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The Home-or-Career Dilemma for a Mother

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

A reader, who I will call Mrs. T., recently came across an article on our website entitled Mother or Preschools? concerning the necessity of a mother’s presence in the early years of her children’s lives. She confessed that it made her feel a bit “ill at ease” with her present plan. She is considering studying medicine and working in conjunction with raising her family, and confessed that she “is not completely at ease with this plan” although she greatly desires to study and practice medicine.

Her letter continues:
“I think that what you are saying in the article is that only the Catholic mother can provide the serene loving atmosphere necessary for the proper development of the child, and that her presence is essential in instilling a sense of safety and confidence that allows the child to grow into a balanced and healthy individual. I am not fully convinced of what you are saying is true though. ….

“Were women such as St. Margaret of Scotland or St. Clotilda present in all things for their children, or is it possible that we can provide for a solid education and guide them to holiness without actually being with them all the time? What does it mean to be a Catholic mother? Is it simply that our current corruption of culture has necessitated we stay at home? Or is it essential to being a Catholic mother only so long as we are able to do so? Until what age should we be present? Couldn’t it be the case that there are quality pre-schools that would allow for a child to develop properly?

“I find myself troubled because I don’t want only to raise my children and take care of domestic concerns. More importantly, however, I do not want to risk the salvation of these little souls that have been entrusted to my care.

“I would appreciate your comments and any resources you may know of that would help me to weigh the issues at hand.”
I appreciated Mrs. T’s letter and the consideration she shows for my opinion. I also respect her concern to raise her children well. Her letter demonstrates the commendable desire to put the concerns of children and family before her own self-interest.

As for the questions, the best assistance I can give is to offer her the Catholic doctrine she requests.. Knowing it, she can resolve her own and other concrete cases much easier. If I would offer advice based on simply my own authority: “This is right and that is wrong;” she could understandably reply: “Prove it.” So here is what the Catholic Church teaches.

Catholic Church teaching

The traditional Catholic Catechisms that I know, teaching on the Fourth Commandment, uphold that the vocation of the wife and mother is best fulfilled in the home. Let me make a brief summary of the doctrine that you can find there.

A black and white photograph of a mother working in the home with her children

A mother working with her children in the home
When the man becomes a father he acquires paternal duties which include the support and protection of the family. On the other hand, when the woman becomes a mother, a series of maternal duties come to her: to share the authority of her husband and exert her own influence in the home, to provide for the formation of the children, and to maintain the good customs in the family.

Since her primary concern should be to be a helpmate to her husband and the mother of her children, her normal work place is the home. It is how God made her, what suits her best and the best means to achieve her end, her own sanctification.

This common doctrine was reinforced by the Popes when the movement for “women’s emancipation” took on momentum in the 20th century.

The flame in the hearth of the home

Already in 1917, Pope Benedict XV warned that the revolution was making a particular effort to “snatch women” from the home and into the working world:
A Woman lifting a huge and heavy weight

A general tendency to imitate men...
“With the decline in religion, cultured women have lost their sense of shame along with their piety. Many, in order to take up occupations ill-befitting their sex, took to imitating men. Others abandoned the duties of the housewife, for which they were fashioned, to cast themselves recklessly into the current of life.” (1)
Pope Pius XI referred to the movement to free women from the domestic home place and the rearing of children:
“It is the debasing of the womanly character and dignity of motherhood, and indeed of the whole family, as a result of which the husband suffers the loss of his wife, the children of their mother, and the home and the whole family of an ever watchful guardian. More than this, this false liberty and unnatural equality with the husband is to the detriment of the woman herself, for if the woman descends from her truly regal throne to which she has been raised within the walls of the home by means of the Gospel, she will soon be reduced to the old state of slavery and become as among the pagans, the mere instrument of man” (2).
Pius XI also points out opportunely that the best way to destroy Catholic family life “is to withdraw the wife from the family and the care of the children” and “thrust her instead into public life and collective production under the same conditions as man.” (3)

Where does this lead? To a materialist collectivist society and the ultimate degradation of women.

Pope Pius XII often addressed what he called “the temptations of our day” for women to be lured by a “false independence” away from the family hearth and “the task assigned her for the good of society, by nature and by marriage.”

A painting of children playing blinds man bluff

Children play under the mother's serene supervision and care
He insists that to take the woman away from the family is to put out the flame in the hearth of the home:
“The atmosphere of the home cools, the family circle practically ceases to exist … and the center of daily life will be found elsewhere for her husband, for the wife herself and for the children.” (4)
For this reason, the Pope likens the wife to the “sun of the family” that radiates light and warmth by her “spirit of generosity and sacrifice, by her constant readiness, vigilance, delicacy and tact in all that touches the happiness of her husband and her children.”

He was well aware that some women - then and now - will protest against this life of sacrifice. He wisely responds: “Do you really believe, however, that there is any true solid happiness here below not won through sacrifice and self-denial?” For the wife and mother, it is those daily sacrifices for husband and children - “in an office given her by nature” - that will ensure the life of all to develop and flourish, and win her sanctification. (5)

I think these excerpts give a good idea of the grand and glorious vocation it is to be a Catholic mother, and how seriously it should be taken.

Children need a Mother’s care

I agree with Mrs. T’s observation that our current corruption of culture increases the need for a mother to oversee the formation of her children with particular attention. But the Church did not define the role of the wife and mother in terms of particular times: she understands it to be a timeless, unchangeable vocation.

Everybody knows that in 1941 the customs were much less corrupt, especially in countries that were still Catholic. Nonetheless, Pius XII was cautioning women on their crucial and irreplaceable role in the formation of their children, and stressing a mother’s great obligation not to neglect it or perform it with indifference. Today these principles would apply with even more reason.

In his allocution to mothers, Pope Pius XII emphasized the importance of the early formation, a three-fold training of mind, character and heart. (6) The mother’s vigilant eye over the physical and moral safety of her children would find poor replacement, in my view, by a busy paid employee at a daycare center.

A mother teaching sewing

A mother's guidance is more crucial as a child enters adolescence;. above, a sewing class
But this need for vigilance actually increases as the child grows and enters adolescence. The Pontiff states:

“Then the Catholic mother must prepare her sons and daughters so that they may pass with unfaltering step, like those who pick their way among serpents, through that time of crisis and physical change, and pass through it without losing anything of the joy of innocence, preserving intact that natural instinct of modesty with which Providence has girt them as a check upon wayward Passion” (7). He also specifies the particular importance of the mother in forming the daughters:

“She prepares her daughters to know and understand the vocation of a wife and mother. At her own mother’s side she learned her craft, the care of and duties of the home, and shared in caring for her younger brothers and sisters, thus developing her powers and gifts, and training herself in the art of government of the family hearth” (8).

This precious - and today rare - formation is made by the example of a good, virtuous mother in the home.

Applying the teachings

The texts cited above on the role of the wife at home are so clear they need no elaboration. The Popes are very rigorous in saying that a mother should remain at home. They also considered the modern tendency to “emancipate the mother” to be bad. Therefore, a person seeking orientation need only apply those teachings.

Regarding the second texts dealing with the formation of children, I think it more than fair to say that the teachings that were opportune in 1941 are even timelier today, some 60 years later, when the onslaughts against purity and innocence have increased immeasurably. It is rare today to find a school where the catechism will be taught in its integrity and fullness. We are all aware of the sex-education and pro-homosexuality classes inflicted on youth, even in elementary schools. It is the parents - not the schools, the religious or anyone else – who have the obligation to protect their adolescents as much as possible in this most crucial time of their lives from the vulgarity and immorality of the modern day world.

Here also, for the good of your children, stay at home, at least until they are formed, that is, through their adolescence and teen years.

What about Queens?

Mrs. T. also asked if the saintly Queens Clotilda and Margaret devoted all their time to the care of their children.

St Margaret of Scotland

St Margaret of Scotland - Queen of a nation
The exceptional vocations of those women who become queens do not deny the role they have in their family. What happened is that Divine Providence asked each of them to be not only the mother of their children, but also the mother of an entire nation. For this reason, just as a mother of many children has to divide her time among their children, so also those Queens shared their attention with their nations and families. Their cases do not eradicate the aforementioned rule, rather they represent the apex of the rule. Such Queens were not exercising different professions elsewhere, they were being mothers everywhere.

Even in face of so many solicitations and responsibilities, they never denied or shirked their duties as wives and mothers. A reading of their lives shows they carefully oversaw the Catholic education and formation of their children, which they considered a primary duty of life.

The time-consuming medical career

Finally, a word should be said on the practical considerations of being a wife and mother, and at the same time following the grueling schedule and study required by medical school. This study would be quite an undertaking: an exhausting, more than any full-time, work.

A former student of mine who married a man studying to be a doctor told me how difficult it is for her husband, who is doing his internship, to find time to spend with his two young children. Could she be pursuing a similar career at the same time, and still do justice to her role as wife and mother? Her “no” was categorical.

I think there is some confusion today about what a “valiant” woman is. Perhaps Mrs. T is confounding the truly valiant woman of Scriptures with the kind of “super-woman” that many modern women today would aspire to be.

If this is the case, it is good to reflect on the picture Holy Scriptures paints of the valiant woman (Prov 31:10-12). She is not the career woman. No, she is the most precious of treasures of her house; she is its life and light, shedding brilliant rays around her, multiplied by countless reflections. She is the soul of the home, pervading everything and leaving everywhere traces of her goodness and influence. She is the helpmate of her spouse, rendering him good all the days of her life. Far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.

The words of Scriptures are timeless and priceless, like the truly valiant woman.

1. Letter Natalis trecentesimi of December 27, 1917 to the Superior General of the Roman Union of Ursulines, in The Woman in the Modern World, ed. By The Monks of Solesmes, Daughters of St. Paul, 1959, p. 27
2. Encyclical Casti Connubii of December 31, 1930
3. Encyclical Divini Redemptoris of March 19, 1937
4. Allocution to newly-weds of February 25, 1943, in The Woman in the Modern World, pp. 79-81.
5. Allocution to newly-weds of March 11, 1942, in ibid., pp. 83-86
6. Allocution to mothers of October 26, 1943, in ibid., pp. 79-83.
7. Ibid.
8. Allocution to the girls of Catholic Action of April 24, 1943, in ibid., p. 106-110.
Posted March 21, 2009

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