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St Zelie Martin was not a tradwife

Parental saints: The relics of Sts Louis and Zélie will join their daughter in Australia.

WORKING mothers – despite the term being a reality for many families, pockets of the Church still gnash their teeth at the thought of a mum earning a living to support the family.

Some say it’s a sin (it isn’t) or that it makes no sense having a dual-income family (they obviously haven’t had to pay a mortgage in 2020).

I’ve been a working mother for six months now, juggling the demands of writing for a busy archdiocesan newspaper and caring for a mischievous toddler.

My husband and I are both conscious of the rising costs of living, and feel it necessary for both of us to take equal responsibility caring for our family, which is supported in Paragraph 2228 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

While my days are structured so I can be free to care for my daughter outside of work hours, it’s tricky to be so black-and-white.

Last month was a perfect example – the relics of three saints that are making a pilgrimage across Australia were scheduled to visit a parish just 30 minutes from our home.

Their visit was scheduled on a work day, but the timing was off – I would need to extend my daughter’s day-care hours to make the visit; an easy fix, but not one without traces of guilt.

There’s a movement of mothers who say I don’t have to live with this tussle between the demands of a job and a vocation to motherhood, that I should feel free to just stay at home to be a mum.

“Tradwives”, short for traditional wives, are a new breed of mothers who reject 21st century expectations for mothers to return to work some time after giving birth.

While possibly a reaction to radical feminist movements, tradwives feel called to stay home to serve, submit and support their husbands “like it’s 1959”.

Husband works and, for some tradwives, “pays” for the wife to stay home – all while documenting her “choice” on social media.

The life of one saint, whose reliquary I touched last month while on a reporting assignment, sits in stark contrast to this modern movement, and she lived in what could be considered a more traditional era – the 19th century.

St Zelie Martin’s life is spilled out in a book, A Call to Deeper Love, containing 216 unabridged and honest letters penned by the French saint, and 16 by her husband St Louis Martin.

St Zélie’s letters are a 19th century version of a blogging mum, except she didn’t reject work – she embraced it and was the breadwinner of the family.

Yes, the mother of St Therese of Lisieux, the greatest saint in modern times, was a working mother of nine children, four of whom died young.

On the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1851, before she was married, St Zélie heard a voice telling her to learn the art of Alençon lace.

It was considered the finest needle lace-making technique in Europe, originating in Alençon, where St Zélie would eventually meet her husband, St Louis.

St Zélie became one of Alençon’s finest and most famous manufacturers, helping to recover its popularity through the Industrial Revolution.

Her business was so successful that her husband, St Louis, sold his watchmaking business and left his career endeavours behind to enter into a partnership with his wife, working the books and marketing for her company.

St Zélie not only embroidered the lace herself, but as business boomed, she employed other women, nine on record, and taught each enough to support her business.

The lace was sought after, both locally and internationally, demanding long hours in her workshop with her husband, while at times young children danced – and probably tripped – around their feet.

St Zélie admits in her letters that the work was burdensome and exhausting, but she saw it as part of her vocation, not something to give up because of children, but to keep for the sake of her children.

In many ways her letters reveal that she sometimes loathed her laborious work; for example, one penned on November 7, 1865: “When I have too many orders, I’m a slave to the worst kind of slavery”.

What’s revealed in the letters of St Zélie is the desire for the couple to work together to provide for their family, not leaving it to one half or the pair.

The decision paid off for them in the heartbreaking moment St Zelie died of breast cancer, aged 45, when St Therese was only four years old.

The money St Zelie’s business made, plus bonuses from purchases in shares, was enough to cover the living expenses for her surviving family, and to allow her husband to retire early.

As I touched St Zélie’s reliquary, knowing full well she would have approved of me going about my job as a journalist that afternoon, I felt at peace knowing that my way of mothering looked something like hers.

It’s a message that is needed now more than ever, as families struggle to make ends meet with a growing national debt hanging over our heads.

We need mothers like St Zélie, who don’t live for fads and social movements, but who just do what is necessary to provide the best lives, both physically and spiritually, for our families.

And if that means the call to work, accepting it as God’s good will.

Written by: Emilie Ng
Catholic Church Insurance

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