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    The Two Vocations

    Mothers balancing work and children find different ways of answering their callings.

    By Serena Sigillito

    May 5, 2021
    • Jodi L Winger

      I very much appreciate the discussion of the different ways that women can view motherhood and career. It's so easy for one thing to be elevated above others, depending on which circle we're in and as mothers, we can find ourselves trying to fit the mold instead of really discerning what God is calling us to do Thanks for this refreshing article.

    I met Meenal Lele in the pre-Covid era, back when we used to stand within six feet of each other and make maskless small talk with reckless abandon. Lured in by targeted social media ads, we both attended an event called “Mama Mentors,” which was put on by Hey Mama – “a private social and professional network created to propel mothers forward in work and life” with annual dues of $350 – and hosted at Philadelphia’s swanky Fitler Club.

    After gathering outside, attendees were led through a dark, trendy restaurant whose high ceiling featured industrial-style exposed pipes, past a bar with suspended shelves full of top-shelf liquors, and into a private room, where wine, cheese, and appetizers awaited us. As I sipped and chatted, my attention was drawn to a thin, energetic woman in a red dress, who was animatedly explaining the difficulties of sourcing organic versus conventionally raised eggs at a consistent price. She joked that she is a “double minority” in the business world: a woman of Indian descent. Like me, she seemed a little skeptical of the overly polished, Instagram-filtered “mom boss” vibe of the event sponsors. She was more interested in talking about how to help her children’s neighborhood school thrive without taking over and aggressively gentrifying the community.

    When I spoke with Meenal by phone a week or so later, the thirty-six-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two was chopping vegetables, preparing dinner for her family before heading out to attend a work event that evening. At the time, I was just beginning a year-long research project on work and motherhood. I asked Meenal about how she maintains boundaries between work and family time, and she answered with characteristic bluntness, “Yeah, no. I have no boundaries.”

    The nature of Meenal’s business reflects the interconnectedness of each aspect of her life. After she became a mother, Meenal left her rewarding but travel-intensive job at a biotech startup to launch her own company, Lil Mixins. The product line was inspired by her older son’s severe food allergies. After he was diagnosed, Meenal, who studied chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, delved into the scientific literature. She was determined to understand as much as possible about how allergies develop – and how they can be prevented. Her company’s products are designed to replicate the best of those studies, making it easy for parents to systematically introduce powdered versions of allergens, thus reducing their children’s likelihood of developing serious food allergies.

    When I asked Meenal about her work schedule, she reflected that “because I’m setting it, it’s a bit more flexible, but it tends to be all the time.” When I asked her how she felt about personal and professional life being mixed together in this way, she told me that she was happy with the set-up. “I actually find it a much easier pace to work. I do better, in some ways, if stuff is happening in the background in my head. Actually, that’s the one thing I’ve always hated about working in an office: your work doesn’t really fit into set hours.” She continued, “For now, I really like the messy blend, like doing a couple hours every day on a weekend or something like that. I think it’s so much easier.”

    The Messy Blend

    There are many ways to visualize this blend of personal and professional life that has come to characterize the lives of American working moms. Some call it “the swirl,” an image that emphasizes the chaotic churn of to-do lists. Productivity guru Laura Vanderkam prefers the more peaceful and intentional metaphor of “a mosaic” built of carefully interspersed tiles.

    For Meenal, working more than full-time isn’t a problem. Her husband’s active participation in the work of parenting enables this set-up, and she roundly rejected “mom guilt” about putting her kids in daycare from a young age. In her view, scientific literature clearly demonstrates that “babies need good, attentive care,” but that mothers are not uniquely capable of providing such care. Meenal emphasized the historical anomaly of the contemporary nuclear family, calling it “overblown.” “Mothers through all of history, they might not have necessarily ‘worked outside the home,’ but they were always doing work, always cooking, cleaning, doing stuff. Somebody else was always helping anyway,” she said. “The people at the daycare are professionals, they’re literally trained in this. So I didn’t feel bad about that.”

    In this way, Meenal is rather unusual. Many working moms feel conflicted about using childcare, and they worry that their decision to work might shortchange their children. Although Meenal confidently referred to scientific literature showing no ill effects, several other moms I interviewed, including stay-at-home mom Mary Daly Korson, asserted the opposite, telling me that psychological research showed that daycare was detrimental to children’s development.

    “Mothers through all of history, they might not have necessarily ‘worked outside the home,’ but they were always doing work, always cooking, cleaning, doing stuff. Somebody else was always helping.”

    Making choices that will shape the rest of our children’s lives and determine our own sense of fulfilment can be agonizing. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the chorus of experts and loved ones who are all too eager to share their prescriptions with us. As I spoke with more and more women, however, I noticed a pattern. Even those whose lives have taken turns that they never would have anticipated, like Catholic convert Talia Reed, are able to find a sense of peace when they see their choices as having deeper meaning. The Christian idea of vocation is an especially powerful key. It gives mothers the freedom to break free of restrictive cultural scripts – whether traditional or progressive – and to find ways to develop the talents that God gave them, even as they embrace the centrality of motherhood in their lives.

    The Vocation of Motherhood

    Mary, who had three children under two and a half when we spoke, was motivated by both her Catholic faith and her family to become a stay-at-home mom. Mary has an MBA, and she used to work in commercial real estate. After having her first child, she was “essentially miserable” at work. “I just had a lot of anxiety about leaving him full-time. I felt really guilty.”

    After a few months, she was able to cut back to part-time, working in the morning and coming home to be with her son in the afternoons. Although it still wasn’t ideal, this arrangement felt more sustainable to her. Then once she had her second child, “it didn’t make financial sense for me to go back to work.” She was actually “grateful” that this was the case – it “made the decision easier for me, because I wanted to be home.”

    Mary’s vision of the ideal family life was deeply shaped by her childhood experiences. “Both my husband and I were raised in families with stay-at-home moms. So we knew that this was an arrangement that we hoped to give to our family.” Even so, she still seemed to be grappling with her choice. When I asked whether she felt that she had the support necessary to thrive as a mother, Mary interpreted “support” not in terms of logistical assistance but in terms of affirming her decision to stay home.

    In particular, Mary expressed difficulty understanding the motivations of women who share her Catholic beliefs but who themselves continue to work. “I see my kids, and I see how much they need my presence,” she explained. “What is owed to the children, you know? Even if it is just this eighteen-year season of raising them. If we want to be good parents, we need to be present to our kids.”

    I pressed Mary here, asking her directly whether she thought that, for Catholic feminists to be consistent, they would all have to be stay-at-home mothers. Although she admitted that “that’s sort of where I tend to,” she also said, “I’m trying to figure out how I can make room in in my own mind and heart for them to do something different than what I’ve done.” The tension she found most puzzling was that others would seem to experience two callings at once, one towards home and one away from it. “It just feels strange to have these people be very affirming of marriage and family life and being pro-life,” she said, “but then they feel like they have this calling away from their children.”

    To Mary, it seems clear that the vocation to be a wife and mother should take precedence over any other. Because mothers have a distinct role to play in their children’s lives, she reasons, they also have a responsibility to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to be their children’s primary caregiver. That includes sacrificing their careers.

    a little girl coloring a heart on a piece of paper

    Photograph by Kamaji Ogino

    Shifting Priorities

    Both Meenal and Mary had a clear vision of their lives as mothers before having children. Yet this constancy in aspirations does not characterize all women. After having children, many find themselves surprised at their own desires. Some who dreamed of being stay-at-home mothers find themselves longing for adult conversation and intellectual stimulation. Others are surprised at how painful it is for them to leave their infants in another’s care, and they find that the appeal of their careers pales in comparison to time spent with their children.

    Such a shift was exactly what happened for an English professor I’ll call Talia Reed, the mother of five children between ten months and thirteen years old. (Due to employment uncertainties, she asked to use a pseudonym.) As she discovered, the realities of motherhood do not always mesh well with the demands of academia. For Talia, that conflict led her to dial back her career ambitions, taking on a more traditional division of gender roles than she and her husband had initially planned.

    Talia met her husband, “Paul,” while they were both in graduate school at a highly ranked research university. They married and had their first child while finishing their dissertations, trading off baby-care duties and work time. When they went on the academic job market, Talia received three job offers on the West Coast, while her husband was offered two jobs on the East Coast. The choice seemed clear at the time: “We had gotten engaged and married with the understanding that I was always way more ambitious than he was, and that I had wanted to do this career for way longer, and was much more serious about it.” So she took her “dream job,” tenure track at a California state university, “and I loved it.”

    The university initially gave Paul a job as a lecturer. Unfortunately, because of state budget cuts, he was soon told that it was likely that he would not have a job after the first year. Talia then realized “that if we were going to have more kids, it was not practical for the person who would have to take maternity leave and to meet tenure deadlines to be me. I should not have the tenure track job. And it became clear that Paul also probably needed to have a more stable career to be happy, in a way that he didn’t fully anticipate.”

    “I did not come into the profession with any illusions about how difficult it would be for me as a woman who wanted to have a family.”

    Their joint intention of splitting parenting and work duties equally was not going the way they planned. “It just became clear that that was not workable in practice, even if theoretically we were both really invested in it. One of us was going to be the default parent. It was going to be me, as the mother.” So they made a new plan to prioritize Paul’s career while Talia was raising their children, “but that we would look to find a way for me to still have a career that I would be satisfied with, though it might not be the career I thought I wanted.”

    Talia described this shift in a practical, matter-of-fact way, without seeming regretful about what she had sacrificed for the sake of her family. But I was still curious; I wanted to understand exactly what had prompted her to give up the career she had been working toward for so many years. I probed further, asking whether she saw her choice to step back as primarily determined by her own maternal drive, or by external constraints. Both, she said. “I did not come into the profession with any illusions about how difficult it would be for me as a woman who wanted to have a family. I was lucky to have a mentor in grad school who was really clear about that as well.” While recognizing that it’s not ideal, “it just seems very matter-of-fact to me. Given these constraints, the way that these careers work, what are my options?” Notwithstanding this pragmatic attitude, Talia admitted that she did struggle with resentment for some time about her sacrifices.

    Communication, Conversion, and Discernment

    The dynamic in Talia and Paul’s relationship provides an interesting contrast to those described in sociologist Pamela Stone’s 2007 book Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. Stone found that women’s husbands nearly always said they would support whatever decision their wives wanted to make about their careers. Yet, by their actions, they made it clear that they believed that managing the tension between running a household, caring for children, and working was the mother’s job, not a joint pursuit. Because they saw their role as providing for their families by advancing in their careers, very few of them were willing to cut back at work in order to support their wives. As a result, women faced a double bind, with pressures both at work and at home quietly but firmly pushing them out of the workforce.

    In some ways, this might sound similar to Talia and Paul’s trajectory. But our conversation made it clear that the evolution they experienced together – from a highly egalitarian childcare arrangement with Talia in the lead career role to a more traditional arrangement with Talia as lead parent and Paul’s career taking center stage – occurred as the result of a very conscious set of choices that the couple discussed and made together. Talia said:

    The main piece of advice that I usually give people, young women in particular, but also men, is that they need to be really communicative with their spouses. That is the most important thing. You have to just constantly be talking with your spouse about what your priorities are for your family. And if you’re clear on that, then it can be hard to make decisions sometimes, but at least you are equipped to make them.

    For quite a few of the mothers I spoke to, the decision to step back at work and devote more time to childcare took place in the context of a religious conversion or reversion experience. In Talia’s case, after being raised in a secular household, she converted to Catholicism in graduate school. This came about in part because of her research on Holocaust literature and ethical theory. She worked closely with a Jewish studies professor who had been raised Catholic and converted to Judaism as an adult, and so was “open to the idea of conversion in general.” She recalls how “he encouraged that personal development in me alongside the kind of intellectual work I was doing.”

    Like many converts, Talia wrestled with the Catholic Church’s prohibition of contraception. Being “open to life,” she knew, would significantly impact her career. Her conversion was “a tumultuous time,” as she wrestled with “who I was going to be.” Even before she and Paul got married, she “had already made a pretty massive shift in thinking about what the possibilities might be for how family life would intersect with my career.”

    Even so, the decision to step back was a profound shift for someone who had been so ambitious and career-oriented from such an early age. It left her struggling to define her direction. “I didn’t have any example of how my life could look that didn’t seem crazy to me.” Among her neighbors, she’s the anomaly for continuing to work at all; while at work, her colleagues express shock at the number of kids she has at home. “In many ways, in different communities, I feel like I’m doing something odd.” In spite of the lack of role models, Talia and Paul have negotiated a division of household labor that works for them. They’ve arranged their teaching schedules so that they are on campus on alternating days, minimizing the amount of babysitting they need. Over the years, Talia says, her “sense of vocation has focused,” and she feels satisfied with both her career and family life.

    Building a Civilization of Love

    Meenal, Mary, and Talia disagree on many significant questions, and they each have made distinct choices, building lives founded on their personal convictions. Yet, by becoming mothers, they have all undergone the same deeply transformative experience.

    Conceiving and bearing a child demands that women be almost unfathomably receptive to the being of another, participating in the creation of a new person inside our own bodies and enduring the discomfort, pain, and danger necessary to bring that child into the world. Motherhood pulls us out of ourselves. Through our emotional and physical connection with our children, mothers become habituated to the practice of constantly and intuitively monitoring and responding to the needs of another person. And, of course, we love our children with a depth and fierceness that has the capacity to transform us in radical ways.

    “I see my kids, and I see how much they need my presence. What is owed to the children?”

    In spite of – or, more accurately, because oftheir differences, by integrating their motherhood with their professional vocations, mothers can influence all arenas of life. This might look like taking time off to focus on “building cathedrals” at home, as Mary has. Or it might look like the entrepreneurship of Meenal, who expressed her frustration at the lack of female “angel investors” to support start-ups whose products are aimed at mothers and their children. She took initiative anyway, fighting to make her product a reality. Danielle Davies, another entrepreneur I met at the Mama Mentors event, who is the co-founder of an organization called Moms Running, believes that we need more mothers involved in politics, too. Her group’s mission is to supports mothers as they run for public office, providing training and practical advice for both their personal and professional vocations.

    Even Pope John Paul II seemed to agree, writing in 1995 that

    Women will increasingly play a part in the solution of the serious problems of the future: leisure time, the quality of life, migration, social services, euthanasia, drugs, health care, the ecology, etc. In all these areas a greater presence of women in society will prove most valuable, for it will help to manifest the contradictions present when society is organized solely according to the criteria of efficiency and productivity, and it will force systems to be redesigned in a way which favors the processes of humanization which mark the “civilization of love.”

    There is undeniably a tension between professional ambition and selfless maternal love. But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps, instead, it’s an opportunity for both personal growth and cultural renewal – especially if, as we grapple with that tension, we strive first and foremost to live out the unique vocation that God has given us.

    Contributed By SerenaSigillito Serena Sigillito

    Serena Sigillito is the editor of Public Discourse, the journal of the Witherspoon Institute.

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