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.

Something I remember from living in Park Slope – land of overachieving and overfunded parents—is that moms would meet each other and ask, on the playground, “What did you do before you had kids?”

This is an interesting way to find out about someone without pigeonholing them.

Dad’s don’t have this problem. If they’re unemployed, they are a stay-at-home dad. If they have any kind of job that is not kids, that’s what they say they do.

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.

Or lost.

Or lonely.

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.

112 replies
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  1. Barbara C
    Barbara C says:

    Bright and shining post. Thank you for bringing moms together rather than differentiating them into absurd categories. Though I do not have children, I do have elderly parents who require care; it is just another form of “mother” at a different end of the age spectrum.

  2. Ann
    Ann says:

    I am a mom with 2 kids, 8 and 3. I stopped working when my youngest was born, but I found a new way without leaving them. I’m a freelancer, working at home mom.

  3. traci zeller designs
    traci zeller designs says:

    Penelope, this is brilliant. You so accurately captured how I – and I’m sure so many other women – feel. I am an interior designer and blogger – yet I often call myself a stay-at-home mom … because I don’t go to an office or work regular hours … or, for that matter, have a set child care schedule (other than preschool) to give me time to work.

  4. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    Thank you for this. I’m officially a year into being a SA/WFHM – I was on medical & maternity leave for 15 months before deciding to pack it in (I live in Canada, btw). I don’t regret doing it at all. If I did go back to work full-time, I would have to get a second job in order to pay for childcare alone, so we’ve been happily living on mostly one income (I’m a year into starting my own handmade business). It’s a struggle, but it’s also a series of learning experiences for all of us.

  5. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    I think this is so interesting, and it reminds me of a comment I left on your blog – now probably years ago – about your life as a stay-at-home-mom, which you responded that, in fact, you weren’t. So I’ve thought at different points since then about how important these discussions are – about what the definition is, and what the perception is, and who gets to define what it is that you are doing?

    My husband works from home now. And it’s interesting, because there are a lot of things we can call what he does. For me, it’s easiest to say he’s a graphic designer, because that’s something people understand, and they get that it means he has a career. But when I introduced him to new neighbors recently as such, I found out that really, he’d rather be called a cartoonist or an illustrator. Since that’s really what he does. Which makes sense, since it’s a more precise term. To him. But I wonder if it’s a more precise thing to others, or if it is less clear. So I still don’t know how to label what he does, exactly, but I can certainly talk about it.

    And I think this issue is like that too. It’s easy to talk about it – although we don’t talk about it enough. But not so easy to label it. And there’s something important about the label. Not just for the all the moms trying to figure out what to call themselves, but for those who will become moms someday, too.

  6. Laura
    Laura says:

    This is in some way how I feel about bisexuality. People seem to think that there is this line where if you have sex with men and women you are bisexual. But then then bisexuality has a definition that suggests an equal interest in men and women. And more than that, by it’s inclusion in the gay/straight dialectic the term assumes a sort of contextual relevance that makes it an issue of not only sexuality but radical identity.

    Just like, if you are a mom who stays at home you are a stay at home mom.. But then the impression of stay at home mom means something very culturally specific about your relationship with society. In today’s world the very concept of a stay at home mother recalls the dialectic of traditional vs. conservative family roles. And with most women wanting at least some kind of career, the idea of the ‘traditional’ stay at home mother takes a context of a radical rejection of status quo.

    So even though the decisions about work or choices about sexuality make up an important part of our lives, they don’t have the symbolic meaning to us that some how they are ‘supposed to’. You aren’t “that kind” of stay at home mom, and I’m not “that kind” of bisexual. That is to say, rebelling against gender norms is not a big deal in my life and I don’t feel like my sex life plays much into my personal identity. Similarly, I imagine your motivations to work the amount you do are not based on an ideological position about the role of women, but rather it reflects the practical way you best see to balance your home and $ goals.

    So we have to take to task the symbolic baggage of people for whom our choices would be controversial. Even though, that controversy is all but irrelevant in our day to day. These issues are not about ideological positioning or identity, but about practical details of our lives. I am sure in the next few generations, as more options are put forward as acceptable choices for women the use of these terms in the sense of identity will become anachronistic, just like the visual cue of hair length no longer carries the context of age or political position like in the early 60s, and using the internet no longer implies you are a white male of a certain age and with a certain education.

    Its issues like this that peel up the corners of feminism so we can see where the stress points of previous generations were. And the dissonance felt regarding these terms are like places where privilege has scarred over oppression in my opinion. Our positions of privilege at this time outweigh our respective gender statuses. And I hope that things continue like this until gender status is not something people have to stake their identity on at all. Who you are should be a bigger picture than who you disagree with.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love this comment, Laura. Thanks. It reminds me of the papers I wrote in graduate school about sexuality and gender politics. Except that you know what you’re talking about :)


  7. michael
    michael says:

    Nice post. It made me wonder, what do you actually do for those 35 hours? I know you blog. I know you’ve delegated certain functions and responsibilities to others. I know you appear at certain company functions.

    But I’d be really interested in a post that breaks down a weeks’ worth of work for you. I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes in a company like yours once the general ideas about a company’s general direction are laid down.

  8. Sai
    Sai says:

    To all “stay-at-home” moms:

    When I was 13, we had our first career class in school and the teacher asked the class what does everyone wish to be when they grow up, the list goes like this: doctor, lawyer, astronaut, police officer, teacher…. When it was my turn, I said stay-home mom. I remember the teacher was in such a shock, she said something close to I discriminate women, and it’s not funny to make fun of them. It was also followed by a class full of dirty looks.

    12 years have passed, I still wish I can be a stay-home mom. I don’t have any kids yet, but when I do I hope I’ll be lucky enough to start my own business so I can take care of my babies and work part time for myself. (In fact, people are still pretty shocked when I tell them I want to be a stay-home mom).

    So thumbs up to all you ladies who work hard for your families and have the courage to follow your dreams!

  9. Hazel
    Hazel says:

    Bored with nature/nurture? So men who find themselves in an anomalous position are just weird?

    It was once anomalous for a woman to want a career. And some, if not many, women still have a goal of being financially supported by a husband. But feminism has worked to make easier for women to have individual success and power. Can’t it also help to let men be dads?

    I guess if you believe that women are inherently superior; able to do it all, while all men can do is play with their swords, then you’re happy to decide that women naturally own the realm of nurturing children. Is it the one gender characteristic that is not relative?

  10. Dee
    Dee says:

    I enjoyed reading this post because I have alot of thoughts about the Mommy Wars labeling you speak of. I like your perspective on it.

    I never understand why stay at home moms frame their lifestyle as “taking care of their babies/home” or “raising their own kids”. Putting kids in daycare is the same as their going to school later in life. They still bear the VALUES of their family, not the school. No one worries that PS 37 Elementary is going to stamp their kids with values that conflict with family values. Family is paramount- for the good or the bad, in some cases. For the same reason that schools can’t overcome bad parenting.

    Anyway. I used to work in daycare, and if it’s a good place, children have a great time with adults who tend to their needs and play with them, often with boundless ideas for fun and developmentally engaging activities. Most kids love their time at their “school”, while mom and dad remain Numero Uno in their hearts. It’s fine if stay at home moms want to stay at home, but I dislike that tone such moms take that what they’re doing is somehow better for their child’s well-being than those who choose (or must) go to an office everyday, and leave their kids in the care of caring, compentent, and interesting adults, as well as other children to play and interact with.

  11. Faith
    Faith says:

    Thanks so much for writing this, Penelope.

    I’m not a mom yet (though it’s been on my mind since I had a miscarriage a month ago… thanks also for your previous posts on miscarriage, tweeting, etc) — but I struggle with the work labels too. And though sometimes I wish we lived in a world without labels, more often I wish we had more accurate labels.

    When people ask me what I DO, I usually answer with the truth: I work as a theater artist. But then I get quizzical looks, since the kind of theater I make is considered “experimental” and “unusual” and “fucking wierd” (talk about labels) so they can’t imagine I’m making any money. And I’m not — this is a full time occupation, with part time compensation at best. So I usually follow it up with “but I do other things to pay the bills.”

    However, since I got laid off last year from doing the other thing (which was a lame office job), I now get unemployment. But I’m not going to tell people I’m unemployed when they ask me what I do, because that would be boring, and it really doesn’t give an accurate picture of how I spend my time.

    So it’s usually just a big confusing conversation. When I’m talking to other artists they immediately understand what I’m talking about. Of course we’re all stitching together various jobs in order to make money and follow our passions.

    It makes me wonder what I’ll do when I have a child — first of all, will I be able to keep making theater, or will I have to drop that so I can do more things that make money? Either way, I can’t envision a scenario in which being a total stay at home mom is even possible. The question is, how much of the work I do will be something I enjoy doing?

  12. David Roberts
    David Roberts says:

    Very good post. The only thing that I would argue, speaking as a man, is that I would love to be able to work from home, or simply stay-at-home. Perhaps I am an oddball, but I think one of the most important thing that any of us do is raise, our kids. My validation would come from being a good dad. I do not need any validation from the outside world.

  13. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    I like this post. It make me feel hopeful. Because this work/life balance you describe – it’s not black or white, it’s a gray. And it’s inevitable. For me for most all of my colleagues and friends.

  14. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Along the lines of the first person who commented on this post… artists face similar prejudice. Like motherhood, it is a low prestige vocation that you care a lot about, and you usually have to balance it with some other paying job. So what do you say when someone asks what you do? Are you an artist or a Gap worker?

  15. Runeatrepeat
    Runeatrepeat says:

    I love how you point out it’s all from the point of view of the labeler or labelee. Also, that the amount of money is a factor. We should throw out labels because everyone’s household is so different.

  16. Michele
    Michele says:

    My God, you hit the nail on the head for me with this one! I have been struggling all year since I left a job in Architecture because I was so behind in pay that I figured I could work for free at home doing what I want be in charge of my destiny. I love the IDEA of being my own boss, but my biggest challenge I’ve discovered is my own ego. Telling people what I’m doing right now is not as glamorous as what I was doing and even though I don’t want to go back to that, the labels drive me nuts. I was the main bread winner and to have to ask my husband for money now is the hardest pill I’ve had to swallow! Thanks Penelope! I love & need your insights!

  17. Heather
    Heather says:

    Thanks for the post. It couldn’t come at a better time. I currently divide my time between my home office and client sites, and I was just offered a job at a great company, but would require a 1-hour commute every day, each way, and would totally change our lifestyle. I declined the offer, as I was just not willing to give up the flexibility I have to attend my kid’s functions. It was a jumble of emotions to decline this offer. Between the career trajectory concerns, the “am I lazy”questions, and the “what kind of mother would give up this flexibility” internal discussions, I really struggled. Clearly I am not the only one that struggles with this.

  18. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    this was so wonderful.
    I am a Mom with a full-time job on the side. My husband sold his 30 year plumbing buisness when our son was born almost 3 years ago, thinking he’d take a year off to slow down and spend time with us (me/baby etc) and then start up a new buisness for semi-retirement.

    I was supposed to return (because my job has the benefits we need) but at a part time basis.
    the economy changed a lot of that.
    So we minimized our life, can’t afford full time day care and really don’t want to. He is home with our son now, I had to go back full time (although it deeply saddens me) He does the day with our son and I get nights. Also He handles most of all the ick (bills and yard work) and I really am free to give our son my full attention when I am home. I also still cook, clean and do laundry, shop etc (the “ick” he hates)
    it’s a perfect balance even though I would much rather not be trying to cram motherhood from 6 to 9 pm and weekends. Our son is getting a great bond time with us both.

    My husband REALLY appreciates what I do for our family and I really appreciate what he does.
    we run in pretty small circles so I don’t have to address the “what do you do bit” too often. Most people know I’m all about my family even when I am at my desk 40 hours a week doing boring paperwork.

    When I chose my next “job” when I can finally hang my hat at the day job I will still need to do something (because I always need to be doing more than my day to day stuff) I want to find a very creative outlet and make some money at it (the amount is really not important)…someday. :)
    Something I love, it will probably involve nurturing children (go figure)

    The only people that have issue with our needs/choices is our family. JEEZ
    some are bitter my husband is home and I am at the job. But really, I get a breather, he does what I don’t like and I do what he doesn’t and other than missing the faces I love when I am away, it’s all good.
    I consider myself lucky.

    also, I know a few people that “worked at home” while raising their young children and they felt they were always torn between giving them their attention and having to get the work done. One lady friend I have said that was really hard for her youngest and she regrets it.

    I always think of that because at least when I am home, I am home and when I am at the job I can focus on that, partly becasue Husband is at home handling the home front, and not daycare, where I would worry more.
    thanks for a great great and much needed topic

  19. Anoop
    Anoop says:

    I agree with the notion that just because a mother, or any woman, stays at home to work, it does not mean she is a “stay-at-home” mother. In fact, depending on how many children a family has, many “stay-at-home” mothers are working harder than their husbands. The same exact concept goes to the increasing number of “stay-at-home” fathers as well.

  20. Taryn
    Taryn says:

    Whew. What a sigh of relief. You ALWAYS make me feel like I am not alone. I am a single mom…a student…and working to put food on the table for me and my daughter.
    I am making it hard on myself now (going to school) in hopes that SOMEDAY, I will have my own schedule. I have come to realize that I am the ONLY one responsible for my own happiness. I have to reach for the stars and take the daily battles of life as they come, because no one else is going to do it for me!

    But thank you so much. This really hit home for me!

  21. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    I work, go to school online & still take care of most of the duties regarding my family. But I have noticed that when my fiance says he is a stay at home dad the level of sympathy & respect rises more so if I were to proclaim that title myself. This is why I do not disclose any information regarding my life unless asked & then I give minimal answers. “What do you do?” Just living my life man =] But quite honestly I don’t like hanging out w/ other mothers b/c then the conversation somehow shifts to their kids or their miserable lives w/ their unappreciative husbands.

  22. Marilyn
    Marilyn says:

    I can’t even read this post all the way through…it is all over the place. Is there a point in there somewhere?

  23. SoVeryVienna
    SoVeryVienna says:

    I have been thinking for weeks about what and how to write about this topic, on my own blog about new motherhood. I have spent the better part of my daughter’s nine months of life trying to determine how much freelance writing and project management consulting to do, how many playdates to make. Clearly I am not alone in figuring out the blurred boundaries of parenthood and work life that exist for women.

    However, these thoughtful comments reinforce to me the very issue with getting at some resolution of the problem of labels and roles: that our society does not offer support or policies to make work and family life work. We are trying to do it all, many of us far away from family or without a tight knit community who can help on a daily or even emergency basis. I am intrigued ny Judith Warner’s book, “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety”. I’d love to hear thoughts from others who have read her theory that American mothers are strangling themselves trying to work and mother in the post-feminist era of the 70s.

  24. Aimee
    Aimee says:

    I know this post is old- but I just discovered your blog and can’t help but to want to read all of the posts. Anyway, I’m not even a mom yet, and sometimes I already feel judged by wanting to work part-time and stay home with my children. I guess even a part-time stay-at-home mom is looked down upon. But I like just being called an adult- because being an adult is hard, and you have to make hard choices, for you and for your family.

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