The Pew Research Center came out with a report a few weeks ago on stay at home moms in America. The headline out of the report was that the proportion of stay-at-home mothers was rising, to 29 percent of all women with kids. Perhaps this conjures up an image of women chucking their briefcases for hearth and home, but deeper within the report were some more interesting statistics that paint a more complex picture of parenting in the modern U.S.
For starters, the opt out revolution is a limited phenomenon. Of mothers with bachelors degrees, only 20 percent don’t work outside the home, which is a much lower percentage than all women. Indeed, Pew ran the numbers, and found that out of millions of mothers, there are 370,000 SAHMs with at least a master’s degree in 2-parent families that have a household income of more than $75,000 per year (where opting out might start to be a choice, vs. a matter of not earning enough to pay for childcare, or not being able to get a decent job in the first place). The median income of these families is $132,000 — so only 185,000 women are highly-educated SAHMs in families earning more than this. It starts to be a low enough number that we may have seen a reasonable proportion profiled in articles about this revolution.
For the most part, staying at home is not an upscale choice. Most men do not earn enough to support a multi-member family at a particularly great standard of living. When women can work at decent jobs and earn more than childcare costs, they do.
Of course, not everyone needs vast amounts of childcare, which raises an interesting question of what it means to be a SAHM. Pew defined it as a mother who was not employed for pay “outside the home” in the previous year. But “work outside the home” is a euphemism, arising because no one wants to say that a woman who is caring for children “doesn’t work.” Hence, she works “inside the home.” But with the rise of telecommuting, plenty of us work “inside the home” for pay too. Indeed, the time log I’ve seen with the highest number of work hours was from a woman who technically didn’t “work outside the home” — she just happened to be in her home office for 100 hours a week. This isn’t what Pew’s euphemism is getting at.
So what is the definition? Someone who didn’t earn any money? Someone could quit her job and still be accruing dividends from previous investments. Or someone could hold a yard sale. Or fill out a dozen surveys online during the course of the year, or get $50 worth of BlogHer network ad revenue, and yet still primarily identify with caring for her kids. So that’s probably not the right definition either.
I wouldn’t use “primarily identify with caring for her kids” as the definition either, though, because plenty of women who do a fair amount of work for pay also primarily identify with caring for their kids. I’m not even talking about the numerous folks who think of themselves as parents first and [insert other identity] second. I’m seeing Mosaic logs where people have managed to confine their work time to school and kid sleep hours, or in some entrepreneur cases, even preschool and sleep hours, or on and off while the kids play or watch TV. There’s no formal 8-5 M-F childcare, but mom is also earning six figures, which wouldn’t fit in most definitions of staying home with the kids either.
There is much gray area. I was reminded of this while reading a guest post at Modern Mrs. Darcy from Faigie, whose post was called “Is it possible to be a SAHM and a WAHM at the same time?” Faigie had quit her previous job and decided to run a photography business from her house. She realized she needed childcare while meeting with clients after a mishap, and that she needed separate space too. So, in other words, she was working, and had childcare while she worked. But when I inquired in the comments why this would be considered a SAHM situation, she responded this:
“I worked very part time. I opened up this portrait studio from my home so that I could be a SAHM. I only had childcare when I had people over. The other stuff I worked around my kids’ schedules. Ordering pictures, framing, making appointments etc. It was when I was reluctant to ever get a babysitter when I realized that I had to do that in order to continue being a WAHM plus a SAHM.”
But lots of women put their kids’ schedules first — as I’m seeing from people taking time out in the middle of the day to volunteer at school, or leaving work at 3:30 to do the after school shift and then going back to work at night. And if feeling guilty about getting sitters is the definition of staying-at-home, the numbers should be a lot higher than they are. Or in some cases lower — I live in an area that does have a fair number of opt-out moms, some of whose families have part-time or full-time nannies as well.
We have a tendency to glorify not working as a particularly wholesome parental choice, as if you cannot both work, and take parenting seriously. But there are many ways to work, and there are many ways to be involved with your family. I think, over time, all these lines might blur.