More on the Working/Stay-at-Home Mom Thing

This is a follow-up to my post from last week about the importance of women being in the workforce in order to effect change, and the equally compelling vision of a less-career focused, more family- and community-oriented role for both women and men. There were some good comments there too---check them out. Disclaimer: I realize that for many people, there is no choice but to work. That can't be forgotten in this. If you even have a choice to work or not work, that is in many ways a privileged position. Anyway.

This stuff is so complicated. I think what's hard about this is that there are general ideals and there are specific cases.

Here's some general stuff, clothed in specifics: I work in a male-dominated field. I gain a whole lot of strength from my female colleagues. And without a critical mass of us, it's going to continue to be a male-dominated field. The stereotype of the man in his late 30s with the wife and adorable children will continue to be the platonic ideal of the desirable pastor, without sheer numbers of people demonstrating a different way. We need women and their prodigious gifts for ministry. We need the ones who agitate and advocate. And we need the ones who catch flies with honey.

Linda Hirshman got totally raked over the coals for her Get to Work stuff, and I don't remotely agree with everything she said. But she deserves at least some credit for suggesting that our decision to work or not work has a collective dimension to it. Yes, it's a private decision, but it has public and societal consequences, assuming you believe, as I do, that corporate boardrooms and halls of Congress should look something like the society at large. And assuming you believe, as I do, that a woman who sets aside career for several years is going to have a much longer slog to get to those boardrooms and halls.

I don't like slippery slopes and this comes dangerously close, but what the heck: Imagine---what if every woman opted out? Would the world be a better place? Would the workplace be more family friendly? Would the laws of the land reflect the perspectives of women? (And yes, I know men can opt out too, and there are a lot more men staying at home with kids than ever before, but the fact is it's still mostly the women taking time off for childrearing.)

There is a collective dimension to this. Honestly? Part of what keeps me in ministry is a sense of responsibility towards other women in ministry, both now and in the future. Several years ago I became the unofficial expert on maternity leave policies for the PC(USA). Word got out somehow that I had collected stats and example policies from around the denomination. Women I didn't even know started e-mailing me for information, asking me how they might advocate for themselves, and so forth. And many of those contacts have continued as we all struggle to do that dance of ministry and motherhood in all its joys and frustrations. It's one of those peripheral things I love about being a pastor---the crazy camaraderie.

So that's the general.

But the specific is vitally important to acknowledge too: It is a personal decision. And every situation is different. Some people feel called to paid work outside the home; some feel called to full-time child-rearing/volunteerism/community building. And circumstance is everything. Is there a good support system? What are the spouse's gifts and work situation? I said that I stay in ministry partly out of a sense of responsibility, but I'm also fortunate that we have a situation that works such that my kids don't suffer for it. In fact I think their life is often enriched by my vocation. (Not always, I must admit.) I really, really love being a pastor and feel like I was put on this earth to preach. But sure, there is a tipping point beyond which even I would leave ministry.

I've been corresponding with a friend who's taking time off from teaching to be with her kids ages 8 and under. She was kind enough to share her thought process on all that, and I'd be hard-pressed to find a flaw in her logic to stay home. Makes perfect sense. Likewise I have several talented friends, seminary colleagues, who are taking time off from paid parish ministry while their kids are young (and maybe beyond that, I'm not sure). Again, it seems to make sense given the circumstances.

But now, I think, we circle back to the general. Most women who leave the workforce for several years are not going to jump back in at the same pay scale and position as their colleagues who never left. I used to say "You can have it all, just not all at the same time." I now say, "You can't have it all, but you can have different things at different times." Not exactly a rallying cry for female empowerment, eh? But accurate in my experience. Our lives are not infinite and every yes is also a no. The decision not to work for several years has economic consequences, and not just during those years. Perhaps there are some fields where you jump back in easily. But in many fields, the decision not to work has consequences that ripple out for untold years into the future. (Boy, I hope that's not news to anyone.)

But again, to what extent does that matter? For many people, the positives of being home with children far outweigh the downsides. You can't put a price on the added flexibility for volunteerism, exercise, hobbies, etc.

And the truth is, I identify with both "sides" of this, because I work part-time. I might write some about that but I'm curious what you think.