Mother and worker: conflicting roles?

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Isabelle Cassarà

Pontifical Council for the Laity



To reconcile work outside the home, the demands of family and the upbringing of children is a growing challenge for women today. 

The struggle to achieve political, social and financial equality for women and men has led over time to a gradual process of emancipation for women with various implications. One of these, and certainly of great importance, is that of allowing the entry of women to the professions and their participation in politics and management. Without going into the merits of various ideologies that arose under the banner of women's emancipation, I will touch briefly on a topic that is relevant here and that is undoubtedly of great concern to the women of our time: the reconciliation, or “balance” between work outside the home and family demands. There is no denying that, aside from the achievements that have been reached, professional obligations today and care of the family seem to be two totally irreconcilable commitments.

In recent times we have seen two opposing trends. On the one hand there are women who decide to reduce or to leave employment in order to devote themselves entirely to the home and children. Some of them give up influential management roles, and some do so in spite of considerable financial sacrifice. On the other hand, however, many women prefer to postpone or discard the idea of building a family in order to devote themselves fully to their career. These two trends demonstrate a basic fact, namely that the world of work is undoubtedly still tailored for men, and women have to avoid motherhood if they are to be totally competitive. This seems to be confirmed by the policies adopted by large companies. For example, we recently heard the news that the two American giants Apple and Facebook have said that they are willing t bear the high cost of the freezing of ova for their employees in the event that one day they might wish to have a child. This is to allow them to devote themselves fully to their work without having to deny them the “pleasure” of becoming mothers when they consider the appropriate time has come. Similarly, a study presented recently by the New York Times, also reported by the Italian press, reveals that men with children are more likely to be employed and to have higher pay than single men or those without children. For women, however, the arrival of a child not only slows down their career, in some cases it even pushes it back. It also causes a loss of 4% of revenue. Moreover, it was also shown that the majority of women occupying positions of leadership do not have children. Therefore, it cannot be denied that it is difficult to reconcile family and work in today's world. The questions that arise from this are: are the roles of mother and worker really in conflict? It is right and, above all, is it healthy for society and for economic, social and state structures to do without the contribution of women and, specifically, of mothers? Is it right that a mother should find herself in the position of having to choose between work and family?

The Church, expert in humanity, has always openly recognised women’s dignity, the dignity that comes from their very being. More than any other, the Church has sought to emphasise that the role undertaken by women for the welfare of the family and the raising of children is one of the most important services in the world. This service is invaluable not only for members of the family but for the whole of society, since it is in the family that “it is here above all that the features of a people take shape; it is here that its members acquire basic teachings. They learn to love inasmuch as they are unconditionally loved, they learn respect for others inasmuch as they are respected, they learn to know the face of God inasmuch as they receive a first revelation of it from a father and a mother full of attention in their regard”.[1] At the same time, however, the Church recognises that the presence of women is not exclusively within the family. It is particularly essential in all areas of public life and, therefore, in the world of work. John Paul II, in the letter addressed to all women in 1995 on the occasion of the Fourth UN Conference on Women in Beijing – the twentieth anniversary of its publication will be in 2015 – speaks of the essential and specific contribution of working women to “the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity”.[2] Here cognised that the full inclusion of women in social, economic, artistic, cultural and political life must be considered an act of justice as well as a necessity.[3] The Church, therefore, while insisting on the crucial task of mothers in the care of the family, also calls for women to be present in the world of work and social organisation. They must also have access to positions of responsibility because they will bring the benefit that “feminine genius” can contribute to our understanding of the world and to the full truth concerning human relationships.[4]

It is therefore necessary, and it must be possible, to find ways to “harmonise” these two activities – work and family – in women's lives. How can this be done? There is no denying that family policies in many states are ineffective and insufficient because they aim only to separate the role of a worker from that of a mother for short periods, rather than to provide the opportunity for women to integrate and “harmonise” responsibilities arising from their different roles. Their approach is to reduce the role of women rather than to change structures to make them more flexible and adaptable to family needs. Initiatives and legislation in this area should, however, take into account that the combining of family demands and work have different characteristics in the life of a woman from that of a man. This is why, I believe, that the well-known journalist and writer Costanza Miriano dared to say very wittily that women who demand equal rights in this field are not very ambitious.

It has become particularly urgent that this dichotomy between motherhood and work outside the home should be removed. Cultural change is what is needed most. John Paul II was clear about this in his exhortation Familiaris Consortio. He wrote: “the mentality which honours women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome”.[5]We must promote at all levels this change in thinking and develop a culture that knows how to give valid reasons for why the work that women carry out for their families should be considered an indispensable asset for society. It is all done for the common good and for people’s happiness. To discourage and misunderstand the role of mothers in favour of production processes that only follow the logic of efficiency and profit and underestimate the vital part that women have in the care of others – and I refer here to the many women who take in charge the care of the elderly and the sick within their family relationships – can only be detrimental to the whole of society. We must realise that families, and women in particular, take on social functions that are particularly important for the welfare of humankind and that cannot be done by other organisations. It is only by starting from the recognition of these functions and the re-evaluation of the irreplaceable role of women in the home and in raising children that policies can be introduced that do not underestimate or discriminate against women who are mothers. On the contrary, they should find innovative solutions that will bring about true harmonisation between the organisation of work and the demands of the mission of women within the family. A reformulation of economic systems that take into account and enhance the work of women in the family can only benefit the systems themselves in achieving their “humanisation”.

[1] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world, no. 13.

[2]John Paul II, Letter to Women, n. 2.

[3] Cf. Ibid. no. 4.

[4] Cf. Ibid., nn. 2, 9, 10.

[5]John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, no. 23

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