Do Stay-At-Home-Moms have a “Job”?

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Credit: Love, Elizabeth Photography

About a month ago, an article entitled “Being a Stay-at-Home Mother is Not a Job” by Liz Pardue-Schultz began circulating around the internet. Typically I try to stay out of anything that smells of “mommy wars,” but I’m currently staying home full-time, so I was intrigued.

Initially, I didn’t have strong opinions about the piece. In spite of its pointed title, the article has some good things to say. I agree with the author’s main premise that being a stay-at-home mom is a gift, and that gratefulness, rather than continual complaint, is an appropriate response. I also appreciated the author sharing her own complicated journey into the stay-at-home mom life, and I certainly wasn’t offended that she didn’t confer career status on full-time parenting. After all, I’ve written before that the title of “mom” shouldn’t appear on your resume, and I fully understand that staying home with my son isn’t the same as going to a job outside the home.

But over time, the piece started nagging at me. Perhaps you might say I fell victim to the author’s reader-enticing rhetoric, but I simply couldn’t overlook a few of the implicit assumptions she makes about work and motherhood. So, I’d like to respond to three myths I see buried in this article, in an attempt to offer some nuance about how we think about stay-at-home mothering.

Myth #1: If it’s not a paid job, it must be a hobby.

In her piece, Pardue-Schultz writes,

“No, Stay-at-Home-Mothers, choosing to create your own little person upon whom you’ll spend all your time and energy is a hobby. It is a time-consuming, sanity-deteriorating, life-altering hobby — a lot like a heroin addiction, but with more Thirty-One bags.”

Ahhh, that explains it: a drug addiction. I knew there was something this parenting thing kept reminding me of.

Obviously, some of this language is intended to be playful, but calling the activities of stay-at-home moms a “hobby” reveals a fairly common line of thinking: if you don’t get paid to do something, then it isn’t a job. “Something becomes a job when you are paid for it,” Elizabeth Wurzel wrote in a similar rebuff against the stay-at-home mom.

But when we limit our idea of jobs as only what is attached to a paycheck, we not only devalue the many unpaid but purposeful tasks we all do, but we also begin to draw arbitrary lines about whose work is more meaningful. Why is the work of a nanny a “job,” while taking care of my own child is a “hobby?” Is a homeschooling mom with an education degree merely playing, while her colleague in a traditional classroom is doing the real work? The distinctions can become easily muddled.

Personally, I think the terms “job” and “hobby” are both limiting. These terms create a false dichotomy that leaves no space for much of what we do in our day-to-day lives. So, I’ve started using a simpler and more comprehensive category to describe much of my life: “work.” Work can be anything we do with meaningful purpose; anything by which we expend energy and add value to the world.[1] This means work not only happens from 9 to 5, but also during those 3 a.m. feedings, while burning a vacation day to care for a sick kid, in the middle of coaching our kid’s soccer team, or while cleaning mud off the tile at 10 p.m., again.

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I think it’s good to acknowledge that the daily work of a stay-at-home-mom looks different from a work-at-home mom or full-time working mom — our challenges and struggles are not the same. But parenting is always legitimate work, no matter how you do it.[2]

Myth #2: Being a stay-at-home mom benefits no one outside of your own family.

“Whether you call it a ‘blessing’ or a ‘privilege,’ the fact remains that having someone else foot the bill for a lifestyle that only benefits you and your close family is by no means a ‘job.'”

The implication that stay-at-home moms offer no value to anyone outside of one’s immediate family is another fairly common belief. But this assumption overlooks the fact that parenting is, in itself, never an isolated endeavor. Those kids you’re teaching to share or that it’s not okay to hit little brother with a bat are precisely the little people that are going to be running society in a few years. For some families, one parent staying home during the day is the best arrangement that promotes healthy parenting in that family — and good parenting (in any form) always has influence beyond the walls of your home.

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Also, far from being only self and kid-focused, many stay-at-home moms are incredibly engaged in their communities – they volunteer in schools and community organizations, they frequent libraries and parks, they interact with their neighbors, and they do the simple yet incredibly important job of keeping an eye on the neighborhood during the day. [3]. I have stay-at-home mom friends who are doing everything from fostering children to starting schools to planting community gardens – all tasks that benefit others well beyond their own families.

Myth #3: Being a stay-at-home mom is always a choice.

“‘Mothering is the hardest job in the world!’ is a phrase I’ve grown to loathe … The mothers who don’t have time or interest in repeating that overused trope are the ones who recognize that the stay-at-home lifestyle is an incredible freedom they were in no way obligated to participate in, or are actually working to support the children they decided to contribute to society.”

The implication here – that staying home is something you are “in no way obligated to participate in” – is also a common sentiment. This is a tricky myth to address, because in some instances, it’s true. In our culture, women usually have educational and work opportunities (not always equal ones, but more than our counterparts in other parts of the globe), so for a woman to “choose” to stay home typically means she is privileged enough to have a working partner or other source of income. Not all women have this choice.

But that “choice” can still be complicated. Some stay-at-home moms legitimately have no choice, meaning they cannot find a job, or they can’t find one that offsets the high cost of childcare; as U.S. News and World Report cited last year, “in 36 states, the average annual cost of having a kid in daycare exceeds in-state college tuition.” Even the author’s own story highlights this dilemma, noting that if she continued working, her “paycheck … would just go back into childcare.” I also know stay-at-home moms who would choose to be working outside of the home if family circumstances were different — if her child didn’t have intensive medical or special needs, if her partner weren’t traveling so often, or if her company’s maternity policies had been more favorable.

None of that means that being a stay-at-home mom isn’t a privilege, but it means the choice – and the work that accompanies it – can still be challenging.

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It’s good to keep in mind that behind every work arrangement is a story – one we often don’t know, and one that is probably more complicated than we assume. While we shouldn’t avoid all critical dialogue about motherhood and work, we should be slow to draw conclusions about moms’ “choices” without asking about the stories behind them. No matter our daily routine, we’re all doing the valuable work of caring for our children and families – the full-time working mom is always mothering, and the full-time stay-at-home mom is always working. And that is work worth celebrating.

To celebrate the different expressions of how moms work, KCMB will be starting a “Ways Moms Work” series Friday, in which contributors will document the many ways they work in a single day. We hope this series will champion all of the work moms do, both in and out of the home, and encourage our readers to find meaning in their own work as well.

 [1] My definition here is influenced by this sermon.

[2] Pardue-Schultz does say that being a stay-at-home mom is “hard work,” but she undermines this by later calling it a “hobby.”

[3] Research is clear that a “safe street is produced by eyes on the street.” The Abundant Community by John McKnight and Peter Block, page 19.

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