An April 26, 2022, article in Crisis asked “Are Women in the Workplace a Good Thing?” Author Jerry D. Salyer points out that feminism is so pervasive that even today’s conservatives consider traditional teaching on male/female roles to be distasteful.
Salyer describes “the extent to which many centuries’ worth of Catholic commentary about sex differences has simply been filtered out as if it were nothing. It is almost as if those responsible for handing down Catholic tradition would just as soon jettison whatever parts of said tradition happen to jar with modern sensibilities.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that many Catholics are unfamiliar with “awkward” Scripture passages such as Ephesians 5:21, “Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord,” or with the “tremendous quantity of Catholic commentary about relations between the sexes.”
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Even relatively recent voices like Pope St. John Paul II—an advocate for women if there ever was one—are now considered sexist for declaring that “a workman’s wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife and his children.”
The answer to his title question, says Salyer, is not to insist on a rigidly patriarchal society, what he calls a “mirror-image of feminism.” In its own way, this is as strident as the feminism it rejects. He concludes that “what is called for at this moment is not the formulation of a new ideology but simply the jettisoning of an old one.”
The ideology he wants to jettison is that which politely ignores phrases like “male and female He created them,” with its implicit acknowledgement of God-given differences between the sexes and all that stems from those differences. Yes, it’s getting old, in more ways than one. Like certain persistent liturgical innovations, considered revolutionary fifty years ago, it’s actually quite passé.
Nonetheless, it has settled into our societal mind to an extent most of us do not realize. This has been aided by a highly industrialized age in which male/female roles, in past ages made crystal clear by the daily struggle to survive, feed, and protect the family, are blurred. That ill-defined image can make the whole idea of male and female roles odious. Or, in reaction, it may lead to a rigidly artificial mirror-image.
I propose that if we are to successfully navigate the two extremes, we must do more than simply jettison the old ideology. We must replace it with a concerted effort to honor and elevate motherhood. And not just motherhood in general, but mothers at home.
Surprising as it may seem coming from someone who has spent her life in the countercultural world of very conservative Christianity, I believe we have a way to go in doing this. In my quite sheltered world, motherhood is clearly protected, nurtured, and honored on a very practical level. However, there are signs that we are letting the world’s dim view of motherhood get to us.
Case in point: at a traditional, very faithful high school—certainly not a hotbed of feminism—the mention of male/female roles in theology class prompts eye rolling from female students. What gives?
Another example: A few months ago, in a leading conservative publication, I read a beautiful essay on motherhood and the presence of mothers in the home. As I read, I was moved to tears. Dismay followed as I scanned the author’s bio. At the end of a long list of personal and professional accomplishments, the author noted that she is a wife and mother. Perhaps she meant to save the best for last. Unfortunately, the impression was that her professional accomplishments gave her more credibility than her experience of motherhood.
We have children in their teens and twenties, so our family receives a great deal of college-related information. I peruse newsletters from some exemplary Christian and Catholic colleges. I never fail to be inspired by the outsize accomplishments of graduates from these often-tiny schools. They are impacting the world in a big way. Female alums are honored, and rightly so, for being physicians, lawyers, judges, entrepreneurs.
Yet where are the full-time mothers in this picture? I’m saddened when they are routinely relegated to the alumni news and notes pages, if they get a mention at all. Faithful colleges, when was the last time you honored one of your graduates for using her degree to stay home and educate a small army of saints?
We talk about the liberal arts as education for life. What message are we sending when we never highlight the exponential effect of a liberal arts education used to educate little lives in the home?
Stay-at-home moms, how many times have you cringed when you filled in a form that asked “occupation?” When someone asks you what you “do,” do you say apologetically, “I’m just a mom”?
I have to confess, I sometimes feel like the Church is in on this conspiracy. Find me the saints who are mothers, honored as mothers; not mothers and doctors, not mothers and teachers, not mothers turned nuns. I challenge you to name more than a handful.
Before I go any further, let me make clear that I understand why many mothers work outside the home. My circle of dear friends includes moms who gracefully balance careers with family. Every circumstance is different, and moms are motivated to work by factors ranging from financial need to talents that need to find expression. Age and number of children factor in, as well as a myriad of other circumstances.
One of the things I find compelling about my friends who are in the workplace is the way they bring the “feminine genius” to their careers. The phrase was popularized by Pope St. John Paul II to describe the unique charism of women.
Seeing womanhood under attack as never before, he was inspired to reflect upon woman’s role. He wrote his beautiful apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem during the Marian year of 1987-88, and, in response to the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, he wrote his Letter to Women. The result was a much-needed articulation of woman’s charism and how it enriches the family, society, culture, and the Church.
John Paul spoke frequently of the need for women to be more involved in every aspect of society and culture—but as women: not interchangeably with men but with their unique ability to “see persons with their hearts.”
He made it clear that this feminine genius stems from woman’s singular capacity to be mothers. Reading the popes and great spiritual writers on motherhood, one gets the clear sense that the call to motherhood is a bit different from man’s corresponding call to fatherhood. It has a special, mystical quality. To be a mother, physically, is to touch the divine, to participate in a special way in the creation of new souls.
The pope went so far as to say, “Each and every time that motherhood is repeated in human history, it is always related to the Covenant which God established with the human race through the motherhood of the Mother of God” (Mulieris Dignitatem).
The gift spills over into so much more than physical motherhood. This is why John Paul exhorts women to mother in whatever sphere they find themselves.
Much has been written about how woman takes her feminine genius to the world of work, politics, and education. Every woman is called to physical motherhood, spiritual motherhood, or both. And as Danielle Bean notes, spiritual motherhood is not just a “consolation prize” for those who can’t physically mother:
…nothing could be further from the truth! God did create the heart of every woman for motherhood, and that is the calling to life-giving, self-giving love. If people feel funny about calling every woman a mother, I remind them that “mother” is not just a noun. It’s a verb. We are mothers because we mother. We are called to love and care for the people God places in our lives in ways we are uniquely equipped to do because we are female. (Angelus, August 9, 2019)
For John Paul II, the question of women’s role was closely connected to the family. Male and female roles ultimately exist for the service of that “community of life and love” that reflects the Trinity.
The family’s deep eschatological (one of his favorite words) significance is a topic for another conversation. Suffice it to say that, while there is no cookie cutter situation, God established a definite pattern for the family. That pattern includes what John Paul calls the “iconic” complementarity of man and woman.
Feminism—and the devaluing of motherhood—is a diabolically clever strategy to destabilize the family. To counter this, we need to honor the archetype of motherhood, plain and simple. By that I mean motherhood in the home: physically present to feed, bathe, mediate, admonish, and teach a million unscripted, unscheduled lessons.
Just as there is no cookie-cutter pattern for the family, the decision to be home with one’s children takes many forms. A mother may work around her children’s schedule, or she may work part time in the home, or she may put virtually all outside tasks on hold while her children are young. What these moms have in common is that they choose to be physically present during their children’s formative years.
Motherhood, lived properly, is the antithesis of the devil’s non serviam. It’s no surprise, then, that the devil hates mothers. He hates Mary, he hates mothers. We see that hatred in the fervor with which our society preaches the gospel of choice and its sacrament, abortion. We see that hatred in the rage that bubbles up at the mere mention of traditional male and female roles.
True, many writers commend mothers who put careers on hold to stay home with their children. However, along with their praise often comes a qualifier, indicating that the mom who is “just a mom” doesn’t have the energy nor inclination to do anything else, or doesn’t feel called to do so.
It feels a bit backward. If the capacity for physical motherhood is the source of “feminine genius,” so closely entwined with woman’s psyche that it manifests itself in virtually every aspect of her life, there should be no need to qualify our praise for women who choose to devote all their energies to the ideal.
In theory, we honor motherhood. In practice, we give meager recognition to women who make the conscious choice for full-time motherhood.
As a young mother, I had an experience that has stayed with me over the years. In the affluent small town where we lived, I would head to the park with my sons. My younger son was about three, with a bent for self-destruction, so I was close behind him as he zipped around the tot lot. Other women hovered over their charges or watched from the sidelines, but it was clear that many of them were babysitters or nannies.
Every once in a while, I would look down and find a child looking at us intently. The look was unnerving and quite frightening: it was a look of anger. Not sadness, not jealousy. Anger. White-hot, stern anger. Anger that my son had a mother on that playground and he or she did not.
Children are not fooled easily. They know when they are number one in your life and when they’re not.
Writing this, I reflected on my own vocational path. As a young woman, I was confident that I had career choices: I had turned down a full-ride scholarship to a major university. But I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to get married and be at home, full-time, raising a house full of kids. I was unapologetic about it, and there was a certain excitement—I knew I was making a choice that was radically countercultural.
Standing in the threshold of motherhood, I was struck by the power of my role: I didn’t need a sign, I didn’t need a bumper sticker, I didn’t need to say a word. With little ones in tow, I was a walking statement about life and the importance of motherhood. Within the walls of my home, I was raising saints who would help take back the world.
To me, being a mother at home didn’t necessarily mean baking pies and keeping a spotless house—thank goodness; I’d flunk both those tests. It did mean putting my college-educated brain to work forming little souls—a far more challenging task than I envisioned.
Ironically, to my own daughter, raised in a bubble where most moms stay home, my choice looks considerably less exciting. Nonetheless, in a society where the vast majority of women juggle family and work outside the home, a woman’s decision to give up a career in order to raise her children remains a radical choice.
My mother used to say, paraphrasing Aristotle, “Give me a child until he is three and I’ll show you the man.” Mothers, don’t ever apologize for staying home with your children. The payoff is priceless.
[Photo Credit: Unsplash]