Can we please stop talking about stay-at-home vs. working mothers?

by Claire McCarthy on June 26, 2013

We have got to stop talking about stay-at-home vs. working mothers as if it were some sort of debate, as if it were the central issue of parenting and families. It’s not.

I am really annoyed by the latest installment in The Debate, a blog on Huffington Post in which Lisa Heffernan says that she regrets being a stay-at-home mom. She laments her loss of income (which she clearly didn’t need), and that her marriage took on a “1950’s whiff,” her world narrowed and she became outdated.  Yet none of this seems to have occurred to her until after her boys were grown; she says that she stayed home because she wanted to be with them, and she is grateful for the time they had.

Puh-lease.  Welcome to the fact that you don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. But more than that, the post totally misses the point.

Most mothers don’t have the luxury of regrets like these. For most of us, staying home or working, or doing whatever combination we do, is a not just a personal but a practical and economic decision. It’s not about feminism or the lack of feminism. It’s about doing what works for our families.

That’s why I wish we could stop talking about mothers and whether they work or not, and instead start talking about what might actually help children and families. Like…

Paid maternity leave. Did you know that the U.S. is one of only eight countries in the world (of the 188 with known policies) that doesn’t have paid maternity leave? Having paid leave helps families get off to the right start. And once maternity leave is over, families need…

Affordable quality childcare. Ms. Heffernan could stay home. That’s not the case for lots and lots of parents. It’s not easy to find really good childcare unless you have ample resources—and like the lack of paid maternity leave, this forces many parents to make choices that aren’t always the best ones for their children. We need to raise the bar for child care when it comes to training and licensing—and we need to subsidize it, so everyone can afford it. Speaking of affordable, we also need…

Affordable higher education. This would help more people achieve higher incomes, which helps families—and lowering the debt burden on young adults gives them more flexibility in choosing jobs and hours. Speaking of flexibility, it would be nice if we had…

More flexibility in the workplace. I respect Marissa Mayer’s decision to stop her employees at Yahoo from working at home, but the truth is that many jobs, or at least parts of jobs, can be done from home.  Many can also be done during different hours than the traditional 9 to 5, and many jobs can be shared. My husband and I have done some of this: I do a lot of my writing at home (albeit often before sunrise) and my husband works a lot of nights and weekends. It has made all the difference in our ability to be with our children. Speaking of flexibility, it would be nice to have…

Cultural acceptance of different kinds of families. Who says that moms always have to be the primary caretakers? What about dads? Or shared arrangements, like the one my husband and I have worked out?  We should support a father’s decision to stay home if that’s what works for him and his family. Speaking of support, it would be great to have…

More community support for families. The town where I live has a Family Room for new parents, afterschool programs at the elementary schools, a YMCA and lots of town-supported sports and community activities. These kinds of programs give parents options—and connect them with people who can help them care for and raise their children.  As they say, it takes a village to raise a child.

Because raising children is really the point here.  Yes, we want parents to be happy with their jobs and their lives; happy parents generally make better parents.  But ultimately, what we need to do is support parents in raising children—because our children are our responsibility and our future.

Let’s talk about that instead.

13 comments

  • predsicker

    I’m so glad you wrote this article Dr. Claire. It was well overdue! It is absolutely about ‘what works for our families’ and that means different things for different people.

    Me for example, I willingly quit my corporate job in 2007 to stay home with my four boys. Not that we could afford living on one income, but we sacrificed a lot…and on the bright side I never had to spend a dime on child-care (cost savings right there baby!). But here’s the thing, while I was ‘a stay-at-home-mom’ or whatever, I started a writing business and am now a very happy ‘working-from-home-mom’. I’m glad I had the chance to be home with my kids when they were little – that time flies so fast and once it’s gone you can never get it back. That’s worth more than a paycheck to me. But now that season is over, I’m also glad for new experiences and opportunities.

    This so-called debate is as stupid as it is useless. Each family has to do what they gotta do to make things work. If the parents are acting out of self-less motives and for the good of their children, then what does it matter if mom (or dad!) is at home or at work. And the other thing that plucks my nerves is the notion that women who stay home are simply ‘staying home’ rather than contributing to the greater good of society. Who said? How about a new category: ‘work-at-home-moms’. That’ll take care of those who work at home for their families or for their clients. Because at the end of the day, work is work!

  • Meg Virginia

    I know mass has subsidized child care for low income familys. someone I know got it for her daughter, but it should be more widely available

  • grownandflown

    I have great respect for all of your points, but does the discussion need to be one or the other? Since I published that piece a week ago I have been flooded (in the many hundreds) with comments and emails from young women saying that they have been home for a year or two or three and that they are just beginning to think about the things that I articulated in the post. I wish that there had been blogs and posts for me to read from more experienced moms when my kids were young, I would have gained much. I agree that setting this up as a debate is both divisive and counter productive, but having different individuals reflecting on their experiences is, I believe enlightening. Your post makes some wonderful points and I will link to it so that our readers can find you. Thanks, Lisa Heffernan

  • Liz McGrory

    Hi! Great article! What is a “family room for new parents” program like? I’d love to participate or start one in my town. A google search search comes up with nothing. Txs in advance!!

  • Elyse Yurth Adlen

    Thank you for this wonderful post! I am a mother and a director of an early childhood center that serves teen mothers (as they complete high school). This is a fantastic message that needs to be heard over all of these other ridiculous articles that have been floating around.

  • clairemccarthymd

    I think you are right that your post could be–and has been–very helpful and enlightening to some women. We all have so much to learn from the each other’s experiences. Thank you for commenting and for linking.

  • clairemccarthymd
  • Liz McGrory

    Thank you!!!!

  • jdetjen

    Dear Dr. Claire,

    We agree. From our research, we think we keep debating whether mothers should work or not is because we are competing for what perfect motherhood looks like. It’s about getting the reward for being the
    perfect mom. But as long as we are trying to “do it all”, “look good” and “be nice”, we will continue to focus on judging the different choices rather than making it easier for everyone to parent.

    How can women step away from this idea? We can reframe the underlying assumptions. For example, one assumption we saw in our research is women believe they are primarily responsible for home and family. This means they make their needs – financial, emotional, or otherwise – secondary to everyone else’s. Instead, if we reframe the assumption to be “we are all responsible for home and family”, then we can put our needs as equal. We can drop the guilt because we’ve
    reframed the underlying assumption. Once we change the assumption, women can then ask for, even demand the support they need rather than believe they must do it all themselves.

    Jodi Detjen
    Professor at Suffolk University
    co-author, The Orange Line: A Woman’s Guide to Integrating Career, Family and Life

  • Daniel

    Dr., I LOVED this posting! I too am tiring rapidly from the so-called “Mommy Wars.” (Did ya hear the one about the Governor of Mississippi saying that the problems in the state’s educational system are due to working mothers?)

  • Gertrude MacBeth

    I am a (well educated) stay at home mom, and feel very privileged to have been able to make that choice. I don’t consider it time wasted. I noticed, however, that this article, and the responses are all geared to mothers who work outside the home. I get the other side of the judgement dilemma. “Why don’t you ‘work’” or “you should really do something else” or “what do you do all day” are common things I hear. It seems like no matter what you do, you are wrong in this society of blame and shaming. I totally agree that this “mommy wars” business has to stop. No one can do it all, we can only do our best whether we go out to work, stay home, or a combination of the two.

  • lovesGlo

    I did not think the article was geared to MOTHERS who work outside the home, but geared to helping parents in general, so that each could be supported in their choices whether it be to stay home or work. Thanks Claire

  • Gertrude MacBeth

    so switch genders. and read the article and comments. they are geared toward “working” parents,as you say.

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