No Breaks

Yes, ‘Stay-At-Home Mom’ Is a Job: The Return of The ‘Mommy Wars’

A writer says stay-at-home-moms need to stop claiming they are “working.” Looking after children, she says, is a privilege. A Daily Beast writer, and parent, passionately disagrees.

03.17.15 9:15 AM ET

Show me a mother, and I’ll show you a woman who feels guilty for something, thanks in no small part to the judgmental internet musings of other moms who’ve made different choices. The “mommy wars” are real.

The latest salvo comes from that bastion of feminism xoJane, where, calling her fellow stay-at-home moms, “unemployed, self-righteous idiots,” writer and SAHM herself, Liz Pardue-Schultz, says the mothers on her side of the fight should STFU about how hard it is to parent full-time and for God’s sake, stop calling it a job.

Settle in with me, mothers, and prepare to feel awful.

We refer to the “mommy wars” as any disagreement on just what make good and, of course, bad, mothers.

Before a woman even gives birth, she’s hit with the fight over whether to take the drugs or go natural, then once the little one is in the big wide world, we have new important choices to be wrong about: breast or bottle, co-sleeping or crib, disposable or cloth diapers, cry-it-out or attachment parenting, wearing your baby or pushing him in a stroller. And, of course, there are vaccines and screen time and making your own baby food and on and on and on.

But originally the “mommy wars” were coined and popularized by Newsweek in 1990 to describe the conflict between working mothers and those who stayed at home. “Tension between mothers is building as they increasingly choose divergent paths,” the article said.

Now we have to worry about dissension in the ranks.

Couching her main argument within her own story of privilege—her mother helped with child care for her newborn, she relied on a government nutrition assistance program, and they were able to live on her husband’s salary while she pursued writing and acting gigs she found meaning in—Pardue-Schultz writes that she has had it with women who treat raising their children like a chore instead of the blessing it has been for her.

“The negativity that comes behind SAHMs’ unabashed martyrdom,” Pardue-Schultz writes, “is belittling to the entire parenting community.” As an example of such torturous self-sacrifice, she told readers of a social circle that she was too disgusted with to continue in where one pregnant woman complained that it “sucked being pregnant.”

Beside the point that indeed for many woman, pregnancy can be a time of heretofore unknowns like fear, sickness, pain, or depression, it would seem that a group of like-minded women would be just the place to communicate these worries. For Pardue-Schultz, they’re a group of whiners and they need to be stopped.

“The truth is, for every mother who is happy with her choice to be a stay-at-home mother, there are at least three who are using its tribulations as a means to smugly declare their superiority to anyone within earshot,” she writes.

Who are these women? Where do they hang out? I’m in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: the home of self-righteous hipster parents (I’m allowed to say this because they are my people.) Yet none of the mommies or daddies I know—employed or not—declare they’re better than another. If you can’t go out of the house without your ear canals being oppressed with a SAHM’s self-satisfied smugness, perhaps it’s time to relocate?                                                                             

But get past the complaining rant about mothers who complain too much and you get to the meat of her essay: that stay-at-home parenting is not a “real job,” and this is where it goes off the rails.

“Being a stay-at-home mother to your own kids is not a ‘job,’ no matter how difficult it is or how hard we work,” she writes. “Getting to do nothing but raise a person you opted to bring into the world is a privilege, and calling it anything else is ignorant and condescending.”

Why might a stay-at-home mom call it a job?

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An overwhelming majority of people say that stay-at-home parents should be valued equally to their working counterparts, but I’ve done both and found that to be lip service. I can vividly remember the record-scratch awkwardness when I would tell people I was a stay-at-home mom: “Oh that’s so greeeeat,” a party-goer would croon as she looked for an escape route. I see the value people assign to me as a reporter vs. a full-time mommy. It doesn’t even come close.

Words matter. And calling something a job means we think it’s important. And to do it well is difficult work. Pardue-Schultz says (I’m paraphrasing), pooh pooh.

“Sure, parenting is hard work, but so is going camping or throwing a party for a friend or having sex with someone I love; I don’t go around calling those things my ‘jobs.’” 

But you know who do go around calling it work? Park rangers, party planners, and sex workers. Once you start doing an activity ’round the clock, whether you find meaning or fulfillment in it or not, it becomes your profession. So it is for parents.

Full-time parenting, as I suspect Pardue-Schultz knows, is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week gig. No breaks—naps are for tidying—no vacations, no sick days, and no shortage of people wondering just what you do with all that time.

“No, Stay-at-Home-Mothers,” Pardue-Schultz writes, “choosing to create your own little person upon whom you’ll spend all your time and energy is a hobby.”

Like knitting, or yoga! Hobbies are of course, by their very definition, activities taken up in spare time, for fun, which one can take part in or neglect at her leisure. This is the exact opposite of being a stay-at-home mom where your time revolves around what another person needs and wants. Showering, eating, and mental and physical health and engagement all become luxuries for stay-at-home parents of small children.

As long as we’re telling our own stories, I’ve been a stay-at-home baby food-making, sling-wearing, cloth-diapering mom and a full-time working, last-to-pick-my-kid-up-at-day-care mom.

You know which one has it really hard? Both. And every single one of us.

For me, spending the day in a skyscraper around interesting people where I get to earn money and challenge myself is easier than changing diapers and working on tummy time with an infant for days at a time. I love my kid more than life itself, but my work is my luxury, being able to earn enough money to afford good child care and have enough left over for it to be “worth it,” is my privilege.

Staying home was hard and I’m already scanning my memory for instances when a judgy Pardue-Schultz in my mommy circle was secretly hating me for voicing my stay-at-home struggle.

Second, though more and more women are staying home with their children these days, according to census data, that lifestyle isn’t always such a choice and often isn’t the privilege that Pardue-Schultz demands others see it as. In 2012, 29 percent of mothers didn’t work outside the home, a steady increase since a low of 23 percent in 1999. Most of these moms are the traditional sort—married with kids and a husband who supports them all financially.

Married SAHMs made up 20 percent of all mothers. Far from living the luxurious life, over one-third of stay-at-home mothers live in poverty—a share that has more than doubled since 1970, according to Pew. And with child care costs at an all-time high, the expense of day care is often higher than one mother can earn with a salary, according to the Census Bureau.

But why let any of this get in the way of Pardue-Schultz’s straight-talk or her mean-spirited polemic against the plague of whining mommies?

Truth is, in the real world, something can be a job and a gift at the same time; mothering is no different.