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Can women have it all? Can a mother spend enough time with her children and also advance far in her career? At a time when cost of living is rising and birth rates are plunging, not to mention the pressure to succeed in a competitive society, it is a question worth asking. And what can the Catholic social teaching tradition say about it?
To be clear, I’m not a woman. I’ll never really understand the struggle of juggling career progression and raising children as a mother. But I can listen, and I’ve had opportunities to learn about the hoops that many women must jump through to manage work and family life. Perhaps the most formative is an article from The Atlantic that I read a decade ago. The author wrote, “The women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.”
If we really think about it, this should be obvious. In the past, there was a clear division of roles. Fathers would earn money by taking on jobs, while mothers would stay at home to do chores and take care of the children. (Catholic social teaching tradition considers both kinds of activities as work regardless of whether there is financial remuneration.) Today, there is a widespread recognition that women should be able to pursue careers they want and progress far in them. There’s also a pragmatic side to it. Having both men and women in the job market means that there are more labourers, and therefore, more economic activities and growth. But if household management took up all the time that women had in the past, why should we expect women today to be able to do both with the same 24 hours in a day?
Exercising his teaching authority, Pope St John Paul II affirms that women have equal dignity to men and that women should have the same level of access to jobs. However, he also says in Laborem exercens that “true advancement of women requires that labour should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role”.
In other words, the Catholic Church teaches that women should be able to advance in their careers without sacrificing their commitment to their children and that this can only be done by changing how paid work is organised. John Paul II understood that it’s unrealistic to expect women to do well in both at the same time.
In order to answer the call to change the “structure of labour”, we need to look at balancing further the responsibilities shared by men and women. If women are taking up a greater share of responsibility in making ends meet, then men surely need to have a larger role in household management, especially in the matter of raising children. Thus, the recent law passed to increase paternity leave so that fathers can contribute more to caring for newborn children is a welcome change. The lawmakers are also under no illusion that this would be sufficient, so we can expect more changes in the future. There is also, after all, a pressure on the government to increase the record-low birth rates.
Yet, there is only so much that laws and policies can do. Even if incentives are offered, our work and family culture can only be reshaped if we are willing to change. As a start, perhaps those of us who are husbands and fathers may pray and reflect on what we can begin doing today.
Erwin Susanto is a staff member of Caritas Singapore. He enjoys arcane discourses on Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in the context of the Ancient Near East. He also enjoys thinking about all kinds of contemporary issues and sometimes wonders if punditry is fun.