What does it mean to stay home?

OfficeThe 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.



21 Responses to What does it mean to stay home?


  1. Pamela says:

    Interesting article! It makes me think of my own mother who, while I was growing up, would have identified as a stay at home mom. However, since she homeschooled us, a significant portion of her day was spent on that. She also did a *lot* of unpaid volunteer work for our church. Obviously, she wasn’t paid for any of those jobs, but calling her a SAHM doesn’t really tell the whole story, and her case is not unique- many of the women we knew were doing very similar things with their time. Interesting.

    • Laura says:

      @Pamela – you raise an interesting point about the sorts of “work” that we don’t have good words for or records of. Homeschooling and serious volunteer work might fall in this category. In some families, a spouse winds up doing a reasonable amount of career-boosting for the other party — accompanying him/her to events, etc. It’s not work per se, but it’s not leisure either.

  2. Jenni Levy says:

    If putting your kid’s schedule first is the criteria, then my husband might qualify as a SAHD. He works full-time out of the home and he is the go-to parent for daytime child issues – dentist’s visits, regular check-ups, driving her home when it’s too rainy to walk from the bus, PTA volunteering, etc, etc. He doesn’t feel guilty about hiring a babysitter, though…

    yes, I agree that all the lines will blur. So many of them already are. I’ve never agreed that “someone has to stay home with the children” and, even if I did agree with that, why would that someone have to be me? After all, I earn three times as much as he does…

    • Laura says:

      @Jenni- Yes, I think the idea of “putting your kids’ schedules first” as a sign of being a stay-at-home parent rubbed me a bit wrong, given the lengths I’ve seen people go to in putting kids’ schedules first while still working, too. There’s a lot of either/or thinking on this topic, when life isn’t terribly either/or.

  3. Julia says:

    This topic is fascinating to me. Most days I am not sure whether I identify as a SAHM or a WAHM. I have a 5 month old and freelance. When he is awake my focus is on taking care of him and doing housework. Most of my work is done at night after he’s gone to bed, or on weekends when my husband is home. I would not be opposed to hiring help a few hours a week, but I’m not currently working enough for that to be worth it (though I’m not also actively seeking out jobs because my current work load is perfect for the amount of time I have available, so it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation).

    • Laura says:

      @Julia- ah, yes, the chicken-and-egg problem on freelancing and childcare. This could be a post in itself. I think it comes down to whether you want to grow your business or not. If you don’t, that’s perfectly legitimate. If you do, then more childcare than you can currently “afford” might be viewed as a business investment, much like building a factory to meet anticipated demand.

      • ARC says:

        This was a hard one for me. Last month, I had my best month ever for my artisan businesses, good enough that if I could keep it up, it would be a viable earning option. But I’d HAVE to get childcare in order to keep growing, and I got nervous about whether it would sustain that same volume and make expensive child care “worth it”. In the end, it was just easier to take a more “reliable”, high paying part-time gig in my previous field, get the childcare and then I can focus on one part of my business that I do want to grow. I bet others with a higher tolerance for risk (or a hatred of working for “the man”) might choose differently.

        • Laura says:

          @ARC – oh, the question of “worth it.” Another fraught conversation. I’ll need to write about that at some point.

  4. Nolo says:

    Many of the examples given in the post and comments seem to reflect situations where someone else (i.e. not the mom) is primarily responsible for earning the family’s income. At an extreme, maybe a SAHM could be defined as someone who doesn’t have that responsibility.

  5. Cloud says:

    I wonder if the fact that people *want* to see unconventional work choices women make as being about the kids has anything to do with this. It has been really interesting watching how other people respond to my recent decision to quit my full time job. At first, I tried really hard to explain the reasoning so that it didn’t just reduce down to “wanting to spend more time with my kids,” but that was too complicated for people who don’t, after all, really care that much. The real reason is a mix of things, but the most succinct way I can state it is that the long commute was logistically challenging for me and my family, and the sacrifices I was going to have to make to make it work were more than I wanted to give that particular job. Interestingly, people tend to assume the sacrifices were only about the kids (some were, some were purely about me), and after I’d give me explanation, people would say “so you want more time with the kids. I can understand that.” I’ve given up on telling the full reason now and am letting people think what they want, which is overwhelmingly that I’m quitting to spend more time with my kids. I think that within 6 months or so, I’ll be back up to a fulltime schedule, just built out of different work, but in the minds of most of my colleagues, I’m quitting my job to get a part time schedule.

    • A man could just get away with saying he hated the commute and that would be that. :/

      • Laura says:

        We do tend to assume that “I’m leaving to spend more time with my family” is a euphemism when a guy says it. Probably sometimes true and sometimes not entirely true — same with women.

    • Laura says:

      @Cloud – yep, people won’t second guess that, and it also doesn’t burn bridges. Whereas saying “I didn’t like my job” does.

      • Also, “I thought I’d try striking it out on my own” or “I was looking for new opportunities…”

        At DH’s most recent job interview, he told them that we had quite a bit saved and he had the luxury of trying to find something that would be a really good fit for him. They liked that.

  6. Leslie H says:

    I think that the original SAH/WAHM’s are farmers’ wives. They feed calves, drive tractor, keep the books, track the genomic numbers of the breeding stock, hire personnel and take care of HR issues, manage processing operations, manage the retail sale of value added products…The list of tasks is extensive. Most often, the only pay they see is the value that the farm gains from their efforts. And most often, their motivation is for their family. It’s pretty difficult to categorize their positions in the world of work.

  7. Alissa says:

    Another fascinating article! I am the primary breadwinner in my household, but I have a huge amount of flexibility in my current job so I can “play” at being a SAHM and do the preschool pick up and grocery shopping at 9 am on a Wednesday. In fact, I recently turned down a job opportunity for a higher level position because it wouldn’t allow me the current flexibility I have. I think with the rise of telecommuting and online business it is easier to be a WAHM. There’s an interesting point made in the book “All Joy & No Fun” about parents used to be “homemakers” not Stay at Home Moms because their primary role was taking care of the house and kids were allowed to roam the neighborhoods playing when not in school as there weren’t a ton of those “enrichment classes” in the 1950s/1960s. So in a sense the idea that a SAHM is putting their kids schedules first is a good definition.

  8. ARC says:

    I read that original article and wondered how they were “counting” SAHMs as well. It really is a fuzzy line. I start a contract gig of 15-20 hours sometime soon but it’s mostly WAH and I have sorted out childcare (outside the home). So the kids are leaving the house, not me ;)

  9. ARC says:

    This also reminds me of a famous crafty author, several of whose books I own, who also teaches at workshops and conventions worldwide for $$$, calls herself a SAHM in her bio. Given that she’s supporting her family through her art,writing and teaching, I’m not sure I’d define that as a SAHM, but I’m guessing a lot of it is marketing and personal branding.

    Maybe the line is drawn when you have regular childcare so that you can work? I dunno.

    • Laura says:

      @ARC – I think a lot of this is marketing and branding in these cases — especially when people make a big deal of it in their bios. By defining a SAHM as anyone whose kids aren’t in daycare 40 hours a week, or who doesn’t work in a corporate office 40 hours a week, you could have a pretty broad and meaningless definition. The question is why? Again, it’s because we assume this is the “good” choice and daycare and offices are the “bad” choice, and hence by marketing yourself this way you show how wonderful you are.

      • ARC says:

        I think it’s also partly because they want to show their audience “hey, I’m just like you!”. Scrapbooking has a certain key demographic, which is usually SAHMs with multiple kids at home (also usually white, in their 30s, in the US, etc). Which isn’t to say other people don’t do it, but there’s definitely a “type”.

  10. Calyx says:

    Yes, there is a lot of blurring. But I think Nolo (above) struck on something potentially critical….most SAHMs don’t have primary responsibility for supporting the family. Some moms make good money that contributes to the family income, but they don’t feel the full burden of maximizing their income as the primary supporter would. I am in this category. I feel like I could be placed in the “opted out” category because I am not striving for the most power, money, and prestige as I would if I didn’t have my children. I am very well educated, and spent 10 years in a very high-status business career. If I stayed with it, I was on a track that would likely result in being CEO or top 3 executive at a Fortune 50 company. But I opted out of this path, although I loved it when I was on it. But I chose to stop working when I had my 3rd child, and after a couple of years of focusing my time on my children/family/friends, volunteering on some boards that I care about, and being involved in the schools, I did finally take a gig (less than 10 hours per week) teaching a course at a prestigious CT university. This provides me enough stimulation (and an aura of prestige that I wish I didn’t crave) to keep me really happy with basically being a SAHM. But if my husband wasn’t supporting us, I would never be doing this! I would never have turned away the money/power/prestige if I was the primary breadwinner…I think there are plenty of women who opt out of their most powerful career choices, even if they still need to work to make money, they are choosing jobs that enable them to work from home, or enable flexibility, or somehow take some pressure off. This scaling back can be seen as “opting out of their maximum career”. But I doubt many of these people have regrets!

    Interesting topic!