I am a stay-at-home mom. I am also a licensed mental health counselor. One of those sentences fills me with pride, the other makes me cringe a bit. Can you guess which is which?
Technically, I should say that I used to be a counselor since I’m no longer seeing clients (unless you count the toy disputes that I mediate between my dog and toddler), but I can’t quite bring myself to use the past tense. It feels like a failure, like I’m surrendering part of my identity or betraying the ideals of feminism if I admit that – for right now – I’m just a stay-at-home mom.
Even now, I compulsively qualify my statements. I set an imaginary time limit (“for right now…”) or minimize the role itself (“just a stay-at-home mom”) so that I don’t risk appearing too content with my choice. Can I call myself a feminist and a modern woman if I’m happy – or even proud – to be a homemaker?
Being a stay-at-home mom is a huge, worthy, meaningful job, but it doesn’t have much prestige or social currency in our culture. We’re so conditioned to base our social status on our professional work that we don’t know how to rank people who choose not to participate in the workforce.
When my husband and I decided to start a family, the plan was for me to take a break from work for about 6 months, then I would gradually start seeing clients again. After our son arrived, however, my return to work became a moving horizon. I couldn’t imagine leaving this vibrant little person every day to go to an office, especially when I would likely be earning just enough to cover the cost of childcare.
I could always wait to return to work until my kids start school; this is a common solution for many families. The more stories and blog posts I read about the plight of the working mother, though, the less this idea appeals to me. I crave simplicity and calm in my life, not the hectic shuttling here-and-there, rushing to get dinner on the table and homework done. I don’t want my family’s weekends crammed with all the chores that couldn’t fit into the work week, rather than the fun and rest that is essential for all of us.
If that schedule is the tradeoff for going back to work, maybe I don’t want to do it at all.
I’ve started wondering, “Can I do this indefinitely?” What if I decide to be a homemaker – for good – rather than continuing to treat it like a pit stop in my life, a temporary detour from my “real work” as a counselor. Could I treat this as the real, full-time job that it is? Would I be content with this decision? Could I be proud of it?
While wrestling with some of these questions, a friend referred me to the book “Radical Homemakers” written by Shannon Hayes. Hayes contends that modern culture has lost the skills of domesticity, those critical abilities which used to make the home a self-sustaining, ecologically and socially responsible unit. Instead, we have abandoned the home in favor of professional trades, and we find ourselves needing more and more money to purchase the goods and services that we were once able to provide for ourselves. Most families now must rely on dual salaries in order to afford all of the necessities that homemakers used to be able to produce on their own on a much smaller income.
While I won’t be moving to a farm anytime soon, I can certainly take steps toward more sustainable habits in my home (Hayes provides many concrete suggestions and examples of this in her book). I can also minimize and simplify our spending so that we don’t require a second income to cover all of our needs, and I can stay home to care for our children rather than going to work to earn the money to pay someone else to do it for me.
However, is it a betrayal of feminism to focus on working inside the home rather than outside of it?
Hayes doesn’t think so, and I’m inclined to agree with her. The feminist movement fought for women to have the right to choose their own paths, and my choice to stay home honors that movement as much as my choice to go back to work. Being a homemaker has not been imposed on me by my husband or society, nor by limitations in my education or opportunities. It is a conscious decision to pursue the path that is most fulfilling and meaningful to me.
A woman’s choice not to participate in the workforce should be just as acceptable as her choice not to stay home. More than this, it is vital to recognize that women have social value aside from their professional accomplishments. I can still contribute to the world without earning a salary or working in an office. I can certainly contribute to my family without bringing home a paycheck – and would even argue that I can contribute more by staying home than by returning to work. My professional skills will be used at home to raise emotionally healthy children who interact with the world in a positive way, and I can also continue to write and even volunteer in order to contribute to the community in a larger way. None of these things require me to hold a job in the traditional sense.
The key here is to find the path that makes the most sense for my family and allows me to feel empowered, fulfilled, and at peace. I may not be sure yet what my decision will be, but making this decision for myself? I can definitely be proud of that.