In the usual narrative about women’s life choices, you are “working” or “staying at home.” These are discrete identities. They are sometimes cast as ideologically opposed, if people feel like drumming up the mommy wars (and its clicks and comments). While the broad trend over two generations has been an increase in women in the workforce, there have been occasional counter-blips. For instance, in 2014, the Pew Research Center noted that more women were staying at home (29 percent of women with children under age 18 vs. 23 percent in 1999).
But I am increasingly coming to believe that the designation of staying-at-home is close to meaningless. There is so much gray area over how people spend their time, and such changes in what it means to work, that making any declaration on how many women “stay home” with their children is going to be difficult.
A few weeks ago, Redbook and I released a survey on The Mom Gig, looking at the lives of stay-at-home moms. In my own mind, staying-at-home means not earning income and having no real plans to (economists say that people who are looking for work are in the labor force, even if they are not currently employed). But right away, that definition runs into problems with our subjects. Some 62 percent said they were contributing income to their households; 25 percent said they ran their own businesses from home. A full 34 percent did some form of work on their diary day (an average of 4.5 hours), which was the previous day from when they took the survey. Since I imagine that many people do not work 5 days per week, this suggests that a somewhat higher percentage are working in some form. A big chunk who are not currently earning income aren’t completely out. Of our sample, 19 percent had children under age 2, and did not list part-time work as part of their lives. But the majority (59%) of these women planned to go back to work. As Elissa Strauss pointed out in a Slate article on our study, in other societies, someone caring for a 13-month-old might be considered on maternity leave, not having made a huge lifestyle choice.
In the mean time, on the working side of the ledger, there have been profound changes in how people work. The recently released American Time Use Survey found that 39 percent of employed college-educated Americans did some or all of their work from home on the days they worked. The ATUS reports that the share of workers (total) doing some or all of their work from home grew from 19 percent in 2003 to 24 percent in 2015. High-end work is often quite flexible; I found that three-quarters of the women in my Mosaic project did something personal during work hours during their diary week. This included such things as chaperoning school field trips, being the parent-helper at a preschool, or even hitting the playground during a break on work-from-home days. The so-called “gig economy” (Uber/Lyft, WorkMarket, Task Rabbit, eLance, etc.) and marketplaces such as Etsy and Craigslist have made it possible to turn time into money without a person needing to make a long-term commitment. Self-employment remains a popular option too.
Probably a person reporting to a workplace for 40 hours/week would consider herself working — as long as those hours were 9-5 M-F (I have seen women who work overnight or weekend shifts calling themselves SAHMs because they did not use traditional childcare during conventional work hours, even though they were working full-time). Probably a person who did no paid work and was mostly caring for young children would consider herself at home with her kids. However, in between, much depends on the stories we tell ourselves and what we consider normal or what we think our communities value.
I was reminded of this while reading a guest post over at MoneySavingMom. Kristen, who blogs at Joyfully Thriving, wrote of 7 Ways To Save More On An Already Tight Budget. I followed the links over to her blog, where she’d written a post on When Your Income Is Cut In Half. She and her husband had both been private school teachers. Their first son was born in early 2014. She cut back her teaching schedule, which cut their income. Then, “In 2015, we decided it was time for me to stay home full-time,” she wrote. “Our income dropped once again. We were both committed to making this work and doing whatever we needed to do so I could stay home with our children.”
Note that she twice used the phrase “stay home.” But it turns out that she is spending her time in various income-producing ways. Reading further into this blog post, we learn that her blog makes money. She has a part-time social media gig. She teaches piano lessons. She creates customized Biblical children’s books, and babysits for other kids.
So I wrote to her and asked her why she considered herself at home with her children. She was kind enough to write back (and say that she had read my books! Wow!)
“You pose a good and valid question, one that I’ve pondered myself,” she wrote. “I agree that the lines have become quite blurred. To me, a stay-at-home mom is one who is home a majority of the time with her children – and if she works, she works from home.” She noted that “my blogging and social media work is done (mostly) during naptime and after the kids go to bed. My piano lesson teaching is during the 5 hours a week my kids spend with their grandma. So, I work but it’s flexible around my kids and their schedules. I’m not locked into a specific schedule. If we have a busy week with appointments or travel, I don’t teach lessons and cut back on blogging. Even right now, I’m emailing while holding a sleeping baby – something I couldn’t do it if I was teaching like I used to do.”
That is likely true that she could not have taught in her school while holding her sleeping baby. On the other hand, some hipper offices allow sleeping babies. And some on-line teaching gigs can be done with babes in arms. I’ve sent numerous emails and edited various manuscripts while nursing my four little ones. I likewise am not locked into a specific schedule, and if we have a busy week with appointments or travel, I cut back on the article writing, blogging, and whatever else it is I do. Yet I have always considered myself to be working. Indeed, the “working mom” thing is a major part of my personal brand.
So what is the difference? Is there a difference? Kristen wrote that “to me, being mom is my first and most important job (after being a wife, of course).” But I’m pretty sure that moms of all flavors consider the mom gig their biggest thing in life. Is it the use of childcare? Both of us use some, it’s just a question of degree.
I think those of us in this gray area basically choose how we define ourselves based on the stories we tell ourselves of what people like us are supposed to do. “I think the lines have become blurred as women today have the opportunities to do more – especially from home,” Kristen told me. “Technology has opened up a new world to us that was not available to our mothers.” That said, what our mothers did — and our friends, and community members currently do — probably affects our identities. It is very important to me to have a professional identity, and so I probably emphasize that more than my time diaries on some days would justify. Kristen noted that her mother “played organ, baby-sat and accompanied at various contests. Yet, she always called herself a stay at home mom, so that is what I grew up with. The fact that I am now doing something similar just feels comfortable to me. I don’t have many friends who call themselves a WAHM so it seems odd for me to call myself one. Although, as my endeavors continue to evolve, maybe I will.”
Contributing to our identities: the Pew Research Center has found that 60 percent of Americans say it’s best for children if a parent stays home. The nudge in the gray area is toward identifying this way. However, male incomes have declined in real terms over the last few decades. It has become increasingly difficult for moms to give kids the lives they want on one income, no matter how many pennies get pinched. So how can one square these impulses? Identify as a stay-at-home mom…and work. That’s one way to get the benefits of both choices.
In other news: A different sort of entry on my time-log last night — I spent 30 minutes throwing a football with my 6-year-old (over the head of my toddler). He is in football camp this week. The 9-year-old is in drama camp. This pretty much sums up their personality differences.