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Staying home is a career choice, not a moral one

Confessions of a former smug SAHM

by MaryP  |  12689 views  |  9 comments  |        Rate this now! 

Once upon a time, I was a stay-at-home mother. It suited my temperament perfectly, and I totally loved it. That, however, was pure dumb luck, because in the beginning, I stayed at home because it was The Right Thing to Do. If you're going to have children, I reasoned, why would you hand them over to someone else to raise? Children deserve a mother's attention. Childcare was second best.

I believed that. I truly did. I did keep my hand in at teaching for a few years, substitute teaching for a day a week while my three kids played at a friend's house, but 90 percent of the time I was home. I loved it, which is OK. I also felt morally superior to working mothers, which is not. Now, I was never rude. I never said anything unkind or judgmental to a working mother. But did I feel like I was taking the nobler path? Yup.

Then my marriage started to fail, and a lot of assumptions about a whole lot of things were tested. As marriage counselling continued, the cracks in the relationship only widened. Instead of healing, counselling uncovered land mines. We were not going to make it.

The writing was on the wall. I needed an income, and I needed one soon. Mothering was what I'd been doing -- and loving -- for the previous 12 years. Why not be a mother for hire?

And it was in doing childcare that I learned a very important truth: I had been a self-righteous prig for years. Moreover, I'd been wrong.

Providing childcare has taught me:

  • A mother is a mother no matter what her working status.
  • No one replaces a mother in a child's estimation.
  • Parents are always top of the child's emotional hierarchy. Heck, even abusive parents are loved long past when they've lost the right to it. (Not, I quickly clarify, that any of my daycare parents have been abusive.)
  • A childcare provider does not "raise the child" to the exclusion of the parents. Parents and provider nurture that child together; the provider can be an expert resource to the parents.
  • How can it be bad for the child to have another circle of people who love him/her?
  • There is poor quality, even abusive, care out there. There are also poor quality, abusive parents. These are true and tragic facts, but they have little to contribute to the discussion regarding childcare.
If I knew then what I know now, I'd still have chosen to be a stay-at-home mother. But knowing what I know now, I'd have recognized it as a career choice, not a moral one. I would choose the career of SAHM because it suits my skill set, training, and temperament -- not because it's a superior choice for my children, or my relationship to them.

About the Author

Mother of three (teens), step-mother of five (teens), home daycare operator of five (todders), and STILL SANE!! NOTHING is impossible...

Read more by MaryP

9 comments so far...

  • "Continuum of morality." I like it! Mulling over the idea a bit, I'd be willing to bet that pretty much everyone has one, consciously or not. "This is better than that, but not as good as *that*."

    The problem, ever and always, is being disrespectful of others' choices. If you truly believe your choice makes for happier children, it's hard to let someone else make a different one... but, except in cases of outright abuse (and I really loathe how readily some people toss that term around), people have the right to make different choices. Until we appoint a Queen of the World, people don't have to do it ONE way.

    And look around! Put a bunch of kids in a room, and there is no telling who was raised by SAHM, WAHM, WOHM, or any other acronym you can come up with. Kids are just kids. Some are gentle, some are rough, some are outgoing, some are shy ... no matter who participated in their rearing.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by MaryP on 29th August 2008

  • This is a fascinating discussion, MaryP!

    I guess there is a difference between a "superior" choice and "The Right Thing To Do" (as you called it in your article). If being a SAHM is the ONLY moral choice, then any other choice is immoral. But if we are talking about a continuum of morality (like that term? I just made it up.), then I can see the rationalization. "Her choice isn't as good as mine, but it's not as bad as, say, smoking crack and not feeding your kid." I guess it's the difference between staying at home being the ONLY moral choice, or a MORE moral choice.

    But, even if one thinks that it's the ONLY moral choice, I suppose one might be enlightened enough to allow others to be wrong. It's when the smugness comes in that's the problem; it implies a lack of respect.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Mom2Rylie on 28th August 2008

  • It's a fascinating thought, but moral superiority is tricky: it's too easy to start evidencing the flaw you're criticizing. How can they do it? In my case, it was a mixture of respect and pragmatism.

    When I was sure of the superiority of my choice, I had a woman GP and patronized any number of other working mothers. How could I do that if I was sure my choice was the better one? Because even then, I was able to allow other women different choices. I thought my choice was intrinsically better than theirs, yes, but it was still their choice to make.

    And who can forget that for many women, it's not a choice? While I can believe there are lots of jobs you'd do for sheer love of the work/personal satisfaction, there are lots more jobs out there it's much harder to imagine a woman would be doing if she had an actual choice.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by MaryP on 27th August 2008

  • Oh, I thought of something else.

    If someone believes that being a stay-at-home-mom is the only moral choice, then, logically, those of us who work for pay outside our homes are doing something IMMORAL in their view. Which means that, in order to avoid being a hypocrite, the SAHM must refuse to assist or patronize us as much as it is in her power. For example, she would refuse to visit a pediatrician or OB/GYN who was a working mother, use the services of an attorney or CPA who was a working mother, make appointments with a dentist who was a working mother, or any other working mother that she could reasonably and knowledgably avoid. (Obviously there would be situations where one would not know whether the woman working was a mother. That would be unavoidable.)

    If someone truly believes that something is WRONG (i.e. "immoral"), one generally refuses to participate in any activities that support or further that action. For example, I believe that pornography is immoral, so I refuse to purchase or patronize any pornography. Logically, the same should follow for anyone taking a moral stand against mothers working outside their homes.

    I would be curious to know how many of the SAHMs who believe that they are morally superior to the rest of us take it to this logical conclusion and maintain their integrity.

    P.S. It must be so much fun to be morally superior to everyone else. I'm sure lots of people want to be your friend when you think like that. Maybe someday I'll achieve that level of righteousness.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Mom2Rylie on 26th August 2008

  • What a great article! This is my favorite part, "How can it be bad for the child to have another circle of people who love him/her?" It's so true! My daughter's daycare provider (at a home daycare) absolutely LOVES my daughter. And the feeling is mutual. I don't really understand how it could be a bad thing for my daughter to have one more person in her life who loves her, teaches her, and helps her father and I to help her to become the amazing woman I know she will be. We work very closely with the dcp on things like discipline, potty training, preschool skills, etc. I think my daughter is blessed to have this other woman in her life until she starts school, and I hope that their relationship will continue even as she gets older.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Mom2Rylie on 25th August 2008

  • Sheri;

    Yes, that is what I'm saying, and the way you've framed it is much what I would have said twenty years ago. Obviously, I no longer see it through that lens.

    I'm not insisting that children "don't really need their parents". Exactly the reverse. I'm saying that parents are *always* top of the child's emotional heirarchy, no matter whether they work outside the home or not, that the parent-child bond is every bit as strong for both family types. Caregivers are not interchangeable, but consistent, loving, nurturing caregivers all have something unique and valuable to offer the child.

    I *was* with my kids 24/7, and because I home-schooled them, I was with them 24/7 for years longer than most SAH parents, so I am totally onside with the parents who choose to stay home with their kids, and who make the sacrifices necessary to enable that.

    You can't claim to be a good parent if you're never there, or if you always put your needs ahead of your child's. There's a balance, of course, as with all things. I don't believe a parent must be with the child 24/7 in order to be a good parent. Having other role models -- carefully chosen by the parents -- enriches a child's life. And it is important that a child learn that other people (even their parents) have needs, too, which deserve to be fulfilled. I am aware that there are parents out there who take this to an extreme, who put their needs first so consistently that you are left wondering "why did they even have a kid?" But these parents are rare; because someone goes out to work does not automatically put them in this group.

    When you have children, until they're self-reliant, your job is to see that they get the love, nurturing, and guidance they need to become healthy independent adults. Whether you accomplish this completely on your own, or with the able assistance of others, is up to each family.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by MaryP on 15th August 2008

  • Hiya Mary,

    I'm sorry if I'm off the mark, but are you saying that if you don't think you can handle being around your own kids 24/7 then it's perfectly acceptable to just "choose" to do something else and pay someone else to care for them?

    Why have kids then?

    I don't believe it's smug at all to think that children belong at home with their parents. In my opinion, children deserve at least that much.

    I'm not suggesting that childcare is bad and I'm aware that many families really need outside care to manage their families.

    But to me, it seems so unfair to children to imply that their role models are so easily interchangable and insist that they don't really need their parents, especially during their most formative years.

    Staying home with my kids was most certainly a moral decision and not a "career" choice. I strongly believe that once you've had kids, until they are self-reliant, they are your career.

    Anything else is just a job.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Sheri on 15th August 2008

  • I love this article, and I really appreciate the perspective.

    I made a more "obvious" career choice - working outside the home - partly because it was necessary, and partly because I really didn't think I was cut out to be a stay-at-home mom. Still don't. I would make the same choice today.

    I think so much of the debate over the choices is because they do carry a lot of values-related baggage, which is also a big part of what fuels the infamous "working-mom guilt."

    And having gone through a similar experience with the breakup of my first marriage, one of the few things that helped me through that was knowing that I could support myself financially; if I hadn't been working all the way along, I would have felt far less confident about that.

    Again, I really like how you have framed this. Great article, MaryP!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Florinda Pendley Vasquez on 15th August 2008

  • Thank you so much for sharing your story! I am a working mommy of a 7mo. old. I go back an forth on what is the best thing to do. I do agree that my son has a richer life because he gets to spend time with me and daddy, and he has such a great time at daycare. They love him so much there. In return, I like to do special things for the teachers at the center. I do have a goal of working from home with my own business, but I still would like for my son to attend a part time daycare just to enhance his learning and make friends. Thanks again for your story. I can relate to the struggle... but I am that working mommy! Take Care,


    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Lovlee Helene Tang on 13th August 2008