While I am not yet a mother and have not been faced with career and family choices within the context of motherhood, I grew up under the care of a wonderful stay-at-home mother (SAHM). My mother is one of seven children who was born into a loving and conservative Catholic family in the 1950s. While educational achievement and being the best you could be was integral to her upbringing, traditional gender roles were also embraced. Just shy of her 22nd birthday, my mother married my father while she was still finishing nursing school, had me at 24, and then my first of two brothers two years later. When my father's income alone was enough to support the family, my mother left her nursing career at age 28.
The Façade of Stay-at-Home Motherhood
Most SAHM's have lives very different from those of the women depicted on The Real Housewives. The majority of SAHM's do not enjoy daily wine fueled lunch dates with friends or are SAHM's who indulge in weekly shopping sprees and spa treatments. I have heard some SAHM's I know say that their ability to be home full-time is a "luxury" that many mothers do not get to experience. But, when I hear the word luxury, I think of expensive cars, 5-star hotels, or first class airline tickets to Europe. Motherhood certainly does not conjure up the image of luxury for me. Sure, stay-at-home motherhood can provide greater pleasure, satisfaction, and ease for a woman when she does not have to manage both her career and motherhood. And, I can imagine that there is not much that makes the soul happier than being physically present to witness your own child's milestones. But, I wonder-- who personally benefits the most from this so-called luxury?
The Beneficiaries of Stay-at-Home Motherhood
Children, of course, are the main beneficiaries of this luxury. They constantly reap the benefits when they have a mother who is always around to drive them to and from activities, a mother who can host play dates, and provide physical and emotional comfort at any moment. A woman's husband -- however grateful he is for his wife's work as a SAHM -- benefits greatly from his wife's luxury too. This allows him to strive to achieve career goals by working long hours if needed, he can travel for business without considering his wife's work travel schedule, and he does not have to leave an important meeting to pick-up a sick kid from school. These circumstances create more opportunities for his career growth and promotability. It is true that with more promotions comes increased responsibility and pressure. Work demands can pull him away from quality time with his family. So, it is not necessarily a luxury for the SAHM's husband. This makes me think of my own father. Would he have been able to achieve the same success if my mother also had a demanding career and they had to share family duties? I do not think so -- or at least, he would have experienced more stress managing the demands of both his career and family responsibilities. But, did the demands of his business cause him to experience work stress and miss out on some family time too? Yes, at times.
But, still... can stay-at-home motherhood really be considered a personal luxury for a woman? Perhaps in the short-term if luxury in this sense really means financial stability based on one income or if it means the ability to spend most of your time with your children. Or, maybe it can be considered a luxury depending on the amount of disposable income available to the SAHM. For a woman, stay-at-home motherhood does not guarantee a life-long luxurious circumstance no matter how big her husband's income is, how happy and stable the marriage seems, or how much financial stability she believes that she has.
Praise for Being a Great Caregiver vs. Praise for Professional Achievements
A mother who leaves her career gives up professional growth opportunities, financial independence, her professional identity, long-term earning potential, adult relationships with colleagues, and a certain type of satisfaction and empowerment only garnered from professional work and achievement. This is a separate type of satisfaction than the kind derived from the accomplishments of motherhood. How often does a child say?: "Thank you mama for cleaning up my barf with such precision, accuracy, and innovation last night. You are an integral part of this family team. You get a promotion and pay increase effective immediately!" Even when a mother receives unsolicited praise from her child, this is praise for being a superb nurturer and caregiver, which is very different from the intellectual type of recognition received from a boss or colleague.
The Sacrifice of Stay-at-Home Motherhood
If a SAHM decides that she wants to or she needs to go back to work, she has to somehow rationalize this gap of luxury in her work experience and try to prove that she is still current and capable. And worse yet, the luxury bubble can really burst if her marriage ends in divorce. She already gave up her own career years before which at one time provided some level of personal and financial independence. In a divorce, the SAHM could be cut off from access to finances, be at the financial mercy of her ex-husband, and have to rely on monthly financial support payments. If she reenters the same career, it will be virtually impossible for her to ever earn what she could have earned had she never left in the first place. About 6 years ago, all of these things happened to my mother when my parents' marriage dissolved. But despite these challenging circumstances and since finishing her Master's degree and reentering her nursing career after an absence of 20+ years, my mother still maintains that she is grateful to my father that she could be a SAHM and treasures every moment that she got to spend with my brothers and me. I am forever in awe of this -- what I see as not my mother's so-called luxury but her ultimate sacrifice -- putting her professional dreams on hold and that sense of self, personal security, and empowerment separate from the intrinsic rewards of motherhood and wifehood and those which can only be gained through professional achievement, personal independence, and financial self-sufficiency.