” Kirk, kids and the kitchen” is the quite serious reply of a good number of Christian-professing men. The Christian answer itself, though, is somewhat more developed than that….
There is perhaps no topic that, at the grassroots level, is more hotly contested in Tradition than the role of women. There are two things, I think, that make the debate on the subject as acute as it is: first it impacts directly on the Traditional faithful, unlike issues such as Modernism and the liturgical reform. Traditional Catholics do not go to the New Mass for example, it is not an issue for them. What is and isn’t the role of a Catholic woman is, however, something that has immediate practical consequences.
But more important is the fact – which this article is written to demonstrate – that the role of the Catholic wife and mother, like the role of the Catholic husband and father, has been deformed by the conditions of the modern world. A Catholic family today lives in conditions that are subtly but profoundly inimical to the family state. Barring a few exceptions, it is not possible to live a Catholic family life as it was lived, say, two or three hundred years ago. That does not mean that it is impossible to hold the essential together: what it does mean is that one must take account of the conditions in which today spouses of good will find themselves.
Since human nature and human needs do not change, one recognises instinctively that there has been a deformation and balks at it, even if it is not clear in one’s mind just what the problem is.
So, what is it that is inimical to modern married life?
Marriage is a partnership that revolves around two primary ends: the engendering and rearing of children, and the mutual support and complementing of the spouses. In the past there was no argument about how these ends were to be accomplished. Both man and woman took a hand, though in somewhat different ways, in the rearing of the children. This activity – parallel yet different for the two spouses -cemented the mutual respect and dependence they had towards each other. With the blessing of sacramental grace, such a marriage was a rock-solid entity that did not need to be discussed or debated.
In the world we live in today both ends have been undermined by industrialisation.
Incidentally, it is worth taking a look at the valiant woman of Proverbs 31 to see how society has changed since that time.
In the first place it gives an image of the ideal wife, not just a description of a particularly capable woman. In the second place, none of the occupations described in any way detracted from her primary duty of administering to her husband and children. Nothing, most importantly, took her away from the home of which she is the irreplaceable heart.
The problem is aggravated by the fact that most men can no longer fulfil their charge of husband and father in the way nature meant them to. To talk about men being natured to leadership makes sense most obviously in the domestic foyer. It is true to say that at home a man has more natural authority than a woman. Children will respect and obey their father more easily than their mother. Women know this, and instinctively feel the need for the authoritative backup of their husbands in the managing of the children. And the whole problem today is that for the greater part of the active day the husband is not around to provide that backup. His work, which originally was done at or near his home, now takes him miles, even dozens of miles, away from it. Not having being required to fulfil the job of lawmaker in the house for the greater part of his day, most men shirk it when they get home tired in the evening. The woman finds herself obliged to take on the job of father as well as mother and, naturally, resents it the more so as her inadequacies for a double role become increasingly obvious as the children grow older. Fr. Paul Wickens, in his Handbook for Parents, describes it very well:
“A mother takes on 95% of the responsibility -in making decisions and disciplining the children. The father, who is a dutiful breadwinner, more or less stays in the background. He follows his natural likes and moods. He does spend a limited amount of time playing with the children, but. he generally lets his wife assume authority. ‘Ask your mother’, is his usual response to difficult questions from the kids. ‘After all,’ he thinks, ‘your mother is better at these things than I am.’
Over the early years of their marriage the system seems to work well: but one fateful day, the teenager becomes stubborn and unmanageable. The wife turns exasperatedly to her husband:
‘Why don’t you say something?’
But how can he? He hasn’t said anything for the last fifteen years!”
Faced with a modus vivendi that is so undermining of the cohesion of marriage and family life, what should a married Catholic couple do?
On the practical front, there are several things one can do. If it is at all possible for a man to find employment that can be done at home then he would be well-advised to seize it with both hands. We live in a machine age, but one advantage of progress is that the machines are getting smaller and cheaper. There is a “steadily growing number of trades that do not require a mass of workers and huge factory buildings in order to deliver the finished product. Printing is one example, car mechanics is another, anything connected with computers (like book and magazine layouts and accountancy) is a third. There are many more.
But for most men employment still means being away from home during the day. In that case the man must realise that he is not absolved from his duty of raising his children simply because he cannot see to it during his working hours. He is the disciplinarian of the family and when in the home, during the evenings and especially over the weekends, he must fulfil that responsibility. If the father backs up the mother when he is at home, the children will be more disposed to obey and respect her when he is absent.
The woman, for her part, needs to realise she has to be at home, at least at the times when the children are there. A woman is temperamentally more suited to handling the little ones than a man: her psychology is naturally better and her understanding of their needs more complete than a man’s. This necessity is greater now than in the past: children depend on their parents and need the security of the presence of at least one of them, which today must be the mother since the father, by and large, cannot supply it.
Bearing all this in mind, there are still things a woman could do that could lessen the financial burden of her husband. For example, a professional teacher cannot home educate a family’s children but a capable mother certainly can, at least for the junior school years, and that, amongst many other advantages, will save the father a small fortune in school fees. If a mother can make her children’s clothes that will save another small fortune. And there are many other examples. It is for women to use their initiative and imagination to see what, within the constraints of her primary duty, may be done. The example of Mrs. Jellyby from Dickens’ Bleak House shows the disastrous effects if the mother of the family gets too involved in her work (in the novel it is helping the poor on the African missions – today it might be anything from e-commerce to homeopathy). Poor Mrs. Jellyby cannot see that, though her work is good and even useful to mankind as a whole, it is being done at the expense of her own family who are living in the most terrible neglect. Helping out hubby financially is fine but it cannot be done at the expense of the first obligation which is to educate children.
To conclude, however, it can be seen that the problem of the role of the woman in today’s society is not simply a crisis of femininity but part of a more complex and far reaching crisis of society, including of course the role of the man. Both sides of the problem need to be examined before a definitive solution can be found.