SAHM vs. Housewife

“I dance and sing and play the guitar and listen to NPR. I write letters to my family, my congressional representatives, and to newspaper editors. My kids and I play tag and catch, we paint, we explore, we climb trees and plant gardens together. We bike instead of using the car. We read, we talk, we laugh. Life is good. I never dust.” (Quoted in Sandra Tsing Loh, “I Choose My Choice!,” The Atlantic, July/August 2008)

The above is a quote from a stay-at-home mom describing her daily life. Feminist thinker Linda Hirshman famously criticized the anonymous mom for living the life of a “toddler,” and urged all women to forsake the home in order to avoid such a mindless life. Leaving aside the fact that work outside the home can, in fact, be just as mindless (hasn’t Hirshman ever had to work a cash register, grade exams, or write a “mission statement” for a nonprofit?), it’s also important to note that work *inside* the home wasn’t always the way it was described here.

In order to identify the difference, let’s consider the difference in terminology. While women who stayed home were once referred to as “housewives” or “homemakers,” they’re now almost exclusively referred to as “stay-at-home moms.”

The term “housewife” or “homemaker” references the household as a whole: the husband, the wife, the children, servants, elderly parents, pets, etc. It includes all these people, but not as separate entities; rather, it folds them into a single entity, the household. It therefore emphasizes the *common* good.

The term “stay-at-home mom,” however, emphasizes only the mother and, by extension, the children. The husband and any other family members are left out. It therefore emphasizes the mother’s desire to be home with her children–not anyone else’s needs or desires.

Consider the quote above. I don’t know this woman and I’m sure she’s a fine person in real life, but her quote makes it seem as if she pursues nothing but pleasure and play alongside her children. It evinces no concern with keeping a clean, welcoming environment for her husband, or caring for her elderly parents, or with service to a common good at all, really.

There’s a lot to be done in managing a home: cooking healthy meals, cleaning, educating children, caring for the sick, performing religious duties. But if we frame it all in terms of *our* desires, in terms of whether having and staying home with kids fulfills *us* as women, then we really are living the lives of “toddlers.” After all,adults should understand that it’s not all about us. It’s about what best serves the common good.

In short, I think I prefer the term “housewife.” Yes, it’s only a word, and most women use the term “stay-at-home mom” without intending any hidden meaning. But I think the mass use of the term signals a cultural shift that isn’t wholly positive.

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