The New Myth of the Stay-at-Home Mom

When I was in college, I took a class called “Gender and Inequality.” We learned about feminist issues and read Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique.” In the 1963 book, she argued that the women of her age were unhappy from being confined in the roles of mother and wife. In the decades that followed, women were “liberated” from the home and it seemed that women could have it all: a thriving career and a happy home life with kids.

Except as many mothers now know, this is far from reality. Whether a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, it is IMPOSSIBLE to have it all. There just isn’t enough time or money. And that’s the reality of it.

But lately I’ve seen women embracing stay-at-home mom status as the answer to it all. Our mothers’ generation fought to be in the workplace and now we’re fighting to be back in the home. And so in the 80’s we had the power mom. Today we have the new SAHM. And I believe that this new view of an old role can be just as damaging as the one Friedan pushed. Please read further…

SAHM: The Stay at Home Mom 

Otherwise known as the “new overachiever.” Being a SAHM is suddenly the new career. The purpose driven life. We don’t just cook, clean, and tend children. We KNIT. And not just knit, but matching sweaters for the whole family (and the dog.) We COUPON. And you can’t just do regular couponing these days, but everything has to be EXTREME. We are learning all of our grandmothers’ trades: canning, baking, preserving, sewing, and even cloth diapering has made a comeback. We don’t just play with our kids, we EDUCATE them. And we’re not just moms who happen to be at home anymore, we’re HOME MANAGERS (anyone heard that term floating around?) To top it all off, now every SAHM is also a mommy blogger, projecting images of a perfect home and happy family out into the blogosphere.

But where is the line between perfection and the cold truth of reality? On one hand, I think it’s wonderful that the shame of being a SAHM has lifted somewhat. Women are learning useful skills to take care of family and home. And it can be so incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling. But on the other hand, I think this mentality can lead to an unhealthy focus on the pursuit of the unattainable. We’re not concerned with keeping up with the Joneses anymore, but keeping up with other moms.

I came to this conclusion recently when I was thinking that maybe I should learn to knit. For those of you who know me, I couldn’t possibly sit still long enough to weave bits of yarn between two needles. But for some reason, I felt like I SHOULD be doing it.

And that is the root of the problem: SAHMs are not successful at their “job” if they aren’t doing it ALL. Many left the workforce to avoid this mentality, but guess what? It followed us home.

I’ll be the first to admit: there are usually piles of dirty dishes in the sink, dog hair floating across the floor, and mounds of laundry to be washed EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I get bored during the day and follow news stories religiously to have a connection to the world outside my home. I miss regular adult conversation, but I love being with my daughter. Everything is a trade-off.

And I know behind those perfect Instagram, Pinterest, blog photos of domestic life, are homes filled with women trying to keep up. Facing kids who are messy, a husband who is tired from work, and a day in which there is not enough coffee in the pot. And I’m ok with that, because sometimes reality is more refreshing than idealism.

So just as Friedan liberated women from the domestic life,  I say let’s liberate ourselves from the idealistic, unachievable idea of the perfect mom. Whether you stay at home or work, cut yourself some damn slack. I know I am. Put away your plans to freeze meals for the next month, bake bread, or organize one more closet and go put your feet up. And guess what? Your family will love you just the same.

Kate is a stay-at-home mama who is terrible at clipping coupons, drinks her coffee black, and can  bake a mean apple pie. She blogs about her adventures on the homefront at Boomerang Mama.

50 thoughts on “The New Myth of the Stay-at-Home Mom

  1. Great post, Kate! I consider myself a feminist (and I, too, completely geeked out in my special pops and minority experiences classes in undergrad) and sometimes, depending on the slant of what I’m reading, I have a challenging time reconciling those two sides of me–that “liberated”, educated, professional self and my new stay-at-home self. This has a lot to do with feeling guilty for not wanting “more” right now. I feel like I should be trying to have it all, to load my plate, but honestly? I am content to just be, and be with my kid. (Which isn’t too say there arent super banal days in stay-home mamahood.)

    1. Thanks, Rhianna! I agree with you on the difficulty of reconciling different identities, and I think there are others out there who feel the same way. I’m the happiest, however, when I accept that I cannot do it all, but that I’ll do the best at what I can. Being a SAHM is challenging at times, but I love it. And I have the best 1 year old “boss” ever. 😉

  2. This is perhaps the best article about the role of stay at home mom that I have read since becoming SAHM 6 years ago! Thanks for telling it like it is. Neither role, working outside the home or staying home with kids, is without challenges, so why would we want to self-impose new ones? (Says this mom who also hasn’t learned to knit and whose washing machine died the first week she used cloth diapers and then felt guilty buying disposables because she didn’t have the time or energy to hand wash prefolds, like most other stay at home moms obviously do…)

    1. Thank you, I appreciate your kind words. My whole point in writing this was to expose the high-expectations that we mothers, sometimes unknowingly, set for ourselves. There are too many things in this world to make a woman feel guilty or “bad”….being a mother (whether SAHM or working) shouldn’t be one of them.

      And don’t feel guilty about the diapers….I tried a few weeks back to use cloth on a trip and just couldn’t hack it. I bought disposables mid-trip and didn’t regret it one bit! 🙂

  3. I’ve never felt so connected before and I say it always. As moms we never give ourselves enough credit to make it through the day. Ad a working mom I used to feel complete guilt about not being home, but then I have the kids through the summer and I have all these plans and I never complete the plan. I’m over the guilt…I have a 9 yr old and a 5 yr old and there too many others things to stress about. 🙂

    1. Exactly! Time is too precious to get wrapped up in the shame game. Summers with the kids are amazing anyway, enjoy!

  4. Hey, at least “stay-at-home mom” is a respectable life status. We stay-at-home dads are still an underclass that society considers as having severe character deficiencies. Many people believe we are putting our families at risk by allowing our wives to be the “primary providers,” whatever that means.

    1. Point well taken. At least there is now a TV show, “Up All Night” that provides a humorous look at the stay-at-home dad. And if nothing else, know that you’re fulfilling an incredibly important role! I know many fathers who wish they were SAHDs.

    2. Very true! And SAHDs don’t have the same support system as SAHMs. I have one friend (SAHD) who tried to join a moms’ group but was turned down b/c the moms said they would be uncomfortable talking freely with him there. Not too many dads’ groups out there!

      1. I can say that as a SAHD, I often felt like I had blue skin. People would leave when I came around. Talking to other moms was horrible. I know diapers and skin cream and formula, and cooking and cleaning and making lunches and laundry as well as the next mom, but if I ever talked about it, other women thought it was strange. There were mom’s night at the movies, mom’s mornings at the church, brunch for moms, and on and on. Nothing for SAHD. I love my kids, but years of isolation is killer. Now they are older, it’s better, but I still have learned my lesson not to talk to moms about the “mom” stuff I shouldn’t know about as a dad. When it comes down to it, we are all in this together, why does the prejudice still linger that SAHD aren’t as good as moms?

    3. Yeah, I know where you are coming from. The looks that people give, like, “Oh, you lost your job,” or “Are you on vacation?” or I even got “Are you a male nanny?” once when I was with my own son. If you go to the kids pool at 2 pm, other people think you’re a creepy uncle using the kid to get your game on. The horrible stigmas attached to the SAHD. Stay strong Kevin, you are part of a true brotherhood. It is an honor for us. Wear it with dignity!!

      1. Maybe we need to start a dad’s support group here on TOBB. Sounds like there is a real need for SAHDs to have a place to connect with other dads. Thanks Steven for sharing your experiences!

      2. That’s right, it’s not just the things that people actually say. I can chalk all that up to ignorance. It’s the attitude that comes with it. The knowing looks from the moms who know me only because I’m there to pick my oldest son up from Kindergarten every day. “I mean, doesn’t he have a job or something?” Or when I’m changing the babies’ diapers. “Well, at least he’s doing something, because you know he’s not providing for his family.” In my case it’s as much circumstance as it is choice. I’m a disabled veteran, so I couldn’t really work even if I wanted to give up my time with my kids. People won’t even talk to me in public because they already have this perception of what a SAHD represents.

        It’s the isolation as you said, the condescending attitudes, the knowing looks. I can bear it all with dignity, but it does wear on me after a while. I think a SAHD group would be nice.

      3. Boomerangmama, I think your idea is great. There are SAHD sites out there, but like mom’s, we look for support wherever we can get it. If anything, having a site that is geared towards moms, while keeping dads in mind, will help break the barriers down between us all. Lets face it, we all need as much support in this as we can get.

        1. Well you are always welcome here! And it’s great to have another parenting perspective, so feel free to join in the discussion whenever you want.

  5. I could probably be labeled somewhat of a Feminist and all of my beliefs are more congruent with what society calls “granola”. I am not a SAHM, I work full time and am admittedly jealous of any Parent that has the opportunity to be home with their children. I do however try to do and be it ALL in conjunction with a career. Sometimes I don’t feel like I am enough because I am at work and not home canning, baking bread and sewing. I do feel the opposite of liberated with my career because I feel I do not have a choice in whether or not I can work. Financially I am bound to my M-F routine. I love that parents are going back to a more natural way of life. Not because I believe in gendering (I am a Lesbian Mother and Partner who believes in basic humanitarianism), but because I believing in sustainably, kind living. While I am working behind a desk all day, my heart is still in the fold of a dream to one day be home, where I truly feel I belong. Great post — we are always enough, more than. 🙂

    1. Why do you think mothers, regardless of work status, feel so much pressure? It seems to be a common undercurrent to this all, that feeling of not being able to “do enough.” My heart goes out to you in that you want to be home, but can’t. I think many women erroneously assume that working mothers choose to be at work. That just isn’t always the case. Thank you for sharing your story, and I look forward to seeing you around this TOBB community!

      1. I read a wonderful blog post yesterday that sums up why I believe Mothers feel so much pressure. The pressure is applied more by ourselves than by any outside judgment. Similar to what you have written about here. We read blogs, facebook, pinterest, etc and somehow we feel we have to be these images we see online (regardless of work status). Somehow we have convinced ourselves that these perfect images, are true depictions of what a Mother should be.

        The author of the blog post says it perfectly when she declares that our children don’t want a perfect parent, they simply want us. It’s a good read if you would like to check it out:

      2. A great blog called Mompetition (sadly now ended) talked about the social pressures mom’s place on themselves. I am a SAHD so my pressures are not the same, but the feelings that result are similar. You can still see all the videos from the blog.

  6. Great article. I know I don’t keep up with stay at home moms. Sometimes I feel like a bad one b/c all my fellow stay at home moms are sad to see their kids go back to school after spring/winter/summer break and I’m dropping them off at 8am promising them someone will let them in. LOL . Don’t get me wrong I love my boys(ages 12, 9, 5, and 3)and love being able to stay with them all day and play and even do some teaching but I also like my 1 hour a day gym break were I can actually speak with adults and not watch Spongebob or Jake and the Neverland pirates. Someday I may do it all but not today. 🙂 For now I will just get to the mountain load of laundry oh but what our washer is broke so I guess its time to “put my feet up” and relax.

    1. And ultimately, I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting time to yourself. Mothering is all about balance, and sometimes we forget, in the midst of all the craziness of parenting, that we need to nurture ourselves. Thanks for posting, Sara!

  7. What I do like about the new SAHM mom is the focus on family. You can’t go wrong with that unless you over do it. What I dislike is the helicopter moms that don’t let their children take any risks. One of the things I hear moms talking about on the playground is how they can’t believe I let my two year old navigate the playground equipment by herself. “Aren’t you afraid she’ll get hurt?” Yup, I’m terrified. But I’m holding it together well. I know the benefit of conquering something by herself is more important than the tears that fall after a scraped knee. If I tried to prevent every injury, I would only be fooling myself to think it was even possible. I like your post, and I appreciate your point of view. I’m all for a balanced approach that isn’t concerned with how everyone else is doing.

    1. I completely agree with you. Why do you think though, that parents today are so scared to let their children explore and just be kids?

      My husband and I have made a concerted effort to let our daughter explore her environment as much as possible since she started crawling (and is now walking.) I hope that we can be like you as she gets older, able to give her the freedom to explore and play at the playground and other places! Thanks for your response!

      1. We have 5 kiddos, and I’ve been a working mom, and now I’m a SAHM again. I find the newer parents have a harder time not “hovering” over their kids. They are so worried they’ll get “boo-boo’s” or eat dirt or anything! I wasn’t quite so bad, but can relate. The more kids we had, the more I relaxed and enjoyed sitting back watching their little minds work and trying to climb up on the playground equipment. Even now, our youngest, if he has a meltdown, it isn’t such a big deal. It actually is hard to hold back a chuckle, because we know this is just a stage of their development and independence, and will pass! Parents need to let their kids explore and make mistakes, and enjoy their very short childhoods because it goes WAY too fast! Relax!

        Regarding what you posted, I think it is great! Women are so competitive and judgemental! The pressure they put on themselves because of what they “think” a SAHM should, or should not be doing, screams loudly in their heads, and they don’t want to be labeled or judged, or even fear having their children taken away from them if they aren’t up to par! Media has a lot to do with our perceptions, as well. I didn’t have a good role model growing up, as to what a mom should be like, and I feel like I’m making it up as I go along, trial and error. I have had to learn to balance, and what works with all of our kids, myself and my husband.

        On a side note: I now am homeschooling my children because the school system is rapidly going downhill. Society wants you to believe it is “granola” or that your kids won’t be socialized well, or that it will be too difficult- and they are wrong! My kids are now better behaved, and are learning better, plus important life skills, now that they aren’t in public schools! They get more socialization than most kids in public school! So does it add to my “duties” as a SAHM? Yes, but it is all SO worth it! I didn’t think I’d ever be able to it, but I am so happy that I am! SAHM’s and SAHD’s have the most underappreciated job in the world, and can be a very thankless job- and it is so sad that we are being snubbed by those who choose to work, or even other parents that stay at home. Can’t we all just support each other and get along? Do what is best for you and your family! If you want to work, do it! If you want to stay home, do it! No one is better, or smarter, or less important than anyone else for whatever career they choose to do!

        One more side note on my soapbox: Ann Romney is one heck of a woman, and it surprised me very much to hear her being put down by a pundit on CNN because she chose to be SAHM… If Ann Romney wanted to, she could land a 6 figure job just based on her experiences! She is capable of giving advice to anyone- even working women. Why? Because being a SAHM or a SAHD IS a job. Different? Yes. Easier than a 9-5 career? Not even close!!! I’ve had both! Being a SAHM, doing a 24/7 job is the hardest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had!

  8. I can understand those familys that do not have a choice in the matter and have to have both parents working, but I LOVE the fact that I am a stay-at-home mom, but I am not the crafty ultra cool mom that does all sorts of neat things like canning and all that, I am doing good to keep laundry and dinner done along with homework and keeping my 10 and 5 year old from killing eachother when they are home. My husband does shift work so can not always be home all the time so it makes not being a working mom easier for us when one of our kids are sick I am always here to take care of them. When my husband is off we can just load up the kids and go somewhere with out having to worrying about me being able to be off too. Now it’s true we don’t have a super fancy and expencive house and both our vehicals are used, but that suits us and I would so NOT trade my “stay at home mom” title for a job that gave me all the money in the world.

    1. Well said, Amber, I completely agree! My husband and I are in the same boat. We realize that we’ll never have a lot of “stuff,” but honestly, that is just fine with us! We never got used to having two incomes (I worked while my husband was in school and promptly gave birth weeks before his graduation), so there hasn’t been a need to cut back in lifestyle. We never had one to begin with! 😉 Thanks for sharing!

  9. SAHM, SAHD, one who works outside the home as well as inside – relax- do the best you can with what you have – drop the guilt – you will have more energy for whatever you – enjoy the time with whomever you are with – you will all thrive with love

  10. I’m one of those SAHMs that does the sewing and the gardening and the canning. I don’t, however, do it because I feel pressured to. Actually, I do it because, I feel, it’s what’s best for my DD. She has life threatening food allergies, so, I cook from scratch, and bake bread (we discovered the hard way that many commercial breads have undeclared oats in them!). I garden because we enjoy fresh foods and I can, because, well, so much of the canned veggies on the store shelves are processed in China.Thanks, I’d rather grow and can my own!

    As for sewing…*sigh* once I realized what was out there for “stylish” clothes for an 11 year old, I realized that my skills as a seamstress were going to be needed! I have a problem with my child dressing like a mini prostitute.

    All that said…yeah, I have days where things are let go…the laundry sits in the washer for hours, the dog/cat hair makes piles big enough to build new animals, and the dishes pile up nearly to the ceiling-okay, maybe not that high, but it sure feels that way some days!

    At the end of the day though, I think Moms just have to do what works for their families, and not worry about what other moms do. Just because something works for my family, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for anyone else’s and there should be no guilt, or shame in doing things differently. Aren’t we all just interested in raising the happiest, healthiest children we can…without going crazy along the way? 😉

    1. I agree with this comment in that many SAHMs appear to be ‘overachievers’ to others but are working based on their own motivations.
      In my case, I had a very serious and successful career for almost 20 years before retiring to motherhood. And, through no external pressure, I now use all my former career drive and ambition to plan fun family activities, take on leadership roles in my kids’ school and work on various projects at home. I get the supermom comment often but, I can assure you, I have no interest in comparing with others and am actually very good at watching clouds from my hammock when given a chance.
      To each their own. Even in motherhood!

    2. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I think the activities and roles mothers take on boil down (potentially) to two categories:
      1)Activities and hobbies that are enriching and add value to a mama and her family’s lives. These don’t feel like extra because they are so enjoyable.
      2) Feeling pressured to do extra things because it feels “expected” as a mother.

      WolfSong, it sounds like you’ve achieved a wonderful balance between your own personal interests and taking care of your family. Kudos!

  11. While I don’t disagree with your comments regarding the reality of modern parenting, I would like to add another perspective. I am a SAHM of two children (ages 4 & 2), one who has autism. I handle most of the “domestic” tasks in my family (cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, organizing, managing the schedule) as well as most of the responsibility for our children’s social and educational lives. I also sew clothing, toys, decor and gift items, restore/reinvent furniture or other items that interest me, entertain friends, read books regularly, host playdates and regularly complete art projects with my kids. You can find my own special canned apple pie filling in my pantry and home-made meals in my freezer. I also know how to knit. By your definition I am an over-achieving SAHM. But I don’t do any one of the things I do in my life to try to impress or keep up with any other person. I do them because I *enjoy* them. I do them because the day-to-day realities of raising children are not always exciting or motivating or inspiring. I do them because I like surrounding myself with things I have created – it feeds my soul. It is my outlet and my therapy.

    At any given time I have a handful of projects going that inspire, calm, motivate, excite or challenge me. I am very thankful for the opportunity I have to spend so much time with my children and being with them is a very special and amazing kind of fulfillment. But, my entire life I have been interested in many different things – I never expected that would change because I became a mom. My days before children were filled to the brim with other kinds of “work” and “play.” I have always thrown myself fully into what I am doing. Why should my life as a mom be any different? I have found activities and interests that work with my family’s lifestyle and schedule and many of them allow me to share my talents and time with my kids, too. Having outlets for myself not only keeps me happy but it has a positive affect on my whole family!

    I recognize that some people might find a busy schedule stressful or feel pressure to live up to their ideal standard of a mother, but not everyone does those things because they want others to think they “have it all.” If crafting with your kids is not your thing, then you should not feel pressured to do it. If you don’t enjoy knitting, find something you do enjoy and do it – often and with passion.

    The next time you get on Pinterest or Facebook and see a photo of something another mom has done – try to remember that her choice to do that has nothing to do with you. Give her a thumbs up while you kick back and put your feet up (if that’s what you enjoy!)

    1. Exactly! And what we do as moms should add value to our lives. Well said and thank you for sharing!

  12. I found it ironic that the commercial at the end was for Vodka. Is Vodka a healthy choice for the end of the day of changing diapers, putting out numerous “fires” that crop up unexpectedly in family life and friend relationships? I absolutley agree that Gloria Steinem did not do women a favor by burning her bra in the 70’s. There were benefits of the “women’s movement” for sure, but it took the mother out of the home. Look at the issues today with young children who have not been taught values, or had the needed attention from their Mother. I had a son at age 38; he is now 29. I look back and can’t remember if I fed the child properly. We made all the soccer practices and games. Keep him busy was my goal to keep him out of trouble. He is now a father of a two month old son. Hopefully he has learned from the mistakes I made with him and will be a much better parent than I was. I pray so and thank God I didn’t choose the Vodka, but chose to raise my son in the Christian faith and teach him the values that are important in life. SAHM, I honor and respect your choice! Hang in there, the payoff if worth it with kids that are happy and successful when they grow up! Peggy Ann

    1. Hi Peggy Ann, I really appreciate your perspective on mothering especially since your son is grown. Thank you for encouraging other mothers to pass on their values to their children because that’s what we’re meant to do as mothers!

  13. Very interesting. I would add that this ideal of “having it all” has affected more than women at home or at work. This is a US moral ideal; capitalism and the puritan work ethic taken too far. It seems we all want to have everything and the american dream tells us that, if we work hard enough, we too can have it all. This is not true or even possible. As you say, even if we get to a place where we think we have it all, we go looking for more to have. I fear that we, myself included, are starting to lose the ability to live in the moment and be happy with what we may already have.

    1. Mags, your perspective on this is pretty enlightening, and I agree that this problem does reach beyond motherhood. The question becomes: how do we reorient ourselves to be content with what is rather than what can be? It is so hard to live in the moment, but it is such a worthy goal!

  14. Hello Kate,
    I loved your post! I am writing from the other side of the Atlantic, from Belgium. I am a stay-at-home mom too. Your article speaks to me a great deal. It has become pretty much “in” here in Europe too, to have the woman stay home and take care of the kids while the hubby becoming the “breadwinner”. In this way, everyone has a share in terms of management of the household and family.
    Yes it is rewarding to be home with your kids, yes it’s a worthy “cause”, I too love my kids just like every other mom, but I have a huge problem with the way the society is getting back to the role division between man and woman like if it was nature-given. Of course, men are happy and very comfortable with their role but we should wonder are we totally happy with ours? Giving up work and career for years so that we can 100% dedicate our time to the family to my opinion is unfair and that’s what we need to say loudly. We shouldn’t be in a position of trading one for the other, it’s absolutely unfair. We are more than mothers in this society and we have other roles to play.

    1. Thank you for your response and giving us a wider perspective on the issue! It seems like society, in general, has swung widely back and forth between whether women should work or stay at home. It really shouldn’t matter either way, but be up to the woman as well as be socially acceptable.

      What do you think it would take for more fathers to be involved in the keeping of a home and caring for kids? Or perhaps even for some families to decide that dad should stay home and the mom work?

  15. I have the most happy, sweet and loving 4yrs old boss, I can’t imagine my life away from her. Thanks for your post, let’s enjoy our lives as they are and we’ll have a happy life and family.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s