Asking if being a stay at home mother is a job or a luxury misses the point


This week the mommy blogosphere was roiled by its perennial favorite topic: stay at home mothers vs. working mothers.

The proximate cause was a piece on xoJane entitled Being a Stay-at-Home Mom Is Not a Job, written by a former stay at home mother Liz Pardue-Schultz:

I also understand a stay-at-homer wanting to validate her or his life choice by calling it a “job.” We get a lot of grief from academics and professionals, and we’re very often belittled by our society for not contributing anything “valuable.” There’s a sense that we need to defend ourselves against a culture that wants to make us feel inferior or useless because of the way we’re spending our time, but trying to argue its worth by identifying it as something identical to a full-time career isn’t helping the cause. If you’re proud of how you’re living your life, there’s no need to rephrase it to make it more palatable to those who don’t agree with its worth.

Being a stay-at-home mother to your own kids is not a “job,” no matter how difficult it is or how hard we work. Period. Getting to do nothing but raise a person you opted to bring into the world is a privilege, and calling it anything else is ignorant and condescending.

She elaborates:

parenting is hard work, but so is going camping or throwing a party for a friend or having sex with someone I love; I don’t go around calling those things my “jobs.” And FUN FACT: While there are obviously labor-intensive tasks involved with running a household like cleaning and cooking, those are things every person has to do (or pay someone else to do) regardless of their status as parents, and they don’t define our life’s work.

Obviously, staying at home and taking care of people in lieu of working for wages is a valued lifestyle, but it is not a “career”; people who retire early to care for their elderly parents don’t suddenly tell everyone they’ve gone into the health care profession. Choosing to care for your own small child is no different.

Not surprisingly, there was tremendous push back to this view, including 1200 comments and counting.

This piece in The Motherlode, written by Allison B. Carter, appears to be at least partially in response, A Stay-at-Home Parent Is Not a ‘Luxury’:

He looked at me from across the table and said, “Well, you are lucky you have the luxury to stay at home.”…

I do, indeed, hate it when the word “luxury” is used to define my role as a stay-at-home mom. But not for the reasons you might think.

I am not here to argue who works harder: a working mother or a stay-at-home mother. I stand firm on my belief that it is hard for everyone. What goads me are the financial and lifestyle implications this statement carries.

“Luxury” is a loaded word. Yes, it is absolutely true that my husband and I are lucky that he has been able to secure and keep a job that can pay for us all to live. I am aware that there are many families who require a dual income to successfully sustain their children’s basic needs. Raising children is expensive and on the rise and, for many families, the financial equation is hard.

So in some ways, yes, we are lucky that I can stay home. But a luxury is a nonessential item. An indulgence. What I do is essential, and certainly not self-indulgent.

So which is it? Is being a stay at home mother a job or a luxury?

Neither. Asking that question misses the point. It is just a choice, and women’s obsession with what other women choose tells us more about them than about the issue itself.

There are, of course, some women for whom staying home with their children is not a choice at all. For them, working is the difference between feeding their children and letting them go hungry. But most women who have a partner do have a choice. A job for them is not the difference between food and starvation. How the woman and her partner make that choice depends on many factors including children’s needs, parents’ needs, financial goals, the health of the partnership or marriage, beliefs about money and beliefs about the importance and respect accorded to earning money.

There is no one-size-fits all approach.

A child with special needs alter the calculus.
A history of paternal abandonment and poverty alters the calculus.
Lifestyle goals alter the calculus.
Power relationships within the partnership alter the calculus.
The list of modifying factors is endless.

The two authors quoted above are both wrong in large part.

They’re both wrong because they assume that money inevitably take pride of place in these choices.

Pardue-Schultz is wrong because she implies that the only valuable work is paid work. She conveniently ignores the fact that volunteer work (think healthcare workers who go to underserved areas around the world) is real work.

Carter is wrong because she implies that she is making a sacrifice that working mothers are unwilling to make, never considering that her definition of “sacrifice” is limited to money and the goods it can buy. What she considers a worthwhile sacrifice could easily be an intolerable burden for another woman.

Both women fall into the trap that many other women fall into when considering the value of staying home with children vs. working. They believe that the choice a woman makes tells us about her worth as a mother and person and therefore, they fight fiercely to justify their personal choices.

But motherhood is not a zero sum game with a limited about of child happiness, parental success, and personal self-worth to be doled out among the mothers of the world. It’s not an “I win; she loses” world. Two women making opposite choices can BOTH raise happy children … or not. Two women making opposite choices can both point to the same parenting success … or not. Two women making opposite choices can both be proud of what they have done … so long as they aren’t always judging themselves by what others are doing.

Asking whether being a stay at home mother is a job or a luxury is the wrong question. It’s just a choice, one that should be made based on the needs of the families and individuals involved. One woman’s choice tells us nothing about the validity of another woman’s different choice.

Women don’t need to fight to prove who has made the best decision. Everyone can be right at the very same time.