The internet is a place for learning and community. It’s a place I’ve appreciated very much as a mother—especially as an introvert—and it’s full of resources I’m glad my kids can access as they grow up.

But it is also a place for jerks.

For example, there’s been a huge debate among Catholics on Twitter this month about the morality of mothers working outside the home. It began with an interview in which a Catholic man made some very sexist comments and radical claims about the Church’s teachings on working moms.

Why this is even a debate is beyond me. We have saints who were working mothers (looking at you, Saint Gianna!); we have popes who’ve praised mothers for their efforts within and outside of the home; and most clearly of all, we have no doctrine stating that mothers must stay home to fulfill their duties toward their children. (On these points, much has been written. Instead of trying to duplicate them, I’ll point you to an excellent read here.)

The Church and Job Discernment

Many of those outside the Church see Catholicism as a laundry list of rules dictating believers’ daily lives. And while it’s true that we hold ourselves to unpopular and often difficult moral choices, a lesser-known truth of the Catholic Church is that she leaves plenty of details up to the discernment of her members.

Such details aren’t inherently rooted in morality or theology. Rather, they’re rooted in how we—as unique children of God, made with specific talents and living in certain circumstances—practice our vocations and navigate the world.

For example, it is up to us to discern how many children to have and when (so long as our marriages remain open to life); whether purchasing a new vehicle is a good idea (so long as we’re not using it as a status symbol); which books to read (so long as we’re not succumbing to immoral or evil thoughts and behavior as a result of their influence); and so on.

Among these topics of discernment is the question of whether, where, and how spouses should work outside the home to support their families. Among the arrangements they may reasonably discern are:

  • Only Dad should work and Mom should be a full-time, stay-at-home-parent (so long as he’s able to provide for his family’s financial needs, his work is moral, he remains involved with his children and devoted to his wife in ways that suit his talents and meet their needs, and Mom can provide sufficient childcare).
  • Only Mom should work and Dad should be a full-time, stay-at-home parent (so long as she’s able to provide for her family’s financial needs, her work is moral, she remains involved with her children and devoted to her husband in ways that suit her talents and meet their needs, and Dad can provide sufficient childcare).
  • Dad and Mom should both work full-time outside the home (so long as they’re able to provide for their family’s financial needs, remain involved with their children and one another in ways that suit their talents and meet their needs, access good childcare, and maintain a healthy home).
  • Dad and Mom should both work, in some unique blend of full-time, part-time, outside, and at-home employment (you get the idea).

Today’s socioeconomic world is complicated. Frankly, it’s a difficult time for families to choose—or even have the option of—living on a single income. Some of us are well equipped for tight budgets and managing debt. Others thrive on stability and have costly priorities, such as sending children to Catholic schools. Neither of these “types” of families is wrong, and parents can fall into either of these categories without either failing to provide for their children or living in gluttony.

Is your family cared for virtuously, well-loved, and supported both physically and emotionally? If so, you’re doing a bang-up job—whether those 40 hours are spent in your house or out of it.

Thoughts for Dads

To any dads reading this, I’m sorry that you are so left out of this conversation. It may be true that mothers tend to be nurturers and have historically taken on the majority of childcare responsibilities. It may be true that your specific talents are best applied to the workforce. And it may be true that your career fulfills you as well as sustains your family.

But it’s also true that you are a parent as much as your wife is. Your contribution to the family isn’t—and shouldn’t be—simply financial. It isn’t simply biological, either. Your ability to spend quality time with your family and help raise your children well is immensely valuable and your effort in doing so is deeply appreciated. You are your babies’ hero.

If you’re following this debate and wondering whether the criticism and insults thrown at working mothers (“How could you spend such little time with your own flesh and blood?”) apply to you, too, the answer is simple: these insults apply to no hard-working, loving parent. Whether you support your family within or outside of your home, so long as they are your first priority and they know how fundamentally you love them, you are doing it right.

Thoughts for Moms

As women, we are fed so many lies by mainstream culture: that our bodies can’t be managed as designed, that we aren’t good enough, that our needs must come last. The lies we hear about our place in the workforce are exceptionally harsh, because they come from every direction.

We are told that our contributions are insufficient if we aren’t working outside the home: that our children will never see what an enlightened woman should be, that we’re sapping resources, that we’re taking advantage of our husbands’ hard work, that we’re lazy.

We are told that our contributions are insufficient if we are working outside the home: that our children will never see us, that we’re abandoning them to irresponsible and unloving caretakers, that we’re leaving our homes in filth, that we’re belittling our husbands’ masculinity, that we’re selfish.

Both “sides” of this debate can lob hateful bombs at the other. As with so many social disputes, the extreme minorities tend to be the loudest. And their aggression hurts everyone in between.

Those of us who are in between simply respect others’ choices and efforts for their families. We tend to be quiet because we’re working really hard and, not having participated in many of these unkind conversations, we don’t always know that our neighbors need our affirmation.

So I think that’s step one toward a better world for all of us: this silent but loving majority should get loud. Pat your sister on the back for staying home full-time and not losing her mind. Pat your cousin on the back for working elsewhere full-time and not losing her mind. Let the parents you admire know that they’re doing a fine job, no matter what their daily routines look like.

Work to Live

Friends, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” For parents, work is simply the means to the most important end: a healthy, thriving family and home life that nurtures its souls into sainthood. Don’t take your work—or the lack of it, if you’re a stay-at-home parent—too seriously, don’t put it first, and don’t let it torture you.

Don’t let other people torture you about it, either. You are doing good work for your family, and that is what matters. Use those labors to bring more fruit home to them, and don’t worry about the rest.

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