Stay-at-home motherhood: is it really the only Godly route?

Disclaimer: I’m a big believer that faith is never easy, and if it is, it almost certainly means you’re not digging deep enough. If you think you have it all figured out, you’re probably more pharisee than seeker.

When I started Intentional Catholic, I knew I couldn’t just ignore the bits of the documents that are hard for me to swallow. So I admit it: this is one of them.

Certainly the most “traditional” among us believe very strongly that moms should be in the home, always and forever. But that second half of the quote, about not underrating legitimate social progress, seems to indicate that even the bishops had to wrestle with how rigidly to hold that principle.

Because if a woman’s rightful place is in the home as long as she has children, the reality is she will ONLY have a place in the home. The reality of the world is that one cannot have children, raise them in isolation from a professional career, and then blithely step into the workplace at age 45 or 50.

As crazy as my life is—as stretched-thin as I am by the various irons I have in the fire—I recognize how incredibly blessed I am that my gifts & passions lend themselves to working from home. But my situation is the exception, not the norm. God gives women gifts just as he gives men; surely He means for them all to be used? Surely they were all given for a purpose in the divine plan. Yes, mothers have something irreplaceable to give to their children, but does it necessarily follow that that gift can ONLY be expressed by staying home?

Also, the male-dominated professional world really suffers from the lack of the feminine gifts—peacemaking, teamwork, empathy come to mind; I’m sure there are others. Those, too, are gifts given by God for a purpose.

I know families in which the father is the one with the gift for homemaking, and it works beautifully. I also know families who move Heaven and Earth to work opposing schedules so they share the tasks of breadwinning and child care.

I’ve heard it said many times that stay-at-home-mom is a pretty new invention, one enjoyed only by the wealthy. I’m not able to confirm this quickly, but it tracks with knowledge of women working in clothing factories and washing houses in earlier times. If you think of moms at home pre-industrial revolution, they were growing vegetables and preserving, baking bread and sewing clothes for the family.

And if you are tempted to say, “Well, duh, that’s what you do when you stay home,” I’d remind you that at the same time the husbands were working fields and raising livestock, also at home. Home and work were the same thing for EVERYONE in the agricultural era.

And in the industrial age, how many of those wealthy at-home moms employed other women as wet nurse, nanny, and tutor? So they were home, but they still weren’t really raising their own kids. Plus, that picture reveals even more women working outside the home in an era we tend to idealize as the era of SAHMs.

So all in all, I think we have a tendency to oversimplify this whole picture of what a mother’s domestic role is, and what it means to safely preserve it. A mother does have a unique place in her children’s heart and in their upbringing. But it doesn’t follow that if she goes to work outside the house, that role is being discarded.

I have a family member who works full-time and points out that being a working mom does NOT mean work is more important. When kids are off school or sick, they frequently camp out in her office all day. When she can’t work it another way, she sacrifices work time. “I am always a mom first,” she says.

A lot of this reflection is not strictly faith-related, but many times general expressions of faith—i.e. “we are all given unique gifts by God for a specific purpose”—require us to get down in the weeds on practical things to see how that principle can or should be lived out in the real world.

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