Since the 1960s, women have been encouraged to throw off the shackles of home and dive into careers.
The regnant wisdom has been that a career is far more satisfying than homemaking. As I’ve outlined in my book The Anti-Mary Exposed, five decades later the ramifications of this rush to work are being felt deeply throughout the culture. The absence of women as the heart of the family has led to a sharp decline in personal happiness among men, women, and children, while abuse, neglect, suicide, divorce, consumerism, and narcissism have increased.
In reaction to this, many Catholics are suggesting an opposing view that women shouldn’t do any sort of work outside the home, conjuring up memories of June and Ward Cleaver as the model Catholic family.
As Aristotle pointed out over two millennia ago, however, the human mind is comfortable oscillating between extremes, but the extremes are generally not the right answer.
A closer look at the historical Catholic family looks a lot more like Jean-François Millet’s famous mid-19th-century painting The Angelus, which depicts a man and his wife, who have been working together in the field, stopping to pray when the church bells ring. Or like St. Zelie and Louise Martin and their at-home lace company that kept the family of St. Thérèse of Lisieux living comfortably. Or like the widowed St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who became a teacher to support her six young children.
In my own family, my father died leaving my mother with four children to care for and raise. Although she had been a stay-at-home-mom, she knew how his business worked so she was able to take it over after his death.
What all these examples have in common are how work, survival, and family were cobbled together as best could be done under often challenging circumstances. Even convents point to consecrated women selling products outside the convent to live sustainably. Truly, these religious balance ora et labora, prayer and work.
Significant familial changes took place when industrialization first took husbands from the home. Industrialization also mechanized the basic skills that women used to find deep satisfaction in: gardening, sewing, canning, knitting, cooking, and so on. Lost to women were the kinds of work that philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “practices”. Practices are real crafts producing real products—but they have the added bonus of edifying the one practicing the craft. Practices aren’t just rote mundane tasks, such as sorting darks and lights, but real skills, such as St. Zelie’s lace, which often helped the family finances.
Today’s rote activities—minus the practices of old—coupled with the isolation of stay-at-home moms and cultural stigma against homemaking, leave many women deeply dissatisfied and unsupported.
There is no going back to the pre-Industrial Revolution age, but we can and should think more carefully about the nature of work and what it means to women and families instead of adjudicating with an absolute “Yes” or “No”. Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has shown that the happiest women are those who are home with their children, but who also have some type of work outside the home, however small. The internet has provided opportunities for women (and men) to try to break out of the nine-to-five rut to reduce a homemaker’s isolation.
One of the downfalls of the last fifty years has been that instead of women demanding that their work be family friendly, they have adjusted their families to the work. The internet is changing that with new opportunities for work with shorter or more flexible hours than were previously available.
When considering women’s work, the whole household must be brought into the focus and a broader look at what Catholic womanhood looks like. We must ask how we help women use their remarkable gifts to serve both their families and the greater good, instead of choosing one or the other. There will not be a one-size-fits-all answer for every family but looking at how to serve the needs of the entire family will serve everyone better than simply grasping at extremes.
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