Part 17: Women and the Family

The following is part 17 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

There can be little doubt that a majority of women, at some point in their lives, are called to the vocation of wife and mother in a family. Whether they interpret this as a call from God or not, most women naturally desire to do this, just as most men will seek one day to become husbands and fathers.

Motherhood, of course, is no picnic: It requires great personal sacrifice, as well as growth in the virtues of charity, patience and perseverance. As Genevieve Kinecke puts it:

There is an enormous physical cost attached to bringing new life into the world, a price no [mother] can escape. As God would have it, the pain is relative to the fruit, and what comes at such a cost has overwhelming rewards.

Motherhood from the outset demands the total gift of self if it is to be done well. To live hospitality at this phase and to joyfully sacrifice one's own comforts is to begin to wrap the heart and mind around the Christ Child. It is an invitation to grow in the spirit of service ....

To bring this to the practical level, we can consider the limitless ways that a mother can confirm her children through her natural interest in their growth, her desire for their holiness and her recognition of their inherent dignity and unique gifts. (p. 58 and 26)

Again, for all the joys that a woman can have of raising a family, these joys are bought at the cost of tremendous sacrifice: the pains of childbirth, the sleepless nights with infants, and time and energy poured out to the limit for her family.

In fact, in some ways, mothers today bear even heavier crosses than women had to carry in ages past. To be sure, over the centuries mothers had to face grave medical dangers in the process of childbirth itself: many women lost their lives giving the gift of life to their children. Today, however, while medical care has improved, women in the western world now have to deal with a social situation that is far from supportive of the task of motherhood.

To begin with, the geographical scattering of families (due to the mobility of the workforce) often leaves a mother at home relatively isolated from adult company. Often there is no grandparent, no aunt or uncle, brother or sister - that is, no extended family at all - living under the same roof, or even in the same geographical area, who might provide regular adult companionship, and lend a hand with the chores or the child-minding. Moreover, unlike women of many previous centuries, the woman of the 20th and 21st century is usually at least as well-educated as her husband, and so 10 years or more spent primarily in childrearing can mean for some women 10 years during which they have to put many of their intellectual or creative skills "on the back-burner," so to speak.

Sometimes that is a hard sacrifice to make - and western culture often makes it even harder. At issue here is more than just the matter of fair provisions for maternity leave. The whole timing of career expectations in our culture is rigged against the natural fertility trajectory of a woman's body. Fertility generally peaks at age 22, and steadily declines as a woman ages, especially after age 35. Yet most women today are socially pressured into prioritizing career and financial goals, and postponing marriage and having children until they are well into their thirties. This a time in a woman's life when childbearing and childrearing can be medically risky (including a much higher risk of infertility) and more physically and psychologically draining. As one author says:

Despite the undeniable success of women in the workforce ... "the typical career path is geared towards the needs of men, not women." The years one must work to secure partnership in a law firm or tenure at a university are the same years a woman is at her peak fertility. The cultural expectation that women should forge careers along the traditional path of men, when women's window of opportunity to bear life is far shorter than their male counterparts, makes one wonder just how pro-woman the career centric feminist movement has been. (Bachiochi, ed., Women, Sex, and the Church, p. 125)

Women who embrace the sacrifices of motherhood for the sake of their children and their families often discover that, with the help of divine grace, their crosses can actually become a path to sanctity. This is surely what St. Paul meant when he wrote in I Timothy 2:15: "Yet women will be saved by child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty."

Notice that he did not say "Women can only be saved by child-bearing," as if natural motherhood is the only road to holiness open to a woman. Nor does "by child-bearing" mean simply the biological process of giving birth. Clearly, just giving birth does not insure the sanctification of the soul. It is not only the pains of childbirth, but also the self-sacrificial care and nurture of her children that can become a special path to growth in the virtues of faith and love for any woman who undertakes this vocation with a heart open to the Holy Spirit.

On a practical level, many talented and well-educated women find that those years which they spend primarily in the nurturing of their children at home are more rewarding than they expected. The bonds of affection that they form with their kids, and the daily wonder of the unfolding gift of human life is a unique and precious experience. Moreover, it is often not quite as "boring" and "restrictive" as they were led to believe by some feminist authors.

In fact, motherhood is a surprisingly "universalist" vocation. A mother has to wear many hats: to her young children she must be a good teacher, nurse, cook, care-giver, playgroup leader, and developmental psychologist all at once - as well as setting a good example of virtue and true religion. To be done well, it is far from just "baby-sitting." Rather, it is as challenging a vocation as can be found anywhere on earth, and one that can powerfully affect the lives of children for good. The influence that a wise and loving mother can have on the bodily and mental health, character formation and spiritual development of her own children is simply incalculable.

Furthermore, homemakers today have found many ways to cope with the boredom and isolation that they do sometimes experience. Some women get involved with volunteer work for their local church or charity, taking on tasks that they can fit into their family and child-care schedule. Other mothers find part-time jobs or flexi-time work to do, or various kinds of employment that can be done from the home via their home computer. Christina Hoff Sommers reports that this kind of balance between work and home has been practiced extensively by women in Holland:

Consider the Netherlands. Dutch women are among the freest, best- educated, and happiest women on the planet. In studies of life satisfaction and well-being, Dutch women (and men too) consistently score at the top. More than 70 percent of Dutch women work part time - but when asked if they would like to work more, the vast majority say no. Is it because they are held back by inadequate child-care policies? No, even childless women and those with grown children abjure full-time employment. "It has to do with personal freedom," says Ellen de Bruin, a Dutch psychologist and the author of Dutch Women Don't Get Depressed. "What is important," she says, is that "women in the Netherlands are free to choose whatever they want to do."...

A United Nations gender equity committee recently censured the Netherlands for "the low number of women who are economically independent." A 2010 Slate article is less censorious: "Women in the Netherlands work less, have lesser titles, and a big gender gap, and they love it." The author concludes by advising her American sisters: "Maybe we'd be better-off if we could relax and go Dutch." That will not be the answer for all women, but why should it not be an option respected by all? (Freedom Feminism, p. 96-97).

The crosses which mothers in the western world have to bear would be a great deal lighter if our society recognized the importance of motherhood to the common good, and honored and supported mothers more than once a year on Mother's Day. In 2001, Ann Crittenden wrote an important book with a revealing title in this regard: The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued (Metropolitan Books). Sadly, our society is now so morally and spiritually bankrupt that not only does it fail to honor the irreplaceable service that mothers do in the family, in many countries it actually penalizes stay-at-home moms and their families financially. For example, the tax codes in some western countries hit homemakers directly by allotting them lower personal tax deductions than working spouses.

In some countries, when both spouses are working in paid employment they can also file their income taxes separately (called "income-splitting") to take advantage of lower tax rates, while a single wage-earning family earning the same gross income is required to pay a much higher proportion of their family income in taxes. Meanwhile, most businesses do not pay a "living wage" or proper family-supporting salary to principal breadwinners, so that in addition to the tax penalties they suffer (mentioned above), this means that a majority of mothers in North America with pre-school children at home are actually forced to find paid employment, even full-time employment, in order to help keep the family afloat. In 2009, for example, Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of working mothers in the USA would prefer to work part-time, but may are unable to do so.

The Catholic Church has repeatedly condemned this social situation. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical letter Familiaris Consortio in 1981:

While it must be recognized that women have the same right as men to perform various public functions, society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full-time to their own families.

In his Letter to Women of 1994, the Pope again called upon society to respect and uphold-even financially-the irreplaceable value of the work that so many women perform as the primary care-givers to their children:

While speaking about employment in reference to the family, it is appropriate to emphasize how important and burdensome is the work that women do within the family unit: that work should be acknowledged and deeply appreciated. The "toil" of a woman who, having given birth to a child, nourishes and cares for the child, and devotes herself to its upbringing, particularly in the early years, is so great as to be comparable to any professional work. This ought to be clearly stated and upheld, no less than any labor right. Motherhood, because of all the hard work it entails, should be recognized as giving the right to financial benefits at least equal to those of other kinds of work undertaken in order to support the family during such a delicate phase of its life [in other words, when there are young children on-board].

Sadly, only a handful of countries have taken steps in this direction (such as instituting per-child family assistance subsidies that go directly to the mother). In any case, Catholics can justly be proud that almost alone among the world's major institutions, the Catholic Church has repeatedly and tirelessly spoken out for the dignity of motherhood, and for social recognition and support for the incredible service that mothers provide for their children, and therefore for the common good of whole human community. The Church celebrates the vocation of motherhood in every icon and statue of the Madonna and Child, and teaches her children that God himself honored this vocation by entrusting himself, as a helpless infant, into the loving arms and tender care of his own earthly mother, the most blessed among all women.

Next Time: Women at Work and the Feminine Genius

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.


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