The Dread of Saying I’m a Stay-At-Home Mom

cookies cooling on a rack

Did you know that in some societies it’s considered impolite to ask someone what they do for a living: it’s looked on as a backdoor way of asking how much money they make or of sussing out their social status. Rude! But here in the US, “What do you do?” is a perfectly acceptable question, as harmless and as common as “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Paper or plastic?”

“So, what do you do?” You probably get asked that question all the time.

And for most people the response is pretty straightforward. “I’m a teacher.” “I sell cars.” “I’m in retail.” “I own my own business.”

But I always dreaded the question. Especially when it came up in conversation with my husband’s colleagues or business associates, all of whom were accomplished professionals with equally-accomplished spouses. Because my response to their simple question was never well-received.

When you’re a Stay-At-Home Mom, your answer evokes that look: the barely concealed eye-roll or the patronizing smile. Often both. The exasperated release of breath which signals “We’re all done here.” Almost before I’d gotten out the last syllable, I could read the thoughts wash across the face of the poor soul who’d accidentally stepped in my domestic cow-patty by unwittingly asking the simple question “So, what do you do?”

I know full-well that Stay-At-Home Mom is the lowest rung on the modern social ladder, and nobody wants to be the bottom rung of anything. Not that motherhood or housewifery ever evoked much awe, in spite of our claim to value motherhood and families. But modern working women — moms or not — feel you’ve sold out when you choose to stay at home. You’ve betrayed the sisterhood, sacrificed your intellectual and professional soul at the altar of your children, perpetuated the male-centric social paradigm, and are obviously subjugating yourself to your husband’s aspirations and goals.

Also, that you are dull. d-u-l-l dull with a Capital D. If you are at-home, you cannot possibly have any meaningful interests beyond sandwich bags and cupcake frosting nor anything of value to offer in conversation. It’s assumed that you have no real education, no aspiration, and worse, no ability to do anything else. Because after all, if you could do something else, you surely would. Earn some money and then hire someone to do all of the stuff. No one with any amount of self-esteem would deliberately choose to stay home cleaning and cooking, wiping noses and picking up Legos off the floor. Whether they politely hang around for a few more minutes or not, “I’m a Stay-At-Home Mom” is effectively the end of the conversation.

Besides which, even the term “Stay-At-Home Mom” felt clumsy on the tongue. It felt like I was trying too hard to put lipstick on a pig. “Homemaker” had been an earlier stab at an appropriate alternative to the term “housewife” which itself evoked visions of the 1960s: women with Betty Crocker aprons and robin’s egg blue eyeshadow. (Besides, we aren’t married to our house.) I think “homemaker” is still the official term used by the IRS and other anachronistic institutions, but homemaker frankly doesn’t accurately reflect reality since most of us give up our jobs, not to take care of our homes, but to take care of our children. In fact, many of my friends left the homemaking part to housekeepers. So after a brief fling with “domestic engineer” we settled on Stay-At-Home Mom.

Stay-At-Home Mom is problematic in other ways too. It’s meant to cloak us in some dignity while drawing a distinction between us and those other moms — the ones who leave the house every day and receive a paycheck at the end of the week, aka the “Working Moms.” Yet it seems to imply that at-home moms don’t work. And we resent the implication. I mean, honestly, do NOT get me started on how hard mothers work. Yes, we have the joy of being with our children at every age and every stage, morning, noon and night. But it comes with a lot of physical and emotional labor. And I cannot remember once in all the years I was at home that I did not fall down exhausted into bed at the end of the day.

No doubt there was plenty of resentment on the other side of the equation too. Working Moms do plenty of work inside their homes as well. Often all of the work. They just somehow manage to do it in addition to doing something with a paycheck attached. Why the implication that their sole focus was on their work? No question but that their families are every bit as important to them as ours are to us. Labels don’t seem to work for anyone.

As for the work, a few women toyed around with the answer “I work inside the home.” But in these days of working remotely, that’s ambiguous and still begs the question, as in: “Oh, you work from home! What do you do?” So we were stuck with Stay-At-Home Mom.

Still, although I never regretted my decision to stay at home and raise my family, I wish I’d had an answer that sounded better to me and didn’t make people want to head for the hills.

Maybe I could’ve salvaged the situation if, rather than answering with my made-up job title, I’d responded with an enumeration of the value I added during an average day, perhaps a list of carefully phrased “accomplishments.” What do I do? I:

  • create and maintain systems which allow members of my family/team to achieve maximum productivity, such as color-coded cubbies and labeled hooks for backbacks
  • co-plan, organize, and participate in an on-time, highly efficient transportation network which delivers team members to scheduled and ad hoc activities including piano lessons and play dates
  • foster self-esteem in team members by providing positive feedback and constructive criticism with occasional use of time-outs
  • promote inter- and cross-team communication by consistently modeling “using your words” and appropriate application of inside-voice
  • decrease the impact on the organization’s health care budget and minimize out-of-office or out-of-school hours by planning and delivering highly nutritious meals and between-meal supplements (e.g. apple slices)
  • build community by volunteering my time for worthy causes and/or attending PTA meetings

Frankly, I don’t know how that would have been received.

Even now, I really don’t like to be asked “what do you do?” I’d prefer it if someone asked me “what are you interested in?” or “what are you reading?” or “what do you think about the current political situation?” or any of a million other questions that get at who I am as a person.

On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t have overthought it quite so much. In retrospect, the question was probably innocent enough; just meant to make casual conversation or find a point of common interest. The asker probably had no idea that they were opening up a Costco-sized can of worms.

The next time someone asks me what I do, maybe I’ll reply with “I overthink everything, and then I write it down.”

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