Last week, we watched the movie Suffragette. I hope many of you have watched it, so I don’t have to explain that it was…sad. Sad beyond expression. But one thing that really struck me in that movie was the fact that Maud worked full time—more than full time—outside the home. She sent her kid off to somebody else to take care of.
For a lot of people, the stay-at-home/working mom debate probably feels tiresomely passé, but I still see the barbs popping up on both sides. I’ve heard the pain expressed by working and stay-at-home moms alike, who feel beleaguered. Judged. Too often by each other.
I always planned to be a stay-at-home mom. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life cocooned in a community that sees it not just as a valid choice but as THE RIGHT choice.
The thing is, I was less than a year into stay-at-home motherhood when I started working. I remember the moment I received my first acceptance, for the octavo Go In Peace from WLP. I was in the basement of our old house, nursing Alex while working on the computer with a repairman in the next room, and I scared both of them by screaming in excitement.
For twelve years I’ve been wrestling with the balance between work and motherhood/wifehood. There’s no question that my presence at home is a huge value to the family. It would cost $7-9K a year per kid for day care in my area, and these days, the cost would be transitioning into money to pay a nanny/chauffeur. The fact that I can do the grocery shopping and cooking while Christian’s at work means we have more time to spend as a family. That’s a value you can’t quantify. And of course, I’ve been able to shape my kids’ world view without worrying about what they’re exposed to or taught in the brief intervals they were away from me as small children.
And yet. I am more than a mother and wife. The gifts that were given to me as a human being who happens to be female were given for a reason. If I suppress them until my kids get old enough, I’m burying my coins. I was given the passion and gift for writing for a reason. I’m supposed to do something with it.
I consider myself unfathomably blessed, because the work I feel called to do can be done from home. It’s stressful and requires a lot of self-discipline, but I actually do get to “have it all.”
But what about women for whom their calling, the talent that they can offer the world, can’t be done from home? Do their gifts not matter?
Even I, working from home, have been tormented by messaging like “You’ll have decades left to have a career; your kids are only little once.” How much worse must it be for women who work outside the home? Those words may be true, but the reality is that if you drop out of the work force for three or five or ten years to raise a family and then try to come back, you’ll spend the rest of your life fighting a losing battle for equity.
And the more I think about it, the more I realize this SAHM mom ideal is really a pretty new construct. Even this book on Our Lady of Fatima that my mother gave me to read to the kids talks about how Lucia was the go-to child care provider for the entire village. Even in a peasant village in the 19-teens, a lot of “at home” moms were sending their kids out to be tended by someone else.
Which brings us back to Maude, from Suffragette. Yes, she is a fictional character, but I get the sense that she was an amalgam of many of the experiences of women involved in the suffragette movement in England. You could argue that it was different for poor women; that families of more means did, indeed, have mothers who stayed home with their kids. Except those kids had nannies and governesses.
Then, too, wrestling with all this has made me realize that without women in the work force, and a lot of them, issues of just compensation and so on would be shunted aside even more than they already are. That might not impact those who choose to stay home, but it sure as heck would impact single moms, who have no choice.
And now that I have a son on the cusp of adolescence—a son who watched Suffragette with us and who stopped the movie more than once to ask questions about what it means to be a woman in this day and age—the importance of this question is becoming ever clearer. I am a Catholic mother. My #1 job is to form my children in the faith. Not some warped version of it that picks the simplest parts to explain and ignores the real challenges the Gospel poses to people living in a real world, where there are no straightforward, cut-and-dry answers, because when you yank on one thread several dozen others move, too.
Mothers who work outside the home aren’t less-worthy mothers. One woman who’s close to me says, “I am always a mom first, even when I’m at work.”
I’m not belittling staying home. Quite the opposite. For all the hair-pulling moments I’ve experienced the last twelve years of being entirely or almost entirely at home with my kids, I can’t imagine going back and choosing any other path. It has been exactly what I was called to do.
But nor will I stand for a world view that belittles those who do choose to work outside the home. We all have to discern our lives and our vocations based on our individual circumstances, the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of all the family members. And above all, we have to stop minding everyone else’s business.