Last week I wrote about Anne-Marie’s Slaughter’s piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In this post, I attempted to highlight the problematic gender assumptions undergirding Slaughter’s argument, the most important one being the uncritical claim that women qua women feel a strong, natural, “maternal” imperative to think about the family/work balance differently, and better, than men naturally do.

I also said, however, that Slaughter’s argument was a bit confused, a kind of “bait and switch.” By this claim I meant that the article starts out seeming to be about women-mothers in the workforce, but then it ends up being a much more interesting call to reform both our attitudes about the demands of work as well as the expectations structuring work spaces and schedules. This call applies to both men and women (which Slaughter makes sure to say about half the time, when she is not busy the rest of the time saying that these issues are somehow particular to women).

I want to think about her calls for structural reform of work spaces in their own right, and then I want to transpose these suggestions into the context of the Catholic theological academy and ask some open questions which I and many others have been entertaining. I suspect that there are certain issues of work/family balance and how lay Catholic theologians should (or should not) include their families in how they self-identify professionally, and I would like to talk about that.

Regarding Slaughter’s claims in their own right, she offers many concrete examples of what reforming the work/family balance could mean. For one, she thinks that the relentless call of “Always Be Working,” namely, by staying in the office until all hours of the night, may certainly present the appearance of hyper-productivity, but this ethos is ultimately one of diminishing returns: people who burn themselves out in this fashion have reduced efficiency. It would therefore behoove us, argues Slaughter, to make time in our schedules to be at home with our families. We can work fewer hours but at a greater level of productivity.

Concomitantly, with ginormous advances in technology, we can begin to move some work into the domestic realm (by doing conference calls over Skype, by writing up reports at home, etc.), so that people can at least be in the vicinity of their children and partners when need be. The imperative to be at the office at all times is not as necessary as it may once have been. I’m not sure how much more “family time” can really come from people bringing their work home with them via technology, but I do get her point, especially if doing so reduces actual hours spent at the office.

As an academic, I have the least familiarity with these kinds of claims about reforming the structures of the professional workplace. For now, anyway, I get to determine my own schedule for the most part (which does not mean not working…Lord knows how I work), so I am genuinely curious about what people think of her suggestions for de-centralizing the office and curbing work hours. Thoughts, anybody?

Anyway. In turn, and this is what really interests me vis-à-vis the Catholic theological academy, Slaughter suggests that our identities as people with families (well, you know, for people who actually have families…) should be highlighted and brought to bear within the work realm, and that people who prioritize their families in an obvious way should be valued and rewarded professionally:

Why should we want leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities? Perhaps leaders who invested time in their own families would be more keenly aware of the toll their public choices — on issues from war to welfare — take on private lives…//…Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them.

Slaughter put this point into practice, for example, by insisting that everybody in her professional circle know about her children:

When I became dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, in 2002, I decided that one of the advantages of being a woman in power was that I could help change the norms by deliberately talking about my children and my desire to have a balanced life…// Ten years later [w]henever I am introduced at a lecture or other speaking engagement, I insist that the person introducing me mention that I have two sons. It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me–and takes an enormous amount of my time…But I notice that my male introducers are typically uncomfortable when I make the request. They frequently say things like ‘And she particularly wanted me to mention that she has two sons’ –thereby drawing attention to the unusual nature of my request, when my entire purpose is to make family references routine and normal in professional life.

I understand why Slaughter insists on doing this in her own context, namely, one in which people are supposed to be hyper-efficient robotic (masculine?) drones, and it would be interesting if both men and women in equal measure would contemplate these suggestions for a more family-friendly self-identification in the professional sphere.

However, when applied within the context of the Catholic academy, these suggestions might end up reinforcing certain problems. One commenter on last week’s post, Kate Ward, puts it well:

In general, I get why you would want to make it clear that your family is just as important to who you are, just as much a part of who you are, as your job. But in Catholic theology, your family structure could be read as legitimizing or delegitimizing your work. I’m not thrilled about the idea that somebody might grant me more cred if I worked on marriage or family ethics because I am married, and what’s worse is that single folks or those in same-sex partnerships don’t always have the same freedom to assert their own pride in their choices.

It makes sense that we actually want people “in the know” doing theology in relation to issues of marriage and sexuality. (Read: people in the know = lay people, not just priests or religious.) With the rise of lay voices in Catholic theology after Vatican II (woot woot), there has been an important emphasis on uncovering the dignity of marriage and family as something special and distinct from the ministerial priesthood and the religious life. I get that. And in a way I get the push to have one’s family represented as a prominent part of one’s scholarly identity, especially in professional settings (and lately I have seen a few people make a point of mentioning their children before they give a talk, for example).

But, at the same time, Kate raises a really significant point: given that the Church doesn’t actually seem to have an official notion of a vocation to lay singleness, and given that the Church doesn’t recognize same-sex unions, does the contemporary push toward self-identifying in a very family-oriented way in a scholarly setting ultimately allow only straight married people (preferably with kids) to speak authoritatively about certain things? And if people are doing such family-oriented self-identification in an academic setting, what is being communicated by such an act? Does such an act seem generally to suggest to the broader theological audience that having a family significantly shapes the scholarship that one does for the better? I think that’s what somebody like Slaughter would want to say, and I think that idea dovetails with a post-Vatican II appreciation for lay family life.

However, it seems to me that such a practice, if done without some critical examination, may end up serving to exclude many lay voices that are already excluded by the Church’s official positions on marriage. If we’re supposed to include our personal/family lives in our self-identitication as Catholic lay theologians now, but some people’s personal life choices and relationships (to be single, to be in a committed same-sex partnership) are devalued by the Church, then does this emphasis on integrating work and family ultimately end up undermining the voices of single and/or LGBTQ theologians even more, not only on issues of sexuality but also more broadly? Sometimes I think the split between the public and the private has an important place given the current state of things. What do people think of this? It is something I am pondering, so any additional diagnostic and/or constructive comments would be appreciated.

10 thoughts

  1. My experience has mostly been that to study and to be involved in theology means that I should be a full time academic; rich enough not to work even if I have a family; or a retired person who is still interested enough to want to study.
    As I am none of these and a woman to boot there seems to be a very limited place for me to have any voice in the church.
    When I studied for my degree as a mature student with family and two jobs I had to accept that I measured well down on the ‘to be taken seriously’ scale. The situation seems to be that this is almost always the case in church.

  2. Another angle to consider: what do the children need? Is it actually good for children of people with leadership positions in the church to be displayed prominently? I’m a priest’s kid, and though my father was also a PK (and thus made every effort to keep pressure off me) I certainly felt when I was growing up that my congregation had very definite expectations of my spiritual life. There’s a reason I joined the church with 5000 members all the way downtown rather than the one with 200 members 4 blocks from me.

  3. In the MDiv, we talked a lot about the struggle of the public/private divide in ministry, and how to both include and separate your family from your work. From a ministerial perspective, there’s something to be said for offering visible models for discipleship from within a family unit (this of course presumes that the family unit is more or less healthy and functioning, a presumption it is not always safe to make, even for ministers). I respond pretty positively to the idea of allowing family to be visible for academics, primarily because I believe our theology is so heavily influenced by social location, that I think it might help our theology be understood if we were up front about that very social location.

    That being said, the problems mentioned in the comments on the previous post about reinscribing the hegemony of heteronormative nuclear families is real, and I don’t have an answer for that. It could be partially remedied, perhaps, if we didn’t just talk about “family,” but community in general? It wouldn’t just be about a spouse and kids, but what if we brought intentional communities (the Catholic Worker, L’Arche) and other caregiving relationships (caring for elderly parents, or family members –nuclear and beyond — with a different ability status) to the forefront? This is only a partial solution, and would require a fine line between honesty about and exploitation of those relationships.

    Still, my general impulse is to say that nothing gets fixed if we don’t at least talk about it. If we don’t start having more conversations in the academy about the impact of work-life balance (regardless of your family or community situation), we’ll continue to run ourselves ragged. If we continue to require people with community relationships that differ from the norm to hide those very relationships, that will only perpetuate false and problematic misconceptions. I would not, however, ever, ever want to require that someone disclose information about their lives that makes them uncomfortable. In the end, this might have to be something each person figures out for themselves.

  4. Hi Elizabeth, as always, well written and fun to read. Thank you, thank you. I’ve been mulling over the phrases “have it all” and “work life balance” a lot in light of your pieces and further Slaughter-initiated conversations, and I wanted to add something in agreement.

    I began to ask myself in light of these conversations what I think it means for me to “have it all.” What is my “all”; how might I “have it”? In reflecting I found that there have been moments in my life when, overwhelmed, I truly felt like I had it all. Nothing could have been added to make me feel more whole or more joyous. Some of these moments fit into an RCC norm, some don’t. None of these were moments when I looked down at a work/life checklist and saw all the boxes marked. These were moments of commitment realized, of love tangible and the utter openness of real peace.

    Kate really hit it on the head when she wrote that, “single folks or those in same-sex partnerships don’t always have the same freedom to assert their own pride in their choices.” I want to agree by reframing that as the suggestion that if someone does have pride in their choices, they DO have it all, regardless of what a socially constructed check list of “its” and “alls” may suggest. And it is difficult for women to maintain and strive for their it, whatever “it” is, in a male-dominated work-culture. Many of my gay and single female colleagues across disciplines may not have the same life-accoutrement Slaughter can add to her academic introductions, but they do have it all, what they have enriches and complexifies their ability to do their work in the same way that having two sons enriches and complexifies Slaughter’s ability to do her work, and they have similar struggles with maintaining and striving for what is it important to them because they are women in a patriarchal culture.

    For me, for now, I agree with Elizabeth that we should keep talking about it, and keep listening to each other. We need to listen to what “having it all” *is* in the lives and theologies of our female colleagues and communities. Only when we appreciate the diversity of what “it all” means in different lives can we begin to work toward a real work/life balances.

  5. I should add that I mean talking about it with each other, privately. I think when one talks about her family life as a work qualification and happens to have what is prescribed by the RCC, it ends up inscribing the violence of that normativity as a work necessity.

    1. Brianne, this is well put. We didn’t create the culture that led to certain lifestyles being privileged, but we can avoid foregrounding our privilege if we have it (in this case, anyway.) I also agree with Megan’s point below that scholarship shouldn’t be judged by one’s lifestyle “qualifications” on the topic, and not broadcasting our family situations seems like one easy way to move toward this. Thank you for revisiting this, Elizabeth, I’m very interested to see how the discussion evolves.

  6. Hey Elizabeth! I hope all is well with you. I just have a few thoughts:

    First, I don’t think foregrounding oneself as a member of a family is as devastating if the notion of family with which one begins is already prophetic with respect to the magisterial “definition.” If love really does make a family, then your family can include roommates with whom you are especially close; it can include same-sex and opposite-sex partners; it can include brothers and sisters (e.g., households where the primary caretakers are siblings who, together, take care of children, or not); and it can include multi-parent or multi-partner households (something that I’m not opposed to, but I understand that it can be controversial for some).

    Does this require a lot of guts at conferences, especially at Catholic ones? Yup, you better believe it, and I’m not sure at this point how such a prophetic voice is to be integrated into the worship of the tenure-gods. Nevertheless, my point is that it’s possible to do so, if one’s definition of family is expansive.

    My second point dovetails off the first, but is just more general. I think that the idea of “singleness” itself is a myth. In other words, we are always already in significant relationship with others, but, in our culture, we have been taught that certain significant relationships don’t matter. Singleness, in this case, becomes the category into which all unvalued associations get categorized and subsequently projected onto the self as isolation. This is especially true in Catholic theology, in which, as you note, the idea of singleness as a vocation is either underarticulated or seen as a mid-way point either to religious life or married life.

    1. I kind of want to respond, prompted by your comment Craig, but something I’ve been thinking about since Elizabeth started these posts and the conversations began. I am pro-finding ways to think critically about “having it all” and about what constitutes “family,” and what are the problems of a work-life balance that extend beyond being part of a “Good Catholic” nuclear family– and I think there has been some good discussion around these ideas in these posts.

      However (and maybe I’m being particularly a cranky way about this right now), as far as I can tell, identifying one’s family in a professional environment seems to be most of the time, completely irrelevant and, perhaps at times, self-indulgent for meeting whatever social standards or expectations of a given ecclesial community.I can only imagine the negative reactions I would receive if in getting up to give a talk (especially as a completely junior, baby theologian doctoral student), I had it announced that I have a roommate and a great community of friends- I think I wouldn’t be taken seriously, and I’m not sure that that would be an inappropriate or problematic response. I want to be supportive of families in professional spaces, and I consider it a good thing that “theologian” no longer means cleric, but I’m not sure that means talking about family at professional times. My theology is not valid or invalid based on my family connections, but on the quality of my work. Surely family and marriage ethics are strengthened by having theologians who experience these realities first hand, as spouses and parents– but the ability to do such work shouldn’t be contingent on having such experiences. And I say that as somebody grateful for the feminist work on family and marriage that is specifically influence by on the ground realities– where women like Christina Traina and Christine Gudorf frankly communicate their experiences and the relevance for theology. I do agree that social-location is important, but nobody is advocating that I identify before giving a talk as a white female who was raised upper middle class as the daughter of two naval officers, a background that informs my work just as much as my current family connections– so it seems arbitrary to focus so much on family. Of course, I am just thinking this through, and am really open to reconsidering. I think I would like to hear some more theoretical underpinnings for why such family identification is important.

  7. Megan…to your last point, I have heard Lisa Cahill introduce herself in writing and speaking in just that way…as a white uppermiddle class….while I don’t think should be part of every bio, if we are taking social location seriously and combating the assumption of white, uppermiddle class western normativity i ntheological ethics seems something to consider….

    Seems to me the issue is on what experience counts (as we are all members of families) in doing family ethics, not whether that experience matters. I have slowly come around to being much more personal and rooted in my teaching and writing on medical ethics because I have come to really allow myself to be informed by that experience in doing theolgy . Those personal experiences themselves do not giveme acadmic competence nor do lack of them disqualify others from competence but they are very much relevant to the theolgy I do.

    I do think we have tobe careful here to include people’s perspectives not privileging the “one kind of family” but if one is doing fmaily ethics, care ethics, certain ques in medical ethics family experience is quite relevant. I also think slaughter has a point in pushing that ones personhood is bigger than ones acadmic qualifications – I have heard many men introduced (especially for keynotes or awards) listing their children’s grandchildren but also other random aspects of personal lives like a love of golf or baseball, etc.

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