the Pope Helps Women
Understand Their Vocations
Helen Alvare on
Choices About Child Rearing and Careers
FEB. 8, 2004 (Zenit.org).-
John Paul II has spoken out often on the feminine genius and the beauty of
motherhood -- and women are listening, says a professionally accomplished
mother of three. Helen Alvare, an associate professor at Catholic
University's Columbus School of Law, shared with ZENIT how the Pope's
teachings give meaning to women's work at home or the office, and ultimately
helps them understand that nurturing children has priority. Alvare, who
teaches family law, recently wrote a chapter for the book
Feminist Theology for the New Millennium II (Villanova University Press),
edited by Augustinian Father Francis Eigo. Previously, she was a spokeswoman
for the U.S. bishops' pro-life secretariat.
Do you see a social trend of high-powered women leaving their careers to
stay at home with their children?
I can't say that I see such a trend, although in Washington, D.C., where I
live, I can certainly point to anecdotal cases of women who are
exceptionally well-educated and even experienced in careers, forgoing work
outside the home entirely or forgoing more prestigious work or positions in
order to spend more time with their children. In fact, I see a great deal of
the latter choice among women and less, but some, among men.
I have also observed
many women working out all manner of creative arrangements with their
employers, or establishing their own businesses, in order to meet the needs
of their families. Flextime, part-time, working from home and job sharing
are just some of the arrangements I see women pursuing.
Women really have
assumed the burden of pushing employers -- further than I believe businesses
would go if left alone -- in the direction of work schedules that allow
mothers to make their children their priority.
How does faith play into a woman's choice to stay at home with her children? Do you think that John Paul II's teaching impacted women's choices?
Faith can play a significant role in some women's decision-making. In both
secular and religious arenas today, the notion of motherhood as a vocation
crucial to the well-being of children and of society has very much been
Paul II has paid a really extraordinary amount of attention to questions
about the identity and roles of women in the modern world. He has helped
enliven in women a sense of pride regarding the crucial roles they play in
the nurturing and rearing of children. He has called their contribution
"irreplaceable" and cited what he calls their "priority" in the "order of
Having traveled the
United States very extensively in the last fourteen years and meeting and talking
with thousands of Catholics, I think I can observe with some accuracy that
many, many women in their childbearing years and even younger, are quite
taken with John Paul II's writings on the vocation of women as mothers.
I believe he has
played a significant role in some women's concluding that they ought to take
up their roles as mothers with great enthusiasm.
At the same time,
the Holy See's representatives at various United Nations conferences have
forwarded an agenda for women highlighting the importance of women's
education, access to entrepreneurial opportunities and access to positions
influencing national, public policy.
Thus, no matter
whether a woman forgoes work outside her family or not, if she listens to
the teachings of John Paul II, she is more likely to understand her full
vocational call, as a woman and as a mother, inside the home and in the
public square. She is also more likely to understand clearly that the work
of nurturing children has priority.
What key practical factors compel women on the fast track to choose to be
This is really a delicate matter because there are so many individual
reasons for such a choice.
Some of the many
reasons I have observed include: the belief that a good mother cannot at all
be distracted by the demands of work; a desire for a large family; the
experience or belief that work outside the home is not as satisfying as the
work of a mother; and the absence of a real vocational attachment to any
particular type of work.
One factor I see
cited often, though again anecdotally, is a frustration about or aversion to
the sheer amount of planning and hard work necessary to successfully to
coordinate the needs and activities of children with the needs and demands
of a job.
Especially in a
metropolis like Washington, the distance between work, school and home, and
the anguish of a long daily commute on crowded highways, can really play a
cited reason is the inability to find work paying a salary that could
justify the large expense of child care, commuting, etc. And a final
situation I observe influencing women to remain home is the presence of a
husband who can earn a sufficient income to make possible a wife's choice to
forgo work outside the home.
I think there are
two additional "background factors" influencing women's decisions about
work. The first is employers' continued designing of jobs around the "ideal
worker" -- the model of a person with no child-care responsibilities. In a
very competitive, global economy the demand for efficiency and quantity
regularly trumps families' needs for ample time with children.
Second, I often
wonder if the trend toward involving even very small children in more and
more planned lessons or activities hasn't helped persuade some mothers that
they must make more time than is really necessary for shuttling their
children from place to place.
How do you think this phenomenon will affect the image of motherhood and
To the extent there is a phenomenon, in an American society in which the
majority of mothers also work outside the home, I think it is best described
as consisting in both women's decisions either to forgo work outside the
home, or to accept positions of lesser influence in order to be more with
How the image of
motherhood and work will be influenced by these trends would seem to depend
upon how they are interpreted.
Are they the fruit
of a moral analysis, for example, a moral response to unmet needs of
children? Are they an economic phenomenon, the result of a difficult job and
salary market, or privileges available disproportionately to the well-off?
Are they reactions against an experience of the "rat race" men have been
running for so long?
One other factor
might influence the long-run image of motherhood and work. If the situation
really developed to the point that women began to disappear from the work
force more and more -- including from positions importantly influencing
public policy and the future of government, business, media, education and
the arts -- a serious question would arise.
Will the futures of
all of those areas be determined for the most part by those without
significant responsibility for children? By single women and men, and by
married men whose wives perform virtually all of the child care? I don't
think the signs of the times point to such a future.
It seems, rather,
that the questions that families, employers and societies will be grappling
with in the future will be far more nuanced. They will be questions about
how simultaneously to honor our priority for children, women's vocational
goals and business goals.
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