This amazing article is the best one that I have ever read about the dilemma women face when choosing between self-fulfillment through career or self-gift through rearing children. It is an incredibly difficult choice for women and one that impacts others beyond us–our husbands, our children, society, the different fields (medical, educational, etc). As author Elizabeth Corey writes:
“Modern women are right to think that both the pursuit of excellence and the desire to care for others are part of a fully flourishing life. Excellence in a particular field requires persistence, self-confidence, drive, courage, and initiative. These are eminently admirable qualities. On the other hand, serving or loving another requires the even more admirable qualities of attention, focus, care, patience, and self-sacrifice. The accent we place on them, and the way we put them into practice, is a matter for all of us to figure out for ourselves.
But we must not deceive ourselves. We cannot happily harmonize these two modes or pretend that they are somehow the same in kind. The disharmony is most apparent at the extremes, when we observe the two modes collapsed into one sphere of activity. We have all seen, for example, the driven mother who can talk of nothing but her own successes and those of her brilliant offspring, or the woman continually distracted by her iPhone, unable to focus on her children as she waits for the next important message to come in. Something is profoundly disordered.
At the other extreme, we probably know many women who have chosen not to pursue their own excellence. Of course there are better and worse reasons for this decision, the most admirable of which is devotion to nurturing others. Yet this also comes with costs.”
Saint Teresa Benedicta tells us that women have an innate knowledge of how to foster self-fulfillment, as well as to how to bring to fruition the gifts of those in their care. That’s why women make excellent mothers, as well as excellent teachers, doctors, managers, and so forth. Women, by virtue of being women, are mothers. No matter what she does, no matter if she has birthed children or not, a woman has a feminine nature and that, in turn, entails maternity. Woman are ordered toward the bearing and nurturing of life, whether physical or spiritual.
The dilemma, comes, of course, when a woman who has a flourishing career in which her spiritual maternity is fruitful (such as teaching) is then blessed with physical maternity. Suddenly, this woman has to choose–will she leave her students to rear her baby? Or, will she retain these spiritual children by seeking the help of other caregivers for her own child? Many women are faced with this predicament and must choose.
The Church gives no clear answers about what women should do, offering only general principles regarding the dignity of women, the high value of maternity, and the right that women should have from pressure to return to their careers when they decide to rear their young children at home. The Church also defends the right of women to equal pay and safe workplaces; it praises women who bless society through applying their feminine genius to their careers. Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Women offers a balanced and positive perspective on women’s contributions to the family and society.
Society needs saintly women everywhere! We need holy women in the medical field, where weak, small, and voiceless humans are disregarded. We need well-formed women in education, where hurting children need a teacher who can also be a mother and authority figure. We need prayerful women in government, where the feminine gifts of communication, synergy, and a good moral sense are desperately needed. Imagine how transformed our society would be if saintly and well-formed women filled key roles in shaping economic policy, city planning, international relations, and the academy.
We also can’t ignore the reality that some women absolutely must work to help meet their family’s basic needs. We ought never to malign the efforts of our sisters who have no choice in whether they will stay at home to raise children or work outside the home. But too often, society encourages women to look to a career as their primary source of self-fulfillment, when the fact is, women are designed by God to thrive on relationships, not recognition. And there is no more intimate and fulfilling relationship than between a mother and her child.
Our children need us, especially when they are tiny. Mother’s intuition tells us when our babies are sick, even before the thermometer registers. It tells us that our child is not having a selfish tantrum, but actually is just tired and hungry (or reacting to that red dye in her Popsicle). Consider, too, that we seem to need our children as much as they need us. Women are not able to compartmentalize in the same way that men are, which is why we can’t focus on work when we know we have a child sick at home without us. We miss our children and ache to be with them and we can’t turn it off.
Corey acknowledges that full-time motherhood is incredibly difficult: “Although the rewards of caring for children are great, motherhood can also be tiring and frustrating, not to mention lonely. A woman must be extraordinarily self-assured to withstand the self-doubt that might cause her to wonder at times whether she has done the right thing.” Especially when children are very young, there is little time to pursue enjoyable hobbies or intellectual pursuits; most days are counted a success if everyone is fed, clean, and safe. Some days with children are extremely demanding and I know I can feel like I’m running a marathon, trying to stay ahead of my children as the day goes by. For those women who forgo a thriving career to raise children, it can help to remember that this demanding season of life won’t be forever. Children grow up quickly and the years come just as quickly in which a mother has more time to pursue her own interests.
“We are limited, embodied creatures,” Corey says. “These limits mean that we cannot do everything to its fullest extent at once, and certain things we may not be able to do at all.” She is right. As a full-time mother, I cannot excel as an astronaut, nor will I be named department chair at the UT School of Music. Such elevated positions require single-minded commitment and expertise in their respective fields.
But I can earn my Masters in Theology through a distance-learning program while the children nap. And I can live on a farm and keep sheep. And speak at Catholic women’s conferences on weekends and pursue my dream of starting my own clothing line after the kids are in bed or having time with Daddy. These ways of using my unique, God-given talents are still available to me even when raising children full-time. By prioritizing according to our vocation and the will of God, we can both lay down our lives in self-gift to our families AND be fruitful in ways that promote our own self-fulfillment. It’s that paradox laid out by Our Lord: that only in giving of ourselves can we find ourselves…only in offering ourselves totally can we be truly free.
Achieving this balance is no easy task and it is only accomplished when we constantly seek direction and grace from God. Every child deserves parents whose actions prove he is wanted and valued and every woman deserves the chance to express her own unique gifts to the world. Let us pray for one another, as we discern how best to love those placed in our care. Whether called to physical maternity or spiritual fruitfulness, a rich life of love and legacy, more beautiful we can imagine, awaits us.