Everyone agrees: The term “stay-at-home mom” is no good. Yet no one agrees on what label would be better. Now that the percentage of American women identifying as SAHMs is on the rise—according to a new Pew survey out this month, “The share of mothers who do not work outside the home rose to 29% in 2012, up from a modern-era low of 23% in 1999”—it seems like a good time to revisit what we should call women who care for their children full time. I believe that a better alternative has been with us all along, hiding in plain sight: “homemaker.”
In a 1976 interview in Good Housekeeping, first lady Betty Ford spoke up for the word “homemaker.” According to the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf:
The First Lady, “so outspoken in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment and legalized abortion,” made her position clear. “We have to take the ‘just’ out of ‘just a housewife’ and show our pride in having made the home and family our life’s work,” she said. “A woman who is satisfied with her life at home is just as liberated as a woman with a career outside the home.” She suggested that the word “homemaker” should replace “housewife,” dubbed them “the backbone of our society,” and avowed that while her career as a dancer, fashion model and fashion coordinator was fulfilling, “I would’ve missed something if I hadn’t been a homemaker.”
The term, for a time, stuck. But in the early ’90s, when roughly equal numbers of women and men had undergrad degrees, women who were primarily mothers advocated for a change in terminology to reflect their new seriousness about parenting as a career choice. Lisa Belkin recounts that it was “only in the early 1990s, when women rightly objected to both [‘housewife’ and ‘homemaker’] because they made raising children more about the home than the kids, did the term stay-at-home-mother enter the language.” Parenting was now a job—as high-octane and important as any thing any woman was doing out of the home. The first mention in the New York Times of a “stay-at-home mom,” in 1992, was used to describe Cheryl Leach, who “had a master’s degree in education and experience as a schoolteacher” and went on, with a friend, to create the children’s TV phenomenon Barney & Friends.
It is not merely coincidental that the person first described in the paper of record as a “stay-at-home mom” is a highly educated and experienced professional who went on to become a wildly successful television producer. The goal-oriented, accomplished mothers of the Clinton era did not want to think of themselves as being like their housewife mothers; they needed new language to differentiate themselves from previous generations. “Stay-at-home mom” became the domestic career of the career woman age.
In the last 20 years, though, the term has become weighed down by Mommy Wars baggage, its meaning warped by a hundred parenting philosophies and the eventual backlash to them. The most surprising finding in that Pew report is that SAHMs aren’t actually the Opt Out types our culture has imagined them to be. As Jessica Grose wrote in Slate, “SAHMs are younger, less likely to be white, more likely to be foreign-born, less likely to be college educated, and more likely to live in poverty than working moms.” Most of these mothers aren’t choosing to stay home so that they can micromanage every aspect of their precious children’s upbringing. Many are home because they can’t find work, or at least can’t find work that pays more than the money they would have to shell out for child care. And yet, the stereotypical image of the SAHM persists. To correct the image, and advocate for policies based on who really needs them, we need to change the term.
Not everyone agrees with my suggestion. I reached out to Emily Matchar, author of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, to see what she thinks of reclaiming “homemaker.” She’s not a fan, writing in an email that “Homemaker implies a certain level of interest and proprietary feeling over the workings of the home—cooking, cleaning, making things, whatever. Plenty of stay-at-home parents have no interest in this stuff, and might not even be responsible for it. A stay-at-home parent might care for the kids, while their working partner cooks and cares for the house in their off-hours.” Grose agrees. In a post in which she advocates ditching “SAHM,” she dismisses “homemaker” as a viable alternative, saying it “connotes domestic drudgery.”
It is true that everyone hates chores. Most SAH parents are women, and most women already do a disproportionate number of them, in addition to child care. But homemaking is not the same thing as housekeeping. Though it may also include certain mundane but necessary domestic tasks, homemaking, as I envision it, is less about scrubbing toilets and more about that old saying “Home is where the heart is.” Homemaking is about creating and maintaining a healthy and loving environment for everyone in the family—kids, spouses, and the homemaker his- or herself—and fostering your family’s relationship to the wider community.
I ran my pitch for “homemaker” by historian and gender studies scholar Stephanie Coontz, who explained to me that homemaking has always been a varied and multifaceted endeavor. “Homemaking was once about much more than raising children,” she emailed me. “Domesticity was traditionally a word that applied to a wide range of activities that reached beyond the home and in which men were involved as well. It meant raising and producing food and clothes, organizing exchanges of goods and services with neighbors, pitching in when other families needed help. Interestingly, it did not mean just concentrating on the couple relationship or the mother-child relationship, or even just the wellbeing of the nuclear household. It meant all the non-monetary exchanges and relationships that kept a community going.”
Advocating for the term “homemaker” does not mean hoping for a return to housewives, women for whom maintaining appearances—apple-cheeked children and sparkling kitchen counters—was the highest priority. Instead, it means detaching ourselves from passé gender norms and broadening our idea of what it means to be the parent who steps out of the professional workforce. A homemaker is a parent who prioritizes the home rather than the house, and the family as a whole, rather than merely the children.