The Universal Mom Conundrum: on daycare, stay-at-home-moms, leaning in, and stepping back

The Universal Mom Conundrum: on daycare, stay-at-home-moms, leaning in, and stepping back


My son started daycare about 4 months ago. Every time I mention this fact, I feel compelled to immediately clarify that he’s only there part-time, for 3 half-days a week.  Can someone please tell me why this makes me so defensive?  I think subconsciously I’m convinced that the stay-at-home-moms of the world will see enrollment in daycare as a major mom-fail – abandoning my little guy and turning him over to the care of strangers.

But as much as some people might look down on the decision to put children in daycare, there is just as much derision thrown at SAHMs. In casual conversations with someone you’ve just met, one of the very first questions is “What do you do?”  When the answer is “I’m a homemaker,” the response tends to be “Oh!”, stated in an awkward high-pitch as if to overcompensate with forced enthusiasm for the initial reaction of “oh, so you don’t really have a job.”  Even many well-intentioned people look down on this vocation as being somehow less-than, mentally inserting “just” in front of “a stay at home mom.”  Partners question just what it is that these moms do all day, perhaps picturing them sitting back, sipping coffee and watching Ellen in their bathrobe.

So is this just a lose-lose for moms? Return to work and half the world will look down on you for “abandoning” your kids, or leave your career behind and the other half will look down on you for “only” being a mom. And why is it that we’re so hard on SAHMs?

During the long period that professional options for women were extremely limited, countless women felt stifled and unsatisfied if the role of wife/mother was the only one open to them. Although advancements in gender equality have opened many doors to women in terms of career opportunities, this doesn’t have to mean that the choice to return to a more traditional role is some kind of failure of the feminist movement.  In fact, that view is hugely problematic, as articulated perfectly in an interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter about her new book “Unfinished Business,” a sort of follow-up to the 2012 piece in the Atlantic “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  During the interview she explains:

I started thinking my way through the women’s movement and how we had come to define equality—that women are equal to men only as long as they are doing the work that men have traditionally done.

That’s not a full gender revolution. That’s saying, “Men were the ones who earned the income, and now women can be men.” When women do that, they’re equal; but women who are caring for others are still very much devalued. If you’re really going to have equality, you’ve got to value both kinds of work.

I found this to be such a refreshing perspective that doesn’t seem to get a lot of lip service.  Sheryl Sanderg’s mantra to lean in and stop allowing family life (among other obstacles) to derail our career ambitions has gotten a lot traction over the last couple years, but it’s always rubbed me the wrong way.  Sure, there’s a lot of good in her message; women should be inspired and empowered to be ambitious in their careers without being hindered by fear of failure or other common hang-ups that disproportionately hold back women.  And there’s plenty of work to be done to make the working world more supportive of both women and men with children – paid family leave and affordable quality daycare to name two.  I could write a whole book about those issues alone.  But putting one’s career on hold to dedicate time to raising your kids is a valid and admirable choice; viewing this as just another way that women hold themselves back from career advancement is unfair and certainly not empowering.

Shouldn’t true progress for women be about choices- being able to choose whether to work full-time, part-time, or to step away from paid work (whether for a year or ten years), without the latter being looked down on as a lesser choice?

Beyond the bigger questions of gender equality, choosing to be a full-time parent can sometimes just be the pragmatic choice.  The stuff of day-to-day domestic life has to be done by somebody. Someone has to watch the kids.  Food has to somehow make its way onto the dinner table.  The house needs to be cleaned (at least occasionally!)  If both parents work full time, a lot of these things get outsourced.  Many couples pay for daycare, housecleaners, and frequent takeout, because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to take care of all these things.  With middle class wages stagnant and sky-high prices for daycare in many parts of the country, sometimes it just doesn’t make financial sense for both parents to work.  (At some daycares in the city we used to live, the cost to have an infant enrolled full-time was 50% more than my take-home salary).

This is not to question the choice of the countless women I know who have returned to work full-time after having a child. For plenty of families this is a financial necessity, and many women value their jobs for both professional and personal reasons (like the opportunity to have adult conversations, face challenges other than how to deal with a diaper explosion, and having a reason to put on real clothes every day). I give credit to moms who work full-time for being able to manage what has to be the world’s most challenging balancing act.  I just know that I was not able to keep it up.  My career took a backseat when I switched to a part-time position.  Instead of “leaning in,” I stepped back, and I haven’t regretted this decision for a single second. {Stay tuned for my post next week about my own journey from being home full-time to working full-time, and everything in between}.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether women really can have it all, and what that even means. I don’t think progress in gender equality has to look like 2 parents going 110% at their jobs, working extra hours and forgoing time with family just to get ahead. It may look like that, but it doesn’t have to.  It may look like: Dad staying at home full time while Mom works; parents tag-teaming, with one working during the day and one working nights; or Mom leaving her job to watch the kids full-time (not because that’s her duty as the woman, but because that’s a valid option for her if she so chooses).  Real progress should mean that no parent feels trapped, whether feeling forced to work when they’d like to be home with their child, or vice versa. Here’s hoping that we can all be a part of nudging society in that direction.


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