If you want to divide a church, cause a rift in a family, ruin a dinner party, and bring hatred upon yourself – raise the issue of working mothers. Few subjects create more heat and antagonism than this one. There are not many more sacred cows, nor more strident voices bullying opposition into silence, than this topic.
So most people keep their wisdom to themselves. And woe-betide any man who cares to venture an opinion. He is not a mother, does not understand, has a vested interest in having somebody to stay at home and serve his needs and never adequately shares the housework, so has no right to speak. Thus, with nervous fingers I approach the keyboard, remembering that there is not much difference between a brave man and a fool.
The decision for mothers to continue with, or return to, paid employment is fraught with emotional difficulty. It is not an academic theoretical decision but one that impacts every aspect of life. Those who stay at home can feel put down as non-persons who fail to contribute or participate in society. Those who go to work can feel guilty, uncaring mothers for not being there for the children. Furthermore, there is a sense of critical judgmentalism – both real and imagined – in the comments made by others. Wiser to say nothing; but so delicate and deep are the feelings on the matter, your silence will also be taken to be a criticism.
Staying at home or going to work is an individual decision, which for every family is different. Each family has different economic circumstances with different values, desires and aspirations to fulfil. It is not up to others to criticize people’s choices, especially when they don’t, and can’t, see the particular situation of different families. The choice of some families is the necessity of others. However, while this is an individual decision for every mother to make, her decision does affect others around her. Obviously it has a great impact on her husband and children, but it cannot be contained there. As the Australian Institute of Family Studies reports: “One of the most significant social trends of the 20th century has been the move of mothers into paid work, with widespread repercussions for family life, workplaces and community supports for families." Children and households will always need to be cared for – if not by the mother then by some others. Hence the development of child-care and after-school care facilities and the change to more family-friendly workplace practices. The increase in two-income families has affected standards of living and the competitive pricing of housing. The choice of some families becomes the necessity of others.
Yet for all this, it is still possible to make some general observations that can help guide our choices. The Christian perspective on this issue is more about the role of economic activity than that of either mothers or work.
Anybody who is foolish enough to suggest that mothers do not work has never observed the amount of energy expended by a mother with her children. Few people work so hard – and often at difficult and even unpleasant tasks – as mothers of young children. I spoke to a young mother the other night on her way home from the hospital emergency ward with her baby. She had one child at home with conjunctivitis, another with a very painful ear infection and the baby close to dehydration because of throat infection. The hospital doctor advised her to feed the baby every hour! Few people have so little control over their life and work as mothers – the demands can be twenty-four hours a day. The workload of the excellent wife described in Proverbs 31 generally exhausts most who read it.
The choice of going to work is not ‘going to work’, but ‘entering paid employment’. The stay at home mother is part of the 'not-for-profit' economy, while the working mother is part of the ‘for-profit’ economy. There is nothing wrong in being in either. The ‘for profit’ economy feeds, houses, shelters and enables the whole society to function. Without it we could not even exist. People who contribute to it are contributing to community wellbeing by their activity and should be commended for their labour. But the ‘not for profit’ sector of the community is also beneficial and important to the wealth and health of society and should not be denigrated as of lesser or no value.
Still the choice of ‘entering paid employment’ is more complicated than this because of part-time work. The model wife of Proverbs 31 is clearly engaged in economic activity while still being committed to her household tasks. In 2009, 37% of mothers living with dependent children were at home with their children, 35% were in part time employment while only 27% were in full time employment.
Yet there is a form of paid employment that is hostile to family life not just for mothers but equally for fathers. Careerism is working to find personal fulfillment and satisfaction by professional advancement. Careerism seeks value, importance, worth and significance not in our creation or redemption or relationships to God or each other, not even in our work or contribution to the welfare of society and humanity, but in our advancement and progress. Without God in their lives it is understandable that people may try to create meaning and significance in personal advancement – but for the Christian this just another idolatry. To go to work to find ourselves is a declaration of just how lost we are!
Going to work to provide for our family does not affect children negatively. Working for our own self-fulfilment is the danger. Children always know careerist parents undervalue them. How precisely they know, I don’t know; but that they know, I have no doubt. Our children just have a better sense of our real values than we do, because they judge not by what we say, but what we do – they are not deceived by our self-deception.