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The working mother

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.

46 Comments

  • Kelly

    Yes! A million times over!! When looking for “a good mother,” I find so many examples in my friends, as varied as their uniquely created souls. Thank you for putting this into words so beautifully.

  • Peggy Rowe-Linn

    Thank you for writing my mom’s story (mother of nine), my story and my daughters’ stories. We will be forever grateful that someone understands the conflict. May we rise above the conflict in the criticisms and all become saints forever in the kingdom of God together. Go, mamas!

  • Rachel

    Wow… I had tears streaming down my face reading this. Thank you for creating and sharing these words. They touched my life and heart in so many beautiful, painful, contradictory ways.

  • Lacy

    This is my favorite thing you’ve ever written. So needed. So so needed. I would add my own feelings of inadequacy over only being able to have 2.

    • Sara

      I am also a mother of 2 and don’t feel able because of mental health issues to have more babies, even though I, the two children, and my husband so long for them. Whenever someone announces a new pregnancy, I’m happy for them, but it hurts, whenever the kids ask me for a little sister (they’re very exact in their wishes!), I feel like I’m failing them, and whenever my husband feels sad for the same reason I do, I feel like I’m depriving him. So I understand! But it’s all Gods will.

  • Mary

    Beautiful. Beautiful. Thank you and so true. I was talking to a friend recently who is contemplating motherhood and told her that there are as many different types of mothers and as many different reasons for becoming a mother as their are mothers. Thank you for recognizing all of us.

    • Mary

      *there are mothers
      I was hurrying to write the comment as my son was running out of the bathtub with my husband giving chase 🙂

      • Christina

        Thank you so much for this! I really really needed to read this, have been needing to read something like this for a long time.

  • Lissa

    Best thing on the internet I’ve read in years… Thank you for validating all mothers! I love all the examples of Saintly mothers who did it the way they were born to do it. May society bring back respect for motherhood, starting with our own Holy Mary, Mother of God! <3

  • Al

    Haters gonna to hate.
    Every time my wife is sad because somebody fed her one of the lines in this article and she took it to heart, I want to go find the person who wrote or told her that (seriously, not for educational purposes as stated here) and smack them.
    Thanks for laying it out in the open.

  • Emma

    Seems like you might be making excuses for mother who don’t always make good decisions. What circumstances led them to that point in their lives in the first place? When women are too hasty to marry, don’t finish school, bother to dip their toes into the labor force, and subscribe to any one of the three toxic waves of feminism, the outcome won’t always be good.

    Whether women like it or not, others will judge them. People do judge based on appearance. Most everybody does it. So, yes, if you wear costly clothes when you have no money, or when you let yourself go, someone is going to whisper. People will also judge you based on accomplishments. Unfortunately, motherhood is not taken seriously. Hence this post. At the end of the day, who cares what other people think about it? Seriously, why do you care so much? If women find fulfillment in motherhood, then nothing else should matter. Drown out the murmurings of the world. In fact, drown out the world because it often doesn’t know what’s best for you–or everybody else. The world is the devil’s playground, after all. Quite literally. The family is under attack precisely because of this, so the best way to fight the culture is to just do what you think you do best — which is to be a mother. Let them talk. In a few years, you’ll see how their children won’t amount to much, but yours will.

    In any case, yes, there are different types of mothers–some are good, other bad, and others still worse– but the archetype all women, even if they don’t understand it well, strive for is the Virgin Mary. ALL women should imitate the virtues of the Blessed Mother– humility, obedience, love, purity, patience, etc. All of them.

    • Anita

      Um, I think the point of the article is that:

      – there are many ways for women to become saints
      – only God really judges us
      – own your own life/mind your own business

      I could be wrong, that’s what I got out of it.

      Nice job, Jenny.

      • Emma

        There are many ways for all of us to become saints.

        Ultimately, God’s judgment is the only one that matters, but people still judge others, regardless.

        I’ve come across the stereotype incarnate of some of the women described in this article, and Jenny is generous in her assessment of them, but I find that sometimes women find themselves in thorny situations because of the decisions some make. Of course, this is not the case for every woman.

        And, well, part of owning your own life is to ignore the world’s flak. Women who choose to be full-time mothers are sneered at, but guess what? Statistically speaking, those children will be more emotionally balanced than, say, children of single mothers.

        There are different types of mothers, but, let’s be blunt about this: some types of mothers are better than others.

        • Anita

          Who is “better” is for God to say not any of us.

          I’m a stay at home, homeschooling mom. I have found that making the choice to do what I believe is best for my family has made me happier and more fulfilled than any MBA job I ever had.

          However, focusing on what others do “wrong” instead of accepting that us stay-at-homers have plenty of room for improvement, is the path to hell not Heaven.

          Matthew 7:5 and all that.

          • Emma

            Well, there’s no need to be defensive when you clearly didn’t read my entire comment. You probably skimmed and that’s the problem. If you’d read it thoroughly, you would have realized that I am actually defending stay-at-home moms. At no moment in time did I say that women pursuing a career are more fulfilled than those who don’t. The research is quite clear about this: professional women aren’t necessarily happier. In fact, they’re more miserable.

            I disagree — while God delivers the ultimate judgement, and it is the one that matters, people will discriminate (no, not racially) between good and bad. That’s human nature, and no matter how many times you go deny it, you won’t be able to eradicate it. When you say it’s not for us to decide who’s better, it can quickly devolve into relativism. Because now there is no objective standard for what’s in actuality better. Anybody can have his or her own criterion. Objectively speaking, there are good and bad mothers. Let’s use an example that may seem extreme to you, but is actually quite common in poorer countries. Would you say that a mother who is emotional negligent, physically abusive, and alcoholic is good? Or is that for God to decide? Not every mother is like that, but those exist. Even you would judge those women and pity the children.

            My comment is unpopular because it’s true, and people don’t seem to like to hear the truth. There are good and bad mothers. Some of the mothers described in this post are not what I’d call exemplar mothers. For instance, there’s this one: “She is using her degree to change the world, but at the cost of her children’s wellbeing.”

            I don’t see the hang-up here. Obviously, her children’s well-being should be prioritized over some career, because you know human lives are worth more than anything else. The world will still need to be “changed” long after the kids move out of the house and start their own lives. Why is this even a dilemma? It’s silly, and really portrays women in an irrational light.

  • Annette

    I was made to feel useless because I didn’t have a career. I raised my kids. I worked off and on. My mom used to call me at 6:30 in the morning to ask if I were working.

  • Kayla Sanmiguel

    Made me cry. I have been all these mothers. Pray, hope, and do not worry (in theory. In reality: pray, wonder, and worry)!

  • Dan

    SAHD, who after 3 1/2 years and 2 children am in awe of my wife…. and how much underserved praise men get in regards to parenting. Throw a ball around and you get an “atta boy”. Have a war story about that time ” i spent 10 hours with a 3 year old bla bla” and your well on your way to being a great dad? My favorite line ive heard multiple times from men, in a hushed manner, is “hey staying at home with the kids, living the good life huh?” A red face is all i can do from giving my knee jerk response. Gentlemen we can and must do better than that in our understanding.
    Jenny, i come here to learn how to be a better father. Thank You for your Faith and keeping it so eloquently.
    It is the honor of my life to serve my wife and children. It is only emasculating for those men looking from the outside in.

    Salve Regina, Vita Dulcedo Et Spes Nostra

  • Peg

    Wish you were around writing this in the 70s when feminism reared it’s head and I was conflicted about staying home or working outside the home. It is so crucial to know we are not alone and our conflicted feelings are average many times. If only we were all confident of our decisions to avoid the guilt. I have two daughters,one was a stay at home military mom and the other chose a career and both have happy kids, so what did I know.

  • jeanette

    Emma is correct to say there are objective standards for what is good…given the particulars of the situation. Women do make bad choices, sometimes on their own, sometimes in conjunction with their husbands, sometimes deferring to their husbands. We can’t pretend all choices are equally good. And I think there are some statements in this blog post that Emma noticed fall into that category. But overall the point is that we need to make choices that are the best ones for our family. There is a modern cultural bias that women should make choices that support their own personal goals as the primary consideration and it flies in the face of what we know as Christians about being “other centered” and in this case, the “other” is the entire family unit.

    Some people make bad decisions and need the right encouragement and support to get on a different path. To suggest that it would be better to withhold “judgement” would be to fail to give support in helping a family realize their potential to live out their vocation.

    We don’t need to be busybodies minding other people’s business or playing comparison games about what is best for one is best for another, but we should be attentive to positive ways to support families in their decisions.

  • Joey Duke

    Thank you for providing a thought provoking article, as the comments reflect. Some apparently take you as suggesting that because women made various choices regarding how they practiced the vocation of motherhood and those women became saints and some good things occurred in their lives or those of their children, those women’s choices were necessarily the correct ones. I do not believe that is what you are suggesting. Might I offer that one issue appears to be trying to define motherhood as some individualistic enterprise, rather than, or without also accounting for, the context of the society which God made us for (family, communities of families, etc). Being a mother, like being a father, cannot be isolated and defined in terms of personal fulfillment, though those vocations are personally fulfilling when chosen and practiced as God made them for us. Being a good mother, like being a good father, is necessarily measured by the purpose of those vocations in relation to the others who depend on them (children, spouse, community), which is not individually defined or dependent on some utilitarian calculus. A mother who prays without ceasing and lives the faith as perfectly as she can, with the help of God’s grace, is not guaranteed a faithful husband or faithful children; she is a saint nevertheless. But, if she does not pray without ceasing, or makes other poor choices in how she attempts to fulfill her vocation, and her children nevertheless are faithful, her choice does not become laudable. As my priest often says, “God draws straight with crooked lines.” We are all crooked lines, the fact that God’s goodness overcomes our crookedness does not validate making crooked choices. And all choices, at least of any important, have a moral dimension for which we must account. If you are a woman, be a good woman, if you have the vocation of motherhood, be a good mother, which necessarily will entail the individual knowing what a mother is, what it means to be a good mother, and practicing that to the extent possible within family and community context in which she finds herself.

  • David

    It’s not even just a mother thing. As a stay at home dad I get a lot of those same pressures. In the end, our society wants to define us by the things we do, but that is not what defines who we are.

  • Laura Sparling

    One of your most beautiful and profound writings. And that is saying something, as you are one of the most beautiful and real writers I have ever read. You GET people, Jenny. Love this. Everyone is on a journey to Christ, some of us are in different places on the journey, but I think we all do our best. Prayers for you and yours.

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