President Obama’s remarks on October 31 to Rhode Island College were pro-women, at least according to some. He spoke of the need for equal pay for equal work, for increased career opportunities for women and improved leave policies for working parents who needed to take care of a sick child. All of these promises, no doubt, were highly attractive to his college-aged audience who will soon be voting in the mid-term election.
What caused a backlash, however, was his seemingly dismissive attitude towards women who chose to stay home with their children. Speaking of his support for government-sponsored preschool, the President said,
And too often, parents have no choice but to put their kids in cheaper daycare that maybe doesn’t have the kinds of programming that makes a big difference in a child’s development. And sometimes there may just not be any slots, or the best programs may be too far away. And sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that is not a choice we want Americans to make. (Emphasis added.)
Granted, he was speaking contextually about the fact that many lower-income women cannot afford to pay preschool costs and, therefore, choose to stay home. And indeed, 32 percent of stay-at-home moms are living in poverty, as opposed to only 12 percent of working moms (Pew Research Center, 2014). Yet, here and throughout his speech, he measures a successful woman by her career. Never once does he mention to these college students the benefits of a woman staying home long-term with her children. So, when he says, “When women succeed, America succeeds,” he seems to be referring to women who are “full and equal participants in our economy,” not those choosing to stay home and raise the future leaders of our country.
It is notable, however, that America as a whole sees the value of a parent staying home with his or her children. The Pew Research Center reported earlier this year that “Despite the fact that most mothers in the U.S. work at least part time, 60 percent of Americans say children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family.”
This speech is not an anomaly for the President, or for the liberal—essentially mainstream—part of our culture. Most of today’s mothers of young children grew up with no-fault divorce, the moral fallout of the sexual revolution and a society where individualism is valued more than sacrificing for the strength of the family. What was, a quarter of a century ago, a movement of high-powered women in business suits for equal professional opportunities—which, by the way, I completely support—is now a new generation of the feminist movement that reduces women to strictly what they can accomplish in the public sphere.
The President’s speech seems to urge his young audience to become the next “Julias” that were touted by his re-election campaign. Julia is smart, savvy and successful—but she is lacking any family but the state and her life is curiously devoid of setbacks that inevitably come when we make difficult, but worthwhile, decisions like postponing our career to care for elderly parents or young children or making financial sacrifices to help relatives in need. Valuing women in the workplace is important, but women’s role in society cannot be properly appreciated without understanding the gifts that they bring as wives and mothers.
The Church, Catholic Mothers and the Family
At the end of the recent Synod, Pope Francis tweeted, “The family is the place in which we are formed as persons. Each family is a brick that builds society.” Of course, the Church’s emphasis on the importance of the family and parents as the first educators of their children is nothing new. In his seminal encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem, Saint John Paul II praised mothers saying, “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way.”
Saint John Paul II does not only speak of women raising children in the home, but also of the need for workplaces to be more supportive of families. The Church consistently teaches the value of the family and of nurturing children, but leaves room for parents to discern the work-life balance that will most effectively help their family to flourish.
Consider my friend Cristina from Boston, who successfully worked in the technology sector for ten years before becoming a mother, and now stays home with her five children. She says “These years stress putting the needs of small children and their formation first” and says that the “payoff is immeasurable.” While she is considering returning to the workforce when her children are all in school full-time, for now she is joyfully at peace in her vocation, explaining “no one aside from a father has as big an interest in forming healthy, happy and holy little souls as a mother.”
However, for Ashley, a teacher from Pittsburgh, working outside the home means that she is living out her vocation as a mother of two and an educator. “Most simply put,” Ashley relates, “I feel a calling to be a wife and a mother and a teacher. By being an effective teacher, I am a better wife and mother. By being a caring mother I am also being made a better teacher and wife. To say that these three roles fulfill me seems limited; I see all three together as the way I best contribute to our society.”
Of course, working outside the home and staying at home full-time are not the only choices women make, nor are they necessarily permanent. Since I had my first son several years ago, I have both worked in an office at times and stayed home at others. At the moment, both my husband and I work from home, sharing the full-time care of our two sons. I have made different decisions, depending on what was prudent or necessary at the time.
The stories of these women and the attitude of America as a whole indicate that as a culture, we still value family life as well as careers. While some might measure success solely by a woman’s career path, the Church encourages mothers and fathers to recognize how important their role is as parents not only to the souls entrusted to their care but to the whole of society.