Half a century ago, staying at home with your children as a mother was regarded as the norm for women all over the world. A mother's first "duty" was to her children, and it was assumed that the natural progression of a woman's life, even if it began with education and a career, would shift automatically into maternal care with the birth of her children. Only 19 percent of all mothers with small children in the U.S. worked outside the home in the 1950s. With the birth of second-wave feminism, though, stay-at-home mothers started to develop a more problematic, stereotyped reputation: women who raised kids instead of going into the workforce or education were seen as brainwashed, refusing new gender opportunities for an archaic sexism. And that idea continues to bubble in our culture. Women who do stay at home battle many misconceptions to this day about what it's really like to be a stay-at-home mom.
Increasingly, stay-at-home mothers are becoming more common in the U.S. The Pew Research Center released a report in 2015 that found that, after dropping radically from 49 percent of all mothers in 1967 to 23 percent in 1999, stay-at-home moms comprised 29 percent of all women in 2012. A Gallup poll the same year found that 56 percent of American women with children under the age of 18 preferred the idea of staying home to going to work, whether that was possible or not. America's maternity leave policies remain among the world's least impressive, and "returnships," or jobs held by women returning to the workforce after motherhood, are plagued by lower pay and unconscious bias against working mothers. In this environment, it's more important than ever that the voices of stay-at-home mothers themselves are heard. Bustle talked to eight women about they wish people knew about being a stay-at-home mom.
Why They Chose To Leave The Workforce
When asked to voice what was hidden or widely unknown about the life of a stay-at-home mother, many of the women interviewed told Bustle that they wish people knew about the financial and emotional realities of their choice, and how giving up work affected them. "When my daughter was two years old, I elected to quit my job at a publicly traded company," Jamie Drumwright, who now owns an Etsy shop, said. "I was a director in charge of millions of dollars worth of revenue and reported directly to the CEO. I quit out of necessity: It was either I quit or I hire yet another person in a long line of people to care for my three children, ages two, four, and 10."
Tiffany Hess, who writes the blog Three Girls & A Farm, echoed the same sentiment. "Being a stay at home mom wasn't my first choice," she said. "I would have loved to stay in the workforce and use my degree, but with the cost of daycare I would have been working just to pay for their care with not much left over." Writer Heather D. Nelson said, "I wasn't always a stay-at-home mother, and I'm not just a stay-at-home mother now. I had a career, intelligence, and a brain in my head prior to kids arriving. And currently, though I'm a stay at home mom, I have passions and pursuits and interests that make my intelligent insights valuable. I can bring all of these things to a discussion, if my voice was ever considered."
The notion of dismissed intelligence infuriated several of the women. Kate Seamark, who has been a stay-at-home mother to six kids, told Bustle that one major misconception was that "your brain goes dead." Bracha Goetz, a children's book author, told Bustle that her Harvard education was often under-appreciated as part of her parenting arsenal. "What I think people don't generally appreciate," she said, "is how helpful it is to devote our intelligence to raising our children." She believes that highly educated stay-at-home mothers have the time, energy, and intelligence to research psychological techniques that will help them understand their children and find creative ways to take care of them, and that this ultimately helps them raise their kids.
Amy Webb, who runs the blog The Thoughtful Parent, expressed it in terms of skills. "I wish people knew how many real-life skills it takes to be a stay-at-home mom," she told Bustle. "It's not just a brainless job of washing dishes and doing laundry all day. It requires a lot of emotional intelligence, planning, strategy, organization — all real life skills that business people use every day."
The pressure of childcare wasn't the only financial consideration that these moms argued was invisible to the outside world. Laura Ansbro, who has a 2-year-old son, noted that she wished people knew "just how onerous a financial decision it is, to have chosen to cut our income by half." It's a problem that influences her social network: "When friends suggest meeting up at a restaurant or café, even a fairly cheap one, that's hard. [Spending money] on a mediocre cup of tea could have bought our bread and milk for a week, or paid for a several of our toddler groups."
What Their Domestic Labor Is Worth
The myths and misconceptions stay-at-home mothers would like to dispel run to the hundreds. One that recurred frequently among the collective of women interviewed, though, was the idea of time and domestic labor. Ansbro told Bustle that she felt pressure to maintain impossible standards. "My house must be immaculate and I should always be looking my best, because I've got so much time," she said. "It's implied that being a stay-at-home mother is just a convenient way to avoid both going to work and paying for childcare. But actually, it's more than a full time job."
Hess expressed the same idea. Because of her stay-at-home status, she said, people appear to believe that "my house should be spotless, my laundry should be completed and folded and in its rightful places, my children's hair should be styled and they should be out of their pajamas and into real clothing before lunchtime." (She explained that not actually doing that, and staying in pajamas and tiaras all day, was one of the luxuries of being a stay-at-home parent.)
The question of time, Nelson told Bustle, was a particular issue if your parenting role was more complicated than normal. "Yes, I stay home," she said, "but I'm busy. Beyond managing the household needs, I homeschool my kids, and my oldest son has a medical condition that requires management." Despite all that she has to do, she says, others expect her to be perpetually available "at the drop of a hat." Even children without special needs require additional care and attention than non-stay at home parents think, as Ansbro explained. Household jobs in a house with toddlers, she told Bustle, "often have a toddler's assistance, which means they each took approximately 37 times longer to complete, and probably generated a further chain of tidying in their wake."
Frustration with myths, however, went beyond the issue of domestic cleanliness. "I wanted to quit my job", "I was personally fulfilled and happy after I did", and "I sat at home and ate bonbons and romance novels all day while the kids were at school," were all untrue assumptions that Drumwright says she encountered after becoming a stay-at-home mom. It's important, she says, for people to recognize that the transition to stay-at-home motherhood can be psychologically hard for women, rather than a glorious, charming free-for-all. Webb highlighted the same issue. One misconception, she said, was that "all stay-at-home moms are the same," either with low education and a lack of passion for work, or "wearing yoga pants all day and running the PTA." The realities, the women noted, were much more diverse than the stereotypes.
Another large area of damaging myths surrounding stay-at-home mothers was their presumed relationship with the world of work. Seamark noted that many people expected her to dislike working mothers. "I love, respect and admire them," she said. "It takes a village to raise a child and my village is populated with wonderful moms of all varieties." But the divisions also run deeper. Anna Brockway, who was Vice President of Levi-Strauss before becoming a stay-at-home mother, and who now runs furniture consignment website Chairish, notes that misconceptions about stay-at-home mothers can hamper their ability to find good remote or telecommuting work.
"Unfortunately, this is a common myth that I hear a lot," she told Bustle. "There is this idea that stay-at-home moms who take on remote/freelance employment are somehow too preoccupied with motherhood to do a good job. My experience with working mothers has been the complete opposite! As an employer, I love hiring stay-at-home moms because you get 120 percent of their time and effort." The problem is one of perception, she says. "I think it is important that people recognize that becoming a stay-at-home mother doesn't inhibit a woman's ability to be a high-performing employee."
And the myths persist even after the stay-at-home period ends for some moms. Perceptions about mothers who've chosen to re-enter the workforce are actively damaging to their attempts to find rewarding jobs. Drumwright, whose youngest child is now 19, notes that realistically, she can either try to start a business on her own, or get into a workforce "that will see me as outdated no matter how much I know about social media or current trends."
The ultimate lesson? Don't believe the hype about stay-at-home mothers — and ask them questions instead of making your own assumptions. Just don't do it while they're trying to put a toddler down for a nap.