One day at Elizabeth Ministry Headquarters several of us were gathered around the kitchen table at lunch time as we often do. The building itself is a former convent with a sizable kitchen, in which a long table sits in the middle. Above the stove is some wall art that states, “Kitchen Table Theology Spoken Here”. On this particular day, Jeannie Hannemann, the founder of Elizabeth Ministry, told the story of how it was founded. Jeannie recounted how it was the early 90’s and she had two young daughters and a job that she loved at a parish. She was also working on her Master’s degree. She was informally doing Elizabeth Ministry tasks at her parish but one of the Bishops in Green Bay wanted her to write up the documents so that the model could be reproduced in other parishes. The Bishop kept asking her about the documents and each time she would have to say that she hadn’t done them yet.
One day, as Jeannie was tackling the laundry at her home, the Bishop called her and asked what she was doing. She replied, “Doing the laundry.” The Bishop asked, “Why are you doing that?” Jeannie replied truthfully, “Because my children have no more clean underwear.” Unphased, the Bishop replied, “You don’t need to do laundry. You know what you need to do, is go buy more underwear so that you don’t have to do the laundry so much.” We all laughed and Jeannie recounted how it was at this moment that she finally realized the Bishop was never going to stop bothering her about getting the documents written up. On top of this, her Master’s thesis adviser had changed her mind and decided she wanted Jeannie to do her thesis on Elizabeth Ministry. The fact that Jeannie was two-thirds of the way finished with her thesis on Baptism was of no concern to the adviser. With all of this it was becoming increasingly clear that founding Elizabeth Ministry was the work God was asking her to do.
Thus, Jeannie went to the store and did just as the Bishop had said. She bought more underwear and other clothing for the family and founded Elizabeth Ministry. Jeannie jokes that she didn’t like doing laundry to begin with, and now she could let it pile up under order from the Bishop.
The story struck me and I thought about it some time since its telling. I’m a stay-at-home, homeschooling mother, but I also feel called to give of my time to doing other things that I feel passionately about, like being Healthy Living Coordinator and Natural Family Planning Instructor at Elizabeth Ministry and also acting as a board member for The Guiding Star Project. As always, finding that balance between making sure that I am living my primary vocation as wife and mother yet also fulfilling the other tasks that I feel God is asking me to fit in can be tricky. All of this has me pondering more deeply about the vocation of motherhood, and fatherhood as well.
Mothers need to stay home and fathers need to earn the income?
I think sometimes, particularly in religious circles, there can be the temptation to think that the vocation to motherhood also necessarily includes staying at home and performing the majority (if not all) of the domestic duties. Likewise, people sometimes assume that the vocation of fatherhood means the calling to provide for the family in the form of earning the family’s income. As I think about this issue, I keep going back to The Trinity and that the Church compares the family to the Trinity and states that the family is to be a reflection of the Trinity in the world. Certainly, the persons of the Trinity “do” a lot of things, but God never defines himself by the things He does. When Moses asks His name, God says, “I Am Who Am.” He says who He is, not what He does. God doesn’t say, “I am He who creates and sustains,” or something like that. Though some want to rename the persons of the Trinity to Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, the Church has not approved this saying that these titles reduce the persons of the Trinity to the tasks they perform, not to the persons that they are. The Persons of the Trinity are to be understood primarily in their relationship to one another and in their relationship to us, not in their functions.
Similarly, when it comes to the vocation of wife and mother, as well as husband and father, I think these vocations are primarily about who we are as persons and the relationship that we have with one another. Obviously there are tasks that are involved in being in relationship with others, especially children. We must attend to their physical needs, which includes providing healthy meals and a decent space to live. These things typically necessitate that someone needs to earn an income and there is cooking, cleaning, and numerous other things that need to be done. Our focus, however, must be on our relationship with others and how the various things that need to be done either help or hinder that relationship.
I meditate on the Annunciation and Visitation stories often, being as they are so central to the identity of Elizabeth Ministry. One day, as I was preparing for a presentation, something struck me in the story that I had never noticed before. When the Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, will conceive, the Angel says this about John, “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17) John the Baptist will turn the hearts of fathers toward children. Though we don’t often think of it, I think John the Baptist would be a good person to pray to in the pro-life movement, that the hearts of abortion-minded fathers will turn toward their children.
However, even among Church-goers, I feel we the need to pray that the hearts of fathers will turn toward their children. We can be so tempted to relegate the role of a father as he-who-provides-an-income-to-the-family, rather than the relationship he has with his children. A few years back I was attending a Christmas party by myself. A woman there, seeing that I was without my children asked if my husband was babysitting. At first I didn’t understand her question. I thought she was asking if my husband was babysitting someone else’s children while I was at the party. I thought it was a rather odd question to ask, but I said no, probably with a quizzical look on my face. She replied, “Oh, you found another babysitter for your kids, then? He doesn’t like to help you out? My husband never did either.” It was then that I realized that she was talking about my own children, and so I stammered, “I mean yes, err, no, he’s not babysitting. But, I mean…well, yes, my children are home with my husband and he’s taking care of them.” Here was a devout family, but they did not realize that fathers are called to be in relationship with their children.
What The Church Says
Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t look to what the Church has to say about the topic. When it comes to the issue of mothers needing to stay home with their children and not fulfilling their vocation fully if they pursue outside work, it is clear that the Church does not teach this. In Pope John Paul II’s 1995 “Letter to Women” he states that women are needed in all areas of society and praises the contributions women have made both to the family and to the culture, and in fact calls efforts to limit the education and work of mothers discrimination. Saint John Paul II writes,
It is time to examine the past with courage, to assign responsibility where it is due in a review of the long history of humanity. Women have contributed to that history as much as men and, more often than not, they did so in much more difficult conditions. I think particularly of those women who loved culture and art, and devoted their lives to them in spite of the fact that they were frequently at a disadvantage from the start, excluded from equal educational opportunities, underestimated, ignored and not given credit for their intellectual contributions. Sadly, very little of women’s achievements in history can be registered by the science of history. But even though time may have buried the documentary evidence of those achievements, their beneficent influence can be felt as a force which has shaped the lives of successive generations, right up to our own. To this great, immense feminine “tradition” humanity owes a debt which can never be repaid. Yet how many women have been and continue to be valued more for their physical appearance than for their skill, their professionalism, their intellectual abilities, their deep sensitivity; in a word, the very dignity of their being!
And what shall we say of the obstacles which in so many parts of the world still keep women from being fully integrated into social, political and economic life? We need only think of how the gift of motherhood is often penalized rather than rewarded, even though humanity owes its very survival to this gift. Certainly, much remains to be done to prevent discrimination against those who have chosen to be wives and mothers. As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State.
In this letter and elsewhere, it is clear that the vocation to motherhood does not necessarily exclude outside work. On this issue, as in many others, the Church wisely does not call for a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, the family must pray and discern their situation and their individual gifts and yearnings together as they try to understand the plans that God has for them in light of the Gospel and their vocations to be in relationship with one another.
Though a woman can earn the income, and the father can do housework, a woman can not be a father and a man can not be a mother because only a woman can be in relationship as a mother, and only a man can be in relationship as a father. I wonder how we might evaluate our lives differently if we understood our vocations in this way. The days where I have been snapping at the children all day while I was making the house immaculate? Maybe I wasn’t fulfilling my vocation too well on that day. The days where I’ve been so busy working and I haven’t even scarcely said a word to my children? Maybe not those days either. Or what about a father who earns the family’s income? If he sees his vocation as being the bread-winner, he will likely make different decisions about how much time he spends at work than if he sees his vocation as being in relationship with his children.
Similarly, the relationship of the husband and wife might be different if they see their vocation in terms of building their relationship with one another, which includes helping one another to fulfill the tasks of taking care of a home and family, rather than focusing on whose job it is to fulfill whatever task. If the vocation of husband and wife is to be in relationship with one another, and to model the selfless love of God, trying to be helpful and thoughtful to one another could take precedence over deciding that I’ve fulfilled my duty by cooking dinner and so I don’t need to help my husband shovel the snow. Or he might focus more on expressing his care about my needs and so help me with the dishes, rather than decide he’s put in a full-day’s work and so his job is done. How might we see ourselves differently if, rather than define ourselves by the work that we do, we see ourselves for the persons we are and the relationships we have? For we are sons and daughters of God, deeply loved and called to love deeply.
1. John Paul II, Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995, Section 3, 4. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_29061995_women_en.html
2. Lk 1:17 NAB
Written By: April Jaure