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The Stay-at-Home Mom: A Love-Hate Relationship?

by Kathleen Quiring on January 31, 2012

bookAfter two months, I finally finished reading Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz. It was a terrific read — I highly recommend it if you have any particular interest in the topic of marriage.

Central to any discussion of the history of marriage, I discovered, is an exploration of men and women’s changing roles through history. So a major topic of discussion in this book is the history of the male breadwinner and the female housewife.

This is a topic of great interest to me, as an educated woman who has recently chosen to be a stay-at-home mom (or SAHM, as I’m begrudgingly adopting for this post).

What intrigues me most about the the stay-at-home mom is the colossal variation in people’s feelings about her in Western culture today.

On the one hand, we have the deep sentimentalization of the SAHM. For some, the SAHM is the pinnacle of feminine self-sacrifice and love. She is honoured because she is so selfless and nurturing.  In communities where the SAHM is idealized, moms who return to work are perceived as less loving and somewhat selfish, overly-preoccupied with money and status.

On the other hand, we face the equally pervasive notion that being “just” a stay-at-home mom is degrading, menial, and a waste of a woman’s talent and intellect. Many SAHMs feel underappreciated and condemned for being weak-minded, unsophisticated, and slightly masochistic.

So which is it? Do we revere the SAHM or do we disdain her? Is SAHMhood a dignified life choice or a degrading one?

We seem to have very mixed feelings about her. And that’s why I’m intrigued by her history.

The History of the Housewife

Coontz begins by looking at the roots of marriage in human prehistory, when hunter-gatherer societies developed marriage as way to establish a socially-approved division of labour between partners. (She emphasizes that marriage also provided a way to establish cooperative relationships between in-law families, and allowed property and status to be passed down to the next generation in an orderly manner, but my interest here lies especially in divisions of labour).

Men and women have almost always done different kinds of work, women sticking with activities that enabled children to remain close to them. (This didn’t always mean women stayed “home,” though: for hunter-gatherers, it meant carrying young children in slings as they walked over great expanses, gathering food. In farming societies, by contrast, husbands didn’t leave the home but worked the land alongside their wives.) The idea of “different spheres” — where wives are “designed” to care for home and kids while the husband goes out to work for wages — only emerged in the eighteenth century.

As Coontz explains, the male breadwinner model of organizing families developed with the spread of wage labour and the market economy. People began to insist on money for payment for goods and services in the eighteenth century, but it was not yet possible for a family to survive on cash alone. Since few commodities could be bought ready to use, most families still needed someone to specialize in household production (sewing clothes, growing and preparing food, etc) while someone else devoted more hours to wage earning. Enter the female housewife and the male breadwinner.

stay-at-home momDuring this time, a new sentimentalization of wives and mothers also emerged. Coontz explains that as housekeeping became “homemaking,” it came to be seen as an act of love rather than a contribution to survival. This had a combination effect of re-valuing women but de-valuing their work: “Women’s traditional tasks — growing food, tending animals, dairying, cooking, and making clothes — though no less burdensome, were no longer viewed as economic activities” (p. 153). Coontz explains: “Homemakers, now cut off from the sphere of the cash economy, became more dependent on their husbands financially. Women’s diaries in the early nineteenth-century reflects a new self-doubt about the worth of their contributions to the household economy” (156). According to Catherine Kelley, women’s labor was “radically undervalued in the world of cash transactions” (Coontz, p. 156).

So while housewives were highly romanticized, women in these roles were plagued with doubts about whether their work was really all that meaningful or important.

I think women today are faced with the same paradox: motherhood is sentimentalized, and yet mothers have misgivings about the value of their work.

Housewives Today

I was especially intrigued by another of Coontz’ observations:

Today . . . stay-at-home mothers are concentrated in the poorest and richest rungs of the population. The only two segments of the population in which male breadwinner families predominate are the bottom twenty-five percent of the income distribution and the top five percent. (p. 295)

These two different kinds of stay-at-home moms have very different statuses.

Coontz explains that in the high-income male breadwinner marriages, “wives usually have the resources and time to develop skills that earn them respect from their communities and their husbands even though they don’t bring in income” (p. 295).

In the low-income families, though, mothers stay home because they don’t have enough money to pay for things like child care or a second car or suitable clothes to allow her to work. Moreover, the kinds of jobs available to these women typically don’t pay enough for the family to recoup these costs (295).

That would help explain our mixed feelings about stay-at-home moms: for some, staying home represents a luxury that enables the woman to develop valuable social skills; for others, it’s something they’re forced into.

Now that I’ve explored our culture’s varying attitudes towards the stay-at-home mom, I want to explore my own feelings and experiences in the next post.

Stay tuned for the story of my path to becoming a stay-at-home mom. Exclamation mark!

What kinds of attitudes have you come across in regards to mothers who stay home? Have they been mostly negative or positive? How has that influenced the way you hope to organize your family life?

{ 2 trackbacks }

In Which I Am Not the Boss of My Kid — Project M
February 6, 2012 at 7:49 am
My Personal Journey Towards Becoming a Stay-at-Home Mom — Project M
February 8, 2012 at 9:54 am

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michele January 31, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Great post! I look forward to reading your path to a “SAHM” :) I too, have chosen that path after earning a M.A. I feel like most of the attitudes I encounter are negative. I deal with a constant internal battle that people think I’m lazy (no one has directly said that to me) since I stay home.

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2 Jennifer January 31, 2012 at 6:08 pm

From the standpoint of a mom who has chosen to continue working outside the home, I am also interested in hearing more! I have a lot of “SAHM” friends, and I have often wondered if I could make that jump… For me it has definitely been a financial, and mostly from the stability aspect (My husband brought quite a bit of debt to our marriage, which is now cleared and also I earn more than he does and am not brave enough to take the leap of faith necessary to give up the stability of my income). Thus, I often feel the other stigma, that I am not a good enough mom and “someone else is raising my kids”… I have made the decision that I will not allow myself to feel guilty for my decisions and am doing what is right for my family (fingers crossed ;-) ) And Michele, I definitely don’t think you are lazy (nor any full-time parent) It is a lot of work to parent!!!

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3 Kathleen Quiring February 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm

@ Michele and Jennifer: it’s interesting to see exactly what I was talking about: if you choose to stay at home, you feel like people think you’re lazy; if you go back to work, you feel like people think you’re not a good mom. Both feelings are very common, I think, and understandable. Of course, both of you want what’s best for your kids!

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4 Kimberly January 31, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Great post! I’m really interested in this!

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5 Elizabeth February 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm

I really enjoyed this post. The topic of combining working for money and raising small children is a favorite among all the young mothers I know. My husband and I traded places – I put him through grad school, and now he’s the breadwinner while I stay at home to care for our baby. I stopped working in May of 2011, and now that we’re preparing our taxes, my husband noted that he earned four times what I did in 2011. It was a little jarring.

Some of my friends with older babies and toddlers are re-entering the workforce. Their lives are much busier (and probably more stressful) once they do, but they all seem to really enjoy the regular adult interaction. Being a SAHM in the modern world can be very lonely.

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6 Vanessa February 2, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I just have to give some general love to you and this blog. I don’t have children yet, but I am so interested in everything you write about. I’ve been following for quite some time, but never commented. I thought it was about time to mention my excitement, even though I don’t have anything in particular to say. Haha. :) Thank you for sharing here, I love it!

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7 Kathleen Quiring February 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Well thanks so much, Vanessa! I’m so glad to hear from you, you made my day!

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8 Courtney February 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm

I am so blessed to have a husband who fully supports me staying at home with our kids. Before we had our toddler, I worked part-time for our church & he was good with me doing whatever I wanted before we had kids, whether that was work full-time, part-time, or not at all. I live in the south where it’s not at all unusual for women to stay at home, but at the same time, there is still that pressure for women to work – for most of my friends, it is financial, & by that I mean, they are not poor, but they want to continue to live a certain lifestyle so they need the dual income. I don’t have many SAHM friends; I wish I had more. It CAN be lonely, but I make a point of getting out & going to the gym, Bible study, etc. which has been good for me & our toddler too. I’m interested to see what else you have to say about staying at home!

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9 josiejo February 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I am a SAHM (in the UK) and I do see it in part as a luxury as many people over here feel they can’t afford to stay at home with their children and I love spending time with my daughter. However, at the same time I have had to give up my career (as a classical singer I don’t earn enough or have regular enough work to cover childcare) and my social life – most of my friends don’t have children and my husband is hardly ever home so I don ‘t get the chance to go out at all even to keep fit. I have 2 Masters degrees (both with distinction) from Cambridge, but now I get treated as though I am a brainless lump by almost everybody I meet, and my husband has lost respect for me too as the only thing that matters to people in London is how glamorous your career is and how much you earn. The only people I see during the day are other mothers or carers who only ever talk about their children, and as most of my friends and colleagues in the past have been men, I really struggle with this female-only world. The only advice you ever see against the loneliness of being a SAHM is ‘Get out and meet other SAHMs’, which is actually the last thing I feel like doing – I want something else in my life not more of the same…
I am not a natural housewife – I am rubbish at keeping the place tidy and clean so I feel totally defeated by it all the time. I never imagined that I would become a housewife/SAHM and although I am 100% sure I am doing the best thing for my daughter (and the next one on the way), it is definitely at the expense of my own self-confidence, independence and respect.

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10 Kathleen Quiring February 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Hi, Josiejo. I’m so sorry to hear what you’ve gone through. I can totally understand your desire to meet other people besides other SAHMs. I wish we could get together and talk about things other than kids! I’m sure it would be a relief for both of us. I’d love to hear more about your career as a classical singer, and what it was like to study at Cambridge (it sounds so sexy and exotic to a Canadian girl who studied British literature)!

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