When French President Emmanuel Macron stated, “Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children,” he struck a nerve with many Catholic (and non-Catholic) women. “I’m fine with a lady having seven, eight children if this is her choice, after education,” he clarified, attempting to make his statement better. “This is not the case today.” We know that there was key context to his statement that went ignored or unnoticed; even so, his comments exposed the muddy dialogue in the Western world surrounding women, education, work, and motherhood.
For now, let us set aside Macron’s comments. Instead, I would like to focus on how we tend to discuss career and motherhood as if they are, at best, incompatible and, at worst, in conflict with one another.
Whether they have children or not, most women have heard of the “motherhood penalty,” especially if they work in business. It is a commonly cited phenomenon in which women are, deliberately or unintentionally, penalized at work for having a child. Research finds, for example, that new moms, upon returning to work, are overlooked for promotions or special assignments. Furthermore, mothers are perceived as less competent and less committed to their work than are women without children or men. Stay-at-home mothers are half as likely than others to receive job interviews when they decide to return to the workforce.
[T]he “motherhood penalty” . . . is a commonly cited phenomenon in which women are, deliberately or unintentionally, penalized at work for having a child.
A 2016 Gallup report stated, “Kids are a company’s greatest competition.” The researchers found that employed women with children under the age of 18 were more likely to say they would prefer to not work outside the home than were employed women without children under the age of 18. While the report contains some good advice on how to make work more engaging and appealing to mothers, I argue that calling children “a company’s greatest competition” is a problem in itself. Employers should not feel that they must “compete” with their employees’ children. Rather, they should know that motherhood makes their female employees perform even better in the workplace.
The language we use when discussing women who work (“having it all” or not, “the motherhood penalty,” “the mommy track”) has significant implications for women both with and without children.
Each time a reporter asks a working mother, “How do you do it?” but doesn’t ask a working father the same question, it hurts us.
Each time we share statistics that demonstrate women’s struggles in the workplace, but neglect to share strategies they and their organizations can use to help, it hurts us.
Each time we assume that a woman is unhappy because she sacrifices working or sacrifices being at home, it hurts us.
My intent is not at all to diminish the difficulty of being a working mom. While I am not married, I have friends who work and have children, and I know it is hard. There are sacrifices, but when we frame motherhood and career as an “either/or” scenario, it communicates to mothers that they have fewer options, and it makes single women who love their work apprehensive or downright anxious about marriage and children. And what is the result of that apprehension? Contraception. Abortion. Unfulfilled vocations.
[W]hen we frame motherhood and career as an “either/or” scenario, it communicates to mothers that they have fewer options, and it makes single women who love their work apprehensive or downright anxious about marriage and children.
Until we have a society that supports women in the fullness of our vocations, we will never have a society that is free of contraception and abortion. There will always be that fear: “If I have a baby, I won’t be able to [finish college/get a promotion/become an executive/be a surgeon].”
In his 1995 Letter to Women, Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “Certainly, much remains to be done to prevent discrimination against those who have chosen to be wives and mothers. As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State” (emphasis added). Over 20 years later, this call should sound old-fashioned. Rather, we still seek these advancements as 2018 draws to a close.
Outside (and even, I fear, inside) the Church, Catholics have a reputation for being anti-woman, or at least not pro-woman. From the very beginning, however, and exemplified by such leaders as St. John Paul II, the Church has nurtured a deep respect for woman’s soul and vocation. I argue that it is in the business world that we find more anti-woman rhetoric, even in the midst of so-called feminist work. When women feel forced to choose between a career and a child, when working motherhood and stay-at-home motherhood seem like two terrible options, when we tell women they should try to have it all and then tell them it is impossible, we are not pro-woman.
From the very beginning, . . . the Church has nurtured a deep respect for woman’s soul and vocation.
As Catholics, we must lead the charge. Let us redefine what it means to “have it all.” In fact, let us get rid of the phrase all together. We need to fight for equal pay, for paid maternity and paternity leave. We must offer support to our loved ones who return to work after having a child, who work and wish they could have a child, or who are transitioning to staying at home with a child. If we are managers, let us provide the same opportunities to mothers that we do to other employees. If we are educators, we should tell girls they can pursue a career and become a mother, if that is what they are called to do. If we are policymakers, we must pursue just economic policies. If we are mothers, let us embrace our vocation.
Edith Stein told us that “[t]here is no profession which cannot be practised by a woman” and that there exists “a collaboration of Mary with every woman wherever that woman is fulfilling her vocation.” With Edith’s help and through her intercession, let us transform our society into one that supports women in every walk of life, through each stage of life, as we study, work, fall in love, and whether we have no children or ten.