I want to finally end the bullshit of dividing women into categories of stay-at-home mom or working mom.
This is not just semantics: we are all working. It’s more than that. Here’s why.
Before I had my first child, in 2002, I had been bouncing between corporate jobs and fast-paced startups ten years, and I was earning a solid, six-figure salary. But I didn’t go back because I didn’t want to miss time with my son. By the time I had the baby we had used up all our savings (my husband, also, was not working), but I still didn’t go back to an office job because I wanted to stay home with my son.
But we needed money. So I wrote columns from our kitchen counter (I didn’t have a desk) when my son was sleeping. Sometimes I wrote columns while he was breastfeeding. I was deliriously tired, but I had to earn money.
I felt like I was a stay-at-home mom, because that was the most important thing to me: To stay home with my son, so I refused all overtures to take an office job. But I still supported the family.
I have a friend who has three kids under the age of six. She quit her teaching job to be a stay-at-home mom. Her husband has a job at a startup and he works long hours. But she has a job, too. She earns about as much money writing book reviews sporadically as I did writing my one column. But the family does not depend on her money. She does the job because it’s interesting to her. She and her husband call her a stay-at-home mom.
The difference between the two of us was not the amount of hours we worked, or the amount of time we were with our kids. It was the portion of the family’s income that each of us earned.
Here’s another example: Both parents work from home. Is the woman a stay-at-home mom? I think so. Because she’s at home. But if you ask them at a cocktail party, who they are, the dad will say what he does for a living. The mom? Who knows what she’ll say? Maybe stay at home mom, or maybe she’ll talk about her career.
I know that’s what I used to do. When I hung out with stay-at-home moms, that’s what they thought I was. When I hung out with working moms, that’s what they thought I was. I heard both sides talking about the other. And you know what? It’s insane. Women don’t even know what to label themselves, let alone each other.
To people in Darlington, WI, where I live, I’m a mom with a big career. To my friends who live in the city and work 100 hour weeks, I’m a stay-at-home mom. So much of the labeling, I think, is not about the woman and the live she leads, but what that life looks like relative to the people around her.
It’s impossible to have a venture-backed startup and work less than 100 hours a week (which is why so few women do it). So, those of you who are working 40 hour weeks, I wonder—should you say you are working outside the home? Maybe not. Maybe you are stay-at-home moms. If you want to be.
Maybe the only people who are not stay-at-home moms are the ones who do not have custody of their kids. Or the ones who travel all month. But wait. What if you are gone one week of the month, but home the whole rest of the month? Stay-at-home or not? Because you are more at home than a part-time working mom.
So let’s just stop using these labels. They are not useful. What would be really productive is to get some language that helps women to convey what they are doing with their lives.
For example: What are you focusing on right now? That’s a good way to learn about someone.
This is an interesting way to find out about someone without pigeonholing them.
You know what? If fathers had any of their own confusion issues with being stay-at-homers then there wouldn’t be such a huge divide, pay-wise, between men with kids and women with kids. The pay gap speaks for itself: Men are not drawn to kids the way women are. They are more drawn to outside-the-home validation.
So. Now I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m working about 35 hours a week, but relative to how I had been working, this is part-time work. It’s scary to tell people I’m not working full time because all the good jobs will dry up. And it’s scary to tell people when I’m not home with my kids because I only get one chance in my life to do that. The labels are most scary because they tell you what you gave up. And the scariest thing about adult life is what we give up.
What women try to do today is give up nothing. Which is impossible. Because look, we can’t even find a word for it. You know how we couldn’t prosecute for date rape until we had a word for date rape? Well, we can’t live a life where we have work and kids until we have a word for doing it.
I think I am doing it. But the only word I can think of to name it is scared.
It’s weird. I have everything I aimed to have: All the time I want for my kids. I make my own schedule. I control how much money I make based on how much I want to work. I am doing the work I love most. How can it be that it’s hard for me? And, if it’s hard for me, it must be really hard for everyone else.
Maybe the truth is that the words we were using — stay at home mom, working mom — these were all patronizing words and what we should have used was more straightforward: adult. Because adult life is scary and lonely and we only get it feeling right in short-lived spurts.