31 Aug
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Parenthood: A true profession Understanding the true professional nature of fatherhood and motherhood

In 1981, Pope John Paul II published a document entitled Familiaris Consortio: an exploration of “the life, the tasks, the responsibilities, and the mission of marriage and of the family in the world today”.1 As with other of the John Paul II’s many apostolic initiatives – including the establishment of a Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family – Familiaris Consortio reflects the Roman pontiff’s overarching goal to encourage a greater academic and pastoral effort in understanding the role of the family in the modern world. Although the document retains a distinctly theological flavour, it offers a perspective on family life, and on the nature and roles of men and women in society, which continues to challenge prevailing social attitudes almost thirty years after its initial publication. In particular, Familiaris Consortio focuses on one issue of tremendous relevance in the way families live today: their relationship with work.


Familiaris Consortio can be seen as an exhortation to all men and women to reflect on how they are living their vocation to marriage and family life. It is clear that in contemporary developed societies, most parents have established an irrevocable relationship with professional work. And yet most men and women are also called to participate in a different kind of work: the very construction of the human race and of society, by bringing children into existence, and raising them in the context of the family. The need to reflect upon, and better understand the nature of professional life and family life, and the relationship between the two, remains relevant, and indeed urgent, in contemporary society. For when it comes to analysing and interpreting the relationship between work and family, how theses two concepts interact, and most importantly, what outcomes can be expected from attempting to establish a dialogue between them, some important question remains unanswered.

How can parents manage to make family life and professional life compatible with the task of cultivating a home, where a family with children can be truly happy?

Familiaris Consortio unequivocally presents this question as a challenge for scholarship, whose aim should be to “shed light upon and study in depth the meaning of work … and determine the fundamental bond between work and the family, and therefore the original and irreplaceable meaning of work in the home and in rearing children.”2 In light of the reflections advanced in Familiaris Consortio, it is suggested that contemporary social attitudes to men and women overlook certain vital and fundamental aspects of the roles of men, women and the family in society.

Concerning women, as professionals, wives and mothers: the true and total advancement of women’s dignity can only come when the maternal role in the family receives the same recognition as any other profession that prevails outside the home, or any public service that holds prestige and social status. Society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not required in practice to work outside the home; families must not be forced to sacrifice prosperity and dignity when mothers freely decide to devote themselves entirely to their own families. Society must also recognise that women working full-time in their homes comprise a substantial, valuable, and irreplaceable asset to society. The mentality that honours women more for the work they perform outside the home than for their labour within their families must be overcome. For this to be accomplished, it is necessary that women are valued and respected in all of their dignity, not merely in terms of external beauty and professional success; and furthermore that society produces the conditions which favour, and do not actively discourage, work in the home.

Concerning men as professionals, husbands and fathers: a man’s role as a father is naturally fulfilled by loving his wife and his children, and yet this may be seen as being increasingly incompatible with a dominant workplace culture which favours the masculine figure whose dedication to his professional work outside his home requires him to neglect family life. Men, as husbands and fathers, carry an important responsibility in contributing to the proper development of the family and its members, a responsibility which demands considerable effort and generosity. Fathers play a key role in the education of children – a responsibility shared with the children’s mother, and which, when undertaken by mother and father in a unified effort, is a means for promoting unity and stability in the family.

Familiaris Consortio sets out guidelines which favour a deeper reflection on what we understand as “work” and “profession”. Regarding these, some people believe that the husband-father should work less, while others think that the wife-mother should also pursue a professional career and, at the end of the day, both should take care of the household chores and the education of children with a 50-50 criterion. Although such an analysis may seem plausible on the surface, it in fact raises a number of important questions which are often overlooked in contemporary discussions regarding work and the family. In order to properly address the question of work/family balance, we must first consider: What is work? What is a profession? How can we define what is work and what is not? When is a person working professionally? Can the role of a father and a mother in their home be considered work? What is the difference between working in the home and outside the home? These questions may be addressed from a range of perspectives. My intention here is to provide a series of reflections that will hopefully bring new light, and a new perspective, to this essential discussion. Let us start then with the concept which is, perhaps, most central to our discussion: the concept of work.

Understanding the Nature of Work: Motion and Freedom

Historically, “work” has suggested the doing of some kind of physical activity; an “external” activity; often an effort made with one’s “bare hands”. Although this primitive definition has expanded in modern times – for there are many kinds of work which incorporate neither manual labour nor physical effort – one of the enduring characteristics of work is that it is usually undertaken out of necessity, rather than for leisure. This distinction between work and leisure is reflected in the ancient Latin word for “employment” or “occupation”: negotium comprises a combination of the prefix neg, meaning “not”, and the root otium, meaning “leisure” or “idle time” directed towards contemplation, philosophy, and ultimately the “possession” of truth and love. As this classical understanding of work suggests, the concepts of leisure and contemplation present an intrinsic contrast with the concept of work: whereas work demands some form of external output, which in turn requires a certain level of effort, rigour, and discipline, contemplation and leisure do not.

However this classic distinction between work and contemplation is not without its faults. It may, for example, lead to the “aristocratic” division of society by activity, with an enlightened elite devoted to “contemplation”, and the rest shouldering the burden of “work” to fulfill the basic needs of society. Additionally, the work/contemplation dichotomy ignores the very real degree of contemplative satisfaction which may arise while doing work which is not contemplative in nature. Indeed, as shall be discussed later, because work that is well done generally finds its primary motivation in love, work itself can actually be a natural (and even pre-eminent) path to contemplation.

What the classical world called otium is not strictly a factual space for leisure; that is to say, otium is not an entirely passive possession of truth and love. Why? Because devotion to the intellectual or contemplative life implies a systematic and progressive undertaking of tasks which may themselves be both demanding and tiresome. Contemplation and leisure are each the outcome of hard work, whether intellectual or spiritual. Contemplation and leisure, understood as otium, involve an act of accomplishment, the systematic possession of a specific end.

This quality of active progression is intrinsic to the nature of work. At essence, work comprises the progressive realization of something that is not yet done. By contrast, any activity that comprises an end in itself (like the act of “seeing” of “knowing”) cannot be considered a true “work”. Again, work may be distinguished from the experience of fulfilment arising from a job well done; that is, the successful completion of some interior or exterior work. Every time the human person finds himself in the middle of an activity or a work that “has to be done”, he is still on the way to accomplish his goal. On the contrary, whenever he finds himself in “contemplation”, there is an implication that he has reached his goal.

These boundaries are not absolute. In anticipating the contemplative fulfilment which arises from the successful completion of a given work, one may peremptorily experience some degree of that fulfilment even though the work remains to be done. Nevertheless, the distinction between work (neg-otium) and contemplation (otium) enables one to differentiate between, on the one hand, a task that is in the process of being completed; and on the other hand, the successful attainment of the object of a given task (and the subsequent contemplative experience of fulfilment).

If, as outlined above, work essentially consists in the progressive realization of something that is not yet done, through some form of physical or other effort, it follows that a person’s pursuit of internal or “spiritual” development is also a form of work. This work of interior development is perhaps the most basic, fundamental and universal work with which an individual is tasked.

At the same time, we may observe that the undertaking of work relies upon the free engagement of an individual’s initiative. Work is free in nature, as opposed to a merely automatic process. For a particular task to be accomplished, an individual must exercise his or her freedom by choosing to do it: the task cannot accomplish itself. Thus work is distinctly personal, in that its accomplishment depends on the free action of a personal being. It may be contrasted with those processes which are dictated by the immovable laws of nature – Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc. Since work is not merely a naturally occurring process, but rather requires an individual to exercise his freedom, work comprises a challenge – or at least poses a question – to the human person. Work is, in this sense, vocational (from the Latin “vocare”: to call). It poses a question – “will you freely exert your effort in the undertaking of this or that task?” – to which the human person may respond yes or no.

Essential Professions: Parenthood, Home, Education

So far we have conducted a very basic reflection on what work is. It intrinsically comprises a process of “doing” – undertaking some task that is yet to be done – and it depends entirely on the individual’s free engagement with the process, to produce some kind of tangible outcome. Turning away from what we might commonly call “professional work”, we may observe that there are certain personal human endeavours which exhibit those very characteristics of work that we have described above. Firstly, as human beings we are called to bring ourselves (with the assistance of others) to personal maturity. Secondly, the majority of us are called to procreate and raise families. Thirdly, we are called to cultivate human civilization. Each of these tasks is work-like, in that each comprises a process in which we must freely engage, and see through to completion.

Although we have already suggested that these endeavours would not ordinarily fall under the banner of “professional work”, we will propose that the procreation and raising of children, and the cultivation of civilisation are indeed worthy of being deemed “professional work”. Moreover, we will suggest that these endeavours should be given at least the same degree of respect and recognition as are other forms of professional work in contemporary society.

To begin, we must first understand what is meant by “professional work”. The term itself derives from the root “profess” – to declare publicly. Ordinarily, then, when we talk about professional work, we understand this to incorporate work undertaken by human beings which involves some public dimension; some actual or formal contribution to public life – to the building and enhancing of society. Professional work is work in which the professional lays claim to a certain level of mastery, skill or commitment, and offers to put that skill to use in the service of others, usually for a fee.

Offering one’s services in a professional manner, and demanding payment for the performance of a given professional task, involves making a promise – sometimes an implied promise – of “good service”; a promise to produce a quality product. Inversely, the undertaking of a given professional task, and the completion of that task to a reasonably high standard, justifies the professional’s demand for payment, upon which the professional relies for subsistence. Through work, we are able “make a living” for ourselves and our families. In this sense, the interdependence that exists between a professional service provided by a person (which contributes in some way to human society), and the reward earned for such work, comprises an essential characteristic of professional work. We may further observe that by providing the means by which we sustain ourselves, professional work is integral to enabling the individual to continue to develop internally (i.e. to grow to personal maturity) and to be able to found a family. In a sense, professional work comprises an important nexus between the whole body of society and each individual person.

Focusing on the public character of professional work – the way in which it contributes to human society – we may observe that perhaps the most significant contribution to human society is made through the procreation and education of children. It may be trite to say so, but unless individuals endeavour to procreate, and to educate their children, the can be no human society to speak of. We have already noted that the procreation and raising of children may be seen to comprise a form of work, since each comprises a task whose completion depends on the free engagement of the individual. The very public character of these two endeavours, in that each is central to the continued existence of human society, leads us to propose that parenthood – both motherhood and fatherhood – may be viewed as a professional undertaking.

Casting motherhood and fatherhood in a professional light has the effect of re-establishing the importance of the family home, which is the environment which, when healthy, is most suited to enabling a person to consolidate the core of his character and successfully achieve personal maturity. At a time when the family is increasingly fractured in Western culture, the re-characterisation of motherhood and fatherhood as professional tasks helps to highlight in the public consciousness the effort which procreation and child-rearing demand, and the importance of giving these tasks the priority they deserve. It gives proper recognition to the importance of building strong, resilient families which alone are capable of providing that elusive “quality of life” so desperately yearned for by the young, the sick and the elderly in contemporary society.

Treating motherhood and fatherhood as true professions prevents family life from being subjugated to those limited forms “professional work” ordinarily recognised by society. It pays due regard to the importance of children’s education, from a human-natural perspective and also the spiritual and supernatural, and it recognises that education continues in the home, even when a child is engaged in other formal education or training. Indeed, it accepts that the most significant portion of human education occurs naturally in the “familiar” atmosphere of the family home.

In essence, regarding motherhood and fatherhood as professional tasks enables us to better understand that the family, as the cradle for our children, is therefore the cradle of the future of human society, and that cultivating healthy families is among the most important tasks an individual can undertake. It is suggested than any society that holds its culture in high esteem must, without hesitation, protect and proclaim the dignity and importance of parenthood.

In order for this shift in perception to come about, a radical change in other prevailing social attitudes is required. Men and women must be prepared to re-evaluate the way in which they see themselves and one another in the social sphere. As Pope John Paul II suggests in Familiaris Consortio, an important component of this re-evaluation “… requires that men should truly esteem and love women with total respect for their personal dignity, and that society should create and develop conditions favoring work in the home”.

In this way it can be seen that recognising parenthood as a truly professional undertaking presents a variety of challenges, for individuals, for parents, and for society at large. It means accepting that the roles of motherhood and fatherhood are essential to the healthy development of family life, and to the health of human society and culture. This, in turn, means approaching parenthood with a requisite level of professionalism, and giving its attendant tasks and activities an appropriately high place in the hierarchy of priorities which govern our lives as individuals, parents and as a community. But it also means cultivating a culture in which parenthood is afforded appropriate degree of respect and dignity, and recognising that quality parenting in an immensely valuable social asset which we cannot afford to take for granted.


1. John Paul II, Address of December 22, 1981, in which the Pope presented the new apostolic exhortation.

2 Familiaris Consortio, 23.3.


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Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (1968)

Weigel, George. Witness of Hope. The biography of Pope John Paul II (1999) Harper Collins, New York.

Wojtyla, Karol, Love and Responsibility (1960)

Wojtyla, Karol, Theology of the Body (1984)

Dr Rafael Hurtado Dominguez is the director of the Licenciatura en Administración y Dirección (Administration Management) at the Universidad Panamericana in Guadalajara, Mexico.