Should Women Work Outside the Home?

November 15, 2014

I’m pretty passionate, when it comes to certain issues.  In my (online) travels I get to read all sorts of articles and posts, but it’s really the off-balance treatises on femininity that get my blood boiling.  I can’t stand writers who think they know it all, think they’ve got this cut-and-dried world all figured out and tell you exactly how God will work in your life.  At the same time, it’s in reading the crazy thoughts of other people that I’m able to refine my own ideals and sensibilities, because I have to focus on what it is that I find crazy and figure out why.  So when I do calm down, I’ve got what I need to delve a little deeper into the true meaning of femininity. 

Take the issue of whether women should work outside the home – hot-button topic, isn’t it?  I read something recently that was so totally ridiculous that it forced me to think through the issue, step by step, and come to a few conclusions.

The first thing I asked myself was are women even needed within the marketplace? 

Of course they’re needed!  In fact, their gifts are in high demand.  Fulton J. Sheen, in his article entitled “Does a Business Career Harden a Woman” listed out the ways in which women are essential to each facet of society.  Within the Law, they can temper justice with mercy and soften administrative rigidity: they “breathe blood into red tape”.  In Medicine women can restore reverence for life and make the practice of medicine more personal: treating persons instead of just diseases.  In business and manufacturing women can prevent men from “stiffening into automata” and be prudent and inspiring guides within the creative process.  Within politics, women, because they are centered on people and relationships, can be most effective instruments for peace.  We live in a culture that is not life giving or life affirming, so there is much work to be done to change it.  The presence of women is necessary for that change to happen because by their very nature women give and affirm life.

John Paul II knew full well what our culture, often labeled the Culture of Death, was all about and the presence women bring to it.  Katrina Zeno in her book “Discovering the Feminine Genius” says that in his writings, JPII often “implored women to live out the feminine genius in the home and in public life and in the Church.  Why all three?   Because ultimately it is culture – the context in which we live life – that must change.  And that context includes the home, the Church and society.”   While life at home constitutes a big part of society (working to raise morally and civilly responsible, Godly children contributes greatly to our culture) women cannot be limited to working ONLY within the home.  Our dignity as persons prevents us from being so pigeonholed.  In his encyclical Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II said, “the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women justifies women’s access to public functions” (public functions meaning workplaces outside of the home).  

In addition, since men and women are complimentary beings – their bodies, souls and spirits (as well as their gifts and talents) offset one another in the best possible ways - how can women NOT be needed in the workplace?  How can men “do it all” and do it well without the aid or even the input of women?  I don’t think it can be done, or done well, at least. 

So if women are needed in the public sphere, it then begs the question, should every woman work at home AND in the Church AND in the marketplace? 

Some would say emphatically yes, and others would say absolutely not.  I’m somewhere in between.  Every woman, insofar as she must eat and wear clean clothes, must work at home.  I happen to think that every woman should contribute something to the Church and every woman should contribute something to the world.  The question isn’t so much if every woman should contribute to home, church and world, but how much should she should contribute and when.  That, my friends, is up to her and the Lord. 

Katrina Zeno says that every woman is “given the task of reflecting on her own feminine genius so as to unlock its spiritual dynamism for the Church, the family and the world.  […] The feminine genius is the distinctive way a woman expresses her gift of self in all her feminine fullness and originality, as God intended her to be from the beginning.”  Every woman has something unique she is meant to give to the world – a handful of gifts and talents she can offer, and it’s only through offering those to the world that she can be happy and fulfilled.  The problem is that we sometimes assume, when a woman is talented, that she “owes the world” her talents in a very specific way - as if offering our abilities to the world can only mean working in public positions.  Not true.  All women have some genius and not all women are called to use it in the exact same way, or at the exact same time as anyone else.  Some may work outside the home before they have children or after the kids are grown.  Some may never work outside the home.  Some may use their gifts to start online businesses or become writers or poets or playwrights.  Some may focus their time and talents solely on having a tidy home and educating their children.  The only thing that matters is where, and to what, God is calling each woman right now.  If I have “x” set of talents and gifts, how can I incorporate them into my vocation(s) at this moment?    

Because at the same time as she’s asking herself where her talents are and where she can best apply them, all women must ask themselves where their priorities lay (and raising children (if applicable) should be very high on the list).  John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) stated,
“Experience confirms that there must be a social re-evaluation of the mother’s role, of the toil connected with it, of the need that children have for care, love and affection in order that they may develop into responsible, morally and religiously mature and psychologically stable persons…Having to abandon these tasks in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it hinders these primary goals of the family.”  [emphasis mine]
Abandoning, commuting the task daily to someone else or delaying the vocation of raising children (due to career choices) should only be done after serious thought, prayer and discernment.  I remember one coworker, many years ago, telling her friends that she barely made money from working 9-5 every day, only because she lived so far from work and shopped so much that everything she made was gone every month.  Her kids were in daycare all day for what?  A few new shirts every month?  It’s true, there are circumstances and situations that require a woman to work outside the home, but every woman must as least ask herself if it’s necessary and why. 

Because what matters in the end is the children and their well-being.  Fr. Blair Bernard, the editor of the book “Nazareth Family Spirituality” quotes Catherine Doherty as saying that a young mother’s vocation is home and children, but he explains in the footnotes that these words were written for families in the mid-twentieth century when few mothers worked outside the home.  Although we’re in the twenty-first century now and much has changed, things haven't changed all that much.  He clarifies:
“Both Catherine and Pope John Paul II [in Laborem Exercens] are bringing into bold relief that it is the needs of the children which have to be paramount.  This is for purely natural reasons – their need for individualized care, love and affection, something that can only be effectively done by someone with the vocation to love each of the children.  […]  Parents are the “primary educators” of the children and it is their vocation to pass on a faith which can only effectively be “caught” by the children rather than cursorily “taught” to the children.”
There is so much of a child’s education that must come from his/her parents – that can’t be taught by someone who doesn’t have the vocation to love that child – that the proper care and raising of children must be one of, if not THE primary goal, of every parent. 

Now what that looks like, practically speaking, will never be exactly the same for everyone.  I have friends whose father stayed home with them during their formative years, as their mother was able to make a better salary.  Unconventional yes, but suited them and their kids are Catholic, happy and contributing members of society.  I have other friends who both must work for serious reasons, but they entrust their children only to family members, grandmas and grandpas mostly.  Or there are friends who both work, but are able to tailor their schedules so that when mom is gone, dad is home and vice versa.  Then there’s my sister-in-law, a highly educated woman homeschooling their 5 children.  She describes herself as a “mom-with-a-masters” using her skills to educate the next generation of our family.  And there are probably a million other individual stories and situations out there, every one of them having merit and virtue.  As long as the needs of the children are carefully considered along with the needs of the family as a whole, who’s to say what each family is doing is wrong? 

Saint Augustine is famously quoted as saying, “In the essentials, unity, in the non-essentials, freedom, in all things, charity.”  The question of whether women should work outside the home is not (as many might like to think it is) a black and white issue.  There’s no church dogma declaring that “all women must work only at home, no matter what”, and there never will be, because one size can never fit all. Catherine of Sienna (a saint and doctor of the Church, mind you) didn’t say, “Be who you are meant to be, and you will set the world on fire.  Except you women.  You must only stay home.  The end.”  No, there is freedom within this issue to make decisions that work for your own family.  That being said, each woman must be honest in seeking out and using her gifts, humble in admitting her limitations, and fiercely brave in protecting her choices and boundaries to the outside world. Because it’s been my experience that those women who are doing so, who are using their God-given talents, while discerning their vocations carefully, are already contributing to the making of their homes and to the betterment of their parishes, Church and to our society as a whole in the process.  They are, in fact, setting the world on fire and probably don’t even know it. 

Violence is not love: broken hearts and the need for conversion.

November 7, 2014

When I was seven, a friend showed me her dad’s magazines. Those pages ripped the veil of innocence from my eyes and broke my heart. In them were foul images of women being treated very, very badly.

In later years I experienced what I think many women experience: crude behaviour from boys, men who were too handsy, and guys who took more from me than I wanted to give. All of that has left me bruised and, sadly, less than trusting. I continue to pray for healing and freedom. It’s proving to be a long and winding journey.

The world is not a bad place. Not all men are evil or dangerous; in fact I would say the number who are is very small. Original sin and the resulting fallen nature of mankind opens the door to mistreatment of the weaker and the stranger among us, and, sadly, our history is replete with examples of such treatment. Disordered priorities (ie. the exclusion of God) and an unformed conscience allows for diminished morals. This has been true through the ages, and our enlightened, sensitivity-trained generation is not impervious.

When girls are kidnapped in Africa, aborted in China, hanged for self defense in Iran, and assaulted by minor celebrities in Canada, we’re reminded of the vulnerability of women.

We’re appalled when we hear about the poor treatment of women elsewhere in the world, yet we almost expect it. Women are oppressed and repressed in those countries, so while it’s a terrible thing, we accept that their women suffer. We like to think that things are different in the advanced, civilized West, but, sadly, we are not immune, as statistics and recent news reports remind us.

Without going into gruesome detail, in the current case that has brought this issue to public attention, a popular radio host has been accused of assaulting women (and, apparently, men as well). He tried to pre-empt the story by saying it was always consensual (which isn’t as straightforward as it seems: legally one cannot consent to violence against oneself). Leaving aside the fact that rough trade in sexual relationships is harmful regardless of consent, in my opinion, the presence of abuse is an indicator that there are probably psychological issues that need dealing with – before and after the act in both the perpetrator and the victim.

A recently popular trilogy of novels and the soon to be released movie might lead us to suppose that such behaviour is more common than we think it is, and should therefore be accepted into the mainstream as ‘normal’. I sincerely hope that never happens, because regardless of which partner wields the power in those encounters, human beings are reduced to objects and the act of sex (the euphemism of ‘intimacy’ no longer works) is emptied of all affection and grace, becoming simply a demonstration of that power, a commodity.

While this story is helping to bring national attention to the need to better support and assist victims of sexual harassment (and the underlying problem of how some men – still – perceive women), sadly it isn’t the story of one man of minor celebrity with an ego trip enabled by old-boys club corporate culture. It’s a broader story of how what was made to be good by God’s design has, through sin, been twisted and broken.

It is right that men should find us attractive; it is good that men are stronger than, and want to capture, us. Sometimes it is our very vulnerability that draws them. It should inspire them to acts of chivalry, a desire to provide and protect. When those instincts go wrong, the protector turns into a predator with the woman becoming a creature to play with, to be used in ways to show off how strong he is. That kind of behaviour can be placed on a spectrum from cat-calls on street corners to outright rape.

Abuse – violence – whether emotional, verbal, or physical is not love. It can never be love, because love is true and good; it is beautiful; it is Godly.  In fact, love is the presence of God. Love may be found in a reprimand, or in correction, but it is never found in a fist. It isn’t present when one person dominates or belittles another, or takes advantage of fear or weakness.

Until the coming of our Lord and the perfection of all things, I don’t think we will ever completely eradicate the tendency of some to prey on the weak, or to marginalize the vulnerable. Doing so would require the conversion of hearts, a re-awakening of chivalric impulses, of a new culture of charity.

So, what can we do?  One very important thing is to pray. It is our vocation to intercede for the poor, the weak, the humble. Let us also be good sisters to our friends and colleagues – look out for each other, have each other’s back.

We must raise our boys to be honourable men who treat women right. We can show men by example how we deserve to be treated by virtue of our innate dignity. We can hold men to a higher standard of behaviour.

We can teach little girls their worth, and encourage women to hold abusers accountable for their actions.

Lord, have mercy on us. Forgive us for the ways we take advantage of the weak among us. Grant us the grace to share Your love in the world, and so bring about conversion of hearts. Please protect the vulnerable. May we see them as Christ present among us. Amen

What do Natasha Beddingfield and Julia Child have in common?

October 31, 2014

Tons.  Both are women.  Both are artists in their own rites.  Both are alive.  Oh wait, no, Julia just passed.

To be honest the only thing they really have in common is that I woke up this morning with thoughts of Mousse au Chocolat and the lyrics "…staring at the blank page before you, open up the dirty window, let the sun illuminate the words you cannot find" - Beddingfield's most popular song.   That's all I've got.

But it is Halloween today which means there will likely be excess of chocolate in your house - chocolate that could be used for the ever-delicious "helter-skelter" Mousse au Chocolat.  So while you're listening to a bit of the poetic Natasha sing "Unwritten", you could whip up a batch of chocolate mousse aux Julia Child.  And when you're all finished, I've added an extra little treat for you.  (I'll give you a little hint…it's Dee Chockolata Moose.)

Happy Halloween/All Hallow's Eve/The day before All Saint's/Friday!  

God is present even now : what a week it has been

October 23, 2014

What a rollercoaster of a week it has turned out to be.  When I woke up on Monday, I definitely didn’t think that the days ahead would involve not one but two acts of deliberate, desperate, ideology-driven violence in Canada.  In Canada!  We are the friendly, polite, apologetic country. We are the peacekeepers, the smaller and younger sibling. We are too blanketed in dark and snow for too much of the year to be a tempting target for much of anything but avid skiers and snowmobilers. We don’t draw attention to ourselves, and are known universally for having a funny flag and saying ‘eh’.  Why did this happen to us?

It is perfectly normal after shocking events such as took place in Saint Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa to become emotional. Initial reactions are often broad – wilder than they will be after the distance of time and perspective can temper them. There is a lot of talk right now about innocence lost and how ‘things will never be the same’ in Canada now that violence against us has happened right here on our native soul – in our true north, strong and free.

This isn’t a history lesson – we know that this isn’t, actually, the first time shocking events have happened in Canada, nor even on Parliament Hill.  Our shock and even outrage is perfectly reasonable, though. I’ve gone through the emotional wringer since Wednesday morning, from disbelief, to being stunned, to sorrow, to anger, to pride.

Not once was I afraid. 

I don’t believe for an instant that God planned this or visited this on us, but I do find it interesting (in a ‘wow, God is present in every detail’ sort of way) that yesterday was also the first Feast Day of Pope Saint John Paul II, who through the whole of his pontificate told us: be not afraid! Wasn’t it the first thing he said to us as our Holy Father?  He certainly reminded us often to not let fear get between us and the loving heart of God.

The loving heart of God was – and is – present even in these appalling events.  I saw love in the picture of a woman giving mouth-to-mouth to the fallen reservist who was standing guard over the tomb of the Unknown Soldier while police officers worked with her to save his life. I heard love in the outpouring of gratitude for the Sergeant-at-Arms who acted bravely to remove the threat that had invaded our seat of government. I saw love in the tributes of flowers laid at the site of the shooting, in the consolation strangers offered to each other in the aftermath. There was love in a hockey arena as citizens of another country sang our anthem in solidarity with us. There is love in the grief we express because we believe good will triumph but are witness to an attack of evil. Love is present in the tears one mother (the mother of the shooter) sheds on behalf of a family now mourning the loss of their father and son. We share the loving heart of God as we pray for peace in the world and intercede for our leaders to have the wisdom needed to guide our country after these terrible events.

Loving God, there is confusion and hatred in the world, but darkness will not prevail. We know that through your son, love and mercy will triumph, and peace will reign. Protect us from hatred, from bitterness, from fear, granting us instead to know only love and faith and trust. You are always with us, even in these times of strife. May we have the grace to share that certainty with all who need it.

Lord, have mercy.


Expectations in Marriage

October 17, 2014

Shortly after I was married an acquaintance of mine (also married) wrote to say that marriage was much harder than she thought it would be. She was a romantic-type and was of the mind that after they were married, her beloved would always think of her first, wouldn’t ever annoy her and would keep up the same degree of affection and devotion that he showed her while they were dating. These friends are strong Catholics and they are devoted to one another, but lets just say she hit the wall of reality pretty hard when she realized just how unexpectedly un-romantic life can be living with another person. She couldn’t quite reconcile the reality of an imperfect husband with the fanciful notion she’d had of love and marriage while she was still single, and it took her some time to realize that perhaps she, herself, wasn’t perfect either.  It was understandably a rocky first couple of years.
Although I've certainly been there at different points in my life, I think I might have had it a bit easier than my friend. I’m not a hopeless romantic. I don’t particularly like overly sentimental gifts like cards (I throw them out after reading) or jewelry (I don’t wear a lot) or even flowers sometimes (usually overpriced and they don’t last long). In fact, I dislike Valentines Day so much so that one year I told my husband that if he absolutely had to buy me something, that he should buy it on February 15th. At least then the droopy flowers and waxy chocolate would be half the price. And lest you think I’m this miserly, heartless stoic, my husband is usually of the same mind – we’re miserly, heartless stoics together (a recipe for true love, eh?). Our love for each other runs more in the vein of taking the garbage out when asked, concert tickets for Christmas or surprise picnic lunches. Those are the things that speak love to me much more than any card or earrings ever could, but it’s certainly something that could have caused a ruckus in our marriage, had we not talked about it and worked it out early on. (See, I'm learning!)
I mean there’s nothing overly wrong with being a sentimental romantic or preferring diamonds to picnics. Whatever floats your boat, I say. The difficulty comes when our expectations and the cold hard reality not only don’t jive, but don’t even live on the same planet – like my friend's expectations of her husband.   It’s a sad state of affairs when the disparity between our assumptions and the sensible world affects spouses so deeply that it threatens the foundations of their marriage. It makes me wonder if unrealistic expectation is one of the main reasons couples have such difficulty adjusting to one another in the first place. I remember a priest once implying that it’s quite normal to wake up one morning after marrying thinking, “What the heck have I done? Who IS this guy?” You know the honeymoon's over at that point, he said. Wow, really?  I don’t necessarily think it's good for everyone to be overly pragmatic and live without any hopes, dreams or flights of fancy, but I have to believe that, with a bit of work on our part, hopes and dreams can coexist, harmoniously nestled within the cocoon of reality.
There’s an atrocious movie out there called Hall Pass (for the love of all that’s holy, don’t watch it) which tells the story of two couples who are at varying stages of disenchantment with their marriages. Talk about disconnect, the two wives decide to “give” their husbands a hall pass – a week of “total freedom” from the bondage bonds of marriage, meaning both husband and wife can do whatever they want, with whomever they want, with no consequences.   The idea was that giving their men a little freedom from the “restraints” of marriage, they would "sow their wild oats" – or whatever – and then the guys would freely and happily choose to come back to their own wives again. 

While I could manage (barely) to overlook the nudity and sexual innuendo throughout the film, the underlying principles – that marriage is basically meaningless, that it fulfills all of women’s dreams and none of men’s, that men aren’t free to choose who they marry but rather are tricked or forced into it and that women love their husbands only out of a sense of duty – were hard to ignore, mostly because they’re unquestionably untrue. It’s movies like these that plant those crazy, whacked-out notions in our brains without our even knowing it – false impressions or opinions that make us unhappy with ourselves and with others. I mean, I thought choosing a person to be with is what people did before they got married, not after. And remind me again - how are women completely fulfilled by the office of marriage and men completely unfulfilled by it? That’s ridiculous on both counts! But it’s the collective thought of our society (and therefore present in movies, commercials and even the news) that marriage is bondage, that restraint can’t possibly equal freedom and that the minute life gets difficult you should move on or you’ll never be happy. And those ideas are just as pie-in-the-sky as a woman entering a marriage thinking her husband won’t ever be selfish, leave the cap off the toothpaste or the toilet seat up.

So don’t be fooled. Don’t let “The Man” trick you into thinking that true happiness is wrought by anything less than giving everything you’ve got and a mountain of hard work. The interesting thing is that those cockamamie beliefs we sometimes harbour about love and relationships (like the notions that our spouses were put on this earth to attend to our every whim, or that we need to ignore our responsibilities in order to be happy doing what we want to do) tend to be surprisingly selfish and self-serving.  And we’re not in this world to be served – to have every need met and whim satisfied - by those that surround us.  It’s this kind of selfishness that truly separates us from others, and from God.  Rather, we were made to forget ourselves and to freely and lovingly serve others: God, our spouse, children, family, even strangers on the street.  This is where contentment and joy and peace are found.  As Alice von Hildebrand put it in her book, Man and Woman: A Divine Invention, “…we need to acknowledge that we are responsible for the chains that bind us and turn to God’s grace for help. To humbly admit our guilt and turn to God for help is the way to change defeat into victory…” Can I get an amen?  

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