The conversation usually goes like this:
Person I Just Met: “So what is it that you do?”
Me: “Right now, I’m staying at home with the kids.”
Person I Just Met: “Oh, you're so lucky that you can do that! Good for you!”
Whenever I hear this response, a small part of me cringes. It’s not that I disagree with them – yes, in many ways, I am very lucky. And it’s also not that I don’t appreciate my happy and healthy family. Instead, I think it does all moms a disservice – those staying at home and those working outside the home.
Here are three reasons that I don’t think we should call stay-at-home moms lucky.
If someone came up to me and offered me a career as a professional beachside lounge chair tester on the French Riviera, then yes, I would consider myself pretty lucky. But parenting is not like that. It is long, hard work, the gritty reality of which I think is often ignored by the person telling me how lucky I am.
We don’t tell people they're lucky to be doctors or lawyers because we recognize those professions take a great deal of effort. Telling moms they're lucky to stay at home glosses over the amount of work they put in to raising children.
Stay-at-home moms today are not Betty Drapers of the 1960s – sitting at the dining table in perfect hair and makeup, finishing off a glass of wine while the nanny watches the children. (Even though, I will admit, some days I wish that was the case).
I worked outside of our home when my oldest was a baby, and I'm ashamed to admit that I often caught myself thinking, I do everything a stay-at-home mom does, plus I work! I ended up quitting my job after my second was born, and I assumed that I would suddenly have loads of free time, as well as a cleaner house.
Boy, was I wrong. Suddenly, it was just me for 10- or 12-hour stretches, dealing with every tantrum, changing every dirty diaper, and cleaning up every single mess. I might have had an extra eight hours a day to clean, but my children had an extra eight hours to ransack the place, as well. Whether you have a job outside of the home or are a full-time caregiver – parenting is definitely work.
When someone tells me how lucky I am, I know that they mean I’m fortunate to never miss a first step or a toddler’s sticky kiss on the cheek. But those moments are often buried under the day-in-and-day-out labor of child raising. Caring for children is difficult and vitally important, not a vacation – even if there are days where it is wonderful.
After the second kid came along, I did the math a million different ways. I subtracted the cost of two kids in care from my earnings, and then from our two incomes together. I looked up different daycare providers and got on waiting lists for more affordable places. But no matter how many times I ran the numbers, I came up short.
With tuition eating up the vast majority of my salary, staying at my job just didn’t make sense. Compounding the problem was having one son with multiple severe food allergies, and a new baby who was born premature. I decided it was time to quit. While I was confident it was the right decision for our family, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about it.
Similar scenarios play out every day across the country as families are often faced with difficult decisions when met with the cost of childcare. The cost of having two children in daycare eats up nearly 60% of the average salary for a woman in the United States. Childcare costs are skyrocketing. In many states it's more expensive than college tuition, and this hike in expenses is coinciding with a rise in the number of women who are staying home. Being forced out of the labor force isn’t what any of us would call lucky.
Not once has anyone ever told my husband that he's lucky to have a stay-at-home wife (no one but me, that is). But from my point of view, he is. He gets free childcare, comes home to a home-cooked dinner every (okay, most) nights, and always has someone available to take the children to their doctor’s appointments or do chores during the day so we have our nights and weekends for family time. He's benefitting from this arrangement as much as anyone else in the house, but I’m the one who's frequently told how lucky I am.
Maybe I get called lucky because I’m the recipient of all those aforementioned kisses. It might also be thanks to a lingering notion that the man is the head of the household, and the wife is an unequal player – the recipient of his largesse.
But that dynamic does not describe our relationship. In all aspects of our life, from the financial decisions we make to raising our children, we're equal even though our daily job descriptions might differ.
Furthermore, not all women want to stay at home. For these women, pursuing a profession is not a matter of being unlucky, but of doing what they feel is best for them and their family. Parents of both sexes are now spending more time with their children than ever, even with a greater number of women working outside the home than in the 1960s.
Research shows, however, that the sheer amount of time parents spend with children matters much less than the quality of time. Basically, there is no need to feel guilty about not spending every waking minute with your children if you would prefer to have a career as well, and it might even be better than being miserable at home.
Just as there are parents who want to work, but can’t afford daycare, there are parents who want to stay at home, but need their income to support their family. I do feel very fortunate that my husband's income is sufficient enough that we didn't have to cut back too much after I quit my job, but earning a living wage that supports a family should be considered standard rather than a rarity.
Figuring out a work/childcare configuration that suites your family is one of the most difficult parenting tasks there is. With different needs, we're all going to strike that balance in a variety of ways, and none is better than the other. Ideally, all parents should have the freedom to pursue a path that best suits their family’s requirements, and being able to do that should be considered the status quo, not luck.