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Can a Stay-at-Home Mom Raise a Feminist Daughter?

A few weeks ago, there was a great discussion on Wandering Scientist about how two working parents can fairly balance the work of raising children and keeping a home up and running. This got me thinking about how Husband and I split the work in our household, where we have a clear division of labor right off the bat: Husband works outside of the home, and I stay at home with BabyC. Our division of labor is not equal, but is it fair? Could we do better?

When Husband and I met, we were in medical and graduate school and usually had similar workloads. We shared cooking and cleaning fairly equally then. During our 2+ years of marriage prior to the birth of BabyC, Husband and I both worked long hours, but as an emergency medicine resident, he worked slightly more and in a more emotionally draining job. Much of the housework shifted towards me during this time. I would usually spend one of my days off cleaning, shopping, and cooking, and Husband would spend a day catching up on sleep or occasionally playing golf. This bothered me a bit then, but I assumed that things would re-equilibrate once Husband’s workload lightened after residency. Of course, I should have known that nobody’s workload would lighten once we added a baby to our family.

Enter BabyC. And enter the choice, shared between Husband and I, for me to stay home with her. Add to this mix that Husband’s post-residency workload has really not lightened at all, plus his schedule is highly variable, so we can’t have a day-to-day routine in which we each contribute certain things to the household. I often find myself taking care of most of the housework, in addition to BabyC’s needs. This means that I basically work nonstop, and if I do get a spare minute, I try to work on writing projects. This doesn’t leave me any time to put my feet up and watch trashy TV or read a novel or finish a knitting project – all things I imagined that stay-at-home moms did, before I became one.

If only I could teach BabyC to wash diapers.

Plus, I don’t get a day off. I haven’t had more than a couple of hours to do something just for myself for the last year. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy spending time with BabyC – but still, it is my job. It isn’t something I can opt out of if I’d rather sleep in or go to a weekend yoga retreat or even spend an entire day writing (imagine!).

Luckily, Husband helps out. He usually hangs out with BabyC for an hour or two each day so that I can go for a run or do the grocery shopping without schlepping her along. He folds laundry and cooks dinner once a week. He takes care of snuggling with the cat while he sleeps during the day after a night shift. (This job is more important than it sounds, since when our cat feels that she isn’t getting enough attention, she expresses her resentment by peeing on carpets and couches.) And strangely, he has stepped it up in the housework department since I talked to him about my ideas of this post. You see how useful publishing something on the internet can be? Plus, we’ve splurged and hired someone to clean our house once or twice a month for the specific purpose of freeing up more time for me to write. I swear I’ll make that investment pay someday.

I don’t feel like I have much to complain about, but I still think it is worth talking about. I’m a little uneasy about being a stay-at-home mom for a few reasons, and the balance of work in our household is one of them. I worry about what effect it has on our marriage and our daughter that we model such traditional gender roles in our home. Will BabyC grow up thinking that daddies go to work and watch TV and mommies cook and clean?

How do we determine what is a fair contribution of household work for the parent that works outside of the home? There isn’t an easy formula for this. Husband and I both work very hard, and I actually think that the way we share work approaches fairness, this week at least. Husband’s job is draining, and I think it is fair that he should be able to count on a good night’s sleep and some downtime after a shift. His job requires him to be alert and clear-minded; patients are counting on that. I value his mental health, too. On the other hand, I think I should also get some downtime, and if Husband pitches in around the house, maybe we can even spend that downtime together (gasp!). The key is communication, as obvious and cliché as it sounds. Checking in with each other goes a long way. “What do we need to get done today? Is there anything you need help with?” or just, “I’m feeling really drained and could use a few hours to relax.”

Can our marriage remain a fair partnership if our roles in the family are so different? My main job has become taking care of BabyC and Husband and our home, and Husband’s main job is to earn money so that we can have a home and financial security. However, BabyC won’t have any understanding of the value of hard-earned money for a few years. What will she understand about our partnership in the meantime?

Having a baby in the house to watch my every move makes me think carefully about what she is learning from me. This has come up time and time again as I think about the behaviors that I am modeling (how I eat, how much TV I watch, how I express gratitude). I want BabyC to grow up knowing that she can be anything she wants to be, that she can have a fulfilling career and be a mother. And I want it to be clear to her that Mama and Daddy both work hard to take care of each other and of her.

I have a few ideas about how we can do this:

  • When it comes to Husband’s contribution to housework, a little goes a long way. Even though my mother did most of the cooking in my family when I was a child, I have fond memories of my dad making pancakes on weekends and popcorn for dinner on Sundays. In a child’s mind, there is a big difference between “daddies don’t (or can’t?) cook” and “daddies can cook and sometimes do.”
  • Husband does more ALL of the “fixing” around the house, and I do most of the cooking. We didn’t plan to split housework in this way, but here we are. Before I married a man who loves fix-it projects, I was just as likely as any guy to take on a little home repair or even a tiny car repair project. The current division of labor has occurred because I would rather cook and Husband would rather fix things, and since we have a limited amount of time to do any of this, it makes sense that we should each do the things we enjoy more, and in many cases, are better at. However, if I extend the logic of my last point about Husband cooking occasionally, I’m going to have to make an effort to also fix things occasionally.
  • Involve BabyC in both traditional male and traditional female jobs. She can “help” trouble-shoot the water leaking from under the washing machine and learn to make pancakes. Whether she does these jobs with Mama or Daddy, we’ll try to send her the message that she is equally suited for either type of work.
  • As she gets older, I will emphasize to BabyC that I stay at home because I want to spend time with her. It was a choice we made. I want her to know that I had a career before she was born and will have a career again in a few years, when she is more independent and going to school.

How do you split the household work in your home? Does the arrangement work for you and your family? Do you think about what your children learn from it?

(And if you are a single parent, how on earth do you do it?)

14 Comments
  1. I have similar reservations about staying at home as you do. Infact, just yesterday Miss8 said……”but you do nothing all day!'” That hurt more than I thought it would…..Got me wondering if I had made the right choice after all…But we can only do what we think is best at the time and be happy with that!

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    December 3, 2011
    • Hi Nicole – I guess I should really write a post about all of the benefits of being a SAHM to balance this out. For me, the benefits far outweigh my concerns, which include the housework balance issue, but I know this is different for every family. If I went back to work, my husband could work a little less, which means he would make more contributions to the household chores and childcare. I can see how that might be a healthier balance for a family. However, I think overall, it would mean more stress and work for both of us. Particularly given my husband’s erratic schedule, we wouldn’t see much of each other, and I might feel like a single mom during the weeks when he is working evening shifts. Regardless, this is NEVER easy – no matter how you slice it, so I think you are right that we make the best decisions for our family and try to focus on the benefits. I love spending so much time with my baby girl and having time to get some healthy meals on the table. And right now, I’m loving having the time to explore blogging and writing, something I don’t think I could fit in if I was working.

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      December 4, 2011
  2. The other morning I was up by 4:00 ,made coffee,let the dogs out ,fed them and started a load of laundry. By 4:30 I had answered emails,caught up on the news and cleaned up the kitchen. I was listening for my year old grandson who had had a high fever and the flu. My daughter had pneumonia and was sleeping with out coughing finally.I still had to go to work and had a full day planned. It took me back to the days when I was a young mother. I was eventually a single mother of four. My life ramped up to a degree I never could have imagined. I found that the wee hours of the morning were my peaceful “me” times. I learned to get a lot done early so I could spend the rest of the day giving me away. I so wish I could have been a stay at home mom. I had to leave my babies six weeks after delivery. I cried every time. Luckily my children claim they had a wonderful childhood and that they don’t remember me being gone much. YAY! Hopefully they won’t need much therapy. LOL
    Woman can and do keep the home fires burning whether they work or not ,whether there’s a man or not. Acceptance is the key. I am struggling now with the acceptance that I am working this hard yet again. I was just enjoying my semi retirement. But my little grandson is precious beyond words. So Grammy has to just set her mind right.
    You will in due time work outside the home and juggle all the other chores. You have been given a gift of time. Time to oversee Baby C’s development ,diet, and care.
    By the way we are using your suggestion to say thank you to Sorren as he complies with us. What a great idea . Thanks for passing it along.

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    December 3, 2011
    • And I think we should add that you were Mayor during the time that you raised 4 children as a single mom! Wow. Your children certainly had a great example of how a woman can and did do it all. And here you are doing it again for your grandson. It is amazing what we find we can do for the people we love most in the world, isn’t it? Although I do not have as many demands during my day as you did, I still feel that I do best if I can get up an hour before BabyC to drink a cup of coffee and sit down to read or write. Then when she wakes up, I already have a feeling of accomplishment for the day, and I’m happy to see her and enjoy nursing her and having a relaxed breakfast. And I am SO grateful for the opportunity to stay home with BabyC right now. I can’t emphasize that enough. There are so many benefits for both of us, but writing about those doesn’t seem as interesting as writing about my concerns.

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      December 4, 2011
  3. Well, my mom stayed home with us. Two of us have science PhDs and the third is an EMT who will be an RN in six months. My mom did most of the cooking and my dad did most of the fixing… but they both taught us what they knew. I had my own little screwdriver set when I was a kid, and we used to help change oil and wash dishes and garden and everything else.

    My mom went back to work when my youngest sister went to preschool, and is currently the main earner (and health-insurance provider) in the household.

    I agree that it’s good for a kid to see both parents (or, at least, people of both genders) doing different kinds of jobs. I personally think it’s almost as important for me to emphasize that in our household, Mama does X because I’m better at it, not because I’m a girl- that gender is largely irrelevant to ability.

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    December 4, 2011
    • Thanks for your story, Jenny. I’ve been thinking about how whether one parent stays how with the kids or not is only one factor in how we model divisions of labor. My mom worked outside of the home as far back as I remember (I think full-time when I was 2), but she also took care of the bulk of the housework and cooking in our house. Still, I knew that division of labor wasn’t occurring because my dad couldn’t do those things – why he didn’t was probably a mixture of the fact that he was busier with work (running his own business) and farming and because he and my mom were raised in families where the labor was also split down traditional lines. I do know that my brother and I were both expected to do laundry and stack firewood, and my brother is now enjoys being in the kitchen and cooks awesome meals for his wife. So there are different ways of modeling through which a shift can occur in a generation.

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      December 4, 2011
  4. P.S. I’m one of three girls.

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    December 4, 2011
  5. Lori #

    Very well written and such a good topic. All C needs to know is that marriage and parenting is a partnership and everyone has a role. Parenting asks us do things we don’t know we are capable of, even if it is adhering to “traditional” gender roles!! Speaking of fairness in the contribution, did we tell you about our ridiculous distribution of the chores? In quite a nerdy fashion, we assigned point values based on desirability and time input to each chore as determined by consensus. Then we bartered for chores until we had equal point values. Sometimes it just helps to have your own role, you know?

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    December 6, 2011
    • Awesome, Lori! I love your system! You two have always seemed very intentional about the way you divide up responsibilities, which is half of the battle, I think. I’m impressed. Husband and I don’t have the patience to establish or enforce such a system, but I think it does help to be explicit about our expectations, which you have simply taken to the next level:)

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      December 9, 2011
  6. I have lots to say on this topic but it’s hard to distill. One of the things I’ve learned about marriage, though, is that while it should be 50:50 in the long run, it’s rarely 50:50 in the moment. Sometimes it’s 60:40 one way, and sometimes it’s tilted the other way. Heck, sometimes it’s closer to 100:0 (in either direction). I think I consider this the most important thing I can pass to W about my marriage to her daddy, because it helps to explain that while she may someday see us performing “traditional” gender roles (me cooking, him fixing), there was a time when mama was writing a book (or nursing the baby), and daddy did the fixing AND the cooking, just as there were times when daddy was doing xyz and mama did the cooking AND the fixing.

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    December 9, 2011
    • Yes! I think we have to give our kids credit for recognizing how these roles might shift and for also seeing the subtle things – things like how we might engage in intelligent conversations, be involved in our community, read or write at home while they play – things that show them that there is much more to us than being a mother or a housekeeper, even though that these may be my most important (mothering, that is) and time-consuming jobs at this time.

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      December 11, 2011
  7. Maria #

    Thank you for your realistic viewpoint! I think we tend to underrate the job of caring for our families and homes. Most people love their homes, and when I say love, I mean really enjoy being there with their family. So if we love our homes so much, shouldn’t it be a treat to be able to care for it and those living in it? Now, I hypocritically post this comment because that is what my logic says, however, my day to day feelings as a SAHM aren’t always as ideal. When I’m going from breakfast to playtime to naptime to chores to lunch to playtime….etc, day in and day out, I sometimes feel like a hamster on a ferris wheel doing a tedious and endless job. However, I have to stop myself and realize I chose this ferris wheel, and with that choice comes the GIFT to my daughter of having her mother make her breakfast every morning, and her mother playing with her, and her mother putting her down for naps and being there when she wakes, and her mother showing her contentment comes from within regardless of what is going on externally. I could go on and on……I know not everyone chooses this or even has the option, so thank you for your post and making me stop a bit in my day to dwell on this privilege 🙂 And as for dividing chores between my husband, I’ve learned to ask for help. Rarely does a “Can you please move the clothes from the washer to the dryer, oh and fold what’s in the dryer” get me a “no” answer:) It’s during these moments our daughter sees I can’t do it all and that there will always be someone to help out.

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    September 6, 2012
  8. Wow, after reading this, I was exhausted! Being a mom of kids ranging from 26 to 9, I understand your concern but I also feel like you over-thought this one. Your child will “get it” as she grows and sees how you and your husband relate and share the responsibility of raising her and caring for the home. I was a SAHM until recently. We put an addition to our home several years back and EVERYONE was involved in painting, spackling, and carpentry work. It was a family affair. All my daughters helped out. All of my daughters know how to paint and do some repair work. One works as an electrician’s assistant.
    I think the important thing is that your daughter sees that your work at home is appreciated. As long as your husband expresses appreciation and yes, helps out when he can regularly, she will see the value of working both inside and outside the home.
    It’s great that you are able to be home with her. This is a precious time for you and your daughter. The time you spend with her helps to deepen her feeling of security and that she is loved. Relax and enjoy this time!

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    March 5, 2013
  9. I think your daughter will learn a lot from how educated you are. And like you said, knowing that you could have had an illustrious career but you chose to stay home to be with her speaks loud and clear. I think it is so hard to make that choice these days because it’s looked down upon. So I am happy to hear about other people who make this choice.

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    April 18, 2013

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