stay at home moms
In case you haven’t heard, apparently super wealthy moms on the Upper East Side of New York are not only staying home, they are receiving a “wife bonus” from their rich husbands. The monetary bonus is supposedly based on how they did at getting their kid into a good preschool and otherwise doing their wifely duties, according to a recent New York Times op-ed by Wednesday Martin. While the concept is abhorrent (although I’m in the camp that believes this may not actually be true), something else pissed me off about the piece. Martin’s argument against stay-at-home moms is not new and it’s not shocking, but it is extremely cringe-inducing. She purports to be talking about these crazy rich ladies, who she compares to “mistresses,” but what she’s saying could apply to all SAHMs. And that makes me mad.
Wife bonus or not, SAHMs are economically dependent on their husbands. Many of us achieved degrees of higher education that we’re currently not using. We may be giving those skills away “for free” by volunteering (or mommy blogging?). We may spend a lot of time in the company of other moms, segregated from our husbands. We may go to the gym. We might be intensely involved in our children’s lives. These are the charges that Martin levels against the rich Upper East Siders – but wife bonus aside, doesn’t that sound like SAHMs of the middle classes, too? Is this article, with its “wife bonus” as click bait, taking a generalized jab at all moms who don’t work?
It sure sounds like it to me.
But as someone on one of my FB groups said about it: “Yawn.” OK, so this is just one more log on the fire of the mommy wars. We’ve heard this before. Women should work so in the event that they divorce they have means to support themselves. So that they are not marginalized. So that they can have power and influence. So that they are not kept women, mistresses, prostitutes.
Here’s the thing: Women do not make life choices so that they can advance the feminist cause. That’s not to say they are not feminists: Many SAHMs, myself included, identify themselves as such. But when you become a mom, your needs are second to the needs of your children. One could argue that by working you are ensuring means of survival for your young ones, or that you are providing a good role model for your daughters, or that when you work your life is more fulfilling, so you’re happier, which makes you a better mom. Maybe these things are true for some moms. But maybe for others, they are not happier being away from their kids. Maybe they can be just as good a role model by staying home. Maybe what to do in the event of divorce is not a consideration in a marriage based on love and trust (sure, husbands could die, but that’s less likely; and there is probably life insurance in place for that scenario). Maybe even though they don’t make the money, they have equal access and claim to it.
In the case of the UES moms, well, rich people are easy targets to hate. Why are we to assume these women are unhappily living in gilded cages? If we won the lottery, I’d venture to say most of us would not work, or would do only the work that fulfills us, even if that means doing it for free (because we wouldn’t need the money anyway). So what if these women have nannies and spend their day at the gym, volunteering and lunching with friends? Maybe they’re happy that way. Who wouldn’t be? In a retort in Elle magazine (by Blair Schmaldorf, ha) the author argues that all the UES women she knows work in high-powered roles. But this is not a good rebuttal – she’s defending UES women, but not the concept of not working. In fact, she seems to be agreeing with the first article’s premise that not working is something to be judged for.
I will still argue that for most of us, staying at home is not an “extravagance,” as the NYT author says about the UES women. We make sacrifices in order to do so; or with the high costs of daycare it might not even make financial sense to work. It may be a choice, but it’s not akin to entering a menstrual hut, and I find that comparison, put forth in the piece, to be extremely insulting. We’re doing what we think is right for our family.
Look, if you want to work, work. If you don’t want to work, don’t. Twenty-first century feminism is supposed to be about choice, isn’t it? And I would venture to say that if workplaces were more family-friendly, more flexible, and had longer maternity leave policies, women wouldn’t be leaving the workforce so readily. I, for one, can’t imagine dealing with all the crap that goes along with a high-stress job in addition to raising a family while actually being able to enjoy my life. Technically, I do work, but my part-time freelance pay is a fraction of what I used to make as an editor-in-chief. I’m doing it because I like having a creative outlet, and if I do go back to work I won’t have been out of the game completely. My real goal is to find a way of working that suits my lifestyle and my family’s needs, a la Diane Keaton in Baby Boom (best line: “I’m sorry, but the rat race is just going to have to survive with one less rat.”).
I know moms who work part-time. I know moms who don’t work at all. I know moms who have gone back to work only to quit because they couldn’t take the long commute or the inflexible office policies or because they were just not happy. I know moms who have followed their husbands’ jobs across the country or even to new countries. People make decisions based on what is best for their family as a whole. Maybe that’s too puppies and rainbows; maybe I’m supposed to, as a feminist, have a stronger opinion about the way women are “supposed to” act. But I just don’t. Because I don’t believe doing what you’re “supposed to” do, one way or another, is what feminism is about. So study away, anthropologists-who-think-they’re-being-smart-but-are-really-just-hating-on-their-neighbors.
What do you think about the “wife bonus” article? Did you feel that it was condemning all SAHMs?
I feel a little down today and I’m not sure why. I *should* be super happy – it’s Christmastime, I have a wonderful son, I have a great husband and family – but somehow something is missing. I’m not sure what it is.
I talked to my husband about this last night as we lay in bed. He thinks it’s that I’m constantly searching for something more, that I can never be happy with what I have. I think he’s partially right. I do want more – but I’m not sure what more is. I don’t want to go back to work. I don’t want to be in an office all day, answering to some a-hole boss, feeling guilty about being away from my son and then feeling guilty for going home to be with my son. I don’t want my son in daycare. I don’t want to have someone else raise him.
But at the same time, this stay-at-home mom thing is tough. I nearly had a breakdown this morning because I couldn’t get our new printer to print our freaking Christmas card address labels. My son was playing in the guest room, where we have the desk and printer, but I knew it was only a matter of time before he would start whining. It was just taking too long to figure out the damn printer – and sure enough, I couldn’t get it done before he was begging for my attention.
I don’t recognize myself anymore, and I think a big part of my identity crisis has to do with not working. Yes, I do blog – but that doesn’t make any money. I do freelance – but I don’t think I will even crack 10K in freelance pay this year. And it’s not even about the money – it’s about feeling that I am doing something worthwhile, that I am contributing to my family and to my community and to society at large. My husband tells me that I am because I am raising my son. So why do I so easily brush that aside?
I envy some other SAHMs who are completely content to do what they are doing and have no desire to do anything else. I feel jealous when I see a former coworker interviewing stars on the red carpet, or flying somewhere to do a set visit, or hosting some big event. I get jealous of unmarried, child-free Carrie Bradshaw types I know who are living a fabulous life in the city with their urban families and their glamorous parties and their high-powered careers. I see myself there in an alternate universe.
And yet I don’t want to trade places with these other people I’m jealous of. I know if I was living that life, I would be missing what I have now, and I know it’s not possible to “have it all.” I also know I don’t want to be trying to juggle working full time and raising kids and keeping my marriage afloat and doing family activities on the weekend while still having time to read the newspaper and bake cookies and whip up gourmet dinners.
The modern myth persists that this is possible. I can tell you, it’s not. Unless maybe you’re one of those people who can live on four hours of sleep or have lots of hired help. For some reason, in mom culture there is always the notion that we aren’t good enough, that we should be doing all these things perfectly. I feel like I’m constantly trying to keep up with some impossible standard that just doesn’t exist in real life.
So this sense of floating along, of being adrift in my life, is me trying to find my new way in the world. Because I have no idea where I’m headed. I would like to make a new career of writing and working from home – but by “career” I mean something that pays. I would like to figure out how to do that while having a childcare situation that I’m happy with. I don’t want to feel like I’m constantly having to choose between my identity as a career person and my identity as a mom.
Last night the movie Baby Boom with Diane Keaton was on. I love this movie – even though it was made in the eighties I’m amazed at how well it holds up, and how relevant the struggles that she faces still are today. If you haven’t seen it (spoilers ahead), it’s about a career woman, the “tiger lady,” they call her – who unexpectedly inherits a baby from distant cousins who died. After trying to balance her stressful job with parenting, she gets pushed out of her position in NYC and moves to Vermont, where she goes a little nuts but eventually finds a new path making homemade baby food. Her business expands, and her old bosses want to acquire it from her, which would necessitate a move back to the city to work as COO. The deal is a great one, but she turns it down. Remembering how her boss had told her she’d have to make sacrifices to get ahead, she tells him, “I don’t want to make those sacrifices – and the bottom line is, nobody should have to.” She finds her own way in the world and is able to be a success on her own terms, while still being the mom she wants to be.
That’s what I want. I hope I can find it.
Did becoming a mom change your identity? Has your perception of yourself shifted? How do you balance work and parental responsibilities?