Why shouldn't Catholic motherhood be a career in itself?

Is a Catholic mother’s place really – and only – in the home? In most spheres of life, and perhaps here too, posing this question will provoke an exasperated “It’s 2018, for crying out loud!!” Yet I have several reasons for putting my head on the block now. Firstly, the date is not itself an argument. Secondly, this issue has reared its head in my own social circles recently.

A few years ago a group of young Catholic men told me confidently about the social malaise caused by women forgetting their proper role in life. More recently, a friend and fellow mother looking for work to improve her family’s financial security received an array of suggestions ranging from “the Lord will provide” to “a mother’s vocation is her children.”

Finally, like many working mothers, Catholic or otherwise, I frequently reflect on the wisdom of my choices. Jokingly (well, most of the time), I sometimes cast myself in the role of “80s Career Bitch”: brushing aside her needy children to go and shout in meetings, while wearing shoulder pads, red lipstick and stilettos.

My guilt-induced imaginary life notwithstanding, it is worth considering what the Church actually has to say to mothers. On the one hand, we must acknowledge the paramount example of Christian womanhood in Mary. St John Paul II, in the 1988 Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), has much to say on this subject. Mary’s act of acceptance of God places her at the centre of salvation, precisely because of her womanhood (as the willing mother of Christ).

As John Paul II goes on to argue, this act of union, this act of self-gift and openness to life, is the model of womanhood in Christian marriage. In this truth, we may see the argument for domesticity. How is true openness to life, which embraces the possibility of multiple children for instance, possible within the constraints and demands of the modern workplace?

On the other hand, why should openness to life preclude efforts outside the home? Certainly, Humanae Vitae’s call to “responsible parenthood” would seem to justify the possibility of mothers’ earning if needed. This is not to denigrate stay-at-home mothers. Indeed, the heroic witness of Catholic mothers of large families today ought to be celebrated. And yet, of such mothers I know, none are de facto against women working. And nor do they limit their own faithful activities to the home, even if not doing formal paid work.

John Paul, yet again, is intriguing on this point. Mulieris Dignitatem to a large extent expands up Vatican II’s recognition that “The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.” Yet he has remarkably little to say on the subject of women (and mothers) working. He does though describe the women who “played an active and important role in the life of the early Church… through their own charisms and their varied service.”

It is worth pondering why John Paul II should not be more explicit on the subject of women’s work. Firstly, in his characterisation of woman as demonstrated by Mary, he recognises not the incomplete “Adam’s Rib” of medieval theology, but the exemplar of human choice: the fully human subject, the “I” who chooses to accept God. Thus, so much of women’s subjectivity is, like men’s, about individual faith and conscience in discerning God’s will. Secondly, if we believe that womanhood is about the potential to embrace and nurture life, then activities outside the home are no measure of what a woman actually is. The “genius of woman” does not disappear at the door to the workplace, any more than that of a man.

In fact, as the CDF pointed out in 2004 – under Ratzinger’s prefecture – the feminine genius is such that it should not be confined exclusively to the home (or convent). And this insight follows directly from the complementarity of the sexes: women have much to offer the world of work, not because women are the same as men, but precisely because they are not.

For those mothers who do “wish also to engage in other work,” however: “The harmonization of the organization of work and laws governing work with the demands stemming from the mission of women within the family is a challenge.” These are facts that I, and I dare say many others, know all too well.

The solution, as the future Pope Emeritus goes on to say, “is not only legal, economic and organizational; it is above all a question of mentality, culture, and respect. Indeed, a just valuing of the work of women within the family is required.” This would permit granting working mothers 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.”

Now that’s a piece of mansplaining even an 80s Career Bitch can agree with.