Tuesday, May 24, 2011

WAHM, SAHM, Working Mom. Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Aah, the mother of all mommy-wars. To work or not to work. That is the question. The question that will take a mom's defensiveness to all-time highs like nothing else, that is.
The more time I spend in the trenches, the more I'm convinced that this decades-old debate is just a way of masking our deepest mothering insecurities and jealousies. Because, no matter where we fall on the working spectrum, we're riddled with self-doubt about our choice and convinced that someone else has it a bit better than us. Are we doing the best thing for our children, our spouse, ourselves, by working or not working or working from home, as the case may be?

Even if we were so inclined to call a truce, it seems researchers and the media just won't hear of it. Rarely a day goes by without some new essay or study discussing the effects on children based on the type of child care they receive during their early years. "Poor Behavior Linked to Time in Daycare", "Study Shows Consistent Benefit of Early Daycare". Kids in daycare more likely to get sick. Kids whose moms work, more likely to be fat. Kids whose moms stay home watch more TV. Kids who go to daycare develop stronger language skills. And on, and on, and on.

The results of these studies appear to be across the board and completely inconsistent. Except in one important respect. The mom's resulting guilt and insecurity over her choice. Regardless of your working situation, half of the studies out there are condemning and criticizing what you're doing on this front. It would take one self-assured woman not to second-guess her decision. The mom at work who had a hard time separating herself from her little one that morning logs onto her computer, only to find that her decision (or need) to work is making her child fat. Guilt and insecurity follow. The stay-at-home mom who turns on Sesame Street for her kids so she can get a few things done around the house and then logs onto Facebook for a couple of minutes of "adult interaction" before Elmo's World ends, comes across the headline about how kids who are at home with their moms watch too much TV. Guilt and insecurity follow.

This is also another of those topics that friends and family love to weigh in on as well, most often condemning a mom's choice, no matter what that choice may be. Stay at home moms are often accused of being spendthrifts, blowing through all of their husband's hard-earned money and not doing nearly enough around the house to compensate for their lack of income. Alternatively, working moms are often accused of dragging children to daycare, even when they don't feel well. And, oh, the long hours those poor kids have to spend in daycare, they hardly know who mommy is. And work at home moms often find themselves in a no-man's land, where people tend to forget that they "work" and think of their efforts at employment as a cute hobby. The phrase, "no-win situation," comes to mind right about now.

Today, I ask all moms to stand up for ourselves and each other and say No More! No more taking each other to task over this decision or need. Let's acknowledge that the vast majority of moms are just doing their best and muddling along in this journey together. Let's acknowledge that each family has different needs, both financially and emotionally. Needs that factor into a mom's decision to work or not work. What works for one family, may not work for another. Let's agree to cut each other a break, okay? Cause it's hard enough out there without moms second-guessing each other every step of the way.

Every time I see a headline that is a variation on the theme: "Who has it easier, working moms or stay at home moms?" I get steamed. Not one of us has it "easy." Motherhood's not an easy gig, no matter what the state of one's employment may be. Each of these titles comes with its own benefits and drawbacks.

The Working Mom. Generally speaking, moms who work outside of the home have the least amount of flexibility. Working outside the home often means long hours away from kids and missing out on some of the fun experiences kids have. Dreading the inevitable call from daycare, telling them to come and pick up their sick child is something most working moms live with - especially on days where there's an important meeting/conference call, etc. Of course, working moms have some benefits to their role as well. They usually have a lunch hour and a smattering of minutes throughout the working day to run errands, shop online and take care of some personal items, sans kids. Let's be honest, that drive to and from work now constitutes some nice alone time as well. Working moms also are more likely to have their own financial security. If something were to happen to their marriage or their spouse, they still have their own source of income to rely on.

SAHM. They stay at home mom has given up a career, or at least a job, as well as daily interaction in the adult world to stay home with her kids, so those kids better grow up and appreciate it, darn it. This role has the greatest amount of flexibility, as moms aren't trying to balance both work and motherhood. They can focus on the family, without the pull of the job. There's a lot of freedom to that. Naptime can be devoted to catching up on TV, Facebooking, reading a book, or otherwise getting some time in for oneself. However, the stay at home mom has also made trade-offs and sacrifices. Let's face it, she's now financially dependent on her spouse, which can be a source of tension and insecurity. She may want to go back to work at some point and worries that her time off will make it hard for her to re-enter the workforce. Maybe she wants to go back to work now but it just doesn't make sense financially to do so. Childcare's expensive and a mom has to make a fair amount of money at a job even to cover the costs of childcare, let alone anything beyond that. Also, the stay at home mom is in the greatest danger of feeling isolated from other adults during the day if she doesn't have a strong support network of other SAHMs nearby.

WAHM. In many regards, the Work-at-Home-Moms have the best of both worlds. They're at home with their kids and are able to make those Tuesday morning playdates. They fit in work during naptime and after the kids have gone to bed. This allows them to keep up professionally, get the mental stimulation that working provides and bring in some extra cash. The downsides of course are, looking at that schedule, when does the WAHM have time to just kick back and relax? Maybe from 10:00 - 10:30p.m. Also, since the type of work people can usually do from home is part-time, contract or freelance work, this work rarely comes with health benefits and is often a lower-rate of pay than a mom would earn if she were working outside the home.

Now, can we all agree that each of these roles has some real pluses and some real minuses? No matter what path a mom takes, she's making trade-offs and so is her family. Let's imagine for a moment what moms might be able to accomplish if we stopped fretting about these choices and focused that effort and attention on causes that could actually improve the lives of mothers and children. If we put half of the energy we spend criticizing and second-guessing one another for our decisions regarding working, just think of what we could do. Improving parental leave laws comes to mind, as a big first start. Improving access to affordable childcare does as well. So does improving working conditions for moms who breastfeed, or need to take time off with sick children. There are so many causes out there that if we put forth the time and the energy would benefit ALL moms and ALL children. Moms are a strong and powerful force, we shouldn't underestimate ourselves. Let's wave the white flag on this particular war and move on to more important matters.


  1. Bravo. Very well said. I am "The Working Mom" working my way to WAHM status- I read this post while on my lunch break. I enjoyed your post very much and will definitely share your insight with my other mommy friends. Hugs & High Fives to all Mommies!

  2. Oh Dana. I do love you. This was perfectly written...honest and forthright. I will be featuring this on my fb page for all 45 of my peeps to read. :) Thank you.

  3. Awesome post. Could not have said any of it better! Personally, I hate the labels. I am actually a WAHM, but I always call myself a SAHM, because I find that it invites fewer questions!

  4. I'm a SAHM who admires - but doesn't really envy - working moms. I want to be where I'm at and I'm fine w. moms who want to work, and I get it - some of my girlfriends say they'd be bored out of their wazoo as a SAHM, and I do once in a while envy them their "adult me time" they get during the day, doing "important stuff." Once, I judged. I have a girlfriend who is a worker bee/career girl & she got laid off and had a 4 month break - so I said, "You are so lucky now you can take your newborn out of daycare" - baby was in there 6 AM to 6 PM daily. And my friend shocked me when she said, "I'm not doing any such thing." She left her in there! I couldn't believe it! Was shocked & judgemental! However - pleased to report that 8 years later, this child is normal, sweet, happy - no different than my overly-smothered one. So - that says something - I'm not sure what, but it says somethin'...

  5. great post! http://www.lynnaluvers.com/2011/05/celebrating-news-anchor-mom-on-mothers.html

  6. Ado, yeah, it can be hard not to judge sometimes but I think that generally, there are so many institutional challenges that make it hard on moms, no matter what their role. If we could improve things like maternity leave, time off to care for sick kids, etc., it would help level the playing feel for a lot of people.

    Murdoc - thanks for stopping by.


  7. Thank you so much for this articulate and thoughtful discussion. I note that the fathers aren't mentioned and it reminded me of a favorite line from a Slate article written by Michael Agger: "The work/life balance is one of many child-raising issues that men can sidestep (starting with actually giving birth to the child). Men get credit for staying at home. Men get credit for going to work. Women get criticized no matter what choice they make." Check out his "Freaky Fortnight" switch with his wife in 2009 at http://www.slate.com/id/2231321/entry/2233377/.

  8. Love the post! How about some recognition of differences within the working mom group. Women in the work place also torture themselves and each other with comparison. www.primarydilemma.com tries to break the vicious and discouraging cycle.

  9. Hi Anonymous - Thanks for stopping by. So true, fathers really do get off Scot-free in this whole discussion. Equalizing that particular debate is incredibly daunting. I'll have to check out that Slate article. (Dana)


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