It was nearly twelve years ago when I sat before my then pastor in pre-cana counseling and was told “how nice it is that you are trying to help women by working in a domestic violence shelter, but now that you are going to be married your role is to be a wife and mother. Working outside the home will no longer fit into your life. Your duty is to have children and care for your family.”
Our conversation continued and according to my pastor, God was not concerned with what I had to offer my community, but rather with how many children I could bear and raise as Catholic. In that moment, I was told that my life and my efforts were of little value and that having children was the one thing I could do as a woman that would make my life worthy. How funny – or sad – that in the 21st century, women’s worth continues to be tied to her womb and all other efforts are not valued.
Just this last week Pew Research released a report stating that 4 in 10 households have mothers who are either the main or sole breadwinners for the family. With today’s economy most families need two incomes to stay afloat and thus 75% of mothers are working outside of the home. Whether moms want to or not, they are pulling double duty and rather than being praised they are judged as not caring enough about their children (or God’s wishes) to stay home and do what women are “supposed” to do.
Reacting to this study, Lou Dobbs and an ALL MALE panel on Fox News argued that working mothers are selfish and claimed they are destroying the natural order. Stating that “there is something terribly wrong in American society,” that children are being hurt, and that there will be a negative impact on generations to come, the panel opined that anyone who supports the idea of a working mom is going against “biology.”
According to panelist Erick Erickson, “When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society, and other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role. We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complementary relationships in nuclear families, and it’s tearing us apart.”
How interesting that there was no working mother on the panel to respond to these ridiculous claims. Although the Fox News panel argued that society is “dissolving” because mothers are working outside of the home, study after study has demonstrated that exclusive maternal care is not related to better or worse outcomes for children. For instance, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development did a study from 1991-2006 where it tracked 1000 children over a 15 year span and concluded that working moms vs. stay at home moms did not impact cognitive, language, or social skills and also did not impact the quality of the mother child bond.
First let me say loud and clear, I am in no way discrediting the work and role of stay at home mothers. To use the phrase “working mother” is an oxymoron for sure. Mothers who choose to stay home and raise their children deserve to be recognized and praised as all mothers do. I will never engage in the “mommy wars” and argue for working mom over stay at home mom or vice versa. However, what I will argue for is women’s ability to make choices about motherhood and those choices should be respected.
To use religion or science to shame women for making incredible sacrifices to support their children is unforgivable. While I certainly acknowledge that fathers also face work-family issues, there is a clear difference between expectations of mothers and fathers. We do not use religion or science to claim fathers must work outside the home. Nor do we use religion or science to deny a father’s efforts to care for his family. In fact, discussions like those presented on Fox News do not occur about working fathers. Yet, it seems reasonable and appropriate to hold panel discussions about gendered topics that do not directly relate to any of the panelists.
Calling working mothers selfish, claiming that women’s contributions outside of the home are worthless, and declaring God only concerned with baby making abilities is outrageous. Stay at home mothers and mothers who work outside the home both make incredible sacrifices for their families. Why is our society so concerned with passing judgment, shaming, and tearing down? Why not acknowledge these efforts? Why not focus on creating opportunities so mothers have choices? It seems to me that women – and particularly mothers – continue to be the one acceptable target for discrimination. Sad but true.
Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is a Feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist. She is Director of the Center for Women’s Interdisciplinary Research and Education at Claremont Graduate University, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Loyola Marymount University, and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. Gina has authored multiple articles and the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence. She is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the forthcoming anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century and is a contributor to the Rock and Theology project sponsored by the Liturgical Press. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.