Can you be a good Catholic working mum?

I’ve written a lot about the government’s treatment of stay-at-home mothers of late. This weekend’s Universe column blasted George Osborne’s budget for not treating single-income families equally and I have also attacked the attitude of feminists such as Cherie Blair along with her hypocrisy.

The attitude displayed towards stay-at-home mothers by society as a whole is damaging and toxic. Patricia Hewitt’s Women and Equality Unit stated in 2004 that there was a real problem with mothers who stayed at home to bring up their children. One of the attitudes that I frequently face is being dismissed as a “Catholic housewife” meaning that my employment status renders me an unsophisticated ignoramus with no relevant life-experience and unable to exercise any sort of critical thinking and judgement, despite the fact that I formerly enjoyed a professional career within investment banking and private equity. When I returned to work (out of sheer necessity as I couldn’t’ afford to pay back my maternity bonus and due to responsibilities such as a mortgage) when my daughter was small, I was still a higher-rate tax payer.

But frankly this is irrelevant. Women should not be treated like lesser human beings, intellectually, socially and most certainly not financially for choosing to stay home and raise their children themselves, regardless of what they did in their former careers.

True equality lies in recognising that by virtue of their sex, women face a different set of choices to men and should be free to choose what is right for them and their family without being penalised in any way. At present women are being shoe-horned into purely masculine way of working which treats children as though they are a barrier to worldly success and happiness which is defined purely in terms of career status, consumer possessions and a certain lifestyle.

Political parties of every flavour are calling for more subsidised and/or available childcare, despite the fact that this is not what women want. When 6 out of 10 working women are saying that even they were able to use childcare more, they still would not want to and in fact want to cut down their hours, this should tell us something, as should the statistic that 37% of  mothers, do not actually want to be working at all. According to a recent survey the higher qualified and better paid the woman, the more anxious she is likely to be about not spending time with her children.

And yet family policies are all about putting children in institutional daycare, making it cheaper and more available than before, at huge cost to the taxpayer, when this is in fact not what women want, nor should we desire that women work full-time long hours if they have family commitments. The evidence demonstrates that children who are put in full-time childcare, can in fact be damaged by this. 

With all this in mind, for a multitude of reasons (none of which I need to publicly justify), I am currently considering the prospect of returning to work. Does that make me a hypocrite or worse still a bad Catholic mother – modelling a potentially deleterious example?

I’d argue no, because like most families, my choice about whether or not to work is not made purely in a vacuum and neither is it concerned with the ubiquitous second car or foreign holiday. While there may be well some families whose wife chooses to work for what others may perceive to be frivolous lifestyle reasons, to be honest, I see this reflected more in decisions about numbers of children a family choose to have, as opposed to the decision as to whether or not a woman should work.

I posted this at the weekend, which has generated quite a bit of controversy, which posits that whatever option a Catholic mother choses, it does not make her a lesser mother or a worse Catholic. There is an online tendency amongst Catholics to live in our little Catholic bubble where the wife doesn’t work, home-educates her children, all of which are fantastic choices and perhaps look disparagingly or with pity upon those who have made different decisions. There is more than one way to be a good Catholic mother.

There is a sentiment that mothers who work should be pitied because that is sub-optimal and potentially damaging for their children. A choice to work needs empirical evidence to substantiate that it is a good. The problem is that no empirical evidence exists as to the positives and negatives of working mothers, because of the wide spectrum of families  and circumstances out there.

We shouldn’t assume that mothers who work, whether part-time or full-time are in some way damaging their families or are doing so for less than virtuous reasons. While one can argue that families should downsize their expectations and living standards, for so many this is simply not possible. It is not about the second car or the holiday or even the nice postcode but keeping a roof over their heads.

If a mother decides to continue working so that she doesn’t need to move her family to a sink estate, into a cramped flat or even a caravan to enable her to look after them full-time, that does not mean her decision is without sacrifice. If a family will be made unhappy by difficult surroundings, whether that be lack of space or living in fear in an area of high crime, one can easily see how it would be  better for her to work. Equally if a husband feels psychologically over-burdened by the responsibility of being the only wage earner, and every single month is a desperate struggle, only ever being one unexpected bill away from financial disaster or the bailiffs, then perhaps it might be better were the mother to do some work and give them some wiggle room.

In those sorts of circumstances, work can be a definite good and not even necessarily a least worst option. With housing prices and rents at historically high levels, predicated around two income families, something which is now supported by government policy, I would argue that most families do have little choice. Our family, for example, would have no hope of being able to afford anything more than a 1 bedroom flat in Brighton and Hove. Where do you start if you are living on a low or minimum wage?

But what if you are married to an uber-rich banker or some-such, technically a stay at home mother and spend all day at the local tennis club and put your children in their creche facility while you swim and chat with your friends, or pay a nanny or au-pair to do the lion’s share of looking after them while you pursue your own interests? Does that automatically make you a better, holier or more Catholic mother, than someone who works, because you stay at home with them?

What about if you don’t need to work, but choose to do so nonetheless, even if your work is unpaid for a charity in order to keep your grey matter going and help other people and give you a few hours break? Is arranging care for your children two days a week so you can do a stint in the local St Vincent de Paul shop, or do a bit of parish admin or go and visit the sick or elderly, or any sort of charitable work, less than desirable?

What if you are a GP or midwife and want to keep your professional qualification current, to give you the option to continue to work when the children are back at school? Or because you enjoy your job and find it fulfilling to continue on a part-time basis. Isn’t it better that you do this rather than stay at home with gritted teeth building up a fat wedge of resentment and chip on your shoulder which could also affect your family life and relationships, not to mention your spiritual life?

Also, while we can acknowledge that full-time daycare can be harmful, that is an entirely different proposition to saying that working mothers are bad, harmful or un-Catholic. Not everybody uses nurseries, while there is a disturbing push to get all daycare formalised and state-regulated, actually many forms of unregulated care, such as that provided by grandparents, is not necessarily bad or harmful.

I’ll declare an interest here. When I was working full-time my parents did a lot of childcare, which was excellent. My daughter had a combination of nursery and informal care. By the time she started school at the age of 4, she had the reading age of a 6 year old. Her personal development was in no way stunted and we enjoy a close loving relationship, as we always have.

All my children have been breastfed for over a year which I would argue is key in terms of securing an attachment, yet when two of them were babies they were in a nursery part-time from the age of 10 months whilst I attempted to study for a degree. I used to pop in several times a day between lectures to play with them and breastfeed. Only my youngest child has not experienced any form of childcare. We tend to think of childcare consisting of putting young babies in nurseries, but there are many other beneficial permutations. Childcare can encompass everything from your grandmother picking up your children from school or your friend looking after your children with theirs as a favour during the holidays on a quid pro quo basis. I know a couple who both work full time without any of their  young children needing formalised state childcare, basically they work in shifts.

The point I am making here is that general statements about the merits of putting children in formal daycare, for long hours 5 days a week, do not apply to all working mothers and all situations. Sometimes a mixture of care can be every bit as beneficial for children and it certainly was for mine, especially when I was heavily pregnant with my third child in 3 years, lived in a small maisonette with an unusable garden in an extremely isolated area with the nearest playground or green space entailing a difficult walk with a double buggy. Going to nursery gave them an opportunity to have structured and or messy play as well as socialise with other children, and use play equipment and facilities that were not on offer at home. They thrived on it and I appreciated having two days where I could get some housework and admin done, as well as my paid writing work, without interruption.

We all wish to baptise and justify our own choices and experiences – we choose to do what we believe is right. Sometimes it’s a passionate, positive choice like home-educating our children, other times it’s simply a case of doing what we need to, to  keep our heads above water. Sometimes it’s a case of balancing personal well-being with our wider family needs and working out whether the work we choose to do is of wider benefit to society as a whole.

But we need to move away from this model that the best, holiest and most Catholic way to parent is to be at home 24/7 with the children, offering up the daily drudge and sacrifice, if at times the experience is less than fulfilling. We do have to weigh up the responsibilities of parenthood, just as staying at home can be a holy noble and worthy sacrifice, so can working away from your children and missing out on some of the pleasure and joy of raising them.

Who do we look to in our model of perfect motherhood? Mary. We don’t know much about St Joseph, but it’s fair to assume that in common with other women from that culture she took care of the home and her infant son, while Joseph was the provider. When discussing bible historicity and culture, I always note that God chose that particular place, time and culture for a reason, so we can’t necessarily disregard the fact that it is highly probable that Our Lady did not undertake paid employment which meant that she had to put Christ in someone else’s care for the majority of the time. Was she with him 24/7 or did she occasionally leave him with a neighbour or relative to mind on a regular basis so that she could concentrate on other responsibilities? With the breakdown of extended families and communities, being a stay at home mother is far more lonely and isolated than in previous generations. There frequently isn’t the fallback of the nearby family member or obliging neighbour.

But we do know that Mary was called to make sacrifices by virtue of being the mother of God. Motherhood will invariably entail sacrifices, not least that of pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the responsibility of looking after and nurturing children to the best of your ability. The vast majority of women overwhelmingly love their children, they want to spent at least part if not most of the time with them and do what is best.

While supporting stay at home mothers and families, we shouldn’t impose our vision of the ideal upon other families and determine for them what their ideal should be, or the precise nature of their personal sacrifice. There is too much baptising of our own personal choices going on all sides.

Juggling her work as GP together with the demands of her family, did not disqualify St Gianna Molla from sainthood – working did not preclude her from making the ultimate sacrifice or being any less of a mother.

If I decide to work, it will be a positive choice, one based on an appraisal of my family circumstances and no doubt the nature of the role with have a large part to play. The choice whatever that may be, will be a proud, unapologetic one, taken in the best interests of my family and not one that I should be made to feel defensive of or slightly embarrassed by, regardless of whether or not it fits into others’ expectations.

The issue of whether or not women work is not the same as that of abortion, lives are not at stake, although arguably children’s welfare is. If we don’t want the state to encroach into our family lives then we should lead by example and not attempt to interfere in others’ family lives by overt judging or adding another layer of guilt and responsibility upon a woman or family who are prayerfully attempting to discern the best way forward.

If we care about Catholicism shaking off its image as being a religion for misogynists and sexists, seeking to control every aspect of womens’ lives and choices, then we can start by trusting that women who are working are doing the right thing by themselves and their families and save our pity  for far more pressing causes.

8 thoughts on “Can you be a good Catholic working mum?

  1. I think all of us who can afford to make any sort of choice should be very grateful that we can do that, and think of all the men and women who have no choice about where and how they work if they want to feed themselves and their dependents…….

  2. I just don’t get why the state should subsidise anyone’s private choices – to work or to stay at home, although I understand that economically it makes sense to facilitate as many parents as possible becoming tax payers. And I really, really don’t understand why we can’t let each parent and each family make the choices they feel are best for themselves and their children/wider family. I am always telling my kids “eyes on your own work” and I think it is a lesson that many adults may need to take a refresher course in, as well!

  3. Thanks for the great and thought-provoking article! I’d like to put forward a thought-provoking comment: can we start a movement to change the ubiquitous phrase ‘working mother’? All mothers ‘work’, regardless of whether this is in paid employment or bringing up their own children (okay, with the possible exception of the hypothetical tennis-playing mum you mention :-)). I wonder if we could contribute to valuing the work of full-time mums more by changing our language. ‘Mothers who work outside the home’, or ‘mothers in paid employment’ – unfortunately I haven’t thought of anything catchy yet.

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