When I graduated with my Master of Divinity just a few months before I got married, I discovered quickly that if I wanted to have children and use my hard-earned degree to work for Catholic Church, my choices were going to be limited. My husband’s job at a parish offered no paid parental leave, so I narrowed my job search to places that offered maternity leave benefits. We weren’t anywhere near living in poverty, but we had modest church jobs and our savings cushion wasn’t huge. We wanted to try having kids within a few years and paid leave was an economic necessity for us.

Thankfully, I got a job in a community I loved and was grateful for eight weeks of paid leave when our first child was born. My husband had a supportive pastor and was able to take some sick time and then work from home during those early weeks.

A few years later, my spouse took a job with a diocese that offers twelve weeks of parental leave and I was in conversation about a position there for myself. Only a few weeks after that, we found out we were expecting our second child. We also discovered the parental leave policy did not require a full year of service, but offered ‘one week of paid leave per month worked up to twelve.’ If we were both employed there, we would have to split the leave. Given our timeline, we would be looking at sharing a maximum of six weeks of leave if the position I was interviewing for actually came to fruition. This was both better than expected – and also disappointing.

Decisions Based on Numbers and Fear, Not on Freedom

In Ignatian spirituality, there is a concept of consolation versus desolation, particularly in relation to making decisions. In consolation, we draw toward God and the movements of His love in our life. In contrast, desolation draws us away from God and His active presence. For many women, bearing children is already a complex decision, even in ideal circumstances. It becomes increasingly difficult to make a decision from a place of consolation when you are also calculating weeks of leave, possible physical or mental complications, family finances, and more. Listening to God’s voice becomes difficult – if not outright impossible – when your mind is filled with numbers and your heart with fear.

My heart broke when I realized that no woman who worked in our previous archdiocese received paid leave, let alone any man. I worked very hard to earn my MDiv and was actively thinking about the ways in which I might use my education to serve God’s people. My calling to motherhood has been as profound and clear as my calling to ministry. In many ways, these complex and complementary aspects of my life should intertwine and strengthen each other.

The challenges of paid leave options brought my calling as a parent up against my calling as a minister. Instead of thoughtfully reflecting about where I feel called to use my gifts in ministry and cherishing how these gifts also serve my family, I sift through parental leave benefits and determine how the timing of a new job might fit with growing our family. This kind of conflict only creates more desolation for women as they navigate these kinds of decisions.

The Limits of Paid Leave

Paid maternity leave is a significant need for working women. It is also significantly limited by the common requirement of at least a year of employment. Paid parental leave often does not apply to women whose jobs do not have salaries or benefits. Paid leave is necessary, but also primarily supports women who already have a certain level of privilege. My husband and I are not anywhere near living in poverty, and yet navigating childbirth and parental leave remains difficult. We are also white, heterosexual, have had planned pregnancies, and have reliable emotional and material support from our families. Even with the support and preferred circumstances, we have struggled through countless challenges.

The paid leave conversation is critical and a tangible way that dioceses and other companies can better support women. Paid leave also cannot become another checkbox that implicitly grants permission to not support women more broadly. Women who are hourly and gig workers or who do not work at all are not a part of the paid leave equation. As it exists, paid leave also does not address child care needs, maternal and infant mortality rates, and the slew of additional concerns around childbearing.

All of these concerns force women to decide from a place of desolation. Working for paid leave has to be the first of many steps to offer real consolation for women so that they can thrive not just for the Church, but because of it.

Ellen Romer Niemiec

Ellen Romer Niemiec is passionate about accompaniment, discernment and gathering around a table. Currently, she serves at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago where she lives with her husband and children. She also is a spiritual director and has worked with young adults on retreats and immersion experiences. She earned a B.A. in French and Religious Studies from DePaul University and a Master of Divinity from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

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