What happens when both parents work outside the home?

The American culture has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, including society’s habits relating to work, marriage and family life. The cultural changes are documented in a recent Pew Research Center study titled “Breadwinner Moms.”

The study finds that 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family — up from 11 percent in 1960. The study divides these “breadwinner moms” into two distinct groups: 5.1 million (37 percent) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, while 8.6 million (63 percent) are single mothers.

While the issue of single mothers is a major challenge for the culture and the Church, that is a topic for another time. The purpose of this article is to consider how the increased participation of married mothers in the workplace impacts family life. I also want to encourage husbands and wives, and those preparing for marriage, to discuss how they can best make decisions that will lead to strong marriages and family life.

Let me say from the outset that this article isn’t about the role or rights of women in the workplace. I’m glad to live in a country that allows everyone the opportunity to develop their talents, apply those talents and be justly compensated for their use. With that said, to the extent that two-income households continue to increase, it’s reasonable to ask whether spouses and parents have enough time to focus on building their relationship and raising faith-filled children.

It’s interesting that the study shows Americans are torn on the subject of mothers in the workplace. On the one hand, two-thirds of respondents say “it has made it easier for families to live comfortably.” On the other hand, “Three-quarters of adults say the increasing number of women working for pay has made it harder for parents to raise children, and half say that it has made marriages harder to succeed.” It’s also interesting that about half the study’s respondents said that “children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job,” while just 8 percent say the same about a father.

While we don’t want to admit it, Americans seem to have an inherent sense that we can’t have it all — that marriage and the raising of children require more time and energy than can generally be provided when work and career require so much from both spouses. What does this mean for Catholic families and young adults as they prepare for marriage? The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides clarity on the purpose of marriage: “The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator. By its very nature it is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children. Christ the Lord raised marriage between the baptized to the dignity of a sacrament” (No. 1660).

The culture is making it more challenging to live out Catholic family life on many fronts. This includes economic pressures that lead to two-income households and smaller family sizes, and the fact that parents who send their children to parochial schools have to pay twice for educating their children (the first is via taxes for public schools). It’s important to recognize that no one-size-fits-all situations. I understand there are many situations where both spouses need to work to meet the family’s needs. And remember, the Church holds up the example of St. Gianna Molla, who was a physician and a mother. With that said, we shouldn’t lose sight of the need to reserve sufficient time and energy for the home front, especially during the child-rearing years.

What’s a Catholic to do who wants to be able to make a greater commitment on the home front? Young adults should be factoring in the need to generate a solid wage if they want to be in a position to have a spouse either stay home with the children, or at least be able to limit working hours to what is good for the marriage and children. Spouses need to do a more effective job of prioritizing the use of their resources, and be willing to live a more modest lifestyle in order to make the home front a priority, including the formation and education of their children. Finally, the Church (including all of the faithful) needs to be more creative and effective in creating paths that allow parents to provide an authentic Catholic education to their children — including the cost of college.

Phil Lenahan is the president of Veritas Financial Ministries (VeritasFinancialMinistries.com) and the author of “7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free” (OSV, $19.95). Submit questions for columns to askphil@osv.com.