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“Women should have the choice to stay home or work.”

When I read articles and blogs that discuss stay-at-home parenthood, I often come across something like this line: “Women should have the choice to stay home or work.”

Now, that line has always disconcerted me, though probably not for the reasons you think. I believe caregiving should be recognized as a very real and very important contribution. And instead of each side fighting the other, we’d be happier if we focused on being guiltless moms (and dads!). But that line is disconcerting because of how our discussion of working vs. caring at home is framed. Think about it. The first thing that jumps out at me is “women.” If only women have the choice to be the primary caregiver or do paid work, then it presupposes that their partners (typically men) do not have that choice. After all, unless there is independent wealth, a family needs to work to sustain itself. I have never heard the corollary: “men should have the choice to stay home or work outside.” Even though there are very dedicated stay-at-home dads out there, and their ranks have been increasing for the past decade.

For reasons I can’t quite articulate the emphasis on women’s choice to stay home vs. work has always bugged me. I guess it’s because it frames parenting and career in such a gendered way. It seems unfair to both women and men. It is unfair to women because it assumes that only women will be struggling with this decision, and that if anyone quits it will be the wives because of their sex. It is unfair to men because it assumes that men leaving paid employment for caregiving is not a choice that is open to them or their family.

Furthermore, only a dual-income family have the choice to downshift into a stay-at-home parent / one working parent. Both partners/spouses cannot choose to both NOT work and stay home. Single parents, unless they are, again, independently wealthy or have significant financial support from outside parties, do not have that choice at all.

I am certainly not an expert on work, life, and family (for those, I encourage you to visit the blogs of these fine folks), but I’d like to propose that instead of defaulting to “women should have the choice to stay home or do paid work,” why don’t we talk about how “families should do what is best for their situation.” Sometimes that means both spouses work hard at big careers, sometimes that means one parent holds down the long hours and one parent has a more flexible schedule, sometimes that means one parent work and one parent stays home, and sometimes that means both parents work part-time. Over the course of a lifetime, these roles can change and emphasis on career-building vs. family time may change as well.

What do you think? Should we be talking about caregiving and work in less gendered terms?

  • addvodka - I HATE THIS. I hate gender stereotypes! It's ridiculous. I know so many stay-at-home dads; why do we just assume the mom has to stay at home? I know some moms that tried to stay at home and hated it. I know dads that hated their jobs so being a stay-at-home dad is the best thing for them. It's not 1950, why do we, as a society, still say stuff like this?

    I actually disagree with that whole statement, though. If a family is struggling to make ends meet, there shouldn't be a choice to stay at home vs. work, it should be work. For instance, my boyfriends family. His mom was a "stay at home mom" all of her life (I say that sarcastically since both of her kids are out of the house for 5+ years now and she still calls herself that). She didn't want to work, so the boyfriends dad had to go to the oil sands to work to make ends meet, and send money home. Because she didn't want to work, the kids had to go without their dad for a couple of teenaged years (at that point, the kids are in school and don't care whether you're home anyway), which is, in my opinion, horribly lazy of her.

    I think staying at home is a luxury that some families can't afford (or, in some cases, can't afford not to, if daycare prices are too expensive or their kids are not yet school-aged), and sometimes the choice cannot be made.

    In any case, it doesn't matter if a person is male or female, stay-at-home parenting is a universal concern.
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  • @moneyaftergrad - This is not really a gender comment but this story reminded me of when I was a teenager and this girl I knew got pregnant at 19. She then proceeded to collect welfare cheques because she insisted it was "so much more important to stay home as a mother" than to go to work and actually support her family. It kind of made me sick.

    I think both men and women should have the choice to stay home or work, but they should also be realistic about making that choice a viable option. Circumstances play a way bigger role than mere wants. If you want to stay home, you have to take the steps to afford it either by reducing expenses, saving money, or your partner earning more money to support you. It's not something that just happens on its own, it takes serious planning. It bothers me when some parents feel so entitled to stay home even though financially it's an impossible choice. ReplyCancel

  • SPF - I totally agree that it should be whatever works for that family at that given time. I have a friend where, for she and her husband, it works out for him to be the stay at home dad right now.

    At the end of the day, do what works best for your family (and financial) situation.

    I agree with moneyaftergrad, if you want to stay home, plan to do so. Like right now, I would love to stay home for when we have our next child. While I don't think it will happen, I'm still working towards being financially able to stay home a little longer on maternity leave.

    Thankfully, my parents are both retired and live nearby. They currently watch my daughter (their first grandchild) and, since she'll be going to school this fall, my mom has already said she'd watch the next child, whenever we decide to have another (talk about jumping for joy at that offer). While I appreciate the offer, I told her that I'd still like to plan to be able to send the future child to daycare, in the event that things change and she's not available. ReplyCancel

  • Newlyweds ona Budget - I agree that it should be whatever is best for the family, but the idea that women are often give the choice rather than dads doesn't really offend me at all. Women–in MOST cases, not all, but definitely most—are naturally better caregivers and housekeepers than their male counterparts. My husband would be a horrible, HORRIBLE stay at home parent. Even now, I have to remind him to do a bunch of basic things. I take care of making the doctors appointments, paying the bills, the groceries, etc. all those little details. He is much better at the bigger picture.
    It was the same way with my parents too. If I was sick as a child, I always wanted my mom to comfort me, not my dad. I don't understand why stereotype has to be such a dirty word sometimes. ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - I'm not sure I agree that women are naturally better caregivers… and I definitely don't agree that we are naturally better housekeepers! LOL. Yes, at the beginning of a child's life, by virtue of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, women are more intimately bound to their children than men may be, but that doesn't mean many of the perceptions of men vs. women when it comes to caregiving are due to societal norms and expectations. It's that nature vs. nurture debate, and I'm not sure we're not giving nature too big of a credit when we need to be taking a harder look at nurture. ReplyCancel

      • Newlyweds ona Budget - I think you misunderstood the way I used the word housekeeper. I didn't mean it as an occupation or cleaning in general, I meant it more in the way that I think women are better at managing a household than men.
        I think my biggest conflict conflict doesn't stem so much from whether the man or the woman gets to stay home, but rather that if the woman works, I think the majority of the household responsibilities still land largely on the woman's plate. Obviously, this isn't the case in your situation, but I would venture to say you have the exception and not the norm.
        I know my in laws definitely dont take into account that i am the bigger breadwinner by a good chunk because they still kind of turn up their noses at the fact that I recently told my husband he is now responsible for doing his own laundry. um….yeah ReplyCancel

  • ShoppingtoSaving - Great post! I get so irked too when this issue gets brought up. Especially because my BF's mom is a stay at home mom. There's pressure from their side of the family that this is what is "supposed" to happen. But she barely speaks English and this was back then when the economy was better that a family with 3 kids was able to afford a huge house on one income. I can't imagine my future kids living on the income my BF makes right now. I don't think the current state of the economy allows for a one-income household by choice. I think that a lot of us have to work, even if I wanted to stay at home. Plus, my mom was a single parent and she worked full-time. I do not think that it is a must that women need to stay home, though it would be nice to take a few years off when my future kids are born. ReplyCancel

  • kim - The interesting thing to me is that women DO have a choice in first-world countries. No one is forcing anyone to work or not work. If you want to stay home, you downsize to fit the new income – but that's still a choice to do so. Do people want the option to stay at home and keep up their lifestyle? Having kids is a lifestyle change, whether the mother works or not; staying at home is simply another facet of lifestyle change. But it's all a choice. I second the gender assumption, too. ReplyCancel

  • Housewife Empire - I agree with your logic, the reason the stereotype exists is because the decision is primarily placed on women's shoulders. I had the same mentality as expressed in this post before I had kids, and for the most part, I still do, and I'm a FIERCE women's rights advocate… but it seems like after you carry the child for 9 months, go on maternity leave, breastfeed full-time, and you're so "in it" you can't see straight, then everyone around you seems to be looking to you to decide what "you" are going to do, not your partner. It's weird. And it sucks. ReplyCancel

  • oilandgarlic - I agree. If we frame the issue as gender-less, more progress could be made in terms of flexibilty and family-friendly policies at the company-level or/and government level. I know many won't think either the company or government should step in but that's another issue. Having said that, I think I agreed with you MORE before having kids. After having kids, I do think that it's easier if the woman can have more time at home (vs. the man) due to breastfeeding. Pumping isn't easy esp. at work environments. In my personal situation, I really wish I had been able to stay home longer during the early months. Sigh….

    Lastly, i agree one-income nowadays is a luxury and not easy to do if you simply cut cable etc.. as some people like to argue. And people should not think staying home is a permanent arrangement. I know many women who stay home in the early years and then never even try to work again even if that means the husband works 2 jobs or o/t and he never sees the kids. It seems like most dads would like to although I'm sure some men really also hold onto gender / provider roles.

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  • seedebtrun - My husband and I decided together that I would stay home to care for our daughter. He is such a great dad and I know he'd be so good as a stay-at-home-dad, too. If I made as much money as he does, I would have no problem switching roles. As far as our finances, we are actually climbing out of debt on one income! We're doing great. I worked full-time up until I was 9 months along with my last pregnancy, so have no problem with jumping back into the work force if things don't end up working out as well as they seem to be going now. ReplyCancel

  • eemusings - I'm less fussed about that than the financial side. If you can afford to stay home, that's great. I don't support those who stay home with their kids financed by benefits. Kids are a luxury, not a right. ReplyCancel

  • Bryan - 1) @eemusings – "Kids are a luxury, not a right." Ooey! Those are some controversial words right there. While I think I agree with you in theory, I suspect we may hold the minority opinion.

    2) The subject of this article is one of the main reasons that I'm sticking with watching the admittedly lame sitcom "Up All Night." By having the husband (who had previously been a high-income lawyer) choose to be the stay-at-home primary care-giver to the new baby, the show subverts deeply-held American gender notions, so I feel like I should support it. Now if only it were funny… ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - It's funny you mentioned "Up All Night"… I actually really like it. It's kind of cheesy and corny but I love Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph. And it's nice to see a sitcom where the husband stays home. But why can't he work part-time? Law seems to be a career conducive to some level of well-paid part-time work. (I guess he did in one of the episodes where he was the legal correspondent for Maya's show). ReplyCancel

  • Michelle - I agree with you. It should be about what's best for the family situation. If the family needs money and has debt, then both should be working. I hate the fact that most people think that the woman should stay home, and if they don't, then something is majorly messed up in the relationship.

    I will not be staying home once I have a child, and I pretty much know that for a fact. ReplyCancel

  • krantcents - When our children were small, my wife worked part time. We were fortunate that she could do that and still make a reasonable living. Most of her hours were skewed to the weekend (Friday late afternoon & Saturday). There were about two hours a week that our kids were with friends. In other words, I shared the responsibility of raising our children with my wife and still worked full time. When I owned businesses, I made sure I could be home roughly when my children came home. It worked well for us. ReplyCancel

  • Joe - Agreed. Men should have the choice to stay home or work outside. Unfortunately, society and businesses penalize male employees, e.g. giving them lower EI top-ups than women. Terrible example of gender discrimination. ReplyCancel

  • bogofdebt - I agree 100%. It should be less about gender and more about what's best for the family. I know that my mom always classified her job as a mother even though she worked full time. She had a great boss who let her work around our school schedules when we were older. She wanted to stay at home with us when we were younger but was not able to because it wouldn't have been good for our family. I know someone who is talking about being a stay at home parent while his wife works but when the suggestion was made that they start living off of one income now to get used to it and build up a great savings, it was vetoed. I think that if someone wants to make the choice to stay at home after the child is born that a good "test" would be if they can do it before. ReplyCancel

  • Frugal Fries - Just another point for the child-free movement in my on-going tally ;) ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - I think I could be very happy without having kids, but I keep thinking, what if I regret NOT having kids? But that isn't a good reason to HAVE them either. So instead, I am delaying the decision. ReplyCancel

      • Frugal Fries - I don't want to sway your decision, but if it isn't a huge goal or aspiration–I would hold off. Or, just Google "I hate being a parent." That's usually enough to convince my biological clock to stop ticking. ReplyCancel

  • Christopher @ This That and The MBA - I hate the stereotypical women stay home man works. Sure I dont know any men that stayed home with their kids but it doesnt mean they cant. I personally did not want to stay at home with my 2 daughters. I love them but going to work is my time to relax…shhh dont tell my wife. Being around them I get anxious and if I had to stay home when they were infants, I would have more grey hair than the 8 on my head…lol…Kids are great they provide so much happiness in my life now. I wouldnt have it other way. I want to try for a boy but I dont want to strike out with 3 girls….eekkkk It is modern days and the typical roles of man and woman are much different than traditional times. ReplyCancel

  • ImpulseSave - Excellent post. I think it is so important to allow families to make a decision that suits their own needs as a distinct unit. As a young, single woman hoping to enter a professional field with a potential for very demanding hours, I should hope that there are men out there comfortable enough to at least be open to the idea of any number of possible home/work balance situations. I don't know what my future holds, but it scares me to think that just because I want a career means that my possible future spouse may not have a choice. If I wanted a choice for home or work, why should I feel entitled to decline men the same options? ReplyCancel

  • Nick - I'm with you. My wife stays home and I work, but that's just because it's what works best for us. Although I have a "personal" (not male!) ego thing that I want to take the world on my shoulders so my wife and kids can be home together, I would stay home in a heart beat (although it's quite a lot of work – must more hectic than a day gig IMO – if we felt that was best for our family.

    It is pretty annoying, though, reading about SAH parenting in terms of women only and "as an alternative to work." I agree – it's totally ignorant and insulting to both men and women. ReplyCancel

  • Roger AF - Yes, I definitely think we should be talking about care giving and work in less gendered terms (even if my and I are hoping to be able to stick pretty close to them in our own lives). We're just at a pretty major transition point in our country; only a generation or two ago, women were pretty much forced into the role of caregiver and men all but forced to work outside the home. I think a generation or two from now, the traditional household will be only one of many possible ways for families to coordinate themselves. ReplyCancel

  • Marianne - I wish my husband had a more flexible job that would allow him to stay at home at least part of the time with our son. I really miss my job and will be going back part time but would much rather go back full time. My job is more flexible than my husband's though and allows me the opportunity to work less/ work from home at night when baby is in bed. It sounds really great so I shouldn't be complaining but I just wish I could switch with my husband and go back to work full time. :) I suppose I might not feel that way if I saw that little of my son though so maybe it's just a case of greener grass syndrome. ReplyCancel

  • Frugal Friday: I make my first debt payment! | Frugal City Girl - [...] Well-Heeled Blog: “Women should have the choice to stay home or work.” [...]ReplyCancel

  • Saturday Links & Blogs I Love: Motivation Edition | When Life Gives You Lemons - [...] that same topic, Well Healed posted about the gender stereotype of the people that say women should have a choice to stay at home or work. I don’t agree that men are less able to be caregivers because they are men, and I [...]ReplyCancel

  • What I’m Reading: Small Sample Size Edition | The Dog Ate My Wallet - [...] in equality, for all. Well Heeled Blog recently read an article where she saw the comment “Women should have the choice to stay home or work”, and she railed against it- for good cause. Because while she and I both agree with the [...]ReplyCancel

  • Sarah - When I was younger, I shared a similar sentiment. Now, having learned from personal experience about the depletion that multiple pregnancies brings to the table, I see the wisdom in this line of thinking. I believe it is important for women to conserve their life energy and not experience too much stress. In chinese medicine, the belief is that the child will suffer from the depletion of stress, because they will not have as much life energy to work with throughout their lives. This energy transfers at conception, from mother to child. There is wisdom in the traditional gender roles.

    Having said that, women that choose not to bear children may be in a different category. Regardless, judgement either way is not needed. Education is useful. ReplyCancel

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