Raising a human being is hard. It’s a different kind of “work” because it’s all-encompassing. I was raised by my grandmother, whose job title in the early ’80s was “homemaker.” It did not come with benefits or sick days or even a paycheck. It’s what she knew.
Today, she’d be called a stay-at-home mom (or grandma). The role hasn’t changed much in terms of daily household responsibilities. But in our current climate, where women are expected to do it all, what people think of stay-at-home moms has changed.
No one questioned what my grandmother did all day. In the 1970s, when my grandmother raised her own children, 48 percent of American households were run by stay-at-home moms (SAHMs). By the 1980s, when she raised me, although the decline had begun, the job was still exceedingly common.
Here we take a look at how SAHMs are seen today, why they do it, and how we can better support them.
People often think being a SAHM is easy because they don’t have to clock in or clock out. They think SAHMs watch television, are lazy and pathetic, have little responsibility, or are bored being home with their kids all day.
Caila Drabenstot, a 35-year-old SAHM of five who lives in Indiana*, refutes this.
Drabenstot, who worked as a waitress before choosing to become a SAHM, shares, “This isn’t an easy gig like many are led to believe. I am running around doing what needs to be done from the time I wake up to the time my head hits the pillow. There is never any downtime for me to just ‘be.’”
“And even on the rare occasion where I do find a moment to myself,” she adds, “it’s often intruded by the mental load of motherhood. I don’t think people understand how large of a toll that takes on a person.”
That number is largely even higher now, as almost 1.8 million women have left the labor force during the pandemic, often because their jobs have disappeared or because they’ve been forced to stop working as a result of pay inequity and lack of childcare.
Whether by choice or by circumstance, most of these women spend their days doing some combination of taking care of the kids, managing their activities, preparing meals, scheduling appointments, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, managing family finances, and on and on. In other words, they’re doing a lot. And yet, the stigma remains.
Lauren Jacobs, a licensed clinical social worker based in Troy, New York, who is also a mom of two, says, “I believe this stigma still exists because, as a society, we continue to minimize the social and financial value of ‘executive functioning,’” meaning “the skills it takes to organize and execute tasks.”
Jacobs believes that as our society is undergoing a reevaluation of labor and “essential” workers during the pandemic, it would help to destigmatize stay-at-home parents if we brought their labor and its benefit for the family and society at large into the conversation.
“A stay-at-home parent is doing similar project management — who needs to bring what to school, do we need toilet paper, what is the dinner plan — [to what people are doing at work],” she says. “All of that is labor which takes several steps to execute but is often ‘invisible labor’ because we are not thinking about everything that goes into it, and ‘women’s work’ has historically gone unseen and unvalued.”
So, how does one drown out all the outside noise when it comes to raising one’s children?
Bronx-based clinical social worker Leslie M. Lind-Hernaiz, LCSW-R, who also has a 2-year-old, says it’s up to moms to “stay true to your own values and what’s important to you and your family. When you stay true to your own values and what your family needs regardless of what society tells you, you are doing what is right for you.”
The answer here is simple: Moms stay home to care for their kids, though the reasons differ from mom to mom.
Sarah King, a 33-year-old mom of two who lives in Stamford, Connecticut, says, “I chose to stay home. We’ve always been a single-income family. It’s something I take a great deal of strength and inspiration from. I wanted to raise really good humans and to establish a relationship with them, which takes both time and patience.”
Kailee Gaul, a 35-year-old who lives in DeBary, Florida, and has two kids, valued being physically present and emotionally available for her family. Once a kindergarten teacher, she loved her job, so when her first son was born, she had to decide whether to go back to work, and it wasn’t an easy choice to make.
Aware of the stigma against being a SAHM, she chose it anyway. “I found myself being introspective and thinking through why it was so important to me,” she says. “I concluded that truly in my heart of hearts, I wanted this time with my baby and my family.”
In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 6 in 10 adults said they believe that children are better off when a parent stays home, and there’s even research that says being a SAHM can have positive effects on your baby’s brain.
Of course, sometimes even choosing to be a SAHM is a choice of necessity. Phoebe McDowell, a 49-year-old mom of twins who lives in Portland, Oregon, didn’t set out to be a SAHM. She did it because she felt she had little choice.
“It was too expensive to work as a nurse and put a newborn or toddler or even preschool twins in day care in the Portland metro area,” she says. “For a number of reasons, it is about as expensive for childcare here as it is in New York City, but a healthcare worker’s pay scale is nowhere near the same.”
Being a SAHM can also be isolating, of course, no matter what leads you to the job. A Gallup analysis found that SAHMs experience depression at a higher rate than employed moms, and the pandemic has worsened these feelings of burnout and anxiety even more.
Society tells me constantly that, as a Black woman, I must do more to be considered equal. I got my college degree. I have a career in the nonprofit sector in which I help provide support to cardiac surgery patients, and have worked very hard to prove I am indeed committed to my work. I’m not looking to be a SAHM. But could I be one if I wanted to be?
Marie Martin, 38, a mom of two who lives in New York City, feels the standards are different for Black women.
“As a Black woman, the stigma to stay home is looked down upon because people assume you aren’t educated or you are on welfare,” she says. “So Black moms carry an even heavier burden. On top of everything else, we are trying to prove tenfold that we deserve to be home.”
Lind-Hernaiz, who is Black, shared that her husband passed away in December, making her a single mom of color and a widow in 1 month’s time. A study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute reported that African American women are often the breadwinners of their families, and half of all African American women in the workforce today are moms.
In a Pew Research Center analysis of data collected between 2014 and 2016, only 7 percent of SAHMs were Black women, as opposed to the 49 percent who were white.
Lind-Hernaiz shares that Women of Color, especially Black women, can’t always afford to stay at home. “I think it’s harder for Women of Color, especially Black women, to be stay-at-home moms due to lack of support, specifically financial support,” she says.
Many of the Women of Color Lind-Hernaiz works with are single parents, whether by choice or by chance. And she points out that there aren’t many employment opportunities for SAHMs that offer a livable salary.
But “the option of being a stay-at-home mom [or] parent should not be a luxury — it should be a viable option for all who want to do it,” she says.
While being a SAHM isn’t for everyone, when a woman knows it’s right for her, and she’s able to take the job, it’s important that society supports her.
Here are some things we can do to support stay-at-home moms.
1. Recognize that SAHMs are not “only” stay-at-home moms without wants, hopes, or dreams outside of their kids.
According to Kellie Wicklund, psychotherapist and owner and clinical director of the Maternal Wellness Center in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, “No person wants to be identified as only one aspect of themself — this includes parents who decide to stay at home and care for their children for any extent of time.”
She adds, “It is a worthy choice, of incredibly high value to a family, and while it may feel like the central mission of the day, it is in no way the whole woman.”
2. Pay them for doing the hardest job on Earth.
According to Salary.com, a SAHM should make more than $184,000 annually. Some countries, like Sweden and Germany, do pay parents who stay home with their kids, but the United States is not one of them. The Child Tax Credit was one step toward a universal child benefit, but we must do more.
3. Make Paid Family and Medical Leave a reality for every family in the United States.
PFML provides up to 12 weeks of leave for family members to raise their child, care for a sick relative, or experience other life events that might require time away from work, yet many American workers don’t have access to it. As of now, only nine states have PFML policies on the books.
There are some things SAHMs can do for themselves, too. Dr. Maryann B. Schaefer, a therapist in Manhasset, New York, and a mom, encourages SAHMs to “enjoy this special, precious time in life, [but also] keep in mind what your dreams are as you mature and grow.” You might not be a SAHM forever, and you might not want to go back to the same career you left.
It’s good to keep an awareness of what your passions and talents are, so if and when you want to go back to work, you’ll be ready. “Use that time for some introspection, even when you’re exhausted, and ask yourself what you enjoy,” Schaefer says.
Lind-Hernaiz suggests that SAHMs build an accepting community of family, friends, and neighbors. “I think we underestimate how [our] community helps us get through the day-to-day,” she says.
Personally, I could never be a SAHM. I know that about myself now. I like having a job for many reasons, the biggest being that I chose a career in which I can have a direct impact on making people’s lives better.
But growing up and daydreaming about having kids, I was always the mom who baked cookies from scratch and hosted the best kid birthday parties on the block. In my dreams, I was the mom who had spectacular summer barbecues, whose house all the neighborhood kids wanted to hang out at.
While being a SAHM turned out not to be my calling, I have learned that I like to work remotely, somewhat of a compromise I’ve been afforded because of the pandemic. I like the ability to pick my kids up if the school nurse calls, to take them to their piano lessons right after school, to cook dinner for them every night, and to generally be more available for them.
There isn’t a job description for us moms. We have no road map or employee manual when it comes to raising kids. We love them and nurture them the best way we know how, and we don’t need to explain why we do that as stay-at-home or working moms.
“Women are judged no matter what choices they make,” Wicklund says. “It is nothing more than misogyny, and we must recognize [it] and wholly reject it.”
*She did not want to give the name of the city she lives in for privacy reasons.