Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The stay-at-home-mom's confession: she works.

When Flavia recently posted a letter from one of her readers, about running into a bunch of 40ish stay-at-home moms at an Ivy League college reunion, I expressed some skepticism about whether these women really didn't work for pay, or whether perhaps they did (from home?), but the letter-writer was rounding down whatever it was these women did to "housewife." Flavia assured me that the letter-writer wasn't making assumptions, so in this particular case, case closed.

That said, I do think I was justified in bringing up the possibility, because there's a huge amount of blurriness between what constitutes "stay-at-home" and what's just being the member of the couple with the less high-powered career. Which brings us to Ashley Nelson's article in The Nation, "Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom." The key to the piece lies in a small but important detail: Nelson wasn't a stay-at-home mom, but a freelance writer:

[...] I left my job, figuring I could freelance while the baby napped.

Rookie mistake.

I hired a sitter, but for a time my work took a back seat to life. We moved and, two years later, moved again so my husband could take a job overseas. A second daughter arrived. Then, shortly after, I found myself in a situation I never predicted: sitting across from a divorce lawyer who didn’t even bother writing down my annual freelance income. I had published well and often, but my compensation was less robust. It would barely have covered a month of her costs.
So. Was Nelson working? Was her primary identity "mom"? She goes back and forth on this within the course of this short paragraph. If she "published well and often," and I mean actually did do this, it sure sounds like she had (has! she's in The Nation!) a job. I mean, according to the NYU career office, "freelance writer" is a job. Also according to some but not all freelance writers. It's complicated. But let's say she were not a woman, but a man. Or not a man, but single. (I've heard tell that some freelance writers are unmarried women.) Was her income not enough to live on, or was it simply laughable in comparison to the overall budget of the family she happened to be a part of?

Nelson explains that this isn't just her story, but that of other women as well:
[E]very mother I know who scaled back or quit work to care for children feels a similar anxiety about what the decision has cost her. Like myself, most never felt they were relinquishing their “work selves” completely, just momentarily turning down the tap. Many do some work, but it feels supplemental and underpaid. The climb back into full-time employment seems monumental.
In other words, neither Nelson nor the women she's discussing were ever really housewives/SAHMs/what-have-you. They did work, but weren't properly compensated.

And thus the problem: couples have this bizarre tendency to want to live together, especially when there are kids. This means that even if staying put at a job and not moving anywhere for any man serves as insurance against possible future divorce, it also can, to a degree, kind of preempt the marriage-and-family to begin with. A nuclear family can function as a unit, or (especially if there are no kids) as two autonomous individuals for whom a divorce would be upsetting in the way it is when one has a falling-out with an old friend, or breaks up with a college sweetheart. The perfect household, where divorce would have no financial impact on either partner, yet where the couple managed to live as if a family, and one not so front-and-center aware at all times of the precariousness of all marriages, is hard to picture. The lucky few who have this seem especially keen on writing about it, which confuses matters, I suspect.

Ideally, none of the household-and-childcare who-does-what would be gendered, beyond the pregnancy-and-shortly-thereafter aspects of it. The reality, though, seems to be a lot of women who do work, but who have opted for a lower-paid version of their chosen profession, but one that allows for more geographic and/or childcare flexibility. Had this couple lasted, there might have been time enough for a "see-saw marriage." It might not have always been such a gendered worst-case-scenario.

This gets at something I couldn't quite pin down in my response (responses) to the (ever-more-compelling) conversation at Flavia's, and elsewhere as well, one that led me to various posts from a couple of years ago as well. The women having this conversation (posts, comments) are, it seems, women who studied the humanities. Many are now tenured professors. The conversation is about Important Careers, but tilts to being specifically about careers in academia, specifically non-STEM academia.

The issue with this, as it relates to the topic at hand (women's feminist duty to be ambitious), is that once one has opted for the humanities, without simultaneously opting for something more marketable (the double-major in air-conditioner repair), one has already quite severely risked opting out. One finds a small and probably ever-shrinking subset of humanities-types in high-powered positions that use those skills. Tenured professors, big-deal editors, and so forth. It exists, but a girl (as in, pre-college) whose main priority is financial independence is taking a big risk if she goes down that path. And that's new, really, because there was always law school. Now there isn't always law school.

So. While a woman who reaches the point of having a tenure-track position and then opts out has opted out, can the same be said of a woman who leaves after X years of adjuncting, or upon learning the odds? Because if by "elite women" we mean (among others) women with humanities PhDs or near-PhDs, well, a lot of the time, this leads straight to a career that's never more than a dream, for a man or a woman (although everyone's always wondering about the perma-adjuncting vs. TT gender breakdown), and while employment-outside-the-home is still likely, it won't necessarily be elite employment, a career.

And! Then there's the question of whether the mere fact of women's growing majority in a given field will in and of itself end up making that field more precarious, whether it will end up encouraging society to think the work in question is nonsense (while nevertheless still demanding the work in question). College students are still being taught, but why by adjuncts? Is it maybe because women are viewed as pushovers, secondary-job-havers, and that $500 per semester could purchase an awfully nice pin? Are freelance rates at all impacted by a sense that (for certain publications, at least) this is work done by housewives?

I could go on, but I have other humanitiesish tasks to contend with.


caryatis said...

It seems like a lot of women just don’t have the belief that they need to support themselves ingrained in their minds. Look at two women mentioned in the article:

“After repeated failed attempts to negotiate a reasonable schedule [at a law firm], she decided to leave.”

““Compared to what I was doing before, it was not important work,” confessed one woman who left an investment bank for this reason.”

Somehow these women got the idea that the appropriate response to being unhappy with your schedule or unchallenged by your work is to quit--giving up not just on that job, but on all jobs! Someone who took seriously her obligation to support herself–and her children!–wouldn’t act like that. They're assuming that a husband will always be there to pay the bills.

Or the author herself, who–she doesn’t give us numbers, but it certainly sounds like she’s not making enough to live on. She couldn't find a job in her field, in the city her husband wanted to live in (and why did he choose a city with no job opportunities in her field?)---so, rather than choosing another city, or choosing to live apart for a while, or choosing a less-than-ideal job, she quit completely. She’s counting on her husband. Men who do this sort of thing would be considered lazy and irresponsible.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Part of me agrees with all of this. But part of me also thinks it's victim-blaming. If these women feel that it falls on them to look after their children, if their husbands wouldn't in a million years step back from their own careers, if social norms are what they are, this isn't exactly that these women opted for pedicures over the office.

As for the author's specific case, what I think you're missing is, academia. Well that, and the tremendous impracticality of living apart once they have the kid. And that she didn't "quit completely," just partially. Freelancing was, it sounds like, her less-than-ideal job. For others, that might have been a reasonable temporary interlude between full-time jobs, a way to not leave the game entirely while remaining geographically mobile. The see-saw they didn't experience, because they split up.

But back to academia - if this husband-finishing-his-PhD had become a professor, he didn't "choose a city." That's just not how it works. There are a handful of openings all over the country/world, and one must apply to all of them, and if you're so lucky as to be offered one, you take it. So the question then is, what kind of job did she give up? And did his PhD lead plausibly to other career paths?

A revisionist history of her life would have her staying put, sure, but it's impossible to live out a marriage under the assumption that there will be a divorce not long after. I mean, not impossible, but impractical for its own reasons.

caryatis said...

Did the author actually say the husband was an academic? She said he was working on a PhD. For all we know, he could be a chemical engineer working for Halliburton. Or am I missing something?

I mean, I'm not entirely rejecting your seesaw marriage idea, even for non-academic couples. But it should be, you know, a 70% focus on my career and 30% on his. Asking for 100% focus on one spouse's is unfair, especially when we know divorce is possible.

Flavia said...


I don't necessarily disagree with the larger (and very interesting!) point here. But this quote, as my bolding suggests, doesn't actually say what you say it does:

[E]very mother I know who scaled back or quit work to care for children feels a similar anxiety about what the decision has cost her. Like myself, most never felt they were relinquishing their "work selves" completely, just momentarily turning down the tap. Many do some work, but it feels supplemental and underpaid.

You say, "In other words, neither Nelson nor the women she's discussing were ever really housewives/SAHMs/what-have-you. They did work, but weren't properly compensated."

In fact, as the quotation makes clear, some of these women HAVE quit working entirely--but simply don't fully think of themselves as having quit (or as no longer being lawyers, or bankers, or whatever).

I value and respect this position, and think we should share such women's self-perceptions--that they're still highly-trained, potentially valuable members of [X] profession, who are just taking a breather. But it isn't the same thing as saying that they are, in this present moment, still working for pay.

You may be right that there are a large number of women who claim to be SAHMs who are actually earn enough money to support themselves (which I think we need to define at least roughly: maybe $20K a year or more?). But I haven't seen any evidence that this is true. And in my (possibly-unrepresentative) experience, women who work from home part time or do occasional contract work tend to say this about themselves; they may say they "work from home," or that they're "mostly a mom"--but if they still in fact think of themselves as a writer or whatever, they'll add that fact. (I've also met women who say, e.g., "I'm a lawyer, but right now I'm at home full-time.")

Basically, I don't think it makes sense to claim that there are a large number of women who claim to be SAHMs but who are actually earning something close to a living wage.

caryatis said...

As for victim-blaming, well, I admit to being mean. But the victim-blaming analogy is inappropriate. We say that it’s wrong to blame rape victims, because, at the risk of sounding trite, rape is wrong, and nothing that the victim could possibly do would justify it.

But I’m not ready to say that the husband who wants to take a job overseas or the employer who expects a woman to work long hours are villains here. They’re behaving in a way that is rational for them, and if the ultimate outcome is not what a woman could have hoped for, it’s probably because she wasn’t in a strong enough bargaining position. And there are definite actions women can take to strengthen or weaken her bargaining position. It’s not about condemning women who make mistakes, but about publicizing the fact that these are mistakes. Just as we teach kids to look before crossing the street, and (ideally) teach young adults not to carry a balance on their credit cards, we should teach women to make sure they are prepared to support themselves, and to recognize divorce is a possibility.

I mean, the social norms are real and none of us are superheroes, but there are success stories. I guarantee somewhere out there is:

--a woman who found that she had to prove herself again when coming back to the office after maternity leave, and who sighed, and who worked harder, and who got the promotion anyway
--a woman who said ‘no’ the second time her husband asked her to move to a place where she had no job opportunities
--a woman who was annoyed at the long hours her firm expected of her, but recognized that pretty much everyone at the firm was in the same boat, and stuck to it, because she had a child to support, and because that’s what adults do.

But when the author’s “journalism” is based solely on her and a couple of her friends who agree with her, we don’t get these stories.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Good point - that was sloppiness on my part! Some of the women Nelson is talking about did indeed quit their jobs and not return to paid work in any capacity. I'd have no trouble calling them SAHMs.

As for how many SAHMs actually work, I was going first by how the article itself was presented - that it would be conceivable to give an article about working less a title that suggests not working outside the home at all. The title told us that the author had stayed home. The content? Unclear. We don't know what the author was earning, but maybe the better question is how many hours a week she was working? It seems like there's a bigger issue here, of women who do work (as in, provide value to companies) getting paid too little, whether as freelance writers or as adjuncts.


It doesn't sound like 100% focus on his career. She was freelance writing, and we're now reading her in The Nation. There are, I promise, less ambitious women (and men!) to be found.

And I didn't use "victim-blaming" as an analogy. What's the analogy? There's a system in which all these people are operating, and it's tougher on women than on men.

"It’s not about condemning women who make mistakes, but about publicizing the fact that these are mistakes."

That I could get behind.

As for behaving like divorce could happen at any time, which it of course can, this is the kind of thing that makes 100% sense in the abstract and more like 80% (50%?) sense in practice. At any given time, one partner may be effectively or entirely supporting the other. Ideally it alternates who that is, but few couples will end up with identical incomes across the marriage. And whoever is earning significantly less when the divorce happens to take place - often the woman - is in a bind. That, and a lot of the financial suffering after a divorce doesn't come from the lower-earning partner being literally incapable of supporting herself, but rather from a lifestyle drop.

And finally, re: this sort of journalism, this could well be another case of fiction-is-better. But seeing as it was a story about women who stay home some/all of the time, and the stats mentioned seem to support that this does happen (but not with all women), I didn't find this such a problem.

caryatis said...

Isn't the term victim-blaming derived from talking about rape victims? My point is that the career tradeoffs we're talking about are more like negotiations than like a victim/perpetrator scenario. I agree that the system is tougher on women, but that doesn't mean their actions have no effect.

caryatis said...

In a negotiation, one party may have a weaker bargaining position, but it does not follow that the party in the weaker position is a victim or is without power.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


If Wikipedia's correct (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victim_blaming), I'm afraid you're wrong re: "victim-blaming." It seems like it was originally used to refer to a situation where systematic oppression led to bad behavior of members of a marginalized group.

Anyway, technicalities aside, this isn't about powerlessness, but about complex situations. You may think, it's easy, a woman should work. Someone else will think, it's easy, a child needs a parent at home. The same woman will get multiple messages, but also feel that she has multiple obligations. It's not just about women feeling less of a duty to work, but also about women feeling more of a duty to look after kids-and-home.

The answer, as you yourself say, is to spell out your position. Nothing is gained, though, by chastising women who haven't already arrived at your conclusion.

Britta said...

But I’m not ready to say that the husband who wants to take a job overseas or the employer who expects a woman to work long hours are villains here. They’re behaving in a way that is rational for them,

Yes, exactly. The logic of capitalism is that bosses will try to squeeze as much productivity out of a worker for as little compensation as they can get away with. If employers could make people work 20 hours a day for pennies, with children growing up in work houses, they would. Calling an individual in this system a villain is misguided, because the exploitation is built into the system, not the caprice of one malicious individual. This is why, however, we need permanent vigilance in fighting for the rights of workers. We're backsliding on many of the gains made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because we've been too complacent in the past 30-40 years. This is also why it's a bit misleading to consider it a woman's problem, rather than a worker's problem. Work/life balance is important for everyone, and asking men to bear the costs is just as harmful as asking women to bear the costs of forcing too many hours out of an employee.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


There are definitely gender-neutral reforms needed to improve the situation. But there's a really specific problem of work that's gendered female not paying much/anything. Now, maybe this would magically disappear with a shorter workweek and gender-neutral parental leave. More likely, it would improve somewhat, but is in a way its own problem and would still be with us. And we'd still be left with the question of geographic mobility.

Jane Calderwood Norton said...

Interesting post. I fall somewhat into this category although I do now have a tenure-track job. My issue is whether I will actually achieve tenure because I use a lot of my flexible time and research leave for childcare. And sometimes I am just too damn tired to do the high level thinking required to write a peer-reviewed publication.

Have you read Susan Moller Okin's book "Justice, Gender, and the Family"? She writes about this issue: women making themselves vunerable by choosing low-paying and flexible careers even before they have children.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks for the book suggestion - sounds fascinating!

I guess the obvious question - also far too personal, so I'm not actually looking for an answer! - is whether these children have another parent who could be doing 50% of close of the childcare.

Speaking in general terms, then, the issue here seems to be that even when there's a father very much on the scene (a husband or co-parent), when it's the woman who's the academic, academia's viewed as not a real job, or as somehow "soft," and whatever unstructured time there is can go to home-and-kids. Whereas it doesn't seem to go like this for men. (See also: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/07/08/should-women-delay-motherhood/what-you-need-to-know-if-youre-an-academic-and-want-to-be-a-mom)

Anonymous said...

Technically, we at Grumpy Rumblings (where you link on choice feminism) are STEM (at least by NSF definitions), social science not humanities, and we do have options outside academia (more high paying for one of us than for the other).

But your point is taken!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks for pointing that out!

caryatis said...


"Speaking in general terms, then, the issue here seems to be that even when there's a father very much on the scene (a husband or co-parent), when it's the woman who's the academic, academia's viewed as not a real job, or as somehow "soft," and whatever unstructured time there is can go to home-and-kids. '

Ah, but not just with academics. There's an anecdote in Halving It All about two couples the author encountered: in one, the husband was a professor and the wife was a physician. In the other, it was the reverse. But in both cases, both parties claimed that the man's job was less flexible (implicit: more important.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I don't know this "Halving It All" - a book, I see, from Googling it.

Anyway, while I completely agree that much of this applies well beyond academia, the example you give actually supports the argument about academia, namely that it's the "serious" career when the man has it, the disposable one when the woman does.

caryatis said...

But it's the same thing with medicine--or, I would think, any career. The tendency here is not specific to academia--it's a tendency to assume that whatever job the woman has is not quite serious, and whatever job the man has is.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

While I wouldn't say it's unique to academia, something different goes on with certain fields, where the men in them are seen as serious, the women as dabblers. Anything in humanities/the arts, I suppose. Maybe throw in "food" as well. Whereas with law, medicine, STEM academia, it might be that a woman's career will be treated as secondary, but while she's working, she won't be viewed as dabbling, because these are not seen as fields with dabbling potential.