The paycheck — that plucky, stubbed, cashable contribution to a family’s daily sustenance — has become a problem to every adult woman. It’s a challenge to earn it, and it’s a challenge to live without it. This reality can pervade and put pressure on even faithful marriages, where husband and wife have discussed their priorities and reached a conclusion (or so they thought) regarding the division of labor within their family.
Why does the paycheck haunt even bright, aware, willing women of faith? Because it is a classic “model of male domination” adopted by founding feminist Betty Friedan as the primary measure for assessing female “equality.” As Friedan so frankly prescribes in her equality-means-sameness treatise, The Feminine Mystique, “Equality and human dignity are not possible for women if they are not able to earn.” Many of us women were raised and educated into this often unspoken expectation. And whether they admit it or not, many men innately share Freidan’s enthusiasm for measuring worth and value with dollar signs, whether they are competing with male or female colleagues.
The pesky paycheck plagues mothers in two ways. First, there are the women who have left a job or given up professional advancement to stay home; most often, these women who have made domestic demands their priority do not produce a paycheck for deposit to the family funds. On the flipside, there are the working moms who juggle job, kids, and family as they stay on the professional track and contribute to the family’s balance sheet. In both instances, Catholic women can find themselves strained, confused, and exhausted, stuck in a conflict that husbands can sometimes aggravate unknowingly.
Take my own path, for example. I’ve made $150,000 a year as a litigating attorney (my “paid” work), money that my husband and I came to rely upon to fund a costly urban lifestyle complete with childcare, private schools, and frequent travel to connect with our families. But at the other end of the scale, I’ve made $0 a year as a fulltime, stay-at-home mother, wife, chauffeur, shopper, cook, hostess, and chief administrator with full responsibility for the physical and emotional maintenance of five to eight people (my “unpaid” work). For all of two years, I combined the paid work with the unpaid work and nearly killed myself.
This was not my husband’s fault; assigning blame doesn’t solve the paycheck problem. During my two years doing two fulltime jobs, I felt miserable that I could not multitask more gracefully and effectively. I begged God to help me sleep less, trust more, and keep up the pace. My husband and I valued being able to live in San Francisco and to witness our faith in an often hostile, secular environment. We valued having our children learn the complexities of faithful living in modern culture. I felt ashamed that I so often felt irritable, tired, and torn between competing priorities. Eventually, I ran out of steam, exhausted my husband’s patience, and hit the brutal wall of reality: I could not maintain the schedule necessary to meet my commitments to my employer, clients, husband, children, and extended families.
I had to confront the hard questions: Which vocational pursuit was more “valuable”? Which more “worthy”? Which more fully reflected my “success”? Where did God want me? And why, why, why was the process of sorting and prioritizing to reach fulfillment so difficult?
The primary problem in my discernment process was, candidly, that monthly check that spoke my success to me, my family, and the world. My paid work caused my husband to boast, “She can rip your heart out before you know it — and she gets paid to do it.” Even if we didn’t need a dime of my income, that paycheck signified my successful participation in the real world of adults. Letting that go, I knew, would throw me into a domestic world without power lunches, promotions, or end-of-year bonuses — a world so foreign to my husband that he could earnestly wonder aloud, “Yes, but what will you do all day?”
Husbands can be like this even when they truly admire and respect their wives. This isn’t really their fault, either: Radical feminism has often subtly (but sometimes overtly) encouraged men to, as Germain Greer puts it in The Whole Woman, take “the male status quo as the condition to which [to] aspire.” The result, unfortunately, has made odd fellow travelers of radical feminists and modern men who carelessly, even if unintentionally, devalue the work of their wives through the prism of their own value structures.
The resulting put-downs work in insidious ways. There are the good and faithful men who nevertheless remind their devoted wives that they could and should deliver “real value” to the family by producing income from their work. It’s an innocent enough perspective that unsuspectingly peeps through in, for instance, my husband’s occasional remarks — like, “Marjorie used to work,” or, “Marjorie’s not a natural mother like she was a natural litigator.” He never makes these comments with a mean or unkind spirit — simply from a place where masculine values of work are considered the norm.
The value of my “unpaid work” has, of course, been ferociously under attack for decades now, forcing women into models of self-assessment that feel foreign, debasing, and undignified. Even secular feminists have to acknowledge the dissonance women suffer in trying to adapt to a paradigm that, at best, ill fits their natures. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese writes in Women in Christ:
Secular feminism has uncritically embraced the dominant male version of success and insisted that women have an equal right to reap its fruits [which include] attributes and policies they otherwise deplore: brutal competition, the quest for domination, exploitation of the planet and its resources as well as of people, and more.
There is an effective pushback to this paycheck pressure: prayer. It takes prayer to patiently and honestly answer the question, “What do you do for a living?” It takes prayer to school one’s soul in devotion to God and turn aside from the prides of earthly success. It takes Christ-centric fervor to see the divine in dirty diapers, split lips, and bad report cards — and to set sensible boundaries on commitments so that all these things get effective, loving care. It takes the intervention of St. Joseph himself to lovingly coax some of the best husbands into a deep and full appreciation of the feminine. But we, as New Feminists, are equipped to live and model this path, the way of the feminine in God’s glorious design.