My progressive husband was against it, but I convinced him of the arrangement. The day we sat down to discuss it, I'd even calculated an hourly rate for my work as a mother. Half of $15 an hour—his part of what it would've cost to put our son in daycare—is a pittance, and if I'd thought he could afford it, I would have asked for more. But at the time, with my hormones raging, tits leaking, and sleep deprivation that left me glassy-eyed, it seemed the right choice for our family.
Looking back, it hardly looks like a choice.
Although it might sound unorthodox to say that my husband paid me to be a stay-at-home mother, the basics of our situation are in no way unique. The United States has one of the highest wage gaps between men and women, the least-generous benefits for its citizens, and the lowest public commitment to care-giving of any industrialized nation in the West. As a result, American mothers are often compelled to drop out of the workforce. In 2016 alone, the National Survey of Children's Health found that an estimated two million parents of children aged five and younger had to quit a job, not take a job, or significantly change their job because of problems with child care. While the problem of child care affects both men and women, the fact that women are still the primary caregivers means it disproportionately falls on us moms.
It's not this way everywhere. In Sweden, for example, parents receive extra tax credits to defray the cost of child-rearing, plus access to regulated, subsidized day-care facilities that stay open from 6:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night. Similar programs exist in Denmark and Finland. In Germany, every child over the age of one has the legal right to a space in a public day-care facility, a mandate taken so seriously that parents can sue the government for failing to provide child care.
While other nations make supporting mothers and children a priority, American families like mine are left to figure it out for ourselves.
'The Promise of Happiness'
Before we had a child, my husband and I had contributed 50-50 to our family budget. We also did our best to split the household work equally. When Arran and I agreed that I'd become our son's full-time caregiver, we subtracted what Arran paid me for child care from what I owed the family budget. There was some difference to be made up—around $1,200, or half of what I was contributing before I became a stay-at-home mom (SAHM)—and I had to earn any money for my personal needs as well (things like clothes, coffees out, and gifts), so it was understood I wasn't surrendering my career entirely. At the time, completely unaware of what I was in for as a new mother, I thought of working in addition to caregiving as a plus, instead of anticipating it as a further, crushing pressure.
Becoming a SAHM had not originally been my plan. In my mind, as for many, it was synonymous with being a housewife—unemployed and financially dependent on one's husband, and without any meaningful responsibilities (never mind the extraordinary labor of caring for one's kids). At best, the SAHM is cast a natural martyr, devoted—nay, obsessed—with her family. At worst, she's painted a lazy, self-indulgent woman who spends her idle days lunching with fellow unemployed mommies or frittering away her hardworking husband's salary on shopping. We are disparaged as anti-feminist and assumed to be economically privileged, never mind that SAHMs are represented in every section of the tax bracket, with the highest concentrations hovering around the lowest 25 percent and uppermost 5 percent of earners.
Often, we are considered fortunate and expected to be happy with our lot in life. According to Sara Ahmed, author of The Promise of Happiness, the image of the "happy housewife" that populated magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom in the 1950s and '60s still retains incredible sway over public imagination. Ahmed cites conservative radio commentator Darla Shine's 2005 book Happy Housewives as just one example of what Ahmed describes as a new generation of bloggers who present the housewife lifestyle as one of leisure, comfort, and ease. Such blogs, Ahmed observes, "typically include recipes, tips on doing housework, thoughts on mothering, as well as belief statements that register the happy housewife as an important social role and duty that must be defended, as if the speech act ('I am a happy housewife') is itself a rebellion against a social orthodoxy." Shine's book, in particular, Ahmed writes, "calls for us to return to a certain kind of life, as if this was the kind of life that women gave up in embracing feminism: [Shine's] fantasy of the happy housewife is as much a white bourgeois fantasy of the past, a nostalgia for a past that was never possible as a present for most women, let alone being available in the present."
These days, the SAHM is being recast as an empowered (read: feminist) choice, with report after report of Millennial women rejecting the expectation that they should seek to "have it all," and opting instead to become good mothers and wives, prioritizing their responsibilities for children and domestic life over any desire to participate in the workplace. But media constructions of the SAHM who has "opted out" of the workplace as a personal choice obfuscate the complex factors that shape women's decisions to leave a career, including the influence of husbands' demanding work cultures on their wives' "choices" not to return to paid employment; the problem of child care; and how the structural conditions of patriarchy that sustain gender inequities in the household conspire with the realities of pregnancy (such as debilitating pregnancy symptoms), resulting in immense unpaid domestic and maternal labor.
Such were the findings of a 2016 study published in Feminist Media Studies, which juxtaposed accounts of 22 educated, British, middle-class SAHMs with media representations of SAHMs. "Although media representations often fail to correspond to middle-class SAHMs' lives," write the researchers behind the study, "they shape [SAHMs'] thinking and feelings and reconstruct their deepest yearnings and sense of self. In particular, SAHMs speak of feeling invisible, lacking confidence, and being silent and silenced." These depictions also ignore the consideration that, increasingly, SAHMs are also expected to contribute financially—on top of everything else expected of us.
My So-Called Maternity Leave
Initially, when I found out we were pregnant, I struggled but carried on mostly as normal in my work life. In spite of debilitating nausea, I sold articles well into my third trimester. I signed with a literary agent less than a week before giving birth. Three hours into labor, I checked into the online class I was teaching. Other mothers cautioned me against it, but that December, I traveled to Sri Lanka to teach a writing retreat, newborn baby in tow.
Inevitably—as any mother can imagine—I hit the wall of my own limitations. At the end of a frenetic period that was supposedly my "maternity leave," I didn't begin working, and instead gave in to what by then had become my guilty desire to focus more on mothering. I erroneously believed that my husband subsidizing my income in exchange for the work traditionally expected of women for free would lessen my burden and allow me to slow down.
To be a SAHM is considered a privilege, but for many of us, it's a bit of a Sophie's choice. When my husband and I got together, I made about a third of his salary, only a little more than what our then-hypothetical child care would cost. After Oscar was born, it made no financial sense for us to hire child care so long as I wanted to breastfeed, which requires enormous maternal time investments and other unrecognized costs.
In the beginning, I was cheerfully enthusiastic about my new role. Days sped past, a blur of momming and chores. When I wasn't singing Oscar songs, reading him books, or changing his diaper, I was doing the dishes, making the bed, folding laundry, or preparing meals. Full-time parenting was non-stop from eight until six, at which point my husband came home and we'd split the "second shift." With my husband's help, I'd get the baby fed, bathed, and put to bed, then feed myself and my husband before passing out at the start of my favorite television program.
And where in that schedule does one find time for writing? Certainly, I'd fallen for the pervasive myth that I could somehow squeeze a full-time job around a nap schedule. I didn't respect that creative work requires full concentration. I had also underestimated the physical, mental, and psychological toll of giving birth and caring for an infant.
On the best of days, I was your master multi-tasker: feeding, changing, and entertaining a baby while composing pitches, fielding emails from editors, and revising book chapters in my head. More often, deadlines whizzed passed and private students lost patience as the needs of my demanding toddler came first. Instead of querying agents, editing my students' essays, and following up on outstanding invoices, I was paying bills, planning meals, and picking up toys. I was victim to my own unrealistic expectations, as popular representations of stay-at-home motherhood—leisurely days spent introducing my infant to educational toys while baking homemade bread and beautifying my home, then working on my own career while he napped—failed to correspond with my lived experience.
The Reality of Parental Burnout
Eight months after striking the deal with my husband, cynicism, lethargy, and depression had become my new norm. One by one, my professional goals had tanked. My literary agent had dropped me. That year's writing retreat was canceled as a result of low enrollment. As hard as I tried, I wasn't making ends meet.
Instead, I was suffering from what I came to understand was parental burnout: overwhelming exhaustion related to unrelenting parenting stress. Parental burnout, experts say, is a result of an imbalance between demands and rewards, and shares many of the same traits as professional burnout: high levels of exhaustion, feelings of inadequacy, and emotional detachment.
SAHMs—particularly those of us who are striving to fit a fictitious ideal, and have internalized the misconception that our situation was necessarily or always the result of a privileged choice—are at heightened risk for parental burnout and other mental-health challenges, such as depression. A Gallup poll of more than 60,000 U.S. women interviewed in 2012 revealed that more SAHMs report experiencing sadness or anger in their day than moms who work outside the home. According to another study, SAHMs who would prefer to be working reported the lowest levels of personal fulfillment and the highest levels of emptiness and loneliness, compared to stay-at-home moms who would not prefer to be working, and to mothers who worked.
Worst of all, like a disconcertingly high number of American mothers, I blamed myself, and suffered waves of guilt and self-criticism for struggling to juggle pursuing a career, raising a child, and maintaining a household.
When I reluctantly admitted that I needed help and accepted that I would have to start paying for child care, I was gobsmacked by the labor it takes to find it. Even when I pretend that cost is no issue, promising myself I'll somehow earn at least what I spend, I've struggled to find reliable child care. Initially, as with so much of the invisible, unpaid labor put into running a household, the job of acquiring and managing this employee fell entirely on me, rather than on my working husband. Not just in this instance but every time I encounter a challenge as a SAHM, I’ve had to work through the mentality that if I were a competent mother, this wouldn't be so difficult.
It took some time to identify this as a problem before my husband and I could begin the hard work of better dividing the task. To be honest, it takes considerable effort to not blame and resent my husband for something that I know, ultimately, is not his fault any more than it is mine. It did not surprise me at all when I learned that both members of a couple experience a precipitous drop in well-being after the birth of their first child. One study compared new parents' unhappiness to stressful life events such as divorce or loss of a job, and found that the birth of a first child scored a full point higher on the unhappiness scale than the death of a spouse. Parenting is so difficult, these researchers say, that many couples who intended to have two or more children change their minds after the birth of their first.
According to Forbes, if a SAHM charged what she was actually worth, she'd make upwards of $150,000 a year. While my husband did, ultimately, begin paying more of the joint family expenses—and stepped up when he saw me struggling, taking on more of the child care and household responsibilities without my having to ask—it still makes most sense for me to shoulder the majority of the unpaid labor, and we can't afford for me to not contribute financially.
These aren't problems we can solve as a family; they're problems that demand systemic answers. It's time for us parents to demand more support from the state. Without standardized child care, families are being set up to fail. SAHMs take undue ownership of that failure, alongside the idealization, mockery, and belittlement that we must endure. Child care ought to be a right, as it is in nearly every other developed country. Until then, let's treat SAHMs with more respect.
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