Staying Home: Unpacking the Concepts of Privilege, Luxury, and Sacrifice

STAYING HOME_ Luxury, Privilege, Sacrifice

It was always my plan to stay home with my children, not just when they were babies, but always.  But Emily was born when John was just starting law school, so I worked 20 hours a week from the time she was four months old until she was three-and-a-half.  There were a couple of breaks in there–two months between jobs, five months when Jake was first born.  I finally came home for good when John graduated and got his first job as an attorney, when I was about five months pregnant with my third child.

So I’ve never worked full-time outside of the home since having kids–although I did right up until a few days before Emily was born.  And I’ve been at home full-time for a little over 21 years (although I have worked at home for many of those years, more and more as time has gone by).  I have no doubt that this has been the right choice for our family.

But financially, it hasn’t been easy, and that’s why I sometimes question society’s assumptions about stay-at-home mothers (which I will now abbreviate as SAHM).

Some people say that being an SAHM is a privilege, a blessing, even a hobby:

No, Stay-at-Home-Mothers, choosing to create your own little person upon whom you’ll spend all your time and energy is a hobby. It is a time-consuming, sanity-deteriorating, life-altering hobby — a lot like a heroin addiction, but with more Thirty-One bags. Whether you call it a “blessing” or a “privilege,” the fact remains that having someone else foot the bill for a lifestyle that only benefits you and your close family is by no means a “job.”

“I am so blessed. I have a faithful husband, gorgeous and healthy children, a beautiful home, and I am fortunate enough to stay home and enjoy my blessings.”

Others call it a luxury:

[T]he ability to stay home is, indeed, a luxury. Not in the sense of being some “nonessential” merchandise, but in the sense of having a choice.  A Chanel bag may be thought of as a luxury, but really it’s the ability to buy the Chanel bag in the first place — or an iPhone, a TV, a fancy car — without forgoing, say, food or shelter that is the true luxury. The luxury is in having the choice.

There are those who say it’s a job.  They give it titles like CEO of the household or domestic engineer, and even assign an economic value to the services a SAHM provides to her family:

Is parenting, and in particular mothering, a job? I’d say it most certainly is, but not in the same way we think about a career. It’s one that goes unpaid, for sure, but it’s a job nonetheless. After all, when we can’t do it ourselves, we actually pay people to do it for us, whether that’s a babysitter, nanny or daycare.

Other people describe it as a sacrifice women make, trading financial security and career success for the domestic trenches:

Yes – some women are able to stay home because they are just rolling in dough. But I don’t know any of those people. All the stay at home moms I know sacrifice every single day to do what they do.

No matter how you describe it, someone is going to bristle.  For those of us who have endured significant financial insecurity because of staying home, calling it a privilege or a luxury feels insulting.  Luxury implies something unnecessary and who wants to feel unnecessary?  Privilege makes it sound easy when it isn’t.  We lived in a small house and drove one car and fell behind in our bills.  But at the same time I know that there are other mothers who want to stay home and can’t because they would have no house and no car at all, women who are single mothers or whose husbands work full-time minimum wage jobs.

If it’s a job, then we are all working for free and no one takes our choice of career very seriously!  It IS hard work being at home all day long with kids and doing all the thing SAHMs do, but what about all the mothers who work outside the home and then have to come home and do most of those things too, without having had the (dare I say) privilege of being with their babies all day?

And if we call it a job and complain about how hard it is, aren’t we being ungrateful for the very fact that we have kids at all, let alone that we are lucky enough to get to spend all our time with them?

And if we call it a sacrifice, that implies there is a good reason to make that sacrifice, that somehow it is better for kids to have their mother at home with them full time than not.  But that comes across as offensive to some women who could stay home but choose not to make those sacrifices.

Finally, if we assign value to women being home with their kids, then why is it a privilege or a luxury reserved for those whose husbands have a job that can support the family? Why should it require huge financial sacrifices? If it’s good for kids in privileged families, isn’t it just as good for kids in poor families? Why do we demonize women who receive welfare payments in order to stay home with their kids, and applaud those same women if they leave their kids to go work at a minimum wage job?

What do you think?  Is staying home with your children a privilege, a job, a hobby, a sacrifice, none, a combination, or something else?  Should it be a choice that is available to everyone?

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