Long before I became SheKnows’ Parenting Editor, I spent a decade as a stay-at-home mom to four kids ranging from elementary-age to infancy — and I don’t mind telling you that it was just as hard (and, on many days, harder) than my corporate position. At least when I’m at work these days, no one is asking me to help them wipe or having a meltdown because they want me to put their banana back in the peel. And I have set hours now when as a SAHM I was literally never off-duty; it often felt relentless, like just as I was done with one thing, here came another, even in the middle of the night.
That’s not even touching on the profound mental health toll it can take. Being a SAHM is a thankless job, even though you’re working — seven days a week! — as a chef, maid, chauffeur, teacher, caretaker, laundry service, personal shopper, nurse, and whatever else the day demands. And despite all that monumental effort, we still feel guilty and worry that we aren’t “pulling our weight” since we don’t bring in any income. I remember so well the pang of anxiety when someone would ask me what I did for a living; saying I was a SAHM made me feel judged, like everyone thought I was just chilling at home, lounging lazily on the couch in my sweats, living off my husband’s hard-earned wages like some sort of career freeloader. Or like I was somehow less important because I didn’t earn a salary.
This is because I, like the rest of America, seem to have internalized the wildly inaccurate stereotype that continues to plague and stigmatize SAHMs. Why society still so stubbornly clings to these ridiculous notions is hard to grasp — but one thing is abundantly clear: that needs to change, like yesterday.
“The root of this is a culture that not only doesn’t assign value to care but still needs to understand and take time to evaluate the reality of 24/7 caregiving,” Neha Ruch, speaker and founder of Mother Untitled, who has devoted her entire profession to changing the conversation about stay-at-home motherhood, tells SheKnows. “Without a cultural dialogue or appreciation of the day-to-day labor, and also the intellectual and emotional rigor of raising children today, women are deemed as ‘having it easy’ or like their work in the home isn’t ‘really work.’”
It’s this quest to shift the dialogue around SAHMs that recently facilitated a fascinating survey, conducted on behalf of Mother Untitled by the independent research firm Proof Insights. American Mothers on Pause (AMP) is a survey of over 2,000 women, including stay-at-home mothers, part-time working mothers, and women considering leaving their jobs to become stay-at-home mothers. All respondents had bachelor’s degrees, had children under 18, and were between the ages of 25 and 54.
The AMP survey offered some very insightful results as to what mothers gain — and lose — by making the choice to stay at home with their kids. Above all, it showed that over 50 percent of moms are “extremely or very likely to reduce their hours or downshift to a less taxing job in the next two years,” and that 1 in 3 working moms reported that they’re “somewhat, very, or extremely likely to leave their jobs for stay-at-home parenthood in the next two years.”
“It was striking to see the sheer number of ‘working’ (out of the home) mothers planning to pause or downshift their work hours over the next two years,” says Ruch. “While it reflects more significant structural issues around work and family, it also helps validate this choice as more familiar and reasonable. It helps our mission with the proof in the data that work and family are much more fluid, and the titles of ‘stay-at-home’ and ‘working’ mothers are too black and white.” We are seeing an ever-evolving group of women, she adds, with a vast gray area in between.
The biggest reason for women’s desire to shift into stay-at-home motherhood? To spend more time with their kids — which any mother can understand. Still, regardless of any benefits, dropping down to a single income has financial ramifications that can’t be ignored. Even though the study found that 75 percent of SAHMs say the smaller income was worth it, it also found that the number one worry regarding the shift to SAHM is having to rely solely on a partner for income.
“Sixty-two percent of women choose to pause or downshift their careers because of the cost of caregiving, but we see in the data that the most significant stress for a modern woman choosing to pause or downshift is being a ‘dependent,’” Ruch tells us. Thinking back on my own stint as a SAHM, I can absolutely confirm that this is one of the biggest issues I struggled with as well.
So how can we facilitate a paradigm shift that can take the perception of a SAHM from “dependent” to “co-contributor”?
“It must be clear that this decision is made together and benefits the team,” advises Ruch. “Whether or not you are contributing paid work, taking an active role in financial planning is essential to continue a feeling of a joint family organization making adjustments together.” Keeping that in mind, the language of interdependence is crucial: one partner working outside of the home depends on the partner working in the house to manage the household, and the partner working in the home depends on the other partner’s salary contribution. Both are critical roles, one not less important than the other.
“With that mindset, the household income remains joint, and while adjustments may or may not have to be made to lifestyle, both partners should make those adjustments,” Ruch says. “Equally, investments in childcare or other help in the home are made on behalf of the household because it supports the whole family, not just the mom.”
Unfortunately, that’s another sore subject for stay-at-home moms: outsourcing. “Stay-at-home motherhood is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job, yet few mothers regularly outsource the care of their children to anyone other than their partner,” according to the study, which revealed that “[H]alf of the stay-at-home moms say they feel guilty for leaving their children with someone else, and 37 percent of SAHMs say they feel guilty for paying someone to watch their kids because they don’t earn their own salary.”
Why, after all the literally-endless work that SAHMs do for their families, are we so hesitant to ask for help — or feel undeserving of spending money on a much-needed break? Because of the innate guilt woven into the fabric of stay-at-home motherhood, thanks to antiquated societal notions that we’re not as valuable as the breadwinners so we have to “earn our keep.”
“The perception of stay-at-home motherhood has been closely tied to fictional characters from the 1970s and, unfortunately, given little media representation in recent years beyond memes of women buried under laundry, so it’s still stuck in yesteryear,” Ruch tells us. “The feminist movement of the late 70s and 80s, while so influential in advocating for women’s worth in the workplace, left the woman choosing home life with a very traditional portrait.”
While “working mother” content advanced in the recent decade with the lean-in and girl-boss eras, she adds, it had the unintended side effect of leaving women choosing to pause or downshift their career for family life in the shadows of old, un-updated caricatures. Which is why Ruch started Mother Untitled: to update the collective narrative and show how much more modern, connected, and dynamic the modern woman making conscious choices to make room for the family is.
Until we join in to change the conversation around and attitude toward SAHMs, offering (and validating!) the support needed, it will remain the same — and mothers deserve so much better.
Before you go, check out these celebrity dads who paused their careers to stay at home with their babies.
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