How the Pope Helps Women Understand Their Vocations

Helen Alvare on Choices About Child Rearing and Careers

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WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 8, 2004 ( 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 «Themes in 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.

Q: Do you see a social trend of high-powered women leaving their careers to stay at home with their children?

Alvare: 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.

Q: 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?

Alvare: 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 highlighted.

Furthermore, John 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 love.»

Having traveled the United States very extensively in the last 14 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.

Q: What key practical factors compel women on the fast track to choose to be stay-at-home moms?

Alvare: 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 role.

Another commonly 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.

Q: How do you think this phenomenon will affect the image of motherhood and work?

Alvare: 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 their children.

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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