I might be a stay-at-home mom. This is not something I have ever considered before because I work 35 hours a week, albeit in my bedroom, while someone else cares for my child. To be fair, I lack a strict definition of “stay-at-home mom”—likely a result of my dislike of the term and how it incorrectly links the passive “stay” with the very active domestic sphere. (I do a whole lot more “staying-at-home” while working than I do while mothering.) Still, I believed that both earning money and spending most of the work day away from my son easily disqualifies me from whatever exactly a stay-at-home mom is.
But the results from a recent Redbook survey about the daily lives of stay-at-home moms have complicated this assumption. They’ve made me realize how fluid, and therefore ultimately useless, a concept the stay-at-home mom is. They’ve also made me see how bad our reliance on the term is for all parents, regardless of how they spend their days.
The survey, designed by writer and time-use expert Laura Vanderkam, asked 558 self-identified stay-at-home moms about their lives, responsibilities, and daily routines. The most surprising thing she discovered was “the blurred line between staying at home and working,” because “most of today’s stay-at-home moms aren’t just taking care of their kids—they’re caretaking and working.” Among the moms they surveyed: 62 percent contribute to the household income; 34 percent work an average of 4.5 hours a day and earn income; 23 percent volunteer often and are “heavily involved with school and activities”; 19 percent are parents with children under the age of 2, 59 percent of whom plan to go back to work in the near future; and 12 percent are caregivers with special-needs children.
So is the mom who spends 20 hours a week volunteering at school a stay-at-home mom? What about the one who plans to go back to work after her child turns one or two? (That’s a period of time that in other countries would be called “maternity leave.”) Is a woman who works a 30-35 hour week from home while her children are in school a stay-at-home mom? Was my husband a stay-at-home parent during the five months he took off to write a book, during which he worked approximately the same number of hours and increased his domestic contributions? What about the mom who spends most of her day tending to a child with special needs? I’m not asking these questions because I think they need to be answered. I’m asking them up because they illustrate how muddy, and ridiculous, the notion of a “stay-at-home” parent is. It’s time to ditch the term.
The perpetuation of “stay-at-home mom” as an identity marker deceives us into believing that there are divisions between women that just aren’t there. Get rid of it, and we would be relieved of a whole lot of frustrating playground politics and defensive, sometimes supercilious think pieces comparing moms who go to the office and moms who don’t. Also, new moms might be less inclined to feel angst and self-doubt after they slowed down or stopped working if the specter of “stay-at-home mom” wasn’t there to haunt them. Same for the new moms who guiltily proceed with their careers while all those other moms who could afford to, or wanted to, “stayed” with their kids. The unncessary drama that comes from figuring out which type of labor is most valuable, on an indiviudal and societal level, and who is doing more of it, would be no more. Instead, we could put our energy toward fighting for a societal shift that would benefit all parents who work (which is to say, all parents): an acknowledgment of the importance of carework.
(I understand social scientists need a way to distinguish between moms who are in the labor force and moms who aren’t. They could easily carry on making this disctinction without relying on the term “stay-at-home mom.”)
Writing for the New York Times, journalist Judith Shulevitz recently argued for a new type of feminism that she’s calling caregiverism, one that acknowledges that women’s liberation won’t be complete until we acknowledge the contributions to society that happen at home, too. This revolution would include improved parental leave policies, affordable childcare, as well as some sort of universal basic income or Social Security program for unpaid caregivers so that taking care of one’s children or parents doesn’t pose a risk to one’s economic security.
Shulevitz points out that this shouldn’t be interpreted as a counter-revolution to all that glass-ceiling shattering women have focused on in recent decades, as there is “a venerable tradition in feminist history of trying to overturn a status quo that esteems professionals and wage-earners while demeaning those who do the unpaid or low-paid work of emotional sustenance and physical upkeep.” Simply put, carework is real work. Or, in other words, “Why is producing cars more valuable than producing children?” as Silvia Federici, a founder of the New York chapter of Wages for Housework, asked Shulevitz. This is a question that all parents should be asking, no matter what kind of work they are doing, where they are doing it, and whether or not they are getting paid for it.