Where Logic Meets Love

Why the SAHM vs. WOHM Debate Is Stupid -- and Inaccurate

Thursday, February 16, 2012

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Last Friday, Melissa Jenna posted a great video, which you can watch below. Essentially she said that because she stuck to her values, acted in accordance with her priorities, and made the life choice that made her the happiest (starting a family and staying home with her daughter), she shouldn't be considered less "successful" than her friend who was featured in Esquire for her professional work (something that her friend prioritizes and which makes her happy).

What I got from this was that women shouldn't be pressured or congratulated for making one choice over another, but rather should be encouraged to do (and considered successful for doing) whatever works best for them and their family.

I agree, and I think it's ridiculous for anyone to say that working when you have children or staying home with your children is always the right choice. I would speculate that many of the people who make hyperbolic claims one way or the other ("Staying home means throwing your dreams and your ambitions away!" "Working when you have children means you're heartless and love money more than your family!") do so out of some guilt about their own personal decision and feeling a need to defend their choice.

I feel that I should point out that this whole argument is another false dichotomy. It presents two options: a woman can stay home with young children while her husband works, or they can both work and have someone else watch their children. I bet you can think of a family right now that doesn't fit this mold.

Besides the obvious variations (you might have two parents of the same gender, or the man might stay home while the woman works, as we plan to do), there are plenty of other possibilities. You might have a single parent who feels he or she has no choice but to work, or who chooses to live off welfare in order to stay home. You might have two parents who each work part time so they can alternate which days they stay home. Perhaps one or both parents work from home and has to find a way to watch their children and work at the same time. Maybe one or both are students, and they have to figure out class schedules, work schedules, and childcare.

This isn't a disagreement with MJ's point, but an extension of it. How can there possibly be one right choice when there isn't even one single situation to begin with?

No matter the situation, a family with young children will work to find the solution that best meets their needs, their priorities, and their life goals. Those who find a way to do this should be applauded!

There is never going to be a solution that makes everybody happy 100% of the time, but I believe that those directly involved are the best equipped to figure out what works for them. People are most likely to be unhappy with their decision when they're trying to follow a script that was written for someone else. This is true not just for raising children but for many areas of life.

I would honestly laugh if anyone tried to tell me and Mike that our plan (him at home, me working) was not the best choice for us or our family. The other night at dinner he was saying how he gets exhausted thinking about staying in his current job for more than a few years. He said he would get so bored doing the same thing every day for the rest of his life, and that he can't wait for the unpredictability of kids and getting to plan fun things to do with them. I said the thought of that exhausts me, and that I would go crazy if I didn't have a job to get up and go to every morning! Clearly we are suited to complementary roles for the future.

What is your take on this "debate"? Is it even worth discussing?


  1. I think you're more than right. There is no 'right choice', everyone has to figure out what works best for them, what works for their family and their situation and what makes them happy. Staying at home isn't an option for everyone, in today's society I can't imagine having to make do with just one paycheck. I'd love to work less once I have children, but I'm sure it will only be possible for a few years if we don't want to be living on the financial edge. It's something I'll have to figure out then.
    And I think it's great that your husband is planning to be the one staying home, it's still way too unusual nowadays and I can't see why not. Not every woman likes the thought of only having their children as company all day every day, while some men would.

  2. @Little redhead
    The financial aspect is an interesting one. I would guess there are a lot of people who make the choice to have a parent stop working (or work less) and find that they can adapt to a different "standard of living" more easily than they thought because they get so much reward from their choice. On the other hand, I would never try to tell someone, "You can/should be happy living on X income." If you've found a solution that allows you to maintain a lifestyle you're comfortable with and feel that your family is well-cared for, who am I to judge?

  3. I agree!! Being interested in parenting and cooking, I often find myself reading SAHM blogs that carry the false dichotomy to quite an extreme of self-justification and WOHM-bashing. But at times in my real life (usually not online) I also talk with WOHMs who are dismissive of SAHMs. Argh.

    A topic I've been meaning to write about for years now is (briefly) this: In the 1970s, my feminist activist SAHM had a T-shirt that said, EVERY MOTHER IS A WORKING MOTHER. It's true, caring for children *is* real work! I agree with that sentiment so strongly that when I'm not using abbreviations I say "employed mother" rather than "working mother" to refer to those who have paid jobs. (Same for fathers.) But these days, I want to tell the world, EVERY MOTHER IS A FULL-TIME MOTHER. I feel sick when I hear the term "full-time mother" used to refer to SAHMs because it implies that I am not a mother when I am at my job--and I know that I am. "Full-time homemaker" is fine; you can call me a "full-time data analyst" because that's what I do 40 hours a week, and I hope that most homemakers do not spend much more than 40 hours a week actually on-task doing housework. But I am a mother all the time. My father was employed 40-70 hours a week throughout my childhood, yet I would never, ever call him a "part-time father."

    Of course, I realize "stay-at-home mother" is not a particularly accurate term for many...but I don't think I've heard anyone feeling offended by it, just laughing about how it seems they really spend their time everywhere else!

    Little Redhead: Please don't think of working less when you have children as "something to figure out then." It's unlikely to work if you don't plan for it--particularly if your financial situation already makes it difficult to imagine subsisting on one paycheck. Start saving toward it now!! Think in terms of saving the money you will spend on childcare while working part-time, so that the income you earn during that time can pay other bills. In order to save it, start cutting your expenses now. Waiting to cut expenses until you have an additional person in the family will make it a lot more difficult.

  4. I absolutely plan on staying home when I reach the point in my life when I have my baby. There are a lot of factors that go into this, but I do think it is a matter of priorities and doing what is best for the family. After all, isn't that the goal of feminism? To allow people to do what is best for themselves, their families, and their situations? I think that is more the discussion that needs to happen as opposed to "SAHM" v "WOHM."

    In this vein, the first question that needs to be asked is "Are we as a society allowing families to make the best choices for their situation, or are we forcing certain molds on them?" This can be as small as bloggers going back and forth about their life choices to as big as governmental policy regarding paid parental leave. I know several parents would love to stay at home with their child for longer than the initial six weeks if they could afford it. Instead they are find themselves having to make choices that they aren't entirely in love with, but are bound by practicality.

    So long story short: yes, it's worth discussing, but it needs to be discussed in a larger context.

  5. @'Becca
    I can't say I've heard the term "full-time mother" before, but I can understand why that would bother you. Because, yeah, the alternative is "part-time mother," as if you stop being a mother just because you go to work. And as you pointed out, it's easy to tell that a term is ridiculous if switching genders makes it suddenly sound even more absurd, as in "part-time father" for a man who works outside the home.

    I hadn't thought about how inaccurate the term "stay-at-home mother" is given that they're spending lots of time doing things not at home! But we do need some agreed-upon terms that can be used without offending most people, or it becomes impossible to have a conversation without everything having a multitude of explanations and qualifiers. That's a whole other conversation about linguistics and communication theory :)

  6. @therabbitholeofalice
    After all, isn't that the goal of feminism? To allow people to do what is best for themselves, their families, and their situations?
    I definitely think so. I know that my mom has talked about growing up when feminism was in full swing and, many people then looked down on a woman who wanted to go into a traditionally female field like nursing or teaching. But feminism doesn't mean every woman switches from one set of limited roles to another (albeit larger) set of limited roles. It means everyone, men and women, being able to choose their personal best life path without being limited by their gender.

    I should clarify that my question was whether it's worth discussing if staying at home vs. working is superior in some way. But you're absolutely right that there needs to continue to be discussion around what barriers (whether cultural, governmental, etc.) are in place that prevent people from making the choices that are best for them and their families.

  7. I don't think it's possible to talk about THE goal of feminism. It has come to mean different things to different people. There are MANY people now, mostly women who identify as feminists, who still look down on women in traditionally female fields--SAHMing and childcare even more so than nursing and teaching. I hear it a lot from my mother's peers and from childless Baby Boomer women.

    I don't think it's worth discussing whether there is some innate superiority THAT APPLIES TO EVERY FAMILY in mothers staying home all day doing only childcare and housework or in mothers being employed full-time outside the home while children are in a particular type of childcare center, with in either case fathers being employed full-time outside the home. There are so many other options, and so many other factors operating within families that are alike on the above factor, that generalities really don't mean much.

    There are SAHMs who *do* believe that staying at home nearly all the time is part of the job; this generally goes along with believing that children should be educated at home and spend little time elsewhere, as only men are strong enough to withstand the risks of going out into The World on a daily basis. But most homemakers (that's the term I prefer to use for a person whose career is operating a home) are out and about quite a bit for errands, kids' activities, volunteer work, socializing, etc. I certainly see your point about needing to be able to use general terms, though!

    BTW, the other thing I don't like about feeling characterized as a "part-time mother" is that it gets that Hall & Oates song going in my head! >:-( It's really "Part-Time Lover" but my brain's soundtrack center does not know that. Da doot doot dooo...my paarrt-timme mother...AARGH!!!

  8. @'Becca
    LOL I thought it was Stevie Wonder!

    Jessica, GREAT topic! I don't know if you saw my tweets yesterday in reply to you sharing this post, but I will be back soon to further expand on what I meant. I've also had a post like this churning in my mind, and after I finally get it written, will definitely appreciate any/all comments! :)

  9. @'Becca
    I find it interesting that you prefer the term "homemaker," which strikes me personally as similar to "housewife" in that it seems to imply that the person is spending the majority of their time tending to the needs of their home (e.g., cleaning), as opposed to the needs of their children, which I think for most people is their reason for being at home in the first place.

    But then, as we've discussed, it's difficult (or impossible) to find a term that is general enough to describe a broad group of people but which can also accurately describe everyone's exact situation. That's why, while I am in favor of using terms that are not offensive, I believe you have to draw a line somewhere because there will always be someone who is offended that a term doesn't describe their situation completely accurately.

    So when you say "homemaker" or I say "stay-at-home mom," though neither term may be 100% ideal, it allows us to have a conversation about how, for example, this thing we're discussing is neither the right role nor the wrong role for every single woman :)

  10. @Rabbit
    I always love hearing your take on the things I write about. Feel free to comment back here with a link once you've written it up!

  11. When I saw your tweet I headed straight over. Your statement "people are most likely to be unhappy with their decision when they're trying to follow a script that was written for someone else," is SO right-on, I wish it were a Pinterest meme. And I love the discourse that's going on in your comments. People often write-off comment sections of websites as "for trolls only," but your blog always proves otherwise. And I'm so pleased that anything I've had to say has sparked any kind of meaningful discourse!

    Regarding the financial side of stay-at-home parenting, it IS a sacrifice for our family, and we certainly adjusted our standard of living, but in a cost/benefit analysis way, it's totally worth it because we enjoy it. If I felt like I was only staying home because I was "following a script that was written for someone else," I'd be miserable, and although my kiddo is young, I'm sure she'd be able to tell the difference.

    @Jessica Your insight about feminism ("But feminism doesn't mean every woman switches from one set of limited roles to another (albeit larger) set of limited roles. It means everyone, men and women, being able to choose their personal best life path without being limited by their gender.") made me smile. Upon reading it, I thought "Ah! Someone else gets it!" It feels like feminism (especially over the Internet) gets reduced to some weird Us. vs. Them in-fighting that never benefits either party, rather than unifying us as a gender, with respect to all of our individual choices.

    Thanks for spending some time talking about the issue, and it feels good to know that I'm not the only one thinking about this stuff reasonably. Sometimes the Internet seems SO inflammatory, as if reason and compromise have no place here. Your blog consistently proves otherwise. :)

  12. I completely agree. And, and I know I open myself up to a lot off criticism saying this, but I get a little bit annoyed when I have to constantly hear about how much harder SAHMs have things. I DO know how difficult it is for SAHMs. My mother was one of them. But to imply it's harder than being a working mom truly annoys me. Why is it a competition anyway? Why does one side feel the need to justify her "choices"? Now, I feel like some of this has arisen in order to refute the idea that SAHMs just sit around or don't work as hard as the rest of the world. Which is quite a legitimate argument. But, as a future working mom, I feel like, rather than argue that SAHMs work harder, we should simply be discussing how motherhood is a challenge NO MATTER WHAT DESIGNATION a mom has. Because that's the truth. And not all working mother's have a choice. My husband and I would not be satisfied with what we could offer our children if my intention wasn't to reenter the workforce after my daughter's birth. I have a education that I always intended to put to use for the financial stability of my family. I hate that working moms are sometimes made to justify a decision that, frankly, isn't always a decision but rather a necessity.

  13. I love this post! This is something that I am passionate about and find interesting. Especially these days when there are different ways to work. It is no longer go out of the house and work in an office/ restaurant/ or whatever it is you do. You have so many job opportunities just from home.

    When I was younger I wanted to be a stay at home mom. I wanted to drive my kids to their sports games. I wanted to be at every single play. Being a stay at home mom was my ultimate goal. Now I have other passions that I add onto this but I get to do it from home and still be with my kids. Reading through that I realize it might seem like I am bashing working moms who work out of the home..I'm not! I am just describing my situation and how when it came down to it, it worked out exactly how I wanted it to.

    So I don't think it's necessarily worth the heated debate. But in my mind it is worth discussing only because I find it interesting and I don't feel the need to pass judgement on anyone who does this differently.

  14. @Melissa Jenna Godsey
    Thanks for your kind words! I am blessed with great readers who know how to have a respectful and insightful conversation. I agree that it can be difficult to find oases of reason on the Internet, but thankfully they exist!

    What I appreciated about your video was that you approached this "controversial" topic curiously rather than defensively--that is, rather than simply listing off why people shouldn't judge you for staying home with your daughter, you were like, Hey, listen, I did what made the most sense for me, my friend is doing what makes the most sense for her... Why are we being compared to each other? Why does there have to be one definition of success? It was such a clear and simple approach, which is why I wanted to share it.

  15. @Caiti
    I can think of few situations in which it's a valuable use of time to try to argue that one group's situation is harder than another's. It's like when you see people saying, "Women have it so much harder than men" or "Men have it so much harder than women." How can you possibly make a generalization that broad that has any kind of meaning, and what's the point?

    I see much more value in having conversations like this: "It is difficult for a parent who is trying to (work outside the home, homeschool, go to school, whatever). Let's talk about ways to make this situation easier--how to ask for help from your community, how to negotiate with your employer or instructors, how to lobby the government for change, etc." That's how lives are improved--not by sitting around complaining that your life is so much harder than somebody else's life.

  16. @melissa
    I think you might like two blog posts that Anne at Anne with an E recently did: My Kids Don't Interfere with My Real Life; Mothering Is My Real Life and Motherhood Is My Real Life, but It's Not My Whole Life. She talks about some of the same things you mentioned--that spending time with her kids is her top priority right now, but she also has found a way to carve out time for her other passions. You've found a way to structure your life that matches your priorities, and that's great.

  17. No, it really isn't worth debating...if someone feels it necessary to give their opinion to you about about your choices in life as compared to theirs. A simple "your absolutely right" followed by doing whatever you feel is right is the appropriate response in this case - no debate necessary.
    But, it is worth discussing because for some crazy reason people feel that their opinions and their own choices are THE ONLY opinions and choices that are the "correct" ones.
    Opinions come in handy when a person is without answers and different opinions can potentially adjust someone's perspective just enough to come up with an answer BY THEMSELVES, WITHOUT BEING "BULLIED" BY GUILT AND SHAME.

  18. @Shayna Abrams
    You brought up a point that I don't think anyone else did, which is that discussing the pros and cons of working while you have children could be helpful to someone who hasn't yet decided what to do. But it's definitely a fine line--the kind of debates where anyone's saying their choice is always right are, like you said, only likely to lead to guilt, no matter what the person ends up deciding to do.

    Unfortunately I've found that when people are fanatically convinced that their opinion is the only right one, sharing an opposing view doesn't necessarily accomplish anything. But if you're going to try to reason with someone like that, better to do so in the spirit of offering another perspective as opposed to trying to prove the other person is wrong.


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