She rises at dawn to lace up her running shoes, logging hard-won miles in the gray light of morning. She is up before the sun with a sick baby, a nursing baby, an anxious kindergartener, making toast and oatmeal and gestures of comfort. She is still asleep at dawn because the baby nursed four times last night.
She leaves the house by seven to get the kids to school, to get to her office, to get to the grocery store because the milk ran out. She is stuck in the house into well past noon with a sick child, a handicapped child, a crowd of many children whose number overwhelms her capacity to mind them all in the grocery store.
She brings home a paycheck that pays half the mortgage, more than half. She stays home and forgoes a paycheck and the comfort of saving for retirement or paying off her student loans. Either way, there is guilt. She is using her degree to change the world, but at the cost of her children’s wellbeing. She is spending her life in hidden service, burying her wasted talents in the opaque soil of motherhood.
She doesn’t dress appropriately. She dresses too modestly. She wears clothes that cost too much; if she only dressed more frugally, she could afford to stop working. She dresses frumpily because she has let herself go; she needs to get back out there, needs to get to the gym once in a while. She’ll never be able to recover financially, because she put her career on hold for her children. She’ll never get this time back with her children, because she squandered it on her career.
Her kids are suffering from being poorly socialized because she schools them at home. Her family can only afford private school because she works from home, sometimes in front of them, putting them in front of screens when she should be reading to them. Her kids are in public school because they have IEPs, and she can’t afford to pay out of pocket for the services they’d need at a Catholic school. Clearly her faith isn’t as important to her as their learning disabilities, she should trust God more.
She doesn’t feed them organic food because she’s spending so much on tuition. If she homeschooled them they’d be able to afford non-GMO produce, and their bodies and souls would flourish. She lets them eat fast food because she worked late, again, and she doesn’t try hard enough at crock pot meal planning. Trans fats are clogging their arteries while neglect chips away at their souls.
If her husband were a better provider, she wouldn’t have to earn a paycheck. If she would surrender her paycheck and stop emasculating him, maybe her husband would make more money. They should only drive one car, because a second vehicle is a luxury. She should stay at home without a vehicle in the suburbs while he commutes to the city 90 minutes away, because her children have everything they need as long as they have her.
While she works in the home, she should be careful to do everything: the dishes, the floors, the taxes (but only with her husband’s permission) the cooking, the laundry, and the religious formation of the children. She should grow her own garden if she can’t afford organic produce, because a good mother would.
It shouldn’t matter that her extended family lives 1,500 miles away. That she is the only adult at home on her block during daylight hours. She has everything she needs at home, and she can do it all, and do it by herself.
Mothers who use babysitters aren’t invested enough in the development of their children. Mothers who stay home with their children are wasting their lives. Mothers who stay home with their children must be rich, since they are living lives of luxury and indolence. Mothers who work away from their children are selfish, they should adjust their expenditures to live on one income.
Mothers with student loan debt shouldn’t have become mothers until that debt was repaid. Women shouldn’t go to college, it’s a waste of money. Women shouldn’t start their mothering careers until their professional careers are well established, it’s a waste of talent.
Women who have babies should be able to work the same hours as women who haven’t had babies. Children are a liability. Motherhood is a liability. Motherhood is your path to sanctity. If you fail at motherhood, you’ve failed at the one job God has given you. You must give all of yourself away to be a good mother.
What makes a good mother? Was Mary a good mother, staying at home with Jesus and cooking and cleaning and mending all the garments and running the family home and raising the Son of God?
Was St. Gianna a good mother, leaving her children in someone else’s care while she practiced medicine? Leaving her children behind on earth when she gave her life for her daughter?
Was St. Zelie a good mother, working from home and running a small business which was profitable enough to allow her to hire her own husband to work for her? Was that emasculating? But then…he became a saint, too.
Was St. Helen a good mother? She was a little too brash, a little too concerned with affairs beyond the domestic realm. Unseemly. But she rescued the relics of the True Cross … and her son legitimized the practice of Chrstianity in the Roman world.
Was St. Monica a good mother? Too clingy. If she hadn’t been so smothering, maybe her son wouldn’t have turned out to be such a derelict youth. But her tears watered the seed of conversion that bloomed in St. Augustine’s heart.
In the midst of the flame wars over what constitutes a “good mother,” I’m reminded of a favorite C. S. Lewis quote: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”
And how gloriously different are the working mothers. The mothers who work. The works of mothers.