Who says what?

Novelist, mother, minister, and yoga teacher muses on books, babies, motherhood, and what matters with reverent humor.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Stigma of the Stay-At-Home Mother

After my first novel, This Little Mommy Stayed Home, came out, I went to a number of book groups. The women in the groups were both working and stay-at-home mothers, bright and educated, warm and welcoming. I still remember what a woman said to me at one of those special gatherings:

"I was embarassed to read the book in public. I didn't want anyone to see the cover."

The woman loved the book; that wasn't the problem. She simply felt ashamed to have others know she was reading it! It's pretty scandalous, as you can see.

People often say to me, "I wouldn't read it. I don't stay home." Or, "I won't read it. I'm not a mother."
But if that is how we choose books than who in the world would read about vampires? We don't have any of those and yet vampire books top the charts. And what of the popularity of the 50 Shades books? Does that mean that the US has a massive population of S&M devotees?

Shall we give up reading Shakespeare since men don't any longer wear tights? Will all the murder mystery addicts stop reading such books unless they plan on murdering themselves? And the women who devour romance novels, they do it because they have so much romance in their own lives, right?

Of course not! Reading opens worlds to people and people love to read outside of their own immediate experience. We don't read about SAHMs because we think they aren't worth reading about.

At a recent book talk for my second novel, I'll Take What She Has, a woman said to her friend at the end of the talk that she would not buy the book for her daughter--as she had planned--because the book has a happy stay at home mother. "It's too upsetting. My daughter just went through it. I can't get it for her."

How can it be that people, men and women, can read novels about war, rape, abduction, crimes, disasters, blood-suckers, violence, alcoholism, and tragedy, and yet few of the same people can face the dreaded STAY-AT-HOME mother?

Occasionally, people like to tell me that no stigma exists for the SAHM. I completely disagree. Recent news coverage and the conversation about "opting-out" make it seem as if at-home mothering belongs exclusively to the owning class. This isn't true. There are SAHM in every single social and economic bracket. Some mothers stay home voluntarily, and some involuntarily. Some mothers can't find work, and some mothers could find work that wouldn't cover the cost of daycare, and some mothers could find work that would but choose to stay home and live on less.

SAHMs exist in a world that others are not interested in. The work of the mother possesses a tremendous invisibility. Mothers labor in solidarity with other invisible workers, like day-care providers and cleaners and manual laborers. The now cliched question of the SAHM, "What did you do all day?" raises the central issue of how we place value.

Money=value. It's a cultural truism. The less you get paid, the less your work is worth.
Rocking your child to sleep? Zero.
Someone else rocking your child to sleep? $8 an hour.
Spending a week with your children teaching them to camp, swim, bike and hike. Zero.
Sending your kids to a week of outdoor camp: $350.
(I'm sure you could come up with more and better examples.)

The work of SAHMs garnishes no wages, but this does not mean it has no worth. The problem dwells with our thinking about worth and value. Changing how we think about work has the potential to change how we treat all kinds of people, including the most impoverished, and gives us the opportunity to properly restore to each individual their due sense of inherent worth and value.

If someone handed me a novel and said, "Read this. It's really funny, and uplifting and entertaining" and I said, "What's it about?" and they said, "A potato farmer," and I said, "No, thanks. I'm not a potato farmer," then I would have a problem.

We have a cultural problem. Even--and maybe especially--mothers and at-home mothers carry this stigma and apply it to one another. If you don't feel valuable, it's hard not to be embarrassed by your work in the world. Sometimes, the at-home mothers I know will comment about how difficult it is not to "be someone." When they had paid work, even if it wasn't particularly life-changing, they mattered. Now taking care of children, they don't.

This isn't famine. As my husband likes to point out, I get to take the kids to the beach while he goes to work. I'm not complaining; I'm illustrating something true that can change and when it does, can bring improvement to all of our lives.

It seems like from a journalistic perspective, the working versus at-home issue has exhausted itself. It has! And it never was the right issue to begin with. We need to dig down and repair the underlying and destructive beliefs that have led us to be more upset by a book about a happy at-home mother than one about a serial rapist. In that process, we need to transform our thinking about value, work, and children. We need to take the god of money off of his throne and not merely give hot air to certain ideas--"the greatest things in life aren't things"--but illuminate the dark corners of our prejudice and uncover new ways of being people in the world.

We need to read more books about stay-at-home mothers.


  1. I love this post, Samantha. I was a stay-home mom for 14 years before I became a work-at-home mom. And the former always came first. Now my kids are 18 and 21. Frankly, now I want a job! :) I have a stay-home-mom character in my next novel. She's not the main character but the best friend. And she's a little disgruntled. I plan to un-gruntle ;-) her by the end. Thank you for the wonderful reminder and fabulous books! xo

    1. Ungruntling sounds good! What's interesting about your experience and so many mothers is that SAH isn't a permanent designation. Most women have a more fluid experience of staying home, working, moving between the two, wanting to have something else.
      Can't wait to read the new book!

  2. Great conversation. I am a stay-home mom. I am also a writer and former lawyer. I recently read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. She argues that highly educated women might have stayed in the workforce at higher rates had there been more positive reinforcement for that, as opposed to all the positive messages women get for choosing to stay at home, which so many educated women do choose. I'd love to know your thoughts on that. By the way, I love your closing line -- I've written a novel about a stay-at-home mother and am in the agent-hunting process.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Laura. I got Lean In for my mother-in-law, interested in her response. I haven't read it and have been told that it doesn't relate to the experience of most women. As an educated woman who has stayed home, I don't feel I did get any positive enforcement for that choice (except from my husband), so I'm not sure if Sandberg is right about that. In fact, I went to Smith College and the alum magazine absolutely refuses to cover anything about mothers or mothering despite the fact that some 80% of their graduates have that vocation (in addition to another in many cases). There is the basic assumption at that level that mothering is simply not interesting.
      Cool about your novel! I'd love to know more.

    2. You go girl! I was a stay at home mom for many years and even when I had to work, I worked at jobs that allowed me to either take my children with me or work only during the hours they were at school. It was hard work but worth every minute of it. I admire Mothers today who choose to stay at home with their children instead of letting someone else raise them. Over the years I took in many teens whose mother's had choose a career over motherhood and it left a huge hole it their lives that only another mother could fill.

    3. I love how you have mothered so many and given others a sense of mother love; that's so powerful to have and once you learn it, you can show it to others.