Gender Series Part 1: How Stay-at-Home Motherhood Informs My Feminism

I have been a feminist for as long as I can remember, so it was jarring for me when I got married, had a baby, and proceeded to raise that baby at home, sans paid employment.

There are several reasons why this occurred. I’ve always wanted children and didn’t think they would be incompatible with a career. After all, my own mother got a Ph.D. and proceeded with a career while homeschooling three kids.

It turns out, though, that I hate typical jobs. I hate offices, I hate office dress codes, I very often hate socializing with co-workers (despite the fact that they can be quite wonderful), I hate hierarchical structures. The whole affair is off-putting.

Even worse, it took me a very long time to really understood what a career was and how one might go about putting one together. I simply did not know what I needed to know.

When I married, the man I married was taller, older, and wealthier than I was. He had a much higher salary. Financially, it did not make sense for him to stay home while I worked. Emotionally, it did not make sense to put my tiny baby in daycare and work for low pay at a job I didn’t enjoy. So I stayed home, thinking I would take care of my child (eventually, children) and also write books.

Living this way has taught me a lot. It has taught me that when you take care of a baby all the time, you don’t have a lot of time for other things. It taught me that the amount of non-childcare work you can manage may depend on how good a sleeper your child is – some sleep 14 hours a day, some 9, and that’s a very big difference from the caretaker’s perspective. It taught me that it is actually hard to give your child up to someone who isn’t a trusted family member, or sometimes even someone who is, even when you are very tired. It taught me that unless you are willing to do this, you cannot hold down a regular job.

Eventually your child grows older, and most parents are willing, at some point, to entrust their children to non-family care providers. I found a part-time nanny when my first child was a year old and was in the middle of a particularly terrible patch of insomnia. By part-time, I mean 4 hours a day, three days a week, plus a 4-hour stretch of time on Saturdays during which my husband and I could go on dates.

When my oldest was 2, I signed her up for daycare… 2 days a week. Her younger sibling went to daycare at the same age, but for 3 days a week. Now that the older one is in elementary school, she is in someone else’s care 9 hours a day, 3 days a week. The other two days, she’s in school 6.5 hours a day, which is not enough for a full workday, and on those days I have my younger child at home with me as well. Until the younger child is in kindergarten, 9 years after I first had a baby, I will not have time in my week for a full-time job.

That is an enormous amount of time to take off paid work. It would set anyone back. I probably won’t reach the career heights I could have reached if I a) hadn’t had a baby at all, or b) had been willing to let someone else take on the task of raising that baby. If I had another baby right now, that time would stretch out beyond ten years.

I am a very privileged person, and much of this came as a result of my own choices and preferences. However, it is notable that my husband, because he had a higher salary than I did and obviously much more earning potential, did not face the same choices. There was never any question that his career would be interrupted by family life. He has always been able to:

  • Simultaneously have a career AND have his children taken care of by a trusted family member
  • Travel without arranging for a babysitter
  • Go to conferences on weekends without arranging for a babysitter
  • Not worry about taking time off work when the kids get sick
  • Go out to dinner with co-workers for networking purposes without arranging for a babysitter

Not only is his career taking precedence over mine, but I am actually working to provide advantages that he can use to advance beyond women who are paid employees – women who might not be able to do any of the above. I do this because it benefits my family. My husband and I have lots of financial options this way, and we are able to provide just about anything our kids could need.

As a mom, I’m very comfortable with this. As an individual with ambitious goals, I eagerly anticipate providing even more benefit to my family by getting that writing career to a successful stage during the time in my kids’ lives when they need less of my attention than they did as babies or toddlers.

As a feminist, however, I can see that if everyone lived this way, women would be at a disadvantage compared to men. They would have less remunerative careers, and would be much less likely to reach the highest levels of any field. And, in fact, this is what we see in real life. Being a stay-at-home mom has provided for me a thorough education in the reasons why women are less economically and politically powerful than men, and despite what people like Jordan Peterson may tell you, most of it has less to do with innate psychological characteristics than with the realities of reproduction and family life.

What would have changed things for me? What would help change things for women in general? I think improvements in gender equality would require both changes to gender socialization and changes in public policy.

It would help if women were not socialized to desire men who already out-perform them; that is, if women were encouraged to consider being in relationships with men who are poorer than they are, or don’t have as much earning potential. It would help if men felt more free to take on the role of primary caregiver.

In terms of policy, it would be extremely helpful if quality, affordable childcare was available across the nation, and if parental leave were longer and more gender-neutral. For example, if parents could get a year of parental leave each, and they could be used consecutively, and if quality, affordable childcare was available to all children starting at age 2, it would help to level the playing field. Single parents might need two years off, and that should be available too.

Of course, even daycare doesn’t take away all the disadvantages of being a primary caregiver. Most of those disadvantages revolve around the time commitment required by parenting. To mitigate them, you would have to mandate shorter work weeks, so that putting a child into daycare 40-50 hours a week would cover everything an employee could need to do, including networking activities.

Even then, of course, employees with children would still be at a disadvantage relative to employees without them, and stay-at-home parenthood would not disappear, nor would it fail to provide some advantage to families. However, put all these pieces in place, and we would see a massive improvement in gender equality.

There is one more issue at play here, and it is this: I did not have any family members living nearby. Some families can get close family members to help with childrearing, but this only works if they live geographically nearby. I plan to explore this problem further in a future post.

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