Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It seems that most people who write about the joys and challenges of childrearing today are parents newly facing the daunting prospect of raising Christian children in a largely hostile world. They tell of the dilemmas facing professional couples trying to decide how to meet their responsibilities to job, gender, and progeny. They can only see the road ahead and all its possible complications. I would like to add another perspective—that of a full-time professional woman who has spent over thirty years mothering five children, has used every known form of paid child care except a live-in nanny, was a stay-at-home mother for a short time, and whose children have lived to tell the tale. We still have a daughter in high school, but the other four children are well on their way to maturity, with nine university degrees among them so far. More important, all are intelligent, committed, and enthusiastic Catholics.

Based on my many years of working full-time in secular and Catholic research organizations, while also spending endless hours agonizing over the question of how my husband and I could best raise our children, I have some words of advice for women who find themselves in the same place I have been for much of my adult life.

To begin with, have the luck or long-range-planning skills to identify a career that can be done part-time or at home when your children need you there. My own field of demographic/statistical research was not pre-planned. I fully believe it was a gift, unasked for because I never knew to ask. It is something I’ve been able to practice full- and part-time on both sides of the country and in several settings. My daughter-in-law is a doctor who will be able to tailor her work hours to the needs of her new baby; my daughters are preparing for jobs in clinical psychology, academic research, and college counseling, where it is possible to keep involved, but not fully-involved, for some period of time. This is not always possible. My bank-officer sister, for example, had to fight to maintain part-time status and was laid-off at the first sign of a business slowdown. As one of my daughters recently noted: one way to make God laugh is to say “I have a plan.” But having a flexible career field is a real advantage.

Women would also be wise to resist the seductions of full-time work altogether. A woman who is competent, well-trained, and experienced is a valuable commodity and bosses will want her there full-time. One of the nightmares of my own experience occurred when our son was around three years old. I would go to my research job at 5:00 a.m. for a few hours before my husband left for work. When the nanny arrived, I’d head back to work. Then came the morning when my husband found our son, frantic and shaking, hiding under a table. He had searched fruitlessly for me (at work) and his dad (in the shower) until he was certain we had abandoned him forever. I rushed home and phoned in my resignation. However, a woman who finishes research proposals in the recovery room after delivering a baby is too valuable to lose, so I was offered the opportunity to work my own hours wherever I wanted. Unfortunately, I soon found myself seduced into more and more hours away from home. In other words, the decisions made for the good of your children have to be made again and again.

Making them easier might require moving to another neighborhood to find more affordable housing. For our family, it meant moving from Washington, D.C., to an island in Puget Sound where, I can assure you, there are few temptations to full-time professional work for women. I got a taste of full-time mothering. The blessings were many, one of the most palpable being the time I tried to get my three-year-old to nap next to me. I was praying with my eyes shut and when she asked me what I was doing (at least her twentieth question) I said I was telling God about her and the new baby about to be born. I suggested that she could close her eyes and talk to God, too—a shabby trick on my part to get her to drop off to sleep. When I looked over a short time later, she was sitting bright-eyed and glowing. She looked at me and said: “He told me He loved me!”

There is no way to replace the love and care of a parent, but sometimes it becomes necessary (or seems necessary) to use a temporary substitute. And when it does, nothing works better than choosing someone who matches your faith commitment. Over the years, we have made some good and some great decisions on caretakers; fortunately, none has been disastrous, though some came close. There was the childcare center that left our five-year-old daughter with the janitor when a snowstorm threatened, and the nanny who decided the gash in another daughter’s chin was not serious enough to bother with, leaving our daughter with a permanent scar. At the other end of the spectrum was the elderly woman who had escaped Hungary in 1950 and testified by her every decision that children and family were the most precious things in the world. She would cut up precise slices of apples to go with the cookies she made and walk the children to the nearby library in her black dress and high-topped black shoes. And there was the neighborhood woman who took care of generations of children in her multi-storied home, starting each day with Mass where she prayed for each of the children and their parents.

Regardless of how much child care a family needs to use, women should make sure they nurse their babies for as long as they possibly can. There is nothing that kept me so grounded during all those frantic years, and nothing that kept me as connected to my children, as the minutes I spent at night or at dawn sitting in a rocking chair or lying in bed snuggling with the baby. A woman’s body is made to adapt to the nursing needs of her baby. There are moments of discomfort, and some explanations needed, but women shouldn’t give this up for anything.

When it comes to education, there’s nothing better, in my experience, than a Catholic school. Some parishes don’t have one, and in some families both parents would have to work simply to pay the tuition. But I have done years of research on Catholic schools on a local and national level, and the benefits of those schools for children, families, parishes, and the Church are verifiable. (It is likely that other Christian schools provide equivalent advantages, but the research isn’t available as yet.) The research I’ve done among high school students shows that going to a Catholic middle school (grades 6-8) and having parents who go to church is highly correlated with being drug/alcohol free and avoiding sexual activity in high school. There are many other benefits, to be sure, but to parents of teenagers these are among the most important. Even before I had done most of my research, we decided to take our children thirty miles each way by ferry and freeway in an old VW bus to a Catholic school. Twenty years later, we still know this was the right decision because the school (with strong urging from us and other parents) reinforced the values we wanted our children to live by and provided a stable community for many children who did not otherwise have one.

But no matter where children attend school, it is essential to be “there” for the children after school. For me, this meant leaving work every day to pick up the children and take them home. The lesson I learned is that news of the big events of the day—the great test score, the snub by a supposed friend, the skinned knee—won’t survive the time between leaving school and your arrival home from work. It’s these things that make up the texture of children’s lives and that parents need to share. At the very least, there should be a phone call to capture those events. The seductions of work are such that “leaving early to pick up the kids” tends to get put off in order to finish a report, complete a phone call, or check in with a colleague. I still have the nightmare in which I race to the school to find the children unreachable behind a glass wall at the end of a long brick tunnel. This is not a happy dream. Be on time.

I have heard a number of women who work full-time outside their homes say they spend “quality” time with their children every day reading bedtime stories. This is important, of course, but it is no substitute for quantity. The quality time that built the foundation for the relationship that my husband and I now have with our children was made up of scrubbing them down and toweling them off in the bathtub, leaping from bed when the stomach flu hit in the middle of the night, grubbing through the leaves to find potato bugs for the science project, and sewing a Luke Skywalker costume for the next day’s Halloween party. None of this is glamorous and much of it isn’t fun, but it is what makes up the life of a child.

The importance of quantity time doesn’t diminish when the children reach their teenage years. Being woken up every three hours to nurse a ravenous baby is nothing compared to staying awake after a long day in order to attend to the emotional needs of the child who didn’t make the basketball team, has gotten in over her head in a dating relationship, or has to decide what college to attend. There is probably no training regimen that would prepare a parent physically for these marathon events, but every minute spent attending to that child is worth it. I found it extremely helpful to pray (silently) throughout these extended in-person or phone conversations. Annie Lamott, in her wonderful book Traveling Mercies, opines that we have only two real prayers: “Help me! Help me! Help me!” and “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I would use the first throughout the sessions and the second later on.

And that brings me to my final bit of advice. When I talk to other parents, I remind them to keep praying for their children. Every day, all day. We all make a lot of mistakes and, for many parents today, these mistakes have to do with their own career and life decisions. The mistakes will be fewer, and their results less disastrous, if all the decisions are made with prayer and if prayer accompanies each of the children every moment of their day.

Mary Beth Celio is Director of Research for the Archdiocese of Seattle and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education in the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington.