he first time I heard about a woman having to give up her career in order to care for her kid, I was pregnant and eating a 50-cent vanilla soft-serve in the late Chicago summer heat. My sister broke down the math behind her friend’s decision to leave her job and raise kids. Basically, she said, all of her friend’s salary would go toward child care if she continued working. I was shocked, and in that moment, I realized something: I’d always thought stay-at-home mothering was something of a luxury. But in fact, that isn’t always true.
A certain strain of internet pundit often comments on stories about the sorry state of support for American families with phrases like “if someone can’t afford kids, then they shouldn’t have any.” But the idea that people who fall below a certain income bracket don’t deserve to experience the joy of children or the comfort and security of family lays bare the classism shrouding parents in the United States.
And then there are the misguided feminists who decry stay-at-home mothering as a blow to their movement. Their stance echoes the similar assumption of privilege I once naively held: that being a stay-at-home mother (SAHM, for short) was a station reserved for the leisure class. Then years ago, as the realities of my own situation set in (pregnant, a recent grad, working several underpaid jobs), this notion was peeled back and exposed as fraudulent. What was revealed, instead, was a complicated truth.
The Rising Costs of Childcare
“I didn’t envision myself being a stay-at-home mom,” says Katherine, a mother of one who works as a freelance writer and editor, “but it’s still way easier than trying to work a lot of low-paying jobs outside the home like my mom did. I can do what I do because I’m married to someone who has a steady 9-to-5 job that pays okay. I’m very lucky.” Katherine decided to give up her job as an adjunct professor partly due to cost of childcare, which is common in the U.S.
The average cost of daycare in the states hovers between $20-30k annually. If, for example, we assume that a pregnant woman with a bachelor’s degree living in a large city is making the national median wage of around $65k per year and would like to keep her job, we must also assume that she will be spending about half of her salary on childcare alone. This is, of course, not taking into account the cost of basic necessities like healthcare, housing, grocery, or transportation costs. If that woman’s partner makes more, has better health benefits through work, or is male, then she often needs to decide if she should keep her job since most (or all!) of her salary will go toward childcare. It’s a difficult choice that many mothers have to make, often layered thick with the particular kind of guilt that clings to women with children.
“Part of being a mom is feeling 500 ways about everything,” says Katherine. “My kid is great company, and I kind of want to cram in every second I can get while he’s still in this phase where he actually likes me. But I also always assumed I would have a career. I have a Ph.D. in my field. [By being home], I worry that I’m raising my son to think that women have to stay home. One time we were watching animal videos on YouTube, and he asked, ‘Where’s the mama hedgehog?’ And I said, ‘Maybe she’s at work.’ And he said, ‘She can’t be at work. She belongs to the house.’ And that was kind of crushing. But now he’s old enough to understand that when I’m typing funny little symbols on the computer, I’m ‘at work.’”
Lauren, a mother of three who owns and operates a small improv theater company now that her kids are in their teen years, often feels that “people assume we are upper-middle class because I [was] home. We are not in that category. I know that staying home isn’t an option for everyone [though], so sometimes I am hyper-aware of what I say or do around other parents.”
Being a SAHM is far from an exclusive vocation. It’s represented in every section of the tax-bracket, with the highest concentrations hovering around the lowest 25% and uppermost 5% of earners. The decision to be a SAHM is whipped together in a mélange of unique factors, but for most outside of the top-earner bracket, the most salient seems to be the financial implications on their family.
“Absolutely, [finances played a part in] how would we managed the decrease in income when it came to having children,” says Amanda, who balances being a mother of two while leading her own vocal coaching company, “I knew beforehand, which is a large reason we waited, but I didn’t know how deep those implications and fears of poverty were until our second born.”
A 2014 piece in The Economist on the rise of SAHMs drives the point home furthur saying that “at the end of the 1990s, when mothers staying at home were at their rarest, the economy was creating so many jobs that most people who wanted work could find it. Now more report that they are unable to do so, or are studying in the hope of finding work later.”
Doing What’s “Best” For the Baby
While the presumption that SAHMs are an indicator of wealth is a looming misconception, classist attitudes can creep into every facet of parenting, many of them thinly veiled under the claim of “doing what’s best for the baby.” While the ads would have us believe otherwise, Tuesday afternoon mommy-and-me yoga classes aren’t the only way to spend quality time with our children. Unfortunately, the guilt many moms feel over not being able to provide “the best” for our kids can often overshadow our logic.
For Hannah, a mother of three who, in addition to working remotely for a university has also launched her own travel consultancy, this type of classicism revealed itself in baby gear. “Everyone was pushing a particular stroller on us when I was pregnant with my first, which at the time was $700 — way outside my budget. I got it from all sides: my friends, mom blogs, internet forums. When my husband and I went to test drive one at a super bougie baby store, it was like we were talking to a car salesman. There was a lot of pressure. I was really feeling like I needed to get this particular kind of stroller, like it would be the best one for my child. Finally, as we were walking home, my husband asked me if I would be embarrassed to tell my mom how much the stroller cost and it all clicked for me. I would’ve been so humiliated if she’d ever found out because deep-down, I knew it was just marketing.”
“Having It All”
For many moms, “having it all” is a fraught ideal, and one that is hard to shake off despite how easy it is to debunk. When I began my search for SAHMs to interview, I had assumed I’d have an easy time finding women who rear children and manage their homes. That, in itself, is a full-time job. But what I found instead was that most SAHMs are still working, many in freelance or contract jobs that give them the flexibility to work from home. Given the rise of social media and easier access to the tools of commerce, many SAHMs are able to express their entrepreneurial goals while raising children — essentially, attempting to have it all. It’s not a perfect fix, of course, but it’s one that helps women continue to grow personally and professionally despite being pushed out of the arena because of insufficient wages and expensive care.
Wanting to be a mother and pursue an interest outside of your family shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive endeavours; framing it as such makes what should be a joyous, rich part of the human experience a burden. In fact, all of the women I interviewed loved mothering their children, worked hard to realize themselves outside of that role and often cited being a SAHM as a catalyst toward increased self-understanding.
“Staying home has changed me in such amazing ways,” says Hannah, “I’ve learned how to be less selfish. I’ve learned what I need to feel alive. I’ve seen it benefit my family in immeasurable ways.”
Amanda believes that staying at home with her children has made her a better CEO; it has made her, “more passionate about society, its narratives and effects and humans. [I’m] more focused, people oriented vs. project-oriented, more forest vs. trees, and streamlined in my execution.”
When I look at my own life, I’ve come to realize that for mothers, money brings the luxury of options, not the luxury of staying home. Money gives us the opportunity to say “yes, and” to motherhood (and upward career trajectory and vacations and gym memberships and breastfeeding and organic cotton swaddles). The class divide lies in how often we can say “and” rather than “or.” While the structure and narrative of society would have us believe otherwise, the cultural cache of “or” vs “and” is a false gatekeeper in motherhood, one well overdue for retirement.
Illustrations by Cynthia Merhej.