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Jul. 15 2009 - 4:44 am | 71 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Myth #3: Being a stay-at-home parent is all roses and butterflies

Happy Family in the 50s by MontanaRaven on Flickr

In recent years, the media has had a heyday with what has been called the Mommy Wars. Basically, working moms have been pitted against stay-at-home moms in a nasty, wordy, Laura Ashley-clad Jello-wrestle. A central tenet to the debate has been the notion that women today are increasingly “new traditionalists,” who do nothing but yearn to quit the workforce and start baking cupcakes as soon as they have a willing male to support them, Harvard MBAs be damned.

Yesterday, in part two of our four part interview series with Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (University of California Press, 2008), we learned that most women don’t actually choose to opt-out. Choice is, in fact, quite a tricky word.

So far, Stone has tackled two myths: 1.) An invisible hand in the market dictates that work must be inflexible, brutish, and long, and 2.) Most women who quit their jobs do so because they choose motherhood over career success. Today, Stone debunks myth number three:

Myth #3: Being a stay-at-home parent is all roses and butterflies.

Pamela Stone: I think that there is this view that stay-at-home motherhood is wonderful and that if a woman could, she’d quit her job and go home in a minute. Being home is not that wonderful. What you see in those middle and latter chapters of my book is how difficult it was for these women to be at home, how de-valued motherhood is, what it did to their relationship with their husbands, which became very un-egalitarian. These women perceived their husbands to be their peers, and that changed, a lot, once they were at-home moms.

What can be done?

Know the risks of “opting out.” Weigh your options—very carefully.

Stone: I’m very much for paid parental leave, but not for taking long extended leaves from working through opting out, a strategy that can be a real career killer.

Nor am I willing to say that opting out is always a bad choice, that women who make the decision to stay at home are wrong. But I hope that those who make that decision are pushing their husbands to think about it too. If they value a full-time parent in the home, then everybody should have an equal opportunity for that job–male partner, husband, whoever. I also hope they are making that decision realizing the full implications, the upsides and the downsides.


The lesson to be learned here is not necessarily that opting out is bad, or that traditional gender roles are bad, for that matter. The important point is that women, and men, must be prepared for the impact their decisions have on their relationships. If a corporate lawyer opts out of the workforce, putting herself into the role of caregiver and her husband as breadwinner— what we call a “traditional” scenario— then the dynamic of their relationship is likely to change. Be ready for it. And really consider if your relationship can handle it.

As younger generations become increasingly egalitarian in their mindset, thinking, as Stone said, that they will naturally be equal partners with their spouses, their shock will also continue to grow when traditional gender roles set in and things turn decidedly unegalitarian. Come back tomorrow to hear Stone’s advice to the youngest generation of professionals as she debunks Myth #4: Everything will be different for Gen Y.


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  1. collapse expand

    If being your husband’s peer means earning as much, more, a lot or simply earning money, and you stop doing that, you potentially do have a problem. As the cliche goes, s/he who has the gold makes the rules.

    Staying home with kids is a lovely choice for some women but it also jeopardizes them financially: hard to get back into the job market (if that’s their wish), lowered SS payments (if any) and can leave you deeply in trouble if hubby suddenly decides to bail and you have no money to hire a good divorce attorney and ensure fair treatment. I’ve seen the price of that choice to stay home, when it falls apart. It’s sobering.

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    Thank you for your comment. Yes, financially, there are a lot of hazards with opting out of the workforce (Leslie Bennetts scared the heck out of me in “The Feminine Mistake!”). But the main point here is not that you necessarily have to earn as much money in order to be egalitarian. What Stone’s research (and others’) shows, is that the power dynamic in a marriage shifts markedly when one parent takes on all the caregiving responsibilities and the other all the breadwinning responsibilities. Such a clear role divide makes for a change in how couples interact and relate to each other, as opposed to when both of them were in, say, law school together and then worked similar corporate jobs (just to mention one possible scenario). A lot of people are not prepared for that- they simply can’t imagine it happening to them.

    The flip side of this issue, and one that is often ignored, is of course how difficult it is for the person who is the only breadwinner when the other spouse opts out- talk about pressure. Liz wrote about that scenario in a recent post (Lessons learned from one family’s failed financial model).

    While we’re talking about the difficulty of choice- men have it pretty tough too since most of them don’t have the same option as women do to, in a socially acceptable way, slow down or opt-out. They have to work terribly hard all their lives. That may not be what every man most desires- especially if we consider the young men out there who are increasingly expressing a desire to be more involved in their children’s lives- beyond the occasional Little League game.

    In my mind, men and women should have equal opportunities to take on either role: that is true choice. We’re not there yet.

    - Astri

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    I agree, but why does the power dynamic shift so radically, or need to? If the power in the relationship is based on emotional giving — not merely financial — then losing a paycheck and having, arguably, much more time and energy to devote solely to your family’s needs (including those of your husband, who also benefits) should not be as big a deal. It really raises some fundamental questions about what we expect from our life and our spouse — a big house full of toys, supported by two full-time incomes, or a small(er) home on one? If a wife sees her husband as a wallet-with-legs, as some do, that’s the woman he chose to marry.

    In this economy, where so many couples have one partner out of work not by choice, I bet a lot of this re-negotiation is already underway. The issue is getting forced, which may not be such a bad thing despite the attendant financial stress.

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    I like the idea of this book and may pick it up for a more thorough read. I agree that staying home is not all butterflies and roses and I contest this idea of a stay at home mom/working mom dichotomy, when I don’t really know any woman who is a full-time stay at home mom.

    As one such mother, I can say that 95% of the women I know stay at home during the day with their children (to negate the rising cost of childcare and because quality childcare can be quite challenging to find) and then work outside the home on alternating schedules than their spouses to help support the family and progress in their careers (after all, kids leave home at some point!)

    Though I have my M.A and have had a lot of job success/job experience, my “flexible” job as a community college instructor cannot beat out the salary provided by my husband’s job as a Ph.D. scientist.

    To “stay in the game” and to provide that additional income for our mortgage (and believe me, I am talking bare essentials here), I work when my husband gets home from work – teaching four nights per week and wobbling home around 9 p.m.

    One of my close mommy friends works a few hours a week for a law firm where she does billing, while her husband works full-time and all hours as an air conditioning repairman, another works the overnight shift as a nurse, supporting her husband as he continues his education and works, and still another works one or two days per week in occupational therapy, while her husband works the graveyard shift at a mental institution.

    Do we work because we want to keep one foot in our careers or because we don’t feel we have equal footing with our husbands?

    Nobody contests that being a parent (of any kind) is a full-time job. Yet, the problem does not seem to be choice on the part of the woman or couples, but financial necessity.

    After having a child, for me, going back to complete a Ph.D. is a nearly impossible goal to achieve if you factor in childcare, study time and the long commitment and more.

    Because my husband was older (as most men are in a relationship), he had finished his degree by the time we met. But after you fall in love, get married, buy a house and have a child, the choice to just work tiny jobs to support your educational goals isn’t exactly in the cards (hello strollers, carseats, Dr. appointments, diapers, bedding, clothes – and that is just for the first year!).

    When it came to having a child – it wasn’t a matter of you are the woman and you stay home. It really was a matter of, I make more money so I have to keep working – even though, truth be told, my husband would LOVE to be a stay at home Dad.

    Do I feel that my continued work gives my relationship equality? Not really. Instead, I feel like I’m doing double duty. Taking care of my child during the day and squeezing in my part-time job at night.

    I don’t have to pit myself against stay at home moms or working moms. In fact, I don’t think I have yet to encounter a woman with children who does not also work or go to school on top of mothering. I don’t have the choice to work full time or stay at home full time because childcare i so expensive and my job is required to keep our small family afloat.

    I grew up in a large family of 10 children and a stay at home mom. But even then, my mother worked. She volunteered, did her pyramid scheme makeup and toy selling and as we got older, took on small part-time jobs, like substitute teaching for the local school. All of this was in an effort to secure her financial future and to help pull the financial weight of the family.

    I would be interested to meet these so-called “New Traditionalists” amongst middle-class Americans (I’m talking those families that make between $40,000-$60,00 a year and not $80,000-$250,000).

    In our household, my husband and I have a schedule that keeps both of us equally exhausted. He gets up with our toddler at 6 a.m., feeds him breakfast, changes him and gets him ready for the day and spends quality time. I sleep in until around 8 a.m. at which point my husband leaves for work and I take over Mom duty, which includes museum trips, games, crafts, playdates. During naptime or movie time, I grade papers and answer work related e-mails.

    As soon as my husband gets home around 5 p.m. he feeds my son dinner and puts him to bed around 7 p.m. giving him about 2 hours of alone time per day.

    I hit the road, traveling up to an hour to teach a 2 1/2 hour course for the college four nights per week. Then, we hit the hay and start all over, with my husband getting up with the baby four nights per week and me the other three nights.

    My husband is just as committed to the care and raising of our family as I am. He cooks most nights, does the general everyday cleaning (I do the “deep cleaning”) and has never made the assumption that my “job” is to take care of our child or clean the house.

    Of the two of us, I have the more active social life, leaving my child one weekend day per week to sit in a coffee shop by myself or catch up with girlfriends. So, he is also doing double duty, in a big way, just like I am.

    And I don’t think we are a rarity.

    It would be great if our society was geared towards the parental care of children – longer lunch breaks for fathers, coffee shops that offered high chairs so parents are not isolated to chain restaurants and parks, and low cost drop-in childcare options for those days when us part-time parent workers need to catch up on a few zzz’s.

    Until society acknowledges the value in parental care (by either parent) for children and backs up this value with true actions, woman will not be able to get out of the house (or their part-time night jobs) to change those rules (particularly in the realm of higher Ph.D. level education) and make the income necessary to give their husbands the choice to stay home, which I for one, would love to do.

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    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and for the, frankly, superhero life that you and your husband lead. You have my full support and admiration.

    Yes, you are certainly correct. The vast majority of American families don’t have the option to have one parent stay home full time and bring in no pay whatsoever. The issue with these ridiculous “Mommy Wars” and the slew of articles that the “opt out revolution” and “new traditionalist” rhetoric has spawned is that the small privileged minority still set the aspirational norm of a mother-at-home (not to mention all the mommy-guilt which that racks up!).

    Most importantly, American society offers less provisions than any other industrial nation in the world when it comes to helping working families. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot about America, but I have a hard time understanding why Americans accept that they are one of only four nations in the world (in the company of Papa New Guinea, Liberia and Swaziland) that doesn’t offer any federally mandated paid maternity leave. Then add on the lack of universal childcare, the paltry standards of vacation and sick leave…ugh. And who does this really affect? Why, lower and middle class Americans, of course!

    But, who says things can’t change?

    I wish you the best of luck,


    ps. Pam Stone’s book is stellar- so check it out by all means! Though, I will say, the women she interviewed were all part of that small privileged group who could “simply” stay home.

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We’re two twenty-somethings who joined the real world armed with diplomas worth a combined half million dollars from Middlebury College—only to find out that we didn’t have a clue. No one prepared us for the inflexibility of the whole workplace set-up. No one warned us that the Mommies were at War, or that employers still assumed men were okay seeing their kids every other week, or that the U.S. doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave, vacation, or sick leave. The current work-life model isn’t working. Let’s talk about it.

In 2007, we started a non-profit called The Lattice Group, which aims to bring awareness about work-life issues to young people, so if you can’t get enough of our musings on True/Slant check out http://thelatticegroup.org.

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