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Laura LokerSeptember 15, 2022
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“She’s becoming cuter and cuter, but…she’s continually at my side, and it’s difficult for me to work. So to make up for lost time, I work on my lace until ten o’clock at night and wake up at five o’clock in the morning.”

Replace “work on my lace” with “catch up on work emails,” and this note could have been written by any number of modern-day parents. In reality, however, it was penned in 1874—by St. Zélie Martin about her flourishing lace business and the then 18-month-old St. Thérèse of Lisieux. (The quote appears in A Call to a Deeper Love, a collection of letters from Sts. Zélie and Louis Martin.)

The familiarity through the ages of the tension between the work of motherhood and paid work outside the home might be comforting if it were not so difficult. On a practical level, the conversation today usually gravitates toward parental leave policies—or the lack thereof. Neitherthe United States nor the Catholic Church is leading the way in this area. In an ongoing survey of diocesan maternity leave policies, the Catholic women’s publication FemCatholic has confirmedjust five that offer a fully paid 12 weeks.

But even modest amounts of paid leave are out of reach for many Catholic workplaces, which often struggle financially. “Parishes and dioceses would love to do more, but sometimes you can’t,” admitted Regina Haney, executive director of the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators. For some Catholic organizations, it is as much a matter of priorities as it is of budget. FemCatholic notes intheir report that larger diocesan assets do not necessarily correspond to more generous leave policies.

On an emotional level, new motherhood can stir up dueling desires. Faced with both family finances and tiny toes, with stimulating adult conversation and sleep deprivation, with email overload and wobbly first steps, new moms find themselves occupants of two different worlds, the professional and the personal. For many women, participation in the former can help retain some semblance of a pre-baby identity, while the latter can feel wonderfully full but also enormously overwhelming.

For Catholic women, there is also the spiritual dimension at play. Rachel Harkins Ullmann is the executive director of the Given Institute, which offers professional and spiritual development opportunities for young adult women. The two questions she most often gets from participants in Given programming, she said, are: “How do I integrate my spiritual life into my professional life?” and “How do I balance being a mother and a work life?”

There is no single correct answer for either question, of course. Some moms prefer to opt out of the workforce entirely, at least while their children are small. Others find that with the right support, full-time work is not only desirable but an important element of their personal calling. Still others are bound by financial pressure, needing to work full time if only to net a fraction of their pay after child care costs.

Yet there are plenty of mothers who do not fall neatly into the stay-at-home or full-time-working categories. There are those who want to be at home with their children during the week but also have a desire to stay active professionally, those who need to contribute to their household income but not to the extent of a full-time salary and others who want the flexibility afforded by fewer hours of paid work to help maintain the rhythms of daily life with children.

There are plenty of mothers who do not fall neatly into the stay-at-home or full-time-working categories.

In other words, if given the opportunity, many mothers would jump at the chance for part-time work. So while Catholic employers still have a long way to go in figuring out sustainable maternity leave policies, most are missing another easily implemented opportunity to support women and families more generally: offering part-time, flexible jobs.

Finding a New Balance

Marie Dooley is a mother of five in Fleetwood, Pa., and she has been working part time for the Catholic Church since their first child was born in 2012. Initially, the work arrangement was not her decision; the parish she was working for prior to her first baby had to scale down her position to save money. But part-time work has since become her preference. After that first job, she has continued to seek out other part-time parish jobs—first in youth ministry and currently as a director of religious education.

For Ms. Dooley, who homeschools her children during the day, the flexibility and reduced hours of her arrangement have made her work/life balance sustainable. “If I would have done full time, I think I would have reached a point where it would have been too much—just, realistically, wanting to be with my kids as much as I could,” she told me. “I think it would have been a struggle.”

Typically she is in the office on Sunday mornings, Tuesday evenings and the occasional Saturday morning. Other evenings after the kids are in bed—she is a night owl, she said—she works from home. All told, she works between 15 and 20 hours a week.

Beyond the benefit to her parish religious education program and the boost to her family’s finances, Ms. Dooley said working helps her feel more well-rounded as a person in an otherwise intense season of motherhood. “I know some people will go out with their friends and that’s their break from their family, and I always joke, ‘Oh, going to work is my break,’” she said. Sometimes it feels like work, of course, but mostly she is grateful for the opportunity to serve others outside her home. “I think the key is not to hate [the work],” she added.

It is not hard to imagine what moms and their families stand to gain. For mothers who want both to be at home with their children and to use their gifts professionally, part-time work can offer an attractive solution, whether the arrangement lasts until their youngest children are in kindergarten or the children are out of the house entirely. For those who would otherwise be home alone with their kids most of the day, work—even if it is fully remote—can offer them social ties in an isolating time.

For mothers who want both to be at home with their children and to use their gifts professionally, part-time work can offer an attractive solution.

And then there are the moms who, feeling stretched by full-time work, might scale back if they were able. In onePew Research Center study, full-time working parents were much more likely than part-time or stay-at-home parents to say they always feel rushed—and those who always felt rushed were more likely to say they find parenting stressful and tiring all the time. Notably, this data comes from well before the Covid-19 pandemic; the picture today is likely much worse.

“We’re collectively naming for the first time that to have a family and work full time is not sustainable,” said Annie Selak, theology professor and associate director of the Women’s Center at Georgetown University. “I think it’s brought to the forefront that the amount of work required to do well in jobs is more than nine to five, and the amount of work required to be a good parent cannot fit neatly into the before-nine-a.m. and after-five-p.m. category.”

Many mothers, Dr. Selak included, hope that workplaces will offer more support and flexibility for full-time working parents. Others are addressing the problem by “leaning out,” The Atlantic reported last year, switching from high-powered careers to part-time jobs or consulting work.

Not all part-time work is flexible—nor are all bosses accommodating—but many arrangements are doable with little to no child care, especially remote work. For families who need or want more of a financial cushion, but not necessarily the hectic schedules of two full-time working parents, such arrangements can be a real boon. And while stepping back in any capacity will likely constrict long-term earning potential, it is easier to break into full-time work again after having worked part time than after not working at all. (Whether that should be the case, as well as the effect of our culture’s diminishment of the value of care work, merit their own discussions entirely.)

While it is not a preference—or even an option—for every mother, part-time work offers distinct benefits to families. What about benefits to employers?

Attracting—and Keeping—Young Employees

In today’s environment, employers’ ability to retain talent is shakier than ever. Amid theGreat Resignation, employees have been voluntarily leaving their jobs in record numbers, reaching a 20-year high in November 2021. Underlying the exodus is a desire for better benefits and flexibility. According to a recent Pewstudy, the top five reasons workers quit their jobs in 2021 were low pay, a lack of opportunity for advancement, feeling disrespected at work, child care issues and not enough schedule flexibility.

Catholic employers would do well to take note. If they are successful in cultivating good working conditions, they will be rewarded by high-quality applicants—and loyal employees. This is not just good for parents; it is good for the church.

If Catholic employers are successful in cultivating good working conditions, they will be rewarded by high-quality applicants—and loyal employees.

Caitlin Morneau is the mother of two young boys and director of restorative justice for the Catholic Mobilizing Network. “I’ve done nearly every combination of hours—full-time, part-time, remote, in the office—probably that you can imagine at some point in time in the last four years,” she told me.

When I spoke to her, she was working full time. But in other seasons of her family life, whether she was welcoming a new baby or going to grad school, her workplace accommodated her requests for work-from-home flexibility and reduced hours. Because of her dedication to the organization’s mission and its family friendliness, Ms. Morneau loves her work—and she does not plan to leave the job any time soon.

The late business psychologist Frederick Herzbergsuggested that there are two types of factors that influence job satisfaction: motivation factors (alignment with company mission, for example, or sense of purpose and growth) and “hygiene” factors (such as salary, good or bad management and schedule flexibility). It is reasonable to imagine that many employees of Catholic organizations are attracted by their employer’s mission—serving the church, the poor, the marginalized.

But for parents, the hygiene factors sometimes must outweigh the motivation factors. I asked Ms. Morneau to imagine what she would have done if her employer had not been so accommodating. She is not sure she would have stuck around. “What I fear is that I would have taken the job that offered the right flexibility, or was in the right location, or paid the right amount,” she said, “but I didn’t feel as connected to the mission.”

"We’re going to lose the young perspective in church offices and diocesan offices, because they’re going to go work for Microsoft or they’re going to go work for Google, where they work from home 24/7 and they get awesome benefits.”

“​​I think [the lack of flexibility] comes from an old traditional model that is kind of becoming outdated in today’s world,” reflected the mother and multimedia producer Bridget O’Boyle, who loved but left her diocesan job when it became too hard to manage amid family life. “And we’ve got to progress as a church in terms of the flexibility that we allow for employees, or we’re not going to get young people. We’re going to lose the young perspective in church offices and diocesan offices, because they’re going to go work for Microsoft or they’re going to go work for Google, where they work from home 24/7 and they get awesome benefits.”

Employers may think that getting those hygiene factors right requires having abundant funding, but sometimes creative thinking can create what cash cannot. Reimagining a role or two as part-time job shares, for example, is a budget-friendly way to offer family friendly work. Not only do employers get the work done for a comparable cost; they benefit from two sets of skills and experience—not to mention access to the vast talent pool interested in such opportunities. Multilevel marketing companies have identified—and often exploited—the largelyuntapped resource of stay-at-home moms, some of whom you probably see on social media feeds selling beauty products or dietary supplements. Meaningful, professional, flexible work opportunities from the church could help provide an alternative that helps both parents and the larger flock.

In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of flexibility. Many Catholic employers—often brick-and-mortar institutions—were forced to accommodate remote work amid lockdowns and persistent safety concerns. Ms. Ullmann of the Given Institute hopes that Catholic employers will capitalize on the moment to ask important questions about how best to manage their employees in a digital-first environment.

“How do you manage your workforce that’s working from home? How do you keep up strong, tight relationships when you don’t see your coworkers in person as often as you used to? Because there is a friction there—there is,” she said. “So if the church could get ahead of that, and the church could be a leader in these strong workplace initiatives—oh my gosh, we would be getting the best talent out there, right? People would be flocking to come work for us.”

Facing the Challenges

There are hurdles to making these opportunities a reality, as well as challenges once they are realized. The first hurdle is a big one: the culture of overwork in Catholic workplaces, particularly those that are oriented around ministry.

Anna Brown—identified here by a pseudonym because she did not feel comfortable speaking openly about her former employer—worked in what was supposed to be a part-time capacity running several ministries in her parish. However, over time the job ballooned into more responsibilities and more hours than she was getting paid for. The parish’s unrealistic expectations created a lack of balance that began to affect Ms. Brown’s family life negatively. “I can’t take phone calls [about work for the parish] when I’m cooking dinner or changing diapers,” she told me. “I mean, I did. But it was stressful.” As her family grew, it became more and more difficult to make the arrangement work.

The parish’s unrealistic expectations created a lack of balance that began to affect Ms. Brown’s family life negatively.

In retrospect, Ms. Brown wishes she had had more intentional conversations with her boss about her family’s changing needs—and, indeed, that such meetings had been the norm for working parents. “You know, you come back from maternity leave, have a meeting and [your boss could] say, ‘Okay, now you have two kids in your family. How are you doing? How is that feeling? What has changed?’” she said. “‘What do you need as a family? What are the struggles, and how can we make this work? Because we like you, and we want to keep you.’”

Ultimately, she left the parish behind for another part-time job with clearer expectations and boundaries. She now provides emotional and spiritual support to end-of-life patients. Since taking the new job, life feels less chaotic in comparison.

Most of the women I spoke to were familiar with experiences like Ms. Brown’s, whether it was their own or that of family and friends. “I don’t see part-time work [in the church] being truly part-time often,” said Ms. Ullmann. “I would say that [for] almost every woman I know who has a part-time job—unless she very clearly has negotiated the boundaries of her work responsibilities—it goes far beyond a part-time job. And then, unfortunately, the woman isn’t paid for the work that she’s truly doing.”

“There’s a sense that if you sign up to work for the church, you’re signing up to sacrifice,” echoed Dr. Selak. “You’re sacrificing pay, you’re sacrificing career trajectory, advancement, but you’re also sacrificing bounds and family time and things like that.”

Contributing to the issue is the same financial strain that keeps many Catholic workplaces from offering paid maternity leave. When a position is part time, it may be that way simply because there isn’t room in the budget for a full-time salary and benefits, not because the amount of work required by the role is correspondingly smaller.

And yet, tight budget or not, it is up to the leadership of the organization—whether that is a parish, diocese or nonprofit—to set the tone of its employee culture. Ms. Morneau, for her part, is grateful that her bosses are mothers themselves. “Because there was that experience in the leadership, there was the ability to know what it looked like to support it,” she said.

Many of the women I spoke to had stories of bosses—most often men—who, in regard to an employee’s family needs, were oblivious at best and uncaring at worst.

Not everyone has been so fortunate. Many of the women I spoke to had stories of bosses—most often men—who, in regard to an employee’s family needs, were oblivious at best and uncaring at worst. Ms. Brown explained that parish life can be especially tricky because of its regular turnover in leadership. “You get hired under one pastor and it’s great,” she said, “and then a new pastor comes in and it sucks.”

Even in the best of circumstances, however, balancing work and family life is still difficult. To squeeze work time into early hours of the morning or during children’s naps and other margins of the day is to accept a certain level of unpredictability and subsequent frustration. And when working hours are scattered throughout the day, maintaining boundaries between work and family life is challenging. “There are some days where I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is working great!’” said Ms. Dooley. “There [are] other days where I’m like, ‘Something’s gotta give.’”

Furthermore, “part-time” doesn’t always mean “flexible.” For those for whom every hour of work requires child care, net earnings may be underwhelming. Likewise, it is worth noting that not every field is well-suited to remote flexibility—and the ones that are tend to be white-collar, higher-level jobs.

“I see an absolute tie to socioeconomic status and flexibility in work—to have a salary position versus an hourly position is a huge difference,” said Dr. Selak. “Being able to control what time I start work and what time I leave work is indispensable to my ability to parent, and that is something that if I were hourly I would not be able to do, or I would do at a huge personal expense.”

The Right Opportunities

At present, finding part-time opportunities is difficult. As of this writing, searching “part-time” on CatholicJobs.com yielded just under 130 results that were part-time positions or mentioned considering part-time candidates. (For context, the total number of job listings was over 1,300.) The vast majority of job listings did not mention or even have the potential for remote flexibility. Most positions were in ministry, education or office administration.

CatholicJobs.com is by no means exhaustive. Some large Catholic employers, like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, post most of their openings on their own job boards. (When I checked, all positions except internships available at the U.S.C.C.B. were full-time.) And if there are deficiencies in the site itself—while users can browse by field or location, there are no dedicated “part-time” or “remote” categories—they are at least in part reflective of the types of job listings their customers submit. (I reached out to CatholicJobs.com for input on this article; they did not respond.)

As long as there are not many part-time jobs available in Catholic organizations, there will not be additional resources for job-seekers to find them.

Mainstream job boards, however, are a different story. Most notably, The Mom Project connects moms with family-friendly opportunities. Users can look for part-time and/or remote jobs or contracts within their fields, even specifying the number of hours per week that suits their needs. As a registered user myself, I get a handful of relevant part-time opportunities each week by email—hardly the volume of, say, ZipRecruiter, but all much more appealing.

In the church, the situation feels a little like the proverbial chicken and egg. As long as there are not many part-time jobs available in Catholic organizations, there will not be additional resources for job-seekers to find them.

All hope is not lost. Even if parents are not seeing the jobs they want, they can still apply to full-time openings and make the case for their preferred schedule in a well-worded cover letter. Smaller, more nimble organizations may be happy to accommodate the right candidate or divide the position in two.

Ultimately, however, an increase in child-friendly work will require the same impetus as better maternity leave policies: a considerable culture change.

“Catholic organizations have a responsibility to take the consistent ethic of life seriously, not only in the missions that we serve, but in our internal office practices,” said Ms. Morneau. “This means creating conditions for human flourishing for women and families on their payroll.”

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