This post grew out of an online conversation. The thing is, it is in part a response to someone who I rather respect and like, but who I think is misguided on this issue. I do not mean this to be a takedown, or to be specifically directed to this person, but I think the subject warrants a more in-depth treatment.
I started writing this (and indeed wrote most of this) before Covid, and never got around to finishing it.
This is my position:
I do not believe it is wise to plan on being a “stay-at-home mom,” and I believe it is negligent parenting to encourage one’s daughters to plan to be one, without a solid and committed alternative plan.
Let me also distinguish my use of language here. I do not believe that aspiring to be a “stay-at-home mom” (hereinafter “SAHM”) to be evil or bad, any more than I consider it evil or bad to aspire to be, for example, an NBA player or a professional musician. However, like those I just listed, I do consider it unwise to assume that this plan will certainly work out, and fail or refuse to make alternative plans.
My opinion on this comes from a number of sources, some of which are philosophical, some of which are personal, but most of which come from my professional experience as an attorney. The experience of dealing with people in real life situations, some of whom were and are not part of my particular demographic. (White, middle class, educated, etc.) In my experience, aspiring to be a SAHM causes a lot of problems, and puts people in vulnerable positions. And these vulnerable positions are largely avoidable. I hope to help people avoid them.
Let me also state again that my intent is not to throw shade on SAHMs, or to claim that there is one “right” way for men and women to apportion the domestic and breadwinning duties. Family configurations vary, and often change in response to changing circumstances. The circumstances of life often make one particular division of labor necessary or best for a given family.
Rather, my intent is to argue in favor of what I believe is the best way to optimize the chances for women (and men) to thrive in a variety of circumstances - and not just the “best case scenario.”
Let me also give some disclosures.
1. I am an unabashed feminist. I believe wholeheartedly in the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. That means that my goal for the education of my daughters is to put them in the best position to have political, social, and economic equality. I also have a philosophical problem with giving girls one kind of advice while giving boys the opposite. If you wouldn’t say it to a boy, don’t say it to a girl. If you wouldn’t permit it in a boy, don’t permit it in a girl.
2. My mother was a SAHM, although she worked before I was born, and eventually went back to work full time after we kids were grown.
3. My wife has worked outside the home throughout our marriage. She went back to work after three months of maternity leave for each of our kids. Her career is very important to her, and she is darn good at it. She currently manages about 100 employees.
4. Although it hasn’t always been the case, my wife out-earns me these days. Our health insurance comes from her employment - and would cost us roughly $35K per year to buy on the private market. Her income is thus more important to our family than mine, although both of us contribute.
5. Both my wife and I came from a Fundamentalist tradition that believed in rigid gender roles. Because of this, we have had a front row seat to the catastrophes that have occurred in some families because of the refusal to educate daughters for a career. And, in the better cases, the [ahem] adjustments that certain Fundie leaders have had to make to their practices when smacked in the face by reality.
6. We have experienced unnecessary conflict with my family and eventually estrangement over the fact that my wife works. This has caused destruction of relationships, caused directly by toxic and sexist beliefs.
The bottom line for me is this:
Both daughters and sons should be raised and educated so that they can fully support themselves as adults, and with the expectation that they will work for wages for most of their adult lives.
Let me give my reasons for this.
1. Being a SAHM is the result of privilege (economic, racial, geographic, and chronological), and should be viewed as such.
This is one of the more controversial arguments I have made - but it shouldn’t be! Throughout most of human history (and today too!), most people have had to engage in economically beneficial labor. The alternative was starvation. The idea that a person could devote themselves solely to childcare and “domestic” labor (cooking and cleaning) is a rather modern affectation. My farmer ancestors would laugh themselves silly at the idea. They worked their butts off - and it wasn’t just canning and sewing and stuff. They plowed the fields and pitched the hay and the whole thing. Thus have women done for millennia, and thus do they still in most places in the world.
In fact, with very, very few exceptions, women around the world are expected to contribute financially to the family. In fact, for much of history, women ran whole industries while the men were off fighting wars and causing trouble. It wasn’t until industrialization made these industries large-scale, that they were taken over by men. It really is a Victorian idea, not one tied to history. (Now, the idea that men were entitled to control the money, on the other hand, IS a near-universal idea. Patriarchy is strong.)
Now, let’s look at where the SAHM has existed. For the aristocracy throughout history, women (and men to a degree) could indeed afford to devote themselves to domestic pursuits. For the rich, there has never been a raw need to avoid starvation. The ideals of domestic pursuits (in the form of, say, music, embroidery, social graces, throwing parties, dancing...well, you get the idea…) were always the purview of the wealthy. For the average person, both men and women were expected to work brutally hard their entire adult lives. (And a lot of their childhood too, historically.)
As societies became more wealthy in general, a greater proportion of the population was no longer required to work long and brutal jobs to survive. With first the agricultural and then the industrial revolutions, subsistence farming became the exception, rather than the rule, particularly in Western countries.
This led to a greater proportion of the population being able to aspire to the accouterments of the wealthy. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the Antebellum South, where the white upper class - whose wealth was in the enslaved humans who worked their land - had no need for female labor. (I strongly recommend reading about the Cult of Domesticity for more about this.) The role of SAHM became a class and race signifier, one of the many ways to distinguish between the “godly” white women and the “ungodly” African American women. Or, perhaps to be more inclusive, it excluded the working poor, non-whites, and immigrants (from places such as Ireland and Italy) from “true” womanhood.
As many have pointed out, women of color have always been expected to work. During the 19th Century, despite the lies that have been pushed by the Christian Patriarchy Movement - most women worked. My farming ancestors. Immigrants and the working poor in factories. Enslaved people (and then sharecroppers) in the fields of the South. Migrant workers in California. This myth that back in the good old days, most women were SAHMs is just that: A MYTH. It was always and only the privileged classes who did this.
One fair point here is that the industrial revolution, the automobile, and other modern developments removed most labor from the home. For both women AND men, though - they both used to work in or around the home in those days before industrialization. What this meant was that childcare did become an issue. This was the result of technological and economic change, however, not some abandonment of god-given gender roles.
For more on this, I strongly recommend Stephanie Koontz’s excellent book, The Way We Never Were.
But what about today? Most women work. That’s the reality. And it isn’t really that new. It is mostly “new” to white middle class women, who had a period of time - the 1950s - where it briefly became the norm for white middle class women to be SAHMs. In contrast, women of color, immigrants, and the working poor continued to work - as they always have.
In fact, without women working, our society would grind to a halt. We depend on the labor of women in ways we often do not appreciate. Did you eat today? It is certain that some of what you ate was planted, tended, picked, packaged, cleaned, and sold by women. They still pick our crops and serve as cashiers at the grocery stores we shop at. This is also true for any agricultural product from overseas. Did you put on clothing? Well guess what? That clothing was made by women. Back when we made most of our clothes in the United States, it was immigrant women in sweatshops who made them. Now, it is women in South Asia mostly who do that work. But make no mistake: women are the majority of the workforce.
Did you buy anything today? It is likely a woman sold it to you. Have you eaten in a restaurant? A woman probably was your waitress. Or wiped your table. Or cooked your food.
Or how about education? I know homeschoolers tend to forget this, but the vast majority of students are taught by professional teachers. A majority of whom are women. Do you think you might get sick in the future? You will be cared for by women, from the aides who wipe the poop off your butt, to the nurses who administer your medicine and monitor your condition.
I could go on and on. The point is, we take for granted every day of our lives that women will be doing work that benefits us. For most of these women, it isn’t some “choice” to “abandon their families,” but something more obvious: they are feeding their families just like men do. This isn’t a mystery.
In my experience (and this includes my own family), SAHMs protest that they aren’t privileged. After all, living on a single income requires sacrifices in material goods. Fair enough. But the very fact that they have the option to sacrifice non-necessary goods for sufficient time to be a SAHM in itself shows privilege. That option is not available to everyone, and never has been.
On a related note, every SAHM that I can recall who has protested that they aren’t privileged has been...can you guess…white. Gee, I wonder why that is?
This leads to my next point:
2. I believe it is unwise to plan to lead a privileged life.
This is leaving aside the question as to whether it is moral to plan to lead a privileged life. This is, I would say, complicated. An aristocratic young woman (in, say, a Jane Austen novel - early 1800s) did not have any other option but to try to land a socially acceptable and wealthy young (or old) man to support her. So I won’t say she is immoral for not having a choice.
On the other hand, imagine the daughter of one of the Bennett’s servants. It would have been laughable for her to aspire to marry an aristocrat. She clearly would be expected to learn the skills to support herself in line with her station in life.
This is why I find planning to be a SAHM is unwise. It is a plan to lead a privileged life. It strikes me as being no different from saying “I want to marry a prince.” And it isn’t that different from a young man planning to marry a rich woman so he can stay home. (With or without the kids…) It is an assumption that one will be in the top 50% of the first-world standard of living, essentially.
Now, maybe that will happen. But counting on it seems unwise. Which leads me to my next point:
3. Planning to be a SAHM assumes that everything will be a best-case scenario.
Let’s list what is necessary in the 21st Century to be a SAHM:
The right man - in a monetary sense. Namely, one who can support a family on a single income. Which pretty much by definition means an above median income, health benefits, and job security. With the declining power of labor unions, the shift to a service (and gig) economy, and declining wages for the bottom 80%, these men will be increasingly rare.
Finding said man in one’s early 20s. Otherwise, well, you have two problems. First, an extended period spent waiting for the man to come along (more on this later), and declining fertility, making childbearing less certain.
Said man never getting laid off, or becoming disabled, or dying prematurely. This one is particularly problematic, as these things are not in the control of either spouse.
The marriage not failing. I’ll talk more about this one below, because divorce is an area I know a good bit about. The bottom line is that planning to be a SAHM means making the dangerous assumption that you will pick well, and that nothing will go wrong. The problem is, if something does, a SAHM is in a tough position. (See below.)
If ALL of these things go right, then being a SAHM doesn’t become risky. But if any ONE of these goes wrong - and particularly the last two - then a woman generally finds herself with problems. Problems which could have been avoided with better planning.
4. You need a Plan B in case things don’t go according to the script.
Let me just lay out a few scenarios here. All of these come from my personal or professional experiences, and involve real people and real situations. (Although I have done my best to not reveal identifying information.)
a. Prince Charming never comes
In planning this post in my head, I was able to quickly identify a half dozen examples from people I know personally. I think, given a bit of work, I could identify at least a dozen more just from my smallish circle of acquaintance. [thinking…] Okay, I can think of a half dozen examples from my own extended family.
So yes, I know a good number of women (and some men too) who are in their 30s or 40s or 50s who genuinely wanted to get married and have children. But the right guy never came along. It happens. Life sucks sometimes. Ya can’t always get what ya want.
So what are these women to do? Well, for most of them, they...went to school and got a job and contributed to society in other ways than motherhood.
One example here is very interesting, though. As I have mentioned before, my wife spent her teen years in Jonathan Lindvall’s cultic home church. (It was not a good experience.) Among his other teachings, he insisted that women plan to be SAHMs, and not go to college. They were supposed to plan to be married, and be a “stay at home daughter” helping her father until Prince Charming came along. (Actually, the boys weren’t to go to college either - they were supposed to be entrepreneurs…)
This didn’t work out so well for his own family, though. Soon, his daughter was in her 30s with no man in sight. So he….sent her to college so she could learn a career.
(I am glad he was open to change, but still pissed that he never actually retracted his teachings. Particularly since it was his acolytes who dismissed my wife as a jezebel for going to college and getting a job.)
Ironically, it was as a result of this education and career that she eventually did meet her husband and had a kid. So I guess Prince Charming finally came along, but in the meantime, she spent her 20s doing...not much.
The point here is that merely planning to be a SAHM doesn’t guarantee it will happen. And if it doesn’t, what is your Plan B? Is it just to keep waiting indefinitely? Or to find another role in the world?
b. Prince Charming comes “too late.”
In addition those I know who haven’t found the right partner, I know others who did find him, but did so “too late” to have children. So they never got to be SAHMs. A similar issue arises when a couple turns out to be infertile - or some other issue (like disability) makes parenting impractical.
So what do we do with them? What should they do with themselves? That’s a question that needs to be asked. If one’s first choice (SAHM) doesn’t happen, what do you plan to do with yourself?
c. Prince Charming isn’t rich enough.
I think Baby Boomers in particular are having difficulty accepting this one. They were (and are) the most privileged generation of all time. They grew up in an era of free state college tuition, union jobs, and ever-lower taxes. My generation didn’t - and my kids have it even harder. Even those going to community and state college will likely have some level of student debt. Wages will be lower, and the chances that they have employer based health insurance in their 20s are very low. In addition, job security is on the wane, and employees are treated as disposable.
So what happens if a guy comes along who otherwise fits the bill - he’s kind, loving, hard working, and decent - but he has some student debt, a low wage job without benefits, and can barely make rent on his apartment.
I guess he
doesn’t qualify, so he gets rejected, right? Best wait for a
suitable (or is that “godly”) candidate. Or maybe wait 10 years until you both
are in your mid 30s? What’s the plan here?
This will be a genuine dilemma my kids’ generation will face. The world has changed, and it isn’t enough to have grown up white and middle class. You won’t get a stable, well paying job with benefits without a college degree like my dad did. And certainly not in your 20s. So what is the plan?
I suspect that for many with the SAHM goal, it will have to be to marry a much older guy. Say, someone 40ish when the woman is 25. I’m not convinced that is a good plan - or healthy for society.
We regular readers of classic literature, of course, recognize the dilemma. The choice between love and money, the young handsome but impecunious man versus the older, richer suitor. It’s all very Victorian. (And very upper class - the working classes had no such issues because everyone was poor and everyone worked…)
The 21st Century isn’t the 19th, though. One of the major changes is that financial independence is actually an option for women. One could very well decide (as my wife and I did) to split the breadwinning - and the housework.
d. Prince Charming doesn’t want a SAHM.
This is...awkward. I think the older generations (of white people), raised to believe that the SAHM was the norm - as if the 1950s were timeless rather than an aberration - has had a hard time adjusting to the new normal.
As the tail end of Gen X, I would most certainly not even consider marrying a woman whose goal in life was to be a SAHM. (More about this below.) And I think I am not alone in that. I will discuss some of the reasons below. The bottom line is that many of us younger men expect that both spouses should contribute in a variety of ways, rather than a dichotomy of duties based on Victorian or 1950s gender roles.
Furthermore, I think that this change in expectations is going to put women who want to be SAHMs at risk. Here’s why. As more of us expect a more egalitarian division of duties, those men left clinging to the old expectations are going to tend to be of a certain type:
The type who demands obedience and subservience from his wife.
“I want to be a SAHM” already sends the social signal (like 19th Century clothing) that one is part of a staunchly “traditional” belief system, one which reveres the past. Or at least the past of middle-to-upper class people.
In today’s society, this also sends the signal of the Fundamentalist, whether of the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. It means a belief in gender roles, gender essentialism, and a whole host of other expectations and values.
In the age of Trump, it also tends to mean (for white Christians) that a person is a staunch Republican, loves Trump, demands that a wall be built to keep America from being infected by brown-skinned people, and generally is a racist asshat. Now, not everyone who wants a SAHM is like this, but your chances are much, much higher than they would be from a pool of men who envision a more egalitarian life. (That’s my observation as an attorney, for what it’s worth.)
Also, my experience as an attorney is that abusive men pretty universally want a SAHM for a wife - they are easier to control financially, socially, and physically.
In my observation, therefore, there is a huge risk in taking on someone whose priority is getting a SAHM for a wife.
As a lawyer, this is concerning to me. I know the type all too well, and that type tends to be abusive. True, not all will be. But it will be a higher percentage, as the more egalitarian men will choose women who have their own careers and are willing to share the household and childrearing duties. Also, because these men will have to (by definition) have a higher income, it is likely that they will be older, and expect that their money will earn them the right to have control. (Take it away, BB King…)
I’ll discuss my personal reasons for not wishing to marry someone who expects to be a SAHM in a footnote to this post.
So summarize: many of the good men will not be interested in marrying someone committed to being a SAHM, and there is a strong risk that a man who does will have undesirable characteristics.
e. Prince Charming loses his job, gets disabled, or dies.
Do not discount this possibility.
I know a number of people, personally and professionally who fit in this category. And let me tell you, the outcomes are worse for those who did the SAHM thing and didn’t prepare for alternatives. Here are some examples:
i. Mother of teens is widowed fairly suddenly when her husband dies of brain cancer. Fortunately, she at least gets his pension and life insurance - which is better than most - and she has some marketable skills - but she still has to find a job, which doesn’t begin to replace his income. Most troubling, it is the people at her church who most praised her for being a SAHM who now callously tell her to get a second or third job to cover expenses.
ii. Father of small children is injured outside of work (so, no worker’s comp), and loses his job because he cannot do it anymore. SAHM is now in the position of having to support the family, but has no real skills. Literally, working minimum wage is about all she can do, given her lack of education, experience, or training. Thank goodness the GOP hasn’t ended Medicaid (which they came within a couple of votes of doing), because otherwise they will all be without health insurance.
iii. Father of small children gets laid off, and cannot find a job in his field. He ends up taking a much lesser job at half the pay, but prospects aren’t good for the future. SAHM is incensed that she is expected to get a job so they can pay their bills. This adds further stress to their marriage at a time when they are already worried about the future.
It is situations like these that have led me to believe that one of the most important skills both men and women can bring to a marriage is the ability to take on different roles as needed.
A woman should have marketable skills that can bring in an income. A man needs to be able to cook, clean, care for infants alone, and manage an activity schedule.
Then, if and when life takes a turn, either spouse can step in and do whatever is necessary for the good of the family - regardless as to whether it conforms to “traditional” gender roles.
In summary, I believe it is unwise to assume that you will be immune from things going imperfectly - and refuse to have a Plan B in place.
5. Planning to be a SAHM is actually a detriment to marriage and marital wellbeing.
I’m going to break this down into a few parts and discuss them separately. What they have in common - in my experience - is that they involve a degree of nostalgia for a mythical past along with denialism about reality. Again, this is largely based on my professional experience.
a. Women (and men) with education are more likely to marry.
There was a time, not too terribly long ago, when education was assumed to make women less likely to marry. Shockingly, that myth endures today, and seems to be recycled every few years in Conservative circles. A lot of this boils down to “men can’t handle women who are smarter than them.” Awww, those poor fragile egos.
Guess what? This is a pile of bullcrap. Even for the Baby Boomers, college educated women (and educated men too) were more likely to marry - and stay married - than other, less educated groups.
All the rest of the rhetoric about this is based on a delusion - and a sexist one at that - that a woman somehow must be “less than” a man or he won’t want her. Less educated. Earns less money. Perhaps even is younger and less experienced. But this doesn’t bear out in real life. I have my theories about this.
b. Egalitarian beliefs, dual careers, education, and higher incomes are all strongly associated with long-lasting marriages.
This is yet another area where Cultural Fundamentalists are full of crap. I heard for years that it was somehow “traditional” gender roles that kept marriages together. I had my doubts even as a child, and gained even more by actually observing people outside the Evangelical cult, but once I started practicing family law, I realized just how ludicrous that claim was. There are a number of excellent reasons for the reality we see. Let me quickly go through a few.
First, it is undeniable that income is a huge factor in marital stability. The wealthier you are (to a point), the less likely you are to divorce. There is no mystery here. It has been well known for decades that the number one conflict leading to divorce isn’t sex - it’s money. And the less of it you have, the less margin for error. I see this regularly in my practice. You can almost predict it.
The man loses his job (usually due to layoffs, but sometimes because of illness or injury.) The money becomes tight - and more dependent on the woman’s ability to earn - and the marriage fails.
This is particularly so when the woman has expectations of being a SAHM, or being primarily supported by her husband. Simply put, he is failing at the One Thing He Was Supposed To Do™, and she cannot respect or love him without him bringing in the money.
I think this is the reason why all four of the above (egalitarian beliefs, education, dual incomes, financial stability) are associated with stable marriages. When you have egalitarian beliefs, then each spouse expects to be flexible and contribute in multiple ways. If the man is laid off, he can take over more of the housework and childcare, and thus feel like he is still contributing. And the woman, likewise, is less likely to resent working.
In the same way, if both spouses are working, there is a greater margin for error. If something goes wrong, you lose half - not all - of the income, health insurance, etc.
Additional note here: During the Covid pandemic, my law practice went in the toilet - my income was cut in half. On the other hand, there was, shall we say, a lot of demand for medical care. In the meantime, schools went all online. Fortunately, my wife and I were flexible in our expectations and skills. I took over most of the school-related tasks, the kids and I did the cooking, and she worked long hours keeping people alive (and our bills paid.)
c. The expectation of being a SAHM creates unhealthy emotional dynamics in a marriage.
The problem here is one of expectations and dreams. If one dreams of being a SAHM, then you are - by definition - expecting and needing that someone else will be able to make those dreams a reality. Specifically, you are expecting that a man will be a sole breadwinner and make enough money to enable you to stay home full time and devote yourself to parenting and household work.
But what happens when the man fails to do this? Well, things get ugly. REALLY UGLY. Again, this is my professional experience.
In our culture - particularly the white Evangelical subculture - there is a belief (even though many deny it) that there is something more “godly” about being a SAHM. Sorry, as someone who went against the unspoken code, I know all too well how one is treated. This means that “I want to be a SAHM” isn’t exactly like “I want to be an Astronaut” or even “I want to be a missionary.” After all, if a person finds out they have a medical issue (like stuffy ears - something I have) that would prevent them from being an astronaut, they will (obviously) be disappointed. But not devastated. Such a person can find another career or even calling and still feel good about themselves.
Not so much for the SAHM thing. Because it is viewed as a “higher form of godliness,” failing to attain the goal isn’t just an ordinary failure (things didn’t work out) - it is a moral failure - a failure to be what God wanted you to be.
And guess what? Who gets blamed when the man can’t enable the woman to be what God wants her to be? THAT’S RIGHT: THE MAN GETS BLAMED.
Oh, have I ever seen this at work in the courtroom. The most vicious, nasty, hateful divorces I have ever done have all involved devout Christians. The worst involved a horribly abusive pastor - and had a happy ending, fortunately. But most have involved women who were furious that their lives didn’t work out how they wanted. Their dreams were to be a SAHM, and put all their emotional energy into the role of wife and mother.
Furthermore, because they did everything right - were virgins at marriage, did all the “submission” things, acted like the perfect Christian wife - they were OWED happiness, financial stability, and the fulfillment of their dreams.
And then things went wrong. He lost his job. She found that teenagers were difficult. He couldn’t take the pressure of making her happy, and found a lower maintenance woman. She decided he wasn’t the “spiritual leader” she thought he should be. There are a number of triggers, but what they have in common is that marriage and the SAHM dream didn’t work out as envisioned.
And the MAN was naturally the person at fault. And that is why these divorces turned so vicious. The breakup wasn’t merely a failed marriage. It was the MAN being unspeakably evil. After all, who would keep a woman from being who God wanted her to be? Only a monster.
Now, I know I saw the worst of things. And not every SAHM acts this way. But watching marriages over the 47 years of my life, I have seen the pattern repeat over and over and over again. Those women who are most emotionally invested in being a SAHM as their sole source of identity and function in the world are the ones who tend to torpedo their marriages with expectations. Because marriage and parenthood is her very identity, the man must be everything to her.
I believe this places harmful expectations in a marriage - and goodness knows it is hard enough to live through infants and toddlers and not enough sleep.
It also eliminates some of the options that might make a tough situation better.
d. Planning to be a SAHM takes certain things off the table that might improve a marriage.
As I will discuss below, there are also personal reasons that one might look at these options, but for now, let me look at them in the context of a marriage.
In plenty of cases (layoffs, illness, injury, bad economy), the easiest way to ease financial stress is to increase income. In some cases (particularly for those in the lower 50% of income), it isn’t just “easiest,” it is necessary. The rent must be paid, and the children fed.
White Evangelicals have generally insisted that the only legitimate cure is for the MAN (of course) to work a second or third job. This isn’t a great solution either, though. He then essentially becomes a paycheck - he can’t spend time he doesn’t have with the kids. And, in the case of illness or injury, he may not be physically able to just work longer hours.
If the wife has planned only to be a SAHM, this option is potentially off the table, unfortunately. If all she has the training and experience for is an entry level job without benefits, her ability to contribute is limited. Furthermore, if her identity and sense of her own worth is tied up in being a SAHM (or homeschool parent, for that matter), she will not be emotionally willing to take up any breadwinning slack.
By removing one significant tool from the toolbox, so to speak, options become limited. This can cause significant stress to a marriage.
I have seen numerous cases like this, where the marriage ended in divorce as a result. The man realized that the only way the woman would ever actually get a job is if the court forced her to do so. And the woman, of course, was furious that she was now going to be expected to put the kids in public school, give up her SAHM dream, and actually work for a living. (See above for the emotional issues here.)
e. When the kids grow up and leave, marriages often break up.
Again, my professional experience talking here. When the kids are up and out, a woman who has made being a SAHM her identity often has great difficulty making the transition to a new identity. This leads to marital conflict, because the man cannot make a woman happy in such a situation. (And, as I will discuss below, the dynamics with the adult children are often unhealthy for the same reason.)
After a long marriage, a breakup means that the man will likely be paying significant spousal support to her for the rest of his life. And guess what? Men (and women in the converse situation - even more so!) tend to resent giving half of their income to someone they aren’t married to, primarily because that woman preferred to be supported by a man.
Based on my professional experiences in this area, I came to the conclusion early that I could not in good faith recommend to my male clients that they ever marry a woman who did not intend to carry her own financial weight. It would be legal malpractice to fail to mention that there was a real risk that he would spend the last 30 years of his life paying a woman who left him because she was unhappy without her identity as a SAHM.
6. Planning to be a SAHM puts women in a vulnerable position.
I have noted above the dynamics of the dream of being a SAHM from the male point of view. But let’s look a bit at the female side of things.
a. The risk of Domestic Violence
We don’t like to talk about this in Evangelical churches. We like to pretend it doesn’t exist. Not in OUR churches, right? Statistically, one in four women will experience intimate partner violence (and even more will experience emotional, verbal, or psychological abuse.) And believe me, churches are most definitely NOT immune.
It would do churches good to acknowledge that, very likely, a quarter of the women in their congregation have - or are - experiencing violence in their marriage. Even more so - in my experience - in congregations that push patriarchy or “biblical manhood.”
I have been assisting victims of domestic violence for the past 23 years - often as a volunteer attorney. It is impossible to miss some patterns. First, of course, is the cycle of domestic violence. I believe all of our children need to be taught about this - and healthy relationships. (Oddly, just like sex ed, you can opt out of this in California public schools - which means that those most likely to be in abusive homes will probably not get the information they need.) So I get the cycle stuff - and have seen it.
But let’s be honest about another dynamic. In those cases where women have either failed to follow through with leaving, or who go back to an abusive situation, there is usually a common concern:
They have no way of supporting themselves.
There is no mystery here. Women who are educated, employed, self supporting, and confident rarely are willing to put up with shit like violence. There are obviously exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule.
Nothing makes a woman more vulnerable to abuse than having to rely on the abuser for survival.
Thus, in my experience, the best thing that a parent can do to prevent their daughter from becoming trapped in an abusive marriage is to ensure that she has the financial ability to leave. And that doesn’t mean “I can go home and live with mommy and daddy again” either. It means the ability to stand on her own financial two feet and live independently.
I’ll also note that only the nice guys end up consistently paying spousal and child support. Abusers tend to find ways of getting out of their obligations - even if it means living off the grid, lying, or just being exhaustingly difficult about the whole thing.
b. The risk of death, disability, or divorce
As I noted above, a woman is more vulnerable should her spouse die, become disabled, or divorce (for whatever reason.) Having the ability to earn a living - and the expectation that one might have to - helps prevent unfortunate outcomes.
7. Emotional, personal, and relational issues
I wanted to discuss these a bit too - it’s a broad category, but these are things to consider too.
a. Children are vulnerable to a desire to meet their parents’ expectations, even at their own expense.
I wanted to bring this up, because parents have a tendency to overestimate the degree to which children - even teens and young adults - are making their own decisions free from parental expectations - or even manipulation.
Let me bring up a personal story here. When my parents decided to join Bill Gothard’s cultic homeschool group, I was ready to start my senior year of high school. I was taking video courses from a Fundie college - which was good at least because I got solid academics and an actual diploma. I did NOT want to join ATI, though. However, I didn’t really have a choice. The compromise was that I could finish the path I was on.
The problem came the next year. My parents may claim not to know this now, but I certainly did at the time: if an adult child went to college, the family got kicked out of ATI. So, even though my parents will probably claim that I had the option of going to regular college, I DID NOT. Not really.
So, after I finished my high school courses, I did...mostly nothing. I waited for some sort of “apprenticeship” to materialize. I continued to work - teaching violin lessons, and any sort of work I could pick up for my neighbors. But I didn’t really have an obvious future. (Hey, kind of like a “stay at home daughter!”
That’s why, when Gothard started his law school, I jumped on it. To be fair, I had considered Law as a career - along with teaching, medicine, and engineering. And I didn’t have a real commitment to another path. And also, I can’t really complain about how things worked out. I will never be rich, but I have my own office doing mostly fulfilling work, and enough free time to make music, hike, and camp.
But to pretend that I really had a choice is foolish. I had “bounded choice.” I could do whatever I wanted, as long as it didn’t jeopardize my parents’ standing with the cult.
Now look, I had a car, a drivers license, and parents who, while flawed, were and are decent people. I could have moved out, gotten a job, and gone to college. But I have always wanted to please my parents. Particularly back then. (I wouldn’t really draw a hard line in the sand with them until my mid-30s...I wish I had done so earlier.) I wanted their approval, and adjusted my plans accordingly.
All this to say: the choices I made about my own career were not what I would have made in a vacuum. I still wish I had gone to undergrad college and wish I had had the encouragement to do so. But, as a young man, I wasn’t strong enough to go against my parents’ hopes and desires for me.
[Further note: after I did the initial writing of this post a few years ago, I talked with my brother, who remembered that he was told explicitly that it was either law school like me, or he would have to move out. There would be zero financial support from them, and he would lose their approval.]
My point in telling this story is this: children want to please their parents. (Most of them, anyway.) It is super easy for a parent to gently guide a female child to choose being a SAHM if they have that pleasing personality. Add in the strong pressure from the white Evangelical subculture - or even more, the homeschool subculture, and at least some children will choose a path that they would not, in a vacuum, choose. This has consequences later…
b. Few women are truly happy with “mother” as their sole - or even primary - identity.
Again, drawing on personal and professional experience. The SAHM role wasn’t something that just organically happened. It was the result of the industrial revolution and decreed by a belief in the fundamental inferiority and unfitness of women for public life. Women didn’t just decide that they wanted to give up their industries and financial independence - that decision was made for them by males. (And remember, low income women have always worked…)
I have seen far too many women who, having put all of their identity into the wife and mother roles, find themselves unhappy and mentally unhealthy. Apart from a small minority who truly take to the job, most of us need some outlet besides children and housework. This can come in various forms, of course. For my grandparents’ generation, women had volunteer organizations that took them out of the house for extended periods - particularly when the kids were in school. Many women of my parents’ generation had jobs during school hours. Even those who did stay home often went back to work when the kids got older - and certainly when they finished high school. And then, there are the sort of women that end up in divorce court - the ones who prefer consumerism as their hobby.
However one does it, humans need something outside of their closest relationships - something to do. Some way of contributing to society, some way of forming bonds around common goals, not just shopping and kids. Some part of their identity that doesn’t depend on being a wife or mother. To quote Dorothy Sayers:
It is perfectly idiotic to take away women’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones. Every woman is a human being - and a human being must have occupation, if he or she is not to become a nuisance to the world.
c. There is a real potential for dysfunctional parent/child relationships with SAHMs.
Another one I have seen. When your entire identity is that of “mother,” then you get really invested in exactly how your kids turn out. Call it the “tiger mom,” “helicopter mom,” or whatever, but it doesn’t go away when the child has his or her 18th birthday. The switch can’t just be flipped.
So, you see the unhealthy, controlling dynamic at play. I have known too many parents (mothers mostly, but also fathers), who, having made parenting their spiritual identity, have a really hard time when the kids grow up and go their own ways.
A child might reject the specifics of his parents’ theology. (uh oh…) Or reject his parents’ politics. (really, really bad!) Or their cultural preferences. (worse!) Or turn out to be gay or transgender. (perhaps worst of all!!!!) At that point, the parent’s primary goal in life has failed - the goal being to make spiritual, political, and cultural clones of the parents. (That’s what the “Culture Wars™” are really about.)
Basically, the child making different choices than the parents would becomes a complete rejection of the parent (that’s how the parent feels), and so the parent engages in manipulation, shaming, disapproval, and whatever else necessary to try to make the adult child conform. (I haven’t posted what I wrote about this topic regarding my own estrangement from my parents. Maybe someday.)
By the way, this is THE PROMISE that Bill Gothard made: “Follow this formula and your children will turn out to be exactly how you want them - and how my cult says they should be.”
All this makes relationships between adult children and their parents exponentially more difficult, sadly. I have personal (and professional) experience with this. And, a quick search of the internet turns up a whole movement of us ex-fundie, ex-homeschool, culture war survivors - and you can read the immense damage caused. Which leads me to:
d. After the kids are grown, women who are SAHMs tend to become busybodies.
Yep, once the kids are up and out, with nothing to do besides the suddenly easier housework, women tend to have a LOT of free time. Time to obsess over their adult children. Time to antagonize their children’s spouses and partners. Time to micromanage the way the grandchildren are raised. Seen it. Experienced it. Didn’t enjoy it.
The best thing that an empty-nester can do, in my opinion, is GET A DAMN JOB. Hey, I wrote about this once.
Go out and find something useful to do with yourself, and stop bothering and antagonizing others.
This is a big reason why I think that we need to raise our daughters (and our sons of course) to expect to spend a significant portion of their lives working for a living.
Humans need something to do or they will act out in antisocial and unhealthy ways. This is one reason why I prepare my children for the idea that they need to expect to work, not just sit around. They will all be educated, and they will all be expected to work as adults. Sure, if they marry and it works out best for one to stay at home when the kids are small, fine. They will be encouraged to make choices along with their spouses/partners for the good of the family as they see it. But they will not be raised with the expectation their primary identity will be “stay at home parent.”
This one has been a huge source of conflict in my own family, and eventually led to severed relationships. More on this below.
e. Even in good marriages, having separate incomes changes the dynamic for the better.
One thing I have observed during my marriage is that having separate incomes (and a separate bank account) is that it does change the dynamic. A lot. And in a good way.
Obviously, I have to add here that this works best when you have a reasonable income - if there isn’t enough money to survive, separate money for each spouse won’t fix that. Although it can limit the damage from an irresponsible spouse.
And, as I have advised anyone who asks, the number one thing to look for in a spouse is a similar approach to money. (See above, on the reasons marriages fail…) But again, you can - to a degree - work around differences if each spouse has their own money.
Here is how I see the dynamic at work. We both are compatible in our handling of money. We also view the money we each make as “ours,” not really as his and hers. We make major financial decisions together. We flex our decisions about who pays for what as our incomes (mostly mine) fluctuate. We work together well.
But, because we have our own accounts and income, we don’t have to ask the other for little things. If I want to buy a book, I don’t need to ask her for money. And if she wants to buy yarn (she’s a fantastic knitter), she doesn’t have to check with me so we don’t bounce a check.
Most of all, there is no feeling that one spouse is dependent on the other. We each support our own discretionary spending, after we pay the bills.
It changes the whole feeling of the marriage - and in a very good way. We have no need to fight over who spends more on discretionary stuff. We have no resentment because one spouse always has to ask the other for money. Neither of us feels that we have more say over spending because we earn more.
I would also add that separate incomes significantly changes the power structure of a marriage. There is a vast difference between being on an allowance from a breadwinning spouse, and being able to use one’s own money as one wishes.
f. Women who spend their lives as SAHMs tend to lose the social skills necessary to function in the outside world
This is a recent addition to this post - it is an idea that a friend expressed on an online discussion about boundaries between adult children and their parents.
I think this is particularly a problem for women who were homeschooled or otherwise grew up outside of mainstream society. Socialization is indeed a significant problem for homeschoolers, although that varies by family. For example, me and my siblings played with neighborhood kids, and had outside activities with public-schooled kids, so we weren’t isolated into a bubble like many homeschoolers.
In the case of my mom, she grew up overseas as a missionary kid, then spent time in boarding schools, before finally getting a high school education here in the US. She married at 19, and by 22 was a SAHM. She did not return to the workforce until decades later.
What happens here is that SAHMs essentially never have to learn how to function in the outside world. If they go directly from living at home to marriage, they never have to hold a job - and get along with co-workers who may be very different in background from them. During their SAHM days, they will mostly interact with people very much like them - who share their religion, politics, and often ethnicity as well.
What they do not have to do is get along with people different from them, or interact regularly with anyone who might give them pushback.
In the end, this leads to an inability to live functionally in society outside of their bubble.
[By the way, the discussion was about this article, on the issue of boundaries. My mom repeatedly and insistently violated 6 of the 7 boundaries, particularly regarding my spouse. The inability to interact with a daughter-in-law on a basis of equality and mutual respect does seem to stem from her decades of bubble living.]
g. When you make childrearing your entire identity and purpose in life, your children become your possessions, rather than separate human beings.
There is a particularly toxic dynamic that results when authoritarian fundamentalist religion meets the SAHM. This is easy enough to understand.
When you make raising your children your entire identity, your one job in life, the most important thing that you will ever do, children cease to be individual humans. Instead, they are the proof that the parent has succeeded. They are the very essence of the parent’s identity and the only thing in life that truly reflects who they are.
I hope you can see the problem here.
As I discussed above, this means that “success” in raising a child consists in the child “turning out right.”
In a less fraught situation, this might simply mean the child avoids addictions, becomes self-supporting, and is a decent human being. I suspect all parents would hope for this.
But in authoritarian fundamentalism, the expectations are far higher:
Children are to become religious, cultural, and especially political clones of their parents.
When a child fails to become that, then the parent has failed.
Those religious, cultural, and political expectations are unsustainable for most parent-child relationships, of course. Children are humans too, and they are not all the same. (I have five children who are all very different from each other.)
I won’t get into all of the details, but for fundies, voting Republican (and now, voting for fascists like Trump) is non-optional. Women conforming to rigid gender roles is demanded. Science denialism is expected. And on and on.
There was never a way that either me or my wife could possibly have met the expectations my mom had for us.
And because we didn’t, we had to be subjected to constant disapproval, and even attempts to control.
That was before our kid came out as transgender…you can imagine how that has gone.
Unfortunately, I believe this is inevitable when you make childrearing your entire identity. Your children cease to be humans, but become your validation, your identity, your property.
h. Believing being a SAHM is the “godly” choice inevitably leads to looking down on those less fortunate than yourself.
As I noted retarding the Cult of Domesticity, the SAHM movement originated in a way of demonstrating the superiority of middle-class white women to black women, immigrants, and lower-class women. It was a way of baptizing and spiritualizing privilege, thus preventing empathy and encouraging self-righteous judgmentalism.
If you believe that there is something more “godly” about being a SAHM rather than one who works outside the home, you will by definition be viewing others as “less than.” The fact that many of those who do work do so out of necessity means that you are looking down on those with less wealth and privilege.
Of course, this is a VERY white American thing to do.
We idolize money and genuinely believe that wealth is an indication of morality, while poverty is an indication of vice.
That this is exactly the opposite of what Christ taught is not lost on those outside the Evangelical bubble.
Looking on the more personal scale, I have yet to meet anyone who was committed to the SAHM-as-godliness viewpoint who was able to view mothers who work outside the home as anything other than less-than. There is always an element of looking down on those who do things differently. That self-righteous judgmentalism is a hell of a drug, and it is particularly attractive to those who want to feel that their privilege was entirely earned.
The bottom line: anything that is easier for the rich to do than the poor isn’t virtue. It’s just privilege.
I hope I have expressed my experience clearly in this post. As with so many things in life, the proof is in the fruit.
My experience of the fruit of the SAHM expectation has been overwhelmingly negative.
From the women who lack the means of support when death, job loss, or abuse upends their plans; to the endless wreckage of family relationships left in the wake of SAHMs who cannot release their children to live their own lives; the fruit is rotten.
This is not to say that it is wrong to be a SAHM - circumstances vary, and allowing people to make their own choices regarding their situations is part of what true freedom means. It is not my intent to judge those who have made those decisions for themselves, provided they are not harming others.
My point in this post is to push back on parents who are creating the expectation for their daughters (and their sons) that women are to be SAHMs, particularly when this involves limiting their educational and career opportunities.
This is, for the reasons I have stated, unwise.
Unwise at the financial level, but also at the social and relational level.
It subordinates the futures of female children to a particular cultural preference, one which is ill-fitted to the world we live in. It is premised on re-creating a mythological past rather than preparing children for a likely future. And it also presumes a level of privilege that one’s children may or may not have.
It also encourages privileged women to look down on those less privileged, viewing them as less “godly” for their inability to access the privilege of being supported, and condemning them for having children they “couldn’t afford.” (As if the working poor should just forget about having a family…)
As parents, we have the obligation to do our best to prepare our children for life, to give them the best skill set to thrive.
In an uncertain and changing world, this means (in my opinion), helping them to develop a broad skill set, and a flexibility to function in a variety of roles, as needed. One of the lessons we can learn from evolution - and even now the extinction of specialized species - is that in any period of change and uncertainty, what is most needed are the generalists - those who do not depend on a narrow unchanging niche to survive.
So, by all means, teach your daughters domestic skills. Teach your sons too, though.
But don’t raise your daughters to expect a privileged life.
And definitely do not teach them to look down on people less fortunate than themselves.
This is why I believe that raising daughters with the expectation of being fully supported by a man is foolish, and does a disservice to them. And also why teaching daughters that their identity is wrapped up in motherhood does a disservice not just to them, but to the grandchildren as well.
More broadly, teaching our children that their identity is primarily about their reproductive organs and their ability to fulfill upper-middle-class Victorian roles and stereotypes based on those organs is truly unsustainable. It harms their psyches, circumscribes their futures, sets them up for failure, and creates the societal expectation of the existence of a privileged class that they will be a part of, at the expense of others.