The Working Mom vs. the Stay-at-Home Mom Debate

I really can’t believe we are still having this debate, but my son recently made a comment that made me realize that it rages on. This was a hot topic when my mother worked outside the home. It continued through the height of the feminist movement and when my children were little. And, now that I’m a grandmother I find it still separates women into two camps. When are we going to realize that staying home with our children doesn’t make us a good mother any more than working makes us a bad mother? And when are we going to realize that we will have strength as women when we support one another and not tear each other down?

It is estimated that over 70% of the mothers in the United States are working outside the home. A 2012 poll found that 46 percent of Americans believe that mother’s should be home with children unless they are the family’s sole breadwinner, and 62 percent of people believe that one parent should be home with the kids. Meanwhile, 68 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “It’s OK for moms to work outside the home, period.” Could we be any more ambivalent?

My own personal experience gave me a taste of both sides of the coin. I was home with my daughter until she was three. But, she was so attached to me that I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without bringing her with me. She had such separation anxiety when she couldn’t actually see me that she would cry for hours when left with a babysitter…even when that babysitter was her grandmother.

Nine years later I had our son and, due to economic need, had to return to work when he was three months old. I so resisted the idea of leaving him that I didn’t finalize my child care until the Friday before I returned to work. I was positive that he wouldn’t know who I was. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Not only did he never mistake his sitter for his mommy, but he was comfortable with babysitters, pre-school teachers…and all family members. He willingly went off with care givers with the absolute knowledge and comfortable assurance that I would be returning for him later.

But, did my children’s behavior have anything to do with my staying home with them or going to work? Or, was it simply a matter that they were different people with different personalities? Can we ever really know for sure? What I do know is that women have been taking a side on this issue forever.

If you, as a woman, have chosen to stay home and been fortunate to live on one income, I think that’s great! Even though I spent the majority of my adult life as a career woman, I think raising and nurturing children is a respectable and honorable ‘career’. And I say this in all sincerity and with a hope that I don’t sound patronizing.

There are a variety of reasons women do work; providing income seems to be the prevailing one. However, many of us work for the intellectual stimulation and interaction with adults. I know I felt like I was going bonkers when I was home alone with my daughter. I felt lonely and isolated and thought my brain would go to mush. In hindsight, I realize that there are ways I could have conquered those problems and many stay-at-home moms do just that quite successfully.

What’s interesting is that stay-at-home moms often feel superior to their working counterparts. And vice versa. The working mom will say that the other is wasting her intellect and make snide remarks about wishing she had the ability to meet friends for coffee. The stay-at-home mom will talk about how her children come first and how she is always there for them every day…all day. The reality is that we all get overwhelmed and feel like we are juggling way too many things. I wonder just how much of this divisiveness comes from our own insecurities. I also think that it might come from our society’s honest ambivalence to women working…particularly mothers.

Things have improved for working mothers in ways I would never imagined when I was a young mother. There are now breast pump rooms for nursing moms, flexible work schedules and even job sharing. My granddaughter’s second grade class is taught by two women…each one working 5 days off and 5 days on. It works really well.

Unfortunately, I can’t help but wonder if these changes are probably not so much to help working mothers but rather to create a a way that women can work more. In other words, are we making progress in the workplace simply because it’s good for women or rather because it is good for the workplace? This is different from other Western countries. In fact, Save The Children has ranked the U.S. rather low amongst developed countries as a place to be a mother. While we do have mandated maternity leave, it is short and unpaid as compared to Norway which is rated number one.

Could it be that we are putting our focus on the wrong thing? Stephanie Hanes wrote the following for her column “Modern Parenthood”: “Today’s mommy wars, I believe, are missing the point. The way the debate is framed, we miss out on talking about how family and parenting fits into our cultural and political landscape – whether our society is doing for children what we’d hope – and instead focus on the is-she-or-isn’t-she working.”

I think Ms. Hanes might be onto something. If we spent more energy talking about these things…in particular, does society do for our children what we hope and want for our children…then whether a mom works or not would become a non-issue. And women could be there to help and encourage each other…not bring each other down.

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