Friday, October 21, 2005

Stay-at-home Moms: What's Wrong with This Definition?

I think this point deserved an oritinal posting. By now, it is obvious to everyone that what parents do inside and outside the home is work. Whoever does not understand that, let me know, and I will yell at you (I'm very good at that).

However, whoever coined the phrase "stay-at-home mom"? When I hear "stay-at-home," the image that comes to mind is not frantic running around with the diapers, feeding, cleaning, cooking. It's a leisurly lunch followed by shopping and some light reading in the afternoon. Which "stay-at-home mom" does that?

So I think 2 things:

1. Forgive the sexism, but a guy must have coined the term "stay-at-home" mom.
2. If it were the "work-at-home" mom, not "stay-at-home" mom, there would be much less animosity among the women who work inside and outside the home. Basically, they (I don't exactly know who "they" are, but still . . . ) got us to doubt each other by the oldest "divide and conquer" trick.

I find this sad (ok, it pisses me off, but I thought it was more refined to say "I find this sad").


Blogger Christine said...

Excellent post!

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It always seemed to me that both groups (the "working" and the "stay at home" moms) got it a little bit wrong in their defense of their choices.
Some say that having a small child spend the majority of his/her waking day in a day care setting is no big deal.
That didn't feel right to me when my son was born, and I was lucky enough to find work that limited my need for outside child care (not an option for everyone, I realize--my husband's benefits covered us so I could freelance).
But the portrayal of motherhood as a job that requires one's full attention 24/7 didn't ring true either, and I found it irritating when self-righteous stay-at-home types pretended that it did.
My experience (having switched from a professional career to working from home for 12 years while rearing three children who are now 12, 10, and 9) is that especially after the first exhausting year or so, children don't need your constant attention. They often need you only part of the day. The catch is that you never know which part it's going to be on a given day.

10:50 PM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

I have a two-yr-old and spent the first year at home full-time. I spent the second year at work full-time. Both are difficult and involve trade-offs, but I was much more exhausted the year I stayed home. Being a stay-at-home parent was extremely challenging for me!

One of the sad parts about going back to outside work for me is that my relationship with the work-at-home moms on my block changed dramatically when I got a new job. One jokingly calls me "traitor." She laughs when she says it, but she acts like she does feel betrayed. And I feel guilty when I come home from school, and she asks how I can stand to drop off my daughter at daycare. And then I say something about how much I like my job and the social interaction my daughter gets at daycare. (and she cringes. I know she enjoyed her professional career before she had her daughter) I almost hide from my neighbor (my confidant and friend a year ago!) to avoid this conversation. We hurt each other in the process of validating our own choices.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Nice post and comments! I agree with all that's been said. I have always found the "stay-at-home mom" v. "work outside the home mom" distinction to be incomprehensible. I think it's partly because of the way I grew up. I grew up on a farm. Both of my parents worked "outside the home," in the sense that they were often out of the house, though they were still on the farm. In the summer, from as early as I can remember, our job as kids was either to help with some chores or to just "go play outside" once breakfast was over. The family usually regrouped for lunch and we all helped together at dinner and milking time at the end of the day. Of course, if a kid got hurt or had a question of something, mom or dad could be tracked down fairly easily, usually. But most days my parents both worked a lot and we had to entertain ourselves. I realize that it must have been different before I was, say, three or four years old, when I couldn't be trusted to not hurt myself in the yard or on the swings or whatever. But even then, I think they often just stayed near and did work while I played in the sandbox or something.

So I didn't start to realize until maybe third grade or something that in most of my friends' households "work" meant "work outside the home," and that the other work wasn't counted. It wasn't like that at my house. It was all just work, wahtever we were doing, cooking, cleaning, feeding animals, milking cows, working in the fields, working in the garden, putting up wood for the winter, whatever.

I do not want to romanticize a farm childhood - it was not idyllic, and probably my parents left us too much to our own devices. I'm just discussing my experience to try to explain my perspective regarding arguments about whether and how moms should "work." When the "stay-at-home or work" debate is articulated, I often feel confused and left out. Even though I'm now a work-outside-the-home mom, I still don't really separate the spheres that much in my head. I think of day care and the caretakers and other kids there as an extension of our family. I focus on my work when I'm working and my family when I'm with them. And as long as the balance is good, I don't feel too guilty when I'm at work. It seems natural and right for me to do my work, work that I love and that I'm good at. I hate to drop Gus off to day care if he's crying, but thankfully he's usually not crying. And if he is, I also remember times when I wanted to play with my mom rather than play with my sister while my mom worked, and his situation doesn't seem that much worse than my experience. I imagine that the working moms called "stay-at-home-moms" have those crying experiences too. I think we're all working moms, and I think if we're honest, most of us -- maybe not all, but the majority -- would like some balance of kid-time and non-kid-time in our lives, at least after when our kids are out of infancy. So I refuse to give credence to this big divide between us.

The other weird perspective that seems to be a remnant of my childhood is my understanding of a "work ethic." Everyone in my family worked hard, and worked a lot. But we all understood that it was for the family, and that our family and friends were most important. And except in cases of emergency (i.e., cows escape to someone else's property) or for a business trip or something (yes, farmers have business!), neither of my parents would be away at dinner time. So I was shocked when I entered law practice and realized that so many professionals were working 10, 12, 14+ hour days. I don't see the "ethic" in that work ethic.

I guess this is a long way of saying that I wish that rather than arguing about whether and how moms should work (there's no debate about that - yes, all of them, and lots lots lots - no getting around it!), the debate was framed in terms of (1) what is good for kids and their parents, and (2) the amount of time that people's work requires them to be apart from their families, especially parents or other people with family responsibilities. Based on my life experience to this point, I tend to believe that (1) different things are good for different kids and different parents, but that for the vast majority of families, a certain amount of routine, unscheduled together time is a plus; and (2) workplaces could and should be more flexible to enable people to accomplish useful work and still spend enough time with their families to make family life enjoyable.

9:02 PM  

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