Can mothers have it all in happy harmony? No, and it’s not just a matter of time

3 Oct

Political Scientist Elizabeth Corey assesses the question, “Can mothers in modern society have it all?” Her answer? Honestly, no. There can hardly be anything like a “happy harmony” between career and motherhood. And it’s not just a matter of balancing work and parenting, being a better multitasker.  There is a qualitative difference between those two pursuits.  Here’s an excerpt from essay:

Parenting requires ignoring for a time the individual quest for self-perfection and excellence and focusing instead on the needs of another person. This can be done only in what Pieper calls “leisure.” He does not mean inactivity or the absence of responsibility but the setting aside of goals, which is the condition of attention and activity that isn’t striving. In leisure we are available, disponible, which is why Pieper uses the term as a synonym for contemplation.

Leisure in this fuller sense is not part of the lives of modern feminist writers. By their own admission, they are consumed with a quest for individual betterment, for greater efficiency, and for time-saving strategies in daily life, going so far as to recommend better techniques for punching the numbers on a ­microwave oven. They frankly confess that they wish to be consummate achievers in the workplace as well as in their personal lives, as they train for marathons and eat healthfully to avoid gaining weight in middle age. They reap the rewards of all this focused work: promotion, money, attractiveness, and, most important of all, honor and recognition, much of it well deserved. They then expect to transfer this mentality and the same kind of pursuit of excellence directly into motherhood and childrearing.

But, if I am right, these two endeavors require different orientations of the self, and we simply cannot approach marriage and family in the spirit of achievement at all. If we try to do so, we will find ourselves frustrated and conflicted. For well-behaved or smart children are not markers of our success; children are ends in themselves, to be loved and cared for as individuals. They need from us something other than our talents; they need us, full stop.

Most women see this difference, at least to some degree. Caring for children takes place, for the most part, in private. There is no payment. Most of the time there is no audience. There are no promotions and few thanks. We often talk of trying to be a good parent, and rightly so, but it’s not an achievement, at least not in the same way that being a good pianist is an achievement. It is a kind of self-giving different from self-culture. The mode of being demanded by children isn’t of the sort that allows mothers (or fathers, for that matter) to engage in the self-culture that’s such an important part of any sustained pursuit of excellence.

And what do the children themselves desire? They want patience, calm, and the full attention of their mothers, which are exact opposites of what the hectic pace of professional work often requires. Children do not want a parent who is physically present but multitasking; they want that parent to look at them and listen to what they have to say. They want attention as they swim, draw, or play the piano. This requires Pieper’s leisure, a categorically different kind of focused activity that is not in the service of achievement. The sorts of endeavors that allow us to use and develop our God-given talents are very different from caring for the children God has given us.

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