Sunday, December 6, 2009

Stay-at-Home Saboteurs

When I was in college I took a class called A History of Feminism. The professor noted that the class was A History and not The History because a quarter long class could not be definitive. A decade and a half later, the only word I care about is the word history, and why we weren’t in a class focused on the future instead of the past.

It’s too late now, and the damage has been done. Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir could not save me or my cohorts from joining the “opt-out revolution.” Yes, we became saboteurs; we became stay-at-home-moms.

I started this week with the idea of looking at the phrase, stay-at-home mom, and when it replaced homemaker or housewife. I opened Pandora’s gender specific box.

Let’s first answer the simple question. When did the phrase stay-at-home mom come into use? Since the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is not one of the five people following me on twitter, I emailed my Aunt, a reference librarian at Carnegie Mellon.

I should mention that I had first tried to find this information myself. My experience in the library’s reference section started with a wrestling match between me, a giant dictionary and a double stroller and ended with a homeless man mumbling offensive remarks at me as I boarded the elevator. In between there were crushed goldfish crackers, one piercing cry, and a few changes to the Dewey Decimal system thanks to Ava, my 18 month old.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists several examples starting in the 1800’s with the term stay-at home referring to those who do not travel abroad. One could be a stay-at-home man (Jane Austen), or a stay-at-home insect (E. Hyams) or what seems more pejorative, a stay-at-home who avoids serving abroad in the military (Churchill).

The search in Lexis-Nexis got us closer to our answer, however, considering we are neither men nor insects. It was in 1986 that ADWEEK compared the nutritional meals prepared by “nine-to-fivers” to those of “stay-at-home moms”. (The nine-to-fivers won.) And In 1987, Newsweek ran a piece on the popularity of preschool for children of both working women and “stay-at-home moms”.

Fast forward nearly ten years to me sitting in my college class. It was the mid-nineties and women were still climbing the corporate ladder. The number of mothers in the work force with infant children peaked just a few years later in 1998. Of course no one was talking about the future of feminism, we sat there proud of the progress. I suppose it was assumed we’d move in one direction.

But, we have not. Of my friends from college, some are working full time, some are working part time and some are at home. I had not thought much of these differences—not even felt, much less heard the artillery of the mommy-wars. Instead, I’ve known a sense of camaraderie. We are all trying to raise our kids the best we can and we are all exhausted.

But, my anecdotal report from the front lines reveals only a few things, mainly, that my generation of women—at least superficially—is not spending much of their depleted free time debating one another’s career choices. And, when you tell someone at a party you, “stay-at-home” with your kids, most people know better than to make jokes about bon bons.

This renewed acceptance of the stay-at-home mom is part of what some say is undermining the progress of women. Although I do not agree with all of this argument, I am interested in it. Because there is not a day that goes by when I do not wonder: am I raising my daughters to be smart and aggressive so that one day they too can quit their careers and stay at home?

Linda Hirshman wrote about the opt-out revolution in her 2005 article in The American Prospect, originally titled, “Homeward Bound”. 2005 was a lifetime ago for many of us. Literally. We had not yet had our first child. The world, too, has changed in significant ways—Sonia Sotomayor is now on the Supreme Court, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton had historic runs for the white house, and Michelle Obama is now in it, placing the work-family relationship among her top policy interests.

Still, when I read the story, now called “America’s Stay-at-Home-Feminists”, a few days ago on the website AlterNet, I realized I had not considered my life in a bigger context. At what point are my choices driven by social trends and at what point do my choices drive the trends? And most important, how does this blurry intersection influence the future?

Hirshman says the public world may have changed but the “real glass ceiling is at home.” She did a fascinating study. She looked through the New York Times Sunday Styles wedding announcements from 1996 and tracked down three weekend’s worth of brides. What were these women doing in 2004, eight years later?

At the time of their weddings, the women were what Hirshman refers to as “elite”. They had strong educations and potentially ambitious careers—doctors, lawyers, editors, executives in marketing. She interviewed 80 percent of the 41 women listed and found 30 had had babies.

“Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time-time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.”

She concludes that this anecdotal data, along with census results showing a decline in the previously upward trend of women with children working, represent a, “loss of hope for the future—a loss of hope that the role of women in society will continue to increase.”

She anticipates most of the arguments that you might toss to her: wait, it’s my choice to stay home, to which she says: No, feminism failed to take on gender relations strong enough and left you holding the domestic bag and decided to call it “choice”.

Wait, my husband makes more than I do, and my going back to work full time would hardly cover childcare. She says, “This totally ignores that both adults are in the enterprise together and (ignores) the demonstrable future loss of income, power, security for the woman who quits." Don’t subtract childcare from the woman’s salary alone, but think combined income, and subtract from that.

The family, she says, “with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks—is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.”

The goal is women with power, and women with money.

To get there, she has rules for young women: “Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.” I need to add that when she says “prepare yourself to qualify for good work,” she means, don’t waste your college years majoring in the liberal arts. There is actually one last rule: have only one baby.

It makes sense and it also makes my head hurt.

First, I know her goal is large-scale and the personal details I might offer in defense of the “opt-out revolution” do not stand up to her method.

Second, I don’t care. There are three issues she does not address and they are important.

The first issue: who exactly is supposed to raise the kids? It’s going to be the mom, the dad, or a childcare provider --grandparents, a nanny, a day care center. How a family makes this decision is driven by more than social agendas. It’s decided by proximity to grandparents, access to daycare, the financial situation of the breadwinners, and their emotional make-up.

And, I think it’s important to note that often, in the effort to keep the elite mom working full time, there is a nanny who may have to leave her own kids with a relative. At best, the drive for, so-called, “full-human flourishing” is for those who can afford to buy it.

The second issue: Is it the case that the home is socially invisible and without value? It was interesting to read the stories from the late 1980’s on Lexis-Nexis in which stay-at-home moms dealt with isolation by subscribing to newsletters. These came once a month, and via snail mail.

Has the internet and technology changed the fabric of the domestic sphere? Aren't  we more connected, more vocal, and less invisible?

And, third: has the career trajectory changed (even for those who have never taken time off to raise kids) to the point that many people start new careers in their 40’s and 50’s? If so, the stay-at-home mom may re-enter the workforce with fewer light years seperating her from those who never left it.

But, let’s say the stay-at-home mom does not return to work. What if she stays home until the kids are in college? What if all she does is raise her kids, run the house, volunteer at school, learn a new language, sit on the town council, help her aging parents, volunteer at a woman’s shelter, adopt a dog, raise money for a presidential candidate, mentor a teenager, and vote? Is there no value in that? Is there no power in that?

There is no money in that. And, maybe that is the sticking point.

Someday, when my daughters ask me about the “opt-out revolution", I’ll pull out a faded story written by Linda Hirshman. “Read this,” I’ll say, “and then decide if you want to major in econ or art history.” And, instead of A History of Feminism, they may take a class like the one being taught at George Washington University called, Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership. The work-family balance is not left to chance; it’s taught.

I often tell my four year old that she can be a doctor, or a dentist, or an artist or writer, or as her pediatrician suggested when she was five months old, an air traffic controller. And, she usually says, "Yes." Then she pauses and says, "I want to be a mommy."

And, then I say, "You can be both."

And, even if it means being both at different times, or more of one and less of the other at other times, I mean it. She can be both. The example I am setting by being a stay-at-home mom today may represent less of a revolution and more of an evolution.

To read Linda Hirshman's full article, or to read more about the program at George Washington University, check out the links posted on the sidebar. The GW program also has a related page on Facebook called  Hot Momma's Project.

Also, I am looking for a few stay-at-home dads for some Q & A for a future blog. If you are one, or know one, please email me:


Anonymous said...

this is a truly complicated issue that you've handled with honesty and clarity. great job.

Kathy Sykes said...

I love,love,love this post. It was very well written and says everything that I have been wanting to scream! I am not a SAHM but have limited my work schedule in order to be "present" for my son as much as possible. Will be subscribing to your blog.
Again, love it!
Kathy Sykes

Anonymous said...

This is an issue that is complex but at its core very simple. To me, one of the most important issues is intellectual honesty and respect.
If feminists believe in "choice", "options", "decision making power", for women when those choices support the feminist agenda, they also have to support "choice" "options" and "decision making power" for women who do not suit their agenda.
If you don't allow for choices that don't suit your agenda, you're as dictatorial and controlling as any male chauvinist pig ever was.
I could give you anecdotal evidence from my own life of how important my staying at home was to my children but that's so subjective. The thing I can say is that you will never, ever regret investing in the lives of your children.
I didn't begin my career until I was 40 years old. At the time I had a son in college, one in high school and a daughter entering middle school. I taught my kids a lot of lessons in life but one of the most important was that people are more important than things (I had poured 20 years into them & their wishes) and that you're never too old to go after what you really want. They know they have no excuses. And ten years later, they are some of my biggest supporters. I can't put a price tag on that.

Anonymous said...

Great article Sarah - just one quick anecdote. In order for this story to make sense, it is important to know that I work in a admissions office at an independent school. My 4 year old daughter has said to many people that she wants to be a "magician" just like Mommy when she grows up. While she's just not saying the word correctly, I think she'll be a magician because that is what Moms, whether one stays at home or works full time, should consider themselves.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Sarah. It is such a complex issue and you handled it so fairly. I am a SAHM and feel so fortunate that I am able to do so. Though I would adapt to it, I would be so sad having someone else spend the vast majority of time with my two young children if I did have to go back to work. It would break my heart. But this is not at all a knock on working women...I really respect and admire those women who are able to "do it all". I just personally choose to be a SAHM.
Thanks for writing this piece!

Kennen said...

Sarah, What a beautifully written essay. I love that you touched on the supportive relationship between all moms-both working and stay-at-home moms. It is true, we are a group of highly educated women who have respect for the challenges on both sides of the fence. Thanks for sharing your thoughts...

Houston! said...

I am what you would call a "working" mom, but I guess most of the time, I just feel like a "worker" and not like a very good mom. In my perception, there are not too many people like me in my community, so I feel more connected to my working dad colleagues most of the time. I am not sure if my kids benefit or not from me working; they cannot participate in every activity they want to afterschool, and their homework is done in all sorts of random situations. But, I wonder how it will influence them in the future. They are exposed to many people and situations because of my work community, so I guess that's good. But, overall, I don't know if any member of my family feels content with our situation. We are always stressed and tired. I find myself at gatherings being the odd woman out --I cannot relate to most of my kids' friends' moms most of the time. Their issues are valid and equally exhausting to mine, but they are not my issues. I think that it would be great if we, as women, could teach the future generation of women how to keep all the balls in the air, and influence our society in a way that prevents us from taking on too much all at once. It needs to be easier to balance your children and your career. No matter what your career choice is...

Anonymous said...

This is an issue that has consumed me since before I even had children! I really like that you point out that the working moms and stay-at-home moms aren't hashing it out with each other--the social critics are the ones calling it "mommy wars"! We moms need each other's support because only we understand the incredible balancing act that parenting and working is... Thank you for the wonderful essay!

Alyson said...

Thanks for this, it's wonderful in so many ways. I love the thoughts and research. I must admit, I'm a little nervous to read the Hirshman article, because it will no doubt frustrate me, while making me feel just a little guilty about the choices I've made. Sigh. We're all doing the best we can. I hope when our children are raising their children they have better luck finding balance between family and work. These are difficult waters to navigate.

Alyson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alyson said...

Actually the Hirshman article didn't make me feel guilty at all, thank goodness. I just found her to be chock full of ideology, and painfully out of touch with the nuances of what I like to call reality.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed seeing your articles on your blog. This is my first cyber correspondence. Keep up the good work. Grandpa Ritchey

Amy said...

Oh man, Sarah, you got me with this one. Reading how the SAHD view their choices/roles really made me think of my role in the family. I'm not currently a SAHM, but was in the past and have been the one in marriage who has taken the backseat career-wise (role, function, amount of time) while raising kids.