Last night I stumbled across an interesting article called The bride who was groomed for a career. Subtitled "An Ivy League mom's lament," author Lea Singh talks about how an intense focus on academic and career success left her unprepared for motherhood. She writes:
I wish that as I was growing up, the role of wife and mother had been more fully present as a respectable and important option that also needs time and training, not just an afterthought that automatically tacks on to a career. Much of the skill set I acquired in university is not very useful in the home. Although I know how to write legal briefs, I wish I knew how to sew, play family songs on the piano and cook without a cookbook, and even that I was more familiar with caring for little ones and for a busy household. All the chores I was protected from in order to enable me to study as I was growing up -- maybe I should have done them after all, including some babysitting. I want to give these experiences to my daughter, so that she will be better equipped not just for a career, but also for motherhood.
It's an honest, thought-provoking piece that is well worth reading. There was one thing Singh mentioned, however, that gave me pause. When talking about her husband's life as a father and provider, she said:
I even wish -- and this is sure to get some hair frizzed -- that it had been explained to me that a high-flying career does not go well with family life. Men and women really are different. When the man gets married, it is just a sweet step in the direction of all his life dreams. He can climb up the career ladder and still be a good father to his nine kids. He will get a deep sense of meaning and fulfillment from providing for his family.
With those last two sentences, Singh perfectly articulates a viewpoint that is extremely widespread in our society: That fathers who work do not have to put fatherhood first.
Back when I first left the workforce to stay at home with my kids, I ran a website that helped other women make the transition from office to home. Many women reached out to me to share their stories, ask for advice, or simply to have someone to vent to after a long day. These ladies were mostly happy with their lives as housewives, and were grateful that their families were able to get by on one income. However, in almost every conversation I had -- not only with women contacting me from my website, but with local playgroup friends as well -- there was an undercurrent of frustration. And it usually came down to one thing, that same idea that Singh articulated in the excerpt above: That their husbands didn't have to make career sacrifices in order to be considered good fathers.
I had more than a few women confide to me that they were secretly resentful about their family situation, especially in the cases where their husband's career ambitions made their lives as mothers harder. One wife reported that her family had moved almost every year for the past five years in order for her husband to take bigger and bigger promotions, which meant that she and the kids could never make friends and put down roots. Another woman lamented the fact that her husband left a stable job to take another in which he'd have to travel almost every week, simply because it was in line with his personal interests. It didn't seem to be the travel or the moving or the long hours per se that led to feelings of bitterness; rather, it was the perception that the husbands were allowed to prioritize their personal ambitions over the good of the family.
"I love staying home with my kids, but it does require sacrificing some of my personal goals," one reader of my website wrote. "It doesn't seem like my husband has to do the same."
It's a tricky situation. For the dad who is the sole source of income for his family, part of being a good father certainly involves bringing home that paycheck. He has to take his job seriously. Unfortunately, though, this idea is too often expanded to mean that men have carte blanche to put their work-related goals at the very top of their life priority lists. Their stay-at-home wives have the "sacrificing career goals for the family" stuff covered, so they're free to pour themselves into the workplace.
When my husband and I first converted to Catholicism, one of the things I found most refreshing about the Catholic worldview was its understanding of vocation. The Church's view was simple, counter-cultural, and utterly refreshing: If you're a wife or a husband, that comes first -- for both of you. It doesn't matter if both of you work or just one of you works, each spouse's primary vocation is to the married life.
When I saw this in practice in Catholic marriages, it was fascinating to see how well it worked. I saw far less frustration and resentment among Catholic stay-at-home moms than I'd seen in other segments of society. It was taken for granted that their husbands had to put fatherhood first, and would likely have to sacrifice personal career goals for the greater good of the family. Husbands and wives shared in big decisions about career, just as they would share in big decisions about household matters. Regardless of what each person's business card might say, Catholic husbands and wives were united in the same overarching "job": Raising their families to the best of their abilities.
I've seen a lot of great pro-stay-at-home-mom sentiment lately, especially in light of the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney debates. Like Lea Singh, I would love to see women encouraged and equipped to stay home with their children; it would be great if there were more widespread respect for the hard work that comes with this way of life. However, I believe that in order for women to find real fulfillment at home, society must first reject the idea that working husbands get to put their workplace ambitions above all else. Not only would it lead to greater family unity, but I think that men are happier too when they embrace the truth that the real meaning of life can never be found in a job.