I’ve been reading a series of blog posts about Catholic motherhood and careers (at Words, Words, Vox Nova and Sarahndipity to name just a few), and it reminded me of something I’ve often felt: it’s tough to be a woman these days.
Physically, of course, it’s much easier than it ever has been. But spiritually, mentally, I think we really bear the brunt of the drastic changes that occurred in first-world countries in the 20th century. As I’ve said before, I think that the impact that the breakdown of small, lifelong communities has had on society — particularly women — cannot be overestimated.
For all of human history up until recently most people lived in the same place for their entire lives. Family and friends were close by, and in many cases women got together every day and shared tasks like washing, food preparation, water gathering, etc. The kids ran around and played together and the women interacted while they worked (I recently came across this comment by Essy that nicely illustrated this point and the impact it had on women’s satisfaction with “drudge work” like laundry). This sort of living situation provided women with:
- Adult conversation
- Breaks from the 24/7 care of their children
- Community recognition for accomplishments and talents (i.e. if you were the best seamstress or the best piano-player in the village, everyone recognized it)
- Clear, important goals and challenges (i.e. women’s work was far more challenging, time-consuming and critical to survival)
- Stability in case of emergency (e.g. if a woman’s husband died, left, was abusive, etc. her parents, siblings, and other extended family were nearby and could provide support and a place to live)
I think that when a lot of moms talk about wanting a career or express frustration that men can so easily “have it all” (meaning have both children and a career), it is these things that they yearn for. These five elements that have always been a natural part of human existence are now very hard to find outside of the workforce.
For some, of course, wanting a job is purely a financial issue. But I’m thinking here of the many women I know who love being mothers yet are surprised to find themselves aching for something they had in the workforce, even though they don’t necessarily need the money. We’re designed to live in small communities, and I think it’s really hard to feel content with daily life if you’re on your own little desert island like most of us stay-at-home moms are today: you have no adult conversation; get no recognition for your accomplishments since nobody has any idea what you do all day; have little emotional or physical support other than from your husband; and can’t even banish rowdy kids outside to play since there are no other children around and most of the people in your neighborhood are strangers anyway.
Those of you who are familiar with my other site know that all of this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I see so many women conflicted and guilt-ridden because they really want to stay home with their children but find themselves feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled at home. I strongly believe that this desperation so many modern moms feel is not inherent to motherhood, but rather a modern phenomenon caused in large part by social isolation.
A lot of women contact me through my other site and ask for my help finding alternatives to working outside the house. They desperately need those five elements I listed above, yet don’t feel that getting back on the career track is the right solution for their families.
To be honest, I struggle with answering these questions. The short answer is: it’s hard. Personally, my husband and I made huge, 180-degree changes in our lives and our mothers’ lives to be able to put down roots and live close to one another so that we have our own little community (as I type this my kids are playing at my mom’s house down the street), and I use my background as a web developer to do various projects for an intellectual challenge. But I know that these options don’t work for everyone, and I’m eagerly searching for other suggestions to offer the women who contact me.
I’m interested to hear what you readers think about all this. I know that the feelings of being overwhelmed and unfulfilled staying home with children are epidemic in the wider culture, but I’m not sure if it’s as much of an issue among serious Catholics and other Christians. What do you think?
Also, I’d like to hear any suggestions from those of you who may have struggled with any of this. Other than getting a job, how can you find a way to get things like regular adult interaction, breaks from being the sole person in charge of the children, intellectual/academic-type challenges, a sense of community, etc.?
It might not be easy, but I really believe that “having it all” does not have to involve having a job.