An end to the applause

At the end of my eighth-grade basketball season, the team parents got together to make big bouquets of flowers in purple and gold — the colors of the high school we would be attending next season. The big-time high school coaches were in attendance, having watched us come up through the ranks of the local feeder teams. There was applause, there were balloons, and the entire gymnasium full of our families and local community supporters witnessed our public graduation from badgers to bullfrogs (don’t ask).

A letterman in three sports, I got accustomed to formal community recognition of the little steps and achievements of childhood. I suspect many women grow up similarly ingrained to seek and follow public cheering from one milestone to the next. One gets to the point where one wonders if, indeed, anything has been achieved at all if a gym of clappers isn’t on hand to confirm it.

Neither my husband nor I discerned separate “vocations” regarding work and home life. Our vocation is our marriage, providing for ourselves and our children, and the life that we have carefully built for our family as members of our church community.

The online controversy over Harrison Butker’s commencement speech reminded me of the painful transition that child show ponies of all stripes have once they reach adulthood. When there are no longer assemblies and balloons to convey how your adoring public supports your next move, how in the world do you decide what path to take? Worse, when each option is accompanied by far more boos and hisses than applause, how can a young person dodge the rotten tomatoes and proceed with confidence?

At some point, there is indeed an end to the applause. We all have to just grow up into adults capable of making decisions when no one at all is clapping. The Butker controversy really boils down to a public debate over the appropriate level of clapping owed to homemakers. One side thinks there should be more public honor given to women who decide to stay home and care for their families. The other, more or less, does not.

When I got married at 24, there was not a path available to me that could possibly please everybody. My family was mostly secular. My grandmother had worked at UC Berkeley, my mother was a career woman with an advanced degree, and I had completed all my coursework for my Ph.D. My new husband’s Catholic parents had married right out of high school at 19, and his mother had stayed home to raise six great kids. If I chose to stay home with my children, I would be a disappointment to my family, to say the least. If I chose to work, I would be a scandal to my in-laws. Either way, there would certainly not be balloons and flowers.

It’s been almost two decades since I faced this decision, but the mommy wars turned Butker debate last month resurrected that old-fashioned no way to win feeling. Are women really women if they work outside the home? Are men really properly supported if their wives have other paid interests? Are women allowing themselves to be emotionally and financially too dependent upon their husbands if they choose to stay home?

Which path did I end up taking? Both paths. All the paths. “My vocation” was whatever my husband and I discerned was best for our family at any given time, and we didn’t wait for anyone else to weigh in, and we didn’t consult any bystanders. One of the best things about the Christian faith is that “the rules” are pretty straightforward. Don’t commit mortal sin, don’t set yourself on the path to sin (what Catholics call the “near occasion of sin”). Keep your prayer life up so you don’t become too hard-headed to change course if needed. Other than that, do what makes sense, and pay no attention to who is clapping and who is booing.

In the past 18 years of marriage, “my vocation” has included long days at home with three kids three and under, long days making money at a full-time job, and long days part-timing both motherhood and work while homeschooling five kids.

My husband has not prioritized the type of career that would prompt him to leave me to prioritize our children and our home life alone. We have both prioritized our home life and our children. That means he has rejected multiple job offers and career opportunities because they involved too much travel or moving the family to a new state, away from our community. He has built up a customer base only to lose it during COVID, changed industries, started a new business at age 40, and pivoted again to build an even better customer base closer to home requiring no overnight travel.

I have worked in academia, think tanks, local real estate, the Catholic parish, and publishing. I have part-timed, full-timed, 1099ed, and volunteered. My husband and I started a local school and a homeschooling co-op and have worked to build our local community from a handful of faithful homeschooling families to several dozen.

Neither my husband nor I discerned separate “vocations” regarding work and home life. Our vocation is our marriage, providing for ourselves and our children, and the life that we have carefully built for our family as members of our church community. Work, income, and careers are all secondary and ordered to our shared vocation. We prioritized my career while I was finishing my Ph.D. and his career while I was having babies and nursing infants. Our goal once our kids are grown is for both of us to work a little bit, with a paid-off house and ranch and enough money saved so that neither of us has to work full-time.

As they approach the great theodrama and find their lives within it, young people understandably want to make the “correct” decisions from the outset. They figure if they can just get a show of hands — an assessment of where each person in their lives falls on the working vs. homemaker moms debate — that this survey of opinions will save them from having to learn things the hard way.

But of course, gaining practical wisdom — prudence — is the point. What the online Butker conversation fails to convey to young people is that their work and home decisions are not something they need to run by the local cheer squad. The exciting thing about marriage is that it’s up to no one else but you two. You don’t have to consult anybody; you don’t even have to pick a side in this stupid debate. Online work/life debates flare up again with each new generation because they are, in reality, inexperienced young people trying to unearth the perfect theory, the perfect life philosophy to help them steer clear of the potholes of growing up. It doesn’t exist.

It is almost impossible to know what career and home-life demands will be placed upon you before you even begin to live your life. We all learn from missteps and pivots as we develop experience. There are no shortcuts to gaining practical knowledge. It can’t be summed up ahead of time or crowdsourced away. Virtue is action, not head knowledge.

The only philosophy of life worth giving yourself over to is this: Pursue sainthood. That’s it. That’s the magic lifestyle hack. It can take a million different forms. St. Joan of Arc gave her life to God in battle; St. Edith Stein in the barracks at Auschwitz; St. Zelie Martin in all the little moments of everyday domestic life. What unites all of them is that they accepted the crosses given to them and discerned their particular path forward. Life is different for each of us, depending upon our particular situation. Nobody knows the specifics of your life like you and your spouse. Happiness and virtue are therefore yours to uncover through the shared vocation particular to you two. So game on. Go get it.

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