“Do you work?” We just moved back to the Washington, DC area and that is the second or third question I get from the other moms I meet. I don’t mind the question, as I navigate my way through finding friends, meeting neighbors, and getting involved in school PTAs and soccer groups. Realistically, the answer does affect how two moms will relate to each other. I work part-time from home, and if both of us are home then we are potential car poolers, exercise buddies and kid back-up plan providers. We’re just generally both around.
That dynamic is of course different if one or both of us is working and balancing an entire other world. There is definitely the potential for friendship, as yes working and stay at home parents can be friends, but there are understandably more time constraints and planning involved.
I always assumed I would be a full-time working mom. My mother did it, and it worked out just fine. I never lacked for attention and we have always had a wonderful relationship. The number of mothers in the workforce was steadily increasing and I was going to be a part of it. But when my son was a few months old, we moved overseas to a developing country and then another, and then another, for my husband’s job and I was the trailing spouse. After a while, I found that I enjoyed being home.
My decision was met with little controversy for an expat in the developing world. Being a stay-at-home parent is the norm for a trailing spouse, for whom there are often not many jobs available even if you do want to work. But moving back to the DC area, the capital of where do you work and who do you know, I dreaded the stay-at-home mom brand. Eight years ago, when I left with my newborn, being a stay-at-home mom seemed to get more negative than positive press as a general rule.
As my move date got closer, I got defensive with friends who asked what I was going to do when I returned when really they just wanted to know what my plans were without judgment. I was ready for a fight, and armed with a, “But I will work part-time from home!” missile in case I wasn’t up for field combat. I even found myself defending myself to my husband who would repeat, “I support whatever you want to do,” while I unnecessarily presented my case.
But when I got back to Washington, most people seemed to be over the stay-at-home verses working mom debate. Beyond what it means for a person-to-person relationship (can we go to yoga together on Tuesday or let’s meet up over the weekend) it doesn’t seem to matter as something important on people’s character rating spectrum. People assume you are doing what you do, working or home with the kids or a little of both, because of your circumstances and what you think is best for your family. Is the war over?
The next surprise I had was to find out that the number of stay-at-home moms is actually increasing which maybe adds to its new status as an acceptable modern role for women. A recent analysis of government data by Pew Research Center found that the number of stay-at-home moms has increased from 23 percent in 1999 (a “modern-era low” according to Pew) to 29 percent in 2012.
The majority, two thirds, of at-home moms fall in the “married with husbands who work” demographic. But that should not be construed as everyone who is home is choosing not to work, according to Pew. “The broad category of ‘stay-at-home’ mothers includes not only mothers who say they are at home in order to care for their families, but also those who are at home because they are unable to find work, are disabled or are enrolled in school.”
And while the numbers are increasing for stay-at-home moms holding post-graduate degrees, the overall number of moms at home who have traded law offices for tennis skirts and PTA meetings is a minority. A stay-at-home mom, according to Pew, is still more likely to be non-white, foreign-born, have a high school diploma or less, and living in poverty. In fact, on the last statistic, the number of stay-at-home moms living in poverty has nearly doubled since the 70s.
It seems like the more important issue is are most stay-at-home moms choosing to be there. Based on the statistics, it seems like there are a lot more factors at play than whether they like it or not. Poverty, lack of employment options, low education levels, will all lower a mother’s options. And if that is the face of the stay-at-home mom then the question is not why does she want to be there, but is that her choice. This makes those of us that have the choice let go of the defensive arguments and be a little more thankful.
By Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer