As I write this, I am looking at a well meaning magazine story about the Modern Stay-at-Home Mom. I am modern, by virtue of the fact that I live now, and I am a mom who stays home with her kids, so I suppose I fit the bill.
But I don’t identify with the piece.
Because layered in the story’s presentation—kicked off with a photo spread featuring a woman first dressed in a 1950’s styled silk dress and pumps, clutching a nearly naked babe and fully clothed vacuum cleaner, and then pictured in present-day jeans and sunglasses, pushing a trendy stroller and presumably a child, is the implication that that those of us who are SAHMs now are doing it because we have reached a more enlightened place than those who stayed home with their kids—or did not stay home---in generations past.
Should I feel superior to my grandmother who raised four kids, worked in a factory during World War II like Rosie the Riveter, read more books in a year than I can hope to in my lifetime, and subscribed to MS Magazine—in her late 70’s? I may be contemporary, but in her beliefs and actions in the name of equality, she was modern.
I stay home because I have reacted to an imperfect situation—work/family/childcare---by joining my generation’s “opt-out revolution.”
I admire my peers, both those who head to the office each day and those who join me in the bullpen of domestic negotiations. And I know that in an economic sense, I am excessively and exceptionally lucky to be home with my kids.
But being called Modern implies that my predecessors were old-fashioned. The times may have been, but many of the women were not.
Certainly moms who stay home now can more easily have parallel lives in other spheres, especially because of the technology of our particular era: we can write blogs, sell creations on Etsy and run philanthropies from home offices during nap time. Some maintain the contacts they built before they left careers, and many have partners who are uniquely good at understanding and respecting their contributions and versatility.
But am I more modern than the complicated but ambitious stay-at-home mom of another century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Or the moms of more recent times who never became famous, but raised a generation of men who have had the confidence to become Stay-at-Home Dads or support SAHMs?
In her essay, "A Mother of a Year", Stephanie Coontz cuts through the distractions of the time and gets to the heart of things. She writes of a child-care crisis, imperfect work and family leave policies, outdated and impractical school vacation and class schedules--- and the fact that “the woman who stays home faces the frightening prospect that if she gets divorced, she and her children are far less likely to regain their former income than a mother who went back to work within the first year.”
She wrote that in 1998.
I finished graduate school that year. A coincidence that makes me think that the group of women finishing college or grad school now, and the ones who couldn’t afford to go, are poised to be the next cohort to find themselves called “Modern Stay-at-Home Moms".
I know these young women because they are my daughters’ baby sitters. They are the education majors, the mechanical engineers, the graduate students in psychology, who arrive at my house and look at me---my kids running circles around my legs, my dog barking, and my eyes still droopy from a night of little sleep, and are welcomed by a, “I am so glad you’re here,” as I hand my kids off and make my escape.
I imagine they are thinking, “That is not going to be me.”
The big secret is, “Yes, it will be. You will inherit the chaos of child rearing. But, you’ll do it in your own way, and hopefully, with a little less chaos, and paid sick leave.”
Which brings me to the other side of the misnomer Modern.
To the generation of women starting their careers now, or finishing up a women’s studies class, we "modern" SAHMs are part of what has already been—lives and choices to study, observe, emulate or reject.
I know our stories are far from over.
But, it seems to discount the past, and shortchange the future, to call us modern, as if that, in itself, were a destination.
We are just one stop along the road. And, looking around, this place appears to be called 2011.
Painting by: Mary Cassatt