Are SAHMs Failing Feminism?

I told myself I never wanted the highlight of my day to be telling my kid how many rooms I vacuumed.

I quit my job nine months ago to become a stay-at-home mom. For years, I had equally dreamed about and dreaded stepping away from a steady paycheck and benefits to take on the lion share of family responsibilities. I worried I’d be bored. I worried my peer marriage would morph overnight into a 1950s family dynamic. Most of all, I worried I’d set a bad example for my daughters. 

I was raised in a traditional Southern family. My dad provided the paycheck; my mom stayed home and took care of the kids and the house. For some members of my extended family, landing a doctor remains my crowning life achievement — I did well because I married well. This remains true regardless of — or even in spite of — any professional accomplishments I’ve earned.

As a kid, I understood who held the power in my parents' relationship. My mother sometimes voiced concern over financial choices my father made but eventually just sighed and said, “He’s going to do what he’s going to do.” Translation: He earned the money, so he had the final say.

I decided I wanted financial control when I grew up. I also knew my extroverted mother wasn’t getting the social or intellectual stimulation she needed. After school, she’d list all the household chores she accomplished that day, chattering away to the first human she’d seen in hours, which was often me. 

 
I do not tell my girls how many rooms I vacuumed, but I do tell them about my writing. I want them to know I’ve remained dedicated to my life’s passion and that I’m still working toward my goals. They know I was once someone’s boss, that I taught college, and that I worked hard for the education and experience to re-enter that world should I choose.

 

I told myself I never wanted the highlight of my day to be telling my kid how many rooms I vacuumed. 

In college, a women’s studies class changed my entire perspective on life and validated my thoughts about the woman I wanted to be. I also met a feminist-raised Yankee who changed my idea of what a relationship with a man could be. In four years, I got a degree and a life partner who treated me as an equal. We went on to earn advanced degrees, taking turns supporting each other financially through school and started to build our careers. 

After we had kids, I scaled back to thirty hours a week to assuage my mommy guilt. My partner cooked, cleaned, and did all the things you’d expect a co-parent to do. His salary dwarfed mine, but I provided employer-sponsored healthcare and an exceptional 401K match. Every time I used our insurance or saw a direct deposit from my employer, I felt a surge of pride. 

I liked providing financially for my family, but the costs began to outweigh the rewards. 

A year ago, my partner’s financial contribution to the household swelled while his time contribution slowed. I started to ask myself why I was still working. I liked my job, but I didn’t love it. I wanted, desperately at times, to stay home with my kids.

As the owner of a dental practice, every unplanned hour my partner spent at home reduced his income. Unexpected time off inconvenienced both patients and staff. If a child was sick, guess who missed work? We managed while the girls were in full-time daycare, but once we entered the world of school-age kids, I started to feel the pressure of patching together childcare for every school holiday, half-day, snow day, and summer vacation. Next came ballet, soccer, and a litany of other after-school commitments — all managed by me.

 

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I realized I had kept working long after we needed my paycheck because I wanted my husband to see me as an equal. (Which is exactly as awful as it sounds.) The fear of becoming dependent outweighed both my mommy guilt and commonsense. Even with my smaller paycheck, I knew if things fell apart I could take care of myself and my kids. I wanted him in my life, but I didn’t need him to keep a roof over my head, food in my stomach, or clothes on my back. To me, that was the definition of an empowered woman. Ours was a relationship of choice, not dependence. 

That was the model we showed our girls each day we contributed both our time and finances to the family. Every day I went to work, I felt I was replacing the outdated lessons of my childhood. Instead of telling my children to marry well, I was showing them to handle their own business. 

I was having it all, and I was hating every minute.

I called my mom and confessed that I wanted to stay home.  

“Katie,” she sighed, “If you want to stay home, stay home. It shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Do what’s best for you and your family.”

I decided to make that my new definition of empowered. Yes, our household now has a traditional division of labor, but what sets our family apart from the 1950s values of my nightmares is choice. I have the choice to work. I have the choice to stay home. I’m thankful for these choices and understand that not everyone has them.

Being a feminist family means respecting the work everyone does. It’s also correcting our daughters when they make assumptions that limited the choices they could make. My partner depends on me as much as I depend on him. We choose to depend on each other.

I do not tell my girls how many rooms I vacuumed, but I do tell them about my writing. I want them to know I’ve remained dedicated to my life’s passion and that I’m still working toward my goals. They know I was once someone’s boss, that I taught college, and that I worked hard for the education and experience to re-enter that world should I choose.

So no, I did not fail feminism by becoming financially dependent on my husband. I failed much earlier. By privileging women who worked outside the home over those who worked within, I supported a limited definition of empowerment and devalued the important, often thankless, work of a stay-at-home parent. As we settle into this new life, I hope to correct this mistake both for myself and for the strong women I strive to raise. 


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