Selfish Working Mothers Destroying the Natural Order? by Gina Messina-Dysert

Gina Messina-Dysert profileIt 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

Categories: Feminism, Motherhood, Women and Community

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28 replies

  1. Women have ALWAYS worked, nowhere more so than in ‘traditional’ societies.
    Poor women left their children with grandparents and got out in the fields and WORKED.
    They sowed and harvested. They raised animals. They made cheese and beer. They provided their families with vegetables. When their societies industrialised, they left their children with the grandparents and went into the factories, still working.
    Rich women left their children with nursemaids and ran estates, traded, worked in charity, and were effective in politics.
    The idea that in the ‘past’ a women dropped a couple of kids and then went into purdah is complete rubbish invented by a consumer society in order to sell more detergent. It is the ideology of a society which has created mass wealth beyond the dreams of emperors. It is a myopic, navel-gazing ideology which knows little or nothing of the real world of women or work. It posits the idea of woman as consumer rather than producer, and, so far from being in any sense ‘traditional’ is a purely industrial and post industrial creation.


    • I’m glad you mentioned women in history. In the late middle ages, at least in London, it was considered a lucrative thing for a woman to be apprenticed in a trade. It meant that she could bring income to a family, and many women would use an apprenticeship to raise their marriage prospects, especially if they couldn’t bring much in the way of a dowry.

      Also, these women, even if they did not have a trade, did not devote every waking moment to playing with their children or teaching their children. Simple household tasks took all day. The children were more or less with the mother, but the mother did not have the time to dote on her child every waking moment. It took all day to wash clothes.

      It’s also worth remembering that this is a class issue, as well as a women’s issue. As someone once said, in many parts of the world, a woman wakes her children up and they all go down to the local dump to dig for scraps they can sell. We see this in the US as well. If a single woman in the US decides to go on Welfare in order to be a stay at home mom, she is not praised for preserving the natural order of things and for fulfilling her duty as a mother. Rather, everyone screams for her to get off welfare and go back to work. If stay at home moms are the natural order of things, then why should they be reserved only for the privileged? Wouldn’t welfare be a good investment then, because it protects the children and future generations from harm?


  2. Gina – I am a stay at home mom with a college degree and chose to stay home to raise my children. I at first thought that I was going to continue with my career as I was the primary breadwinner in the family. My own drives changed with the birth of my child. I have fully appreciated that this was a choice I could make and feminist movements that came before my time allowed for me to live in a time where I could make the choice with my husband as to what was best for my family.

    What I appreciate so much about this article is that although this was the best choice for me and my family, it is not the best choice for every family. I have met the moms that truly feel they are better mothers that they go into the workforce. And I completely believe them.

    Further to your point, I feel that there is a distinct paradox with this statement, “How funny – or sad – that in the 21st century, women’s worth continues to be tied to her womb and her work in the home.” It seems to me although this is said in theory, there is little evidence to support it’s reality. It’s the world’s best conversation ender. “What do you do?” “I’m a Stay at Home mom.” comments such as “oh, that’s great” followed by a deafening silence or “do you do anything else?” completely diminishes any such accomplishment you might make in the endeavor to raise your children.

    Looking forward to reading more from you!


    • Alissa, Thank you so much for your very important comments here. I have not been a stay at home mom, so I have not experienced the other end of the double edged sword that you speak of. That said, I have friends and loved ones who are stay at home moms and I hear from them quite frequently about feeling discounted. As I am reading back my article, the line you quote is problematic for a number of reasons (and I need to adjust it). The truth is, women’s work in the home is not valued. Women are expected to have children, stay home, and care for the family and yet, they are still not honored when doing it.

      Particularly here in the US motherhood is a major issue. We don’t want moms in the work force, but when moms stay home they are not acknowledged for all they do. Interesting that we praise single dads but think single moms are only doing what they are supposed to. We are one of only four countries in the world that do not offer paid maternity leave and it is because we don’t value moms.

      I think stay at home moms have the most challenging position. I often find my weekends home with my daughter far more challenging than my weekdays. She just turned four so I’m hoping that will change soon. :)

      Thanks for sharing here – your thoughts and comments are truly valued!


  3. Great post! It is helpful to be reminded of these ideas every so often. I would also like to add that when you factor race/ethnicity and class into this picture, the concept of motherhood and working/not working becomes more complicated. Some mothers never have the opportunity to choose not to work and many mothers raise not only their own children, but are employed to raise the children of upper-class working mothers as well.

    The priest you talked seemed to have a limited view of Catholic theology regarding women working outside of the home. This theology specifically commends viewing women only as child-bearers and encourages women to contribute their gifts to society as well even while it suggests that women privilege their commitment to their children over their commitments to careers. It urges society to have more flexibility for women to be able to be the mothers they want to be and not have their lives run by their jobs. I think many of us (and many men) wish for more of this kind of flexibility in our careers so we can all be better parents.


  4. Gina: Thank you for writing his. As a man raised in traditional/conservative religion (Mormonism) and who has encouraged his wife to seek post-graduate education and pursue a career, your recognition of women’s right to choose is welcome. I had only one issue and it was with this statement: “We do not use religion or science to claim fathers must work outside the home …” I think we do in fact. We don’t hear it so often because there are so few stay-at-home fathers, but if that we’re to change, I have no doubt that the religious/societal judgment would descend on those men the way it now descends on working mothers.


    • John, thank you so much for sharing here. You make an important point. I was actually thinking about this statement as I wrote it and wondered if it should be changed. My husband was a stay at home dad for nearly a year and there is no doubt he and we as a unit were judged. And thinking back about the Fox News panel – while they did not make this statement, I think it technically was inferred by statements made about women being submissive and biologically destined to be in the home.


  5. Yes to saying no to the mommy wars! Thanks for writing!


  6. These men are such utter bores, who would ever care what they had to say again. That priest who told you your duty was to stay at home, what was his name? Let’s out him as the sexist he is. I’m surprised you didn’t tell him to jump off a mountain and that you just didn’t walk out of his office. What a jerk! And why would priests, who have never done childcare advise women on childcare issues? He’s just as bad as the all male Fox news crew.

    The fact is, wages of men have been frozen and corporations aren’t paying living wages anymore, and THEY, not women are at fault. If they are so all high and mighty about the role of the home slave (I mean mother), why don’t they jack up men’s pay?


    • Before you get too tuff on the men you need to remember what they do.The women’s movement opened doors for females no question about that.
      It is also true women did not and do not walk in many of those doors.

      It is mostly the male that climbs in those filthy crawl spaces installing electric and plumbing.
      It is the male who mostly does those jobs that require hard physical labor like digging, rigging, and building. You see few women in those careers because women do not like the dirty hard labor. It also is wise to remember it may be your son who some day is on the receiving end of demands made.
      We need to respect what both sexes bring to the table. Something some men forgot to do.


  7. This post brought back a poignant experience during my own mothering years. The Womanspirit Conference of Unitarian Universalist women in the Midwest put on “bridging conversations” one year, bridging race, bridging sexual orientation, and bridging what you called “the mommy wars.” I had no idea how true this term might be until I joined this last conversation. What I heard was a lot of resentment and jealousy on both sides — women who had opted to stay home with their kids feeling that they were being judged for not furthering their careers or growing as an individual, while women who were working outside the home fearing that they might be hurting their kids and being jealous of the stay-at-home moms for their deeper relationships with their kids. It was difficult to watch. I felt extremely lucky in two ways: a) that I understood the ideologies undergirding all of this emotion, and b) that I was teaching part-time in the Women’s Studies Program, allowing me a both/and situation: time with my daughter and time for my own interests. It sure hasn’t changed much in 20 years!


  8. Great article! I can’t believe that we’re still having these discussions in 2013.

    Your conversation with your priest is exactly why I cannot understand how any woman chooses to be Catholic. I can relate to an individual’s need for spirituality and faith, but I could never join an institution that so blatantly invalidated my worth, disregarded my experiences and reduced me down to my reproductive abilities. That, plus a few other reasons. I read your column because I have so much respect for you, and I keep trying to grasp the link I’m missing so that I’m not judgmental. We need you in both realms – the theological and the secular. I always appreciate your insight and keep up the good work.


  9. The priest was most likely trying to point to the fact your children are of higher priority, should be the number one priority, at that time in your life.

    Women need to remember who the feminists movement was sold to and the reasons given for. When feminism hit this country (USA) it was mostly marketed to stay at home mothers, the young free love generation, and college students. Without the support of stay at home moms
    who where the majority of women at that time, the movement would never have gotten off the ground
    Daughters would remember and mothers would know, there was very little security, no monetary compensation (except what the husband allocated), and more than a few women that would find themselves in desperate state if the husband left the home.

    We are having these discussions because there has been a recognition (finally) that stay at home mothers played a greater role, were more important than understood at earlier times. The culture completely changed when moms went to work.
    The gatekeepers went to work. The overseers of the children of the community went to work. The days a child could do things some Mom did not see is over and things changed. We can no longer send our children out to play all day till dinner and know they are safe. No longer does a child running the neighborhood known eyes are on them and they better stay in line. That is one cost society pays f or Moms going to work.

    I am not a stay at home mom, by the way but I did have a great stay at home mom who could
    watch my children when I worked and I knew they would be well cared for and the values instilled in me would be instilled in them. Young women today may not have that advantage. They will have to make tough choices with pre -school children and careers.
    Careers sometimes require being out of the home 10-12 hours a day plus transport time.
    It’s hard to raise a child when you have to be away from them most waking hours. something Gloria Steinem never had to deal with. She never had children.

    I do recognize the good and bad on both sides of the issue and I do understand the church failed women miserably preaching stay at home but not providing any support for the Mom abandoned in times past.
    It’s complicated and younger women only know what they see today.


    • Part of the problem (maybe most of it) is the structure of our society. A nuclear family is not the best set-up for raising a family. The Mosuo culture, where the women and children live together and they have “walking” marriages, seems like a much better way to structure society.


  10. A mostly missed passage that tells us a lot.

    She considers a field and buys it;
    From her profits she plants a vineyard
    .Proverbs 31:16 NKJV

    She had money that was her own.
    Profits are from previous investments.
    She made decisions on her own.
    She was industrious.
    She was taking care of her family.
    She was wise.


  11. A few years ago, I was complaining to a religion professor about the evils of patriarchy and he replied, “Well, just remember that the mothers who raise the sons have some responsibility for this situation.” I was appalled that, once again, it’s the mothers’ fault, but really, how is a mother to know how to raise a son in the midst of such a misogynist society? My own grown son (his father died when he was 15) is like a lost boy – he doesn’t want to become part of the problem, but doesn’t know how to participate in this sick society of ours. So, he’s on disability and still lives with me – full of anxiety and depression. Not good. I’d like to hear from some of the men about how they are working to change things.


    • Dear Katherine, The evil part of partriarchy is what I touch upon below, that patriarchy breeds the dictate that we are half people. Men are supposed to be one way (dominant, authoritarian, financial supporters and breadwinners). Women are supposed to be weak, at-home, passive, as well as carrying the burden of being the evil-Eve who tempted Adam with the apple as if Adam cannot take responsibility for his own actions and thoughts.

      Yes, this societal structure dictates that men are one way and women another in complemantary fashion, but this is hogwash because there are times when we take on the opposite roles for whatever reason–how can this be if we are only supposed to have complementary traits. We have both and we must exercise both–that is how we become whole, how we become all that we can be as Christ would have us be. SO it means breaking apart this herarchical/patriarchical structure and making a new paradigm of wholeness for all of us. We reconcile the two halves(good/bad, strong/weak, light/dark, smart/dumb, leader/follower, etc.) of ourselves to become wholly and authentically who we are and accept it all within us.

      Then we can be all we are to those we love and that is the greatest gift.

      One Jesuit was talking to a friend of mine once and he explained how mothers dote on their children without having anything else in their life, then they fall apart or begin to resent their children when they go out of the home that the mother has built, on their own. The mother now has nothing to hold her together if she has invested everything in her children and has no other interests. His advice was that women/mothers need interests other than their children in order that they do not become what we would say today as codependent on their children which causes a deep wound that takes much to overcome.

      You are right though, there is sadly no manual on parenting, perhaps we need one.
      God bless, grace to you and your son.


  12. Gina,
    I remember when I heard your story about the priest explaining how now that you would be married that your role was to stay home and take care of your family. That was in 2002, I believe, and I remember thinking at that moment, in 2012, what century are we living in? Is this the Middle Ages? I remember thinking how this is what our Church believes and tells women what their role is. I remember thinking how the Church has defined the roles of women since the Middle Ages. Well, in today’s terms, someone who defines the ‘other’ not allowing for their own definition is considered in the words of Patricia Evans, expert on domestic violence, to be nothing less than verbal abuse. One defines oneself in a healthy relationship.

    When I see the hierarchy ‘investigating’ our nuns, this makes me think of a bungled work-around by socially inept men who are trying to figure out and learn who women are. Perhaps that Fox News show is attempting to do the same. When will they get it that complementary roles no longer is the norm and that wholeness, not complenatarity is the norm for real, authentic dealings between men and women?

    With these men on Fox News,what is it about them that they feel the need to sit around defining what, who and how women should be and what they need to be doing according to them. Can this be considered according to the above definition that to sit around defining who and what women are is engaging in public verbal abuse of all women. This is power-over that these men are using. Who asked them anyway? Did anyone ask them? Again it is an usurping of our own authority and sense of who we are as women to define ourselves. When will Fox News do a show of all women who sit around and define what the men ought to be doing?

    Yes, families so often need more than one income to make ends meet these days, but I have never had the luxury of sharing expenses with a significant other, I have supported myself since I was 17. What about all the single people out there, with and without children who work two and three jobs as I have done because we do not ‘share’ expenses? Society favors marriage, not because it is biological, but how society had been organized for centuries. Our societies exclude those who do not fit the norm.

    When will women who work be recognized as equal contributors to the GNP and not just as supplemental to our ‘assigned’ (presupposedly by God) roles of baby-makers and home-makers.

    In addition to equal pay for equal work, we also need equal recogntion for equal contribution in the public sphere…but also more than equal contribution in the private sphere since men still do not carry their weight equally at home!!


  13. Finally catching up with some posts! My primary blog space is about birth and motherhood and also some of tensions and triumphs of work at home parenting. One of things that I find I experience as a primarily work-at-home mother is kind of the “worst” of both worlds, while also bridging the gap and not participating in the mommy wars, because I do it all. I find that stay-at-home mothers often seem to assume that I must be working all the time and “too busy” for my kids, while the work-outside-the-home mothers seem to think I have a cute little easy hobby that I dabble in while being at home with my kids. What is really happening is that I have to cram most of my work into a two-hour slot in which my kids visit my parents (I homeschool also, so there is no “break” while they’re at school) and then into the wee hours of the morning when they’re asleep. It is a tough balancing act sometimes, but I thrive so much better than I did when I was home alone with one toddler and no paid employment. However, I’m only actually gone from home for seven hours a week. And, while we’ll be on a shoestring, we’re getting ready to transition into me as primary wage-earner (on just the 7-14 hours out and the rest in).


  14. Oh yeah, and I love (in the gagging-in-horror sense of the word) when people use what happens in nature as examples of what human behavior should be like because the logical extension of that argument becomes so absurd–human beings ALWAYS do only what is most “natural.” That is why we reject air conditioning and driving cars and living in houses and wearing clothes…


  15. I fear for women who drop out of the work force to care for children because unless they are independently wealthy, they face the risk of a divorce which will put themselves and their children into poverty. The “free” choice women make to stay and home and depend on their husbands to support themselves and their children is a conditional on the survival of their marriages. Some women may want to leave husbands, but feel they can’t afford to do so, while others will be left by husbands who find other, often younger, women.


    • Thank you for saying this, Carol. I did an internship with a “displaced homemakers” (what a title!) program when I was in graduate school. It was a grant-funded program to help divorced and widowed women who had never worked outside the home. We helped them create resumes, interview for jobs, and get more education. We also provided mental health counseling for the depression and anger they were experiencing. I was shocked at some of their stories – one woman had three young children – her husband was killed in an accident and had no insurance. She was desperate. Another’s husband had left her and the kids for the young chippie across the street. These women had never considered the possibility of having to work outside the home/support their families by themselves. When I married in the early 1970’s, my mother castigated me for continuing to work, implying that we were “greedy” and reminding me that she and my father had survived on one salary. I retorted that she was very lucky that her husband hadn’t died and had stood by her. Other women had not been so lucky. Myopic vision accounts for many of the narrow-minded, bigoted opinions in the world.


    • The statistics prove your point, Carol, with more than half of all marriages ending up in divorce. And then there’s the “mommy track” where women in the workforce who have children are assumed to be less available for the stress and long hours of the most driven workers and therefore deemed less ambitious than others. It doesn’t matter if you’re a mother in this culture. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

      I’m one of the lucky ones when it comes to marriage. But even when I had a young child I was also working part-time in Women’s Studies, not pulling myself all the way out of the work world. So I guess I hedged my bets, although at the time, it was just following my passion.


  16. After teaching for 20 years in the public system I can safely say that the greater percentage of successful students had a mother at home. Most of the mothers did go back into the workforce when the child was older. There is a distinction between those that had mothers around when they were younger and those that didn’t. It is clear to me that sending a child to be raised by someone else, other than your family, is detrimental to the child. The question is, are you willing to risk your child?



  1. Old white men on Fox News panel claim working women are destroying America; they claim males are biologically meant to be dominant over women; Bible says they're wrong | God Discussion
  2. Selfish Working Mothers Destroying the Natural Order? | Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D.

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