The following guest post is by Dr. Holly Taylor Coolman, Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College in Providence, RI. She is also the mother of three amazing kids.
Not long ago, I was part of a conference call among several colleagues including one who, like me, is a mother. She was, at that moment, home with two small children and so she did what I have often done: she made liberal use of the feature that allowed her to mute her own line. Her intention was to continue to listen to us, but to prevent us from hearing the sounds of her children in the background. And, as I have been in similar situations, she was also hesitant to “unmute” her line. In order to speak, of course, she had to do so, but as soon as she did, we would all hear all that background noise. A parable for the experience of mothers in academia, I remember thinking, if ever there was one. Many of us have thought long and hard, and struggled, in “finding our voice,” in growing comfortable speaking “in a different voice,” and in occasionally even trying to “change the subject” altogether. We have only just begun, however, to wrestle with what it means that some of us have found our voice against the backdrop of other, smaller voices, voices that inevitably interrupt the conversation.
And now I have watched the most recent discussion go forward, initiated by Beth Haile’s post here at CatholicMoralTheology.com, “Why I Am Leaving My Other Full-Time Job,” on her decision to leave academia for full-time mothering (at least for the present). I am tempted to do what I have done before: to step back and to remain silent, in order to try to preserve the currency that is so precious to me because I have so little of it (exactly the currency described in that essay): time. But I’ve decided that perhaps in this case, it’s worth it to un-mute, if only for a moment. As someone who has been balancing academic work, marriage to another academic, and the work of mothering three children for almost 17 years, I may have something to add.
It is unsurprising that within a very short time of that essay, the first public response appeared. It argued that her decision–or perhaps her essay–revealed that she has been “asking the wrong questions,” as, for the most part, “all of us” are doing. In several different ways, the piece suggested, her decision regarding whether or not to leave her job had not been approached with enough consideration to larger contexts. In particular, she—and “all of us” —have failed to consider whether the onus may not fall at least as much on fathers as it does on mothers to consider leaving paid work in order to care for children. Further, it wondered what such a decision might mean for other women who do not have the freedom to make it.
These are important worries. If the only response to the challenges of work and family involves individual women and individual families making individual decisions, the opportunity may be lost for various forms of collective action that could change larger structures. How many mothers and fathers would jump at the chance, for example, for a half-time or three-quarters-time job that would allow them to exercise their gifts and generate an income—and get crucial benefits like health insurance—while still leaving time and energy for a rich family life? Such a possibility will only, though, emerge in response to pressure to create it. The same is true for family leave and many other family-friendly policies.
For the moment, though, at least here in the U.S., such policies are largely lacking. In the present situation, individual mothers and fathers must discern within the real, concrete situations in which they live, situations which often present a stark dichotomy between work that is very demanding, on the one hand, and no work outside their homes at all, on the other. And, even if better policies were in place, there will always remain a variety of situations that lead a mother to turning her attention to children full-time. Many couples decide—especially when they are caring for young children, special needs children, or a larger number of children—that committing one parent to full-time childcare is the best route to sanity and well-being. And many women simply very much want to be that person. It is not outside pressure requiring them to leave their “real work” and be present with their children. It is not their sense that the father of their children is unfortunately absent. It is rather their own deepest sense that this is the right decision for them and their families.
There is arithmetic here that can’t be ignored. If two parents work full-time, then two people are, between them, working three full-time jobs. There are a number of ways to come at that math, a number of ways to divide the responsibilities. But any division will, as the original essay pointed out, by necessity be unusually “busy and structured.” Even perfectly even division of family responsibilities, we should note, leaves each person doing three-halves of a job. Such busy and structured lives can involve many rewards, but many couples simply decide that, especially over the long haul, three-halves is a fraction they can’t live with. They need to simplify, in more senses than one.
Privilege is involved in the possibility of making such a decision. It assumes a sufficient household income, which is not the reality for many. It is almost never an option for single parents. We should be hesitant, however, to imagine stay-at-home mothers as “ladies who lunch.” They are not all white, and they are not all well-off. For many, the decision to forego paying work leaves them living very close to the bone, indeed. (Of course, even then, creative and hardworking mothers often find ways to weave other sorts of work into their days with children, writing or speaking, tutoring or teaching, caring for other people’s children, or—as mothers have long done—performing simple, everyday sorts of work in the tradition of “taking in laundry.”)
Nor does it make sense to imagine fathers as untouched by these challenges. The questions raised by Arlie Hochschild 25 years ago about women’s “second shift” are important ones to ask, and to keep asking, but we have new data to contend with, as well. The most recent research suggests that men’s contribution to chores and childcare is slowly growing, and has grown dramatically over time. Although their numbers are small, we have more stay-at-home fathers than ever before. Unfortunately, research also reflects a newly shared struggle: similar percentages of men (50%) and women (56%) now describe balancing work and family as difficult.
In the economy of an individual family, there is always a complex web of dynamics at play, and there are very often resources and challenges that those outside that family cannot fully see. Financial realities, the proximity of extended family, and the physical and mental health of various family members constitute only a few of these. For most of us who are actually living this reality, however, the problem is not that we haven’t asked the right questions. We have asked all the questions, from every perspective we can think of. We have looked at larger economic and social realities, and how our own situations fit into those realities. We have considered and reconsidered, shifted and recalibrated. We have gone with the old standbys. We have been creative. We have asked what each parent can do, and what each parent can do best. We’ve tried to figure out who wants what most, and what sacrifices might hurt least. In most of our families, both parents are working as hard as they can, almost all the time. For many of us living in a framework of faith, this crucible of discernment, sacrifice, and blessing has been one of the most challenging and practical ways we have “worked out our salvation.” In the end, almost all of us have faced the fact that, whatever choices we have made, there are certain gains and certain inevitable losses.
And so, if we are talking about individual situations, it is very difficult to second-guess others. Living in Christian community means being ready to challenge and question one another, and to examine ourselves when challenged. There are also moments, though, when it is most appropriate to respect the decisions that individual women make in the midst of their own lives, especially given the unrelenting stream of criticism women face in general.
Here’s the bottom line. We are living after the Industrial Revolution and after the appearance of the automobile. “Going to work” now means traveling some distance away from home and being gone for ten or twelve or fourteen hours at a time. We are living after a certain uprising against that change, in which some women realized that being left “at home” meant being isolated from other adults and from almost all kinds of work beyond routine housework and childcare. We are living after the dissolution of extended families, so that well-meaning parents are now left to sort this all out on their own. And, we are now living in at the moment of increasing dissolution of even the nuclear family, so that many are sorting it out as single parents, often with remarkably little help of any kind. We are, all of us, with more or less success, making it up as we go. We would do best to be patient with ourselves and with each other.
That’s not to say that there is nothing practical to be done.
First, we can in fact work for humane work policies, policies that are friendly to families and, in the end, to all. We can organize for just wages. The burden for creating larger, structural change cannot fall on the backs of parents themselves. They can resist the system, they can bear witness to injustices, but until others take up the cause, nothing will change. As I suggested early in this essay, this becomes particularly clear if we remember the commodity in which working parents are “poorest”: time.
Second, we can be intentional about building local communities that offer networks of support and connection. For tired parents–and, again, perhaps for all of us—communities that eat together, celebrate together, and fumble through everyday life together are an invaluable resource. We parent best when we do not do it alone, when we we share both the challenges and the celebrations of family life, and when we know immediately who can be listed as an “emergency contact” or whom to call when we need help in the middle of the night. Christian communities might especially remember that way in which not only individual parents but the whole community bears responsibility for the nurture and education of the children among us.
Thirdly, we can support individual parents and families, in whatever way we can, as they try to make their way through the maze of the current situation. We can recall that there are no perfect choices, and certainly no easy options. Interestingly, it is my experience that mothers in the thick of things are often the best at doing this. The media talks about “mommy wars,” but we see sisters and fellow travelers, doing the best they can.
Finally, in all of this, we can continue to foster conversation, although perhaps not a free-for-all. Here, perhaps more than even in most areas, we require a conversation marked by openness and generosity. And we can pay special attention to those who are most experienced and, ironically, most likely to be muted. We will find the best way forward when we find it together.