One of the big arguments our culture makes against motherhood, especially stay-at-home motherhood, is that it robs women of their freedom.
I’ve never thought that was true, but I couldn’t figure out how to argue against it. I mean, it does sound reasonable that if you’re staying at home raising kids, there are a lot of other things that you can’t do. Like working all day, or taking off for weeks at a time to climb mountains in Peru. And if you can’t do those things, you don’t have as much freedom as, say, a single woman does. Kids, and the responsibilities that come with them, hold you back from doing what you want and, therefore, from becoming your true, “free” self. Right?
Turns out, that’s not actually how it works.
I just finished the book Following Jesus Every Day, by Cristoph Cardinal Schoenborn, and his second chapter is titled, “True Freedom in Christ.” It’s a great chapter, and I’m not going to be able to do it justice here. He explains everything I never could about the difference between actual freedom and what we, here in 21st century America, think it is. While he isn’t writing specifically about stay-at-home moms, his book helped me understand how stay-at-home motherhood actually fits perfectly into the true definition of freedom.
Here are some of Schoenborn’s main points, along with how I think what he says applies to motherhood.
- Freedom is a gift from God. Since freedom is a gift, and we are the recipients of that gift, we are all dependent on God for our freedom. Our culture, on the other hand, tells us that to be truly free is to be totally independent. Women can’t depend on men for financial support, for example, or to help them raise children, or they aren’t truly free. What we fail to realize is that we are all dependent by our very nature. As Schoenborn says, “We are all creatures, and God has given us everything: our existence, our life, and our freedom.” So, being free and being independent are not actually the same thing.
- Even if you don’t acknowledge God as creator, there is one person that you are inescapably bound to – yourself. You are bound to your nature, your personality, your physical body. You are not free to turn into someone or something else. We have control over some aspects of our nature, like how well we can play the piano, or how truthful we are, but some things can’t be changed (at least, not without some very damaging consequences). Our culture has tried to deny this as well, telling us that women can become men, if they want to. Or we can be free from our femininity in another way, by controlling our fertility. Contraception and assisted reproductive technology give us the “freedom” to have children on our own terms. We can have sex without men, sex without marriage, marriage without children, children without marriage, and children without sex. We want the freedom to be women and mothers when it suits us, regardless of what God, our husband, or our body tell us. But what are the consequences? Among Christians that I know, issues of sexuality – homosexuality, transgenderism, contraception, abortion, and reproductive technology – are probably the most hotly debated. Many disdain the Catholic Church’s stance on these issues as outdated, repressive, and oppressive. I think that we have trouble believing that God and the Church truly want the best of us – for us to be as free and as happy as we possibly can be. As Schoenborn says, “This brings us to the difficulty that lies deepest in our hearts when we think about freedom, namely, the suspicion that I will renounce my freedom if I obey God, the suspicion that God does not really want me to be free. This suspicion is one of the fruits of the fall. But the experience of the saints says something different: we become free when we trust God and his will and allow ourselves to be led completely by him.” I think that as women, we have to have to be aware that our culture wants to strip us of our feminity and our motherhood under the guise of “freeing us,” but that this is a lie. These are not burdens or obstacles – they are the very means he is using to make us truly free.
- According to Shoenborn, “The more we bind ourselves, the freer we are.” He gives the example of St. Theresa of Calcutta, who made herself “totally available to serve God and the poor.” Her whole existence was in service to others. It would seem to most of us that she had no freedom at all, right? But “innumerable people who met Mother Theresa saw her as a wonderfully free person.” How can someone be so bound by obligations, yet seem so free? Shoenborn says it’s because the more we give ourselves to God and to his will, the greater our freedom will be. Mother Theresa was free because she gave herself totally to God, who asked her to serve the poor. Our modern society views children as a burden that mothers should rightfully seek to get rid of – before they’re born, through contraception and abortion, and after they’re born, by finding others to care for them (daycare, school, grandparents), or by simply ignoring them. The idea that a woman would want to be bound to such creatures is ridiculed and dismissed as pathetically old-fashioned. But just as God called Mother Theresa to serve the poor, he calls all wives and mothers to serve their families. And not just to serve them with their leftover time and energy, but to serve them in the same total and selfless way that Mother Theresa served the poor. And, in doing so, we will become free.
- “There is no true freedom except in service of what is good and just.” In other words, we are free to choose good or evil, but we are only really free when we choose good. To choose evil is to enter into what Schoenborn, the Bible, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church refer to as “the slavery of sin.” Schoenborn gives an example that I think is relevant to mothers: that of an adulterer. I can freely choose to abandon my family and run off with another man (and many feminists would applaud me for doing so). But how free would I be I after I made that choice? I wouldn’t be free to spend all day with my kids or live in the same house with them. I wouldn’t be free from the guilt of knowing that I hurt them, and my husband, and our extended families. By choosing evil, we limit our freedom. Always. As Schoenborn says, “freedom of choice is not yet definitive freedom. As long as it is still possible for me to fall away by choosing what is evil, I am not yet safely established in what is good. As long as I have not yet definitively ‘lowered my anchor’ in God, my freedom is not yet perfect.” Now, I’m not trying to compare being an adulterer to being a working mom, and I don’t think that choosing to be a working mom is evil. Sometimes, it’s just plain necessary. But I do think that if you can choose to be a stay-at-home mom, then that choice is going to lead you closer to true freedom (and to God) than choosing to work.
The last point that Schoenborn makes in this chapter is that unless we go where Christ is leading us, we aren’t really free. He sums it all up by saying, “This is why we believe that we can truly set out on the path of freedom only when Christ takes us by the hand. Christ has called us to freedom, and he has set us free.” My desire for everyone reading this post is that, when our kids are grown, we can look back at their childhood and confidently say that we were going where Christ led us.