Housewives: A Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous?

Whenever the “mommy wars” erupt in the blogosphere–as they do with some, though perhaps decreasing, frequency–there’s always at least one blogger or commenter who tries to shut down the discussion using the following argument: “Guys, we are talking about a TINY MINORITY of wealthy women who even have the option to stay home. Shouldn’t we instead direct our efforts towards improving the lives of working-class women, instead of squabbling about what millionaire women do with their time?”

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that we should care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25: 45), and that obsessing about whether Michelle Obama should keep working probably isn’t a vital part of this goal. ¬†But are the Michelle Obamas of the world the only women who can afford to stay at home?

To the contrary, the data indicates that there are, in fact, a good number of working-class women who stay home with their children. According to the Pew Research Center’s survey on working mothers, 40% of all its female respondents do not work outside the home–a far cry from “a tiny minority.” The report states that stay-at-home mothers actually have “lower household incomes than working mothers . . . 37% of at-home moms report an annual household income of less than $30,000, [but] only 20% of working moms fall into this income category.” Stay-at-home mothers are also disproportionately non-white. Whites constitute 72.4% of the American population, but only 54% of stay-at-home mothers in the survey were white.

The survey had a small sample size, and unfortunately I can’t use Census data to get a better idea of the true scope of the issue, since it doesn’t count the number of homemakers in the population. However, sociologist Stephanie Coontz confirms that low-income women are legion in the homemaking population:

The women most likely to become stay-at-home moms today are in fact the ones whose husbands can least afford to support a family. Women whose husbands’ earnings are in the bottom 25 percent are the only sector of the population where full-time mothers outnumber those who combine paid work with parenting. Fifty-two percent of these wives are out of the paid labor force, compared with only 20 percent of wives whose husbands’ earnings are in the middle range.

Coontz argues that poor women become homemakers because they have no other options. ¬†Without citing any data as to why the poorest women are the ones staying home, she breezily assumes: “many American women, then, are full-time homemakers because they cannot afford to work. They do not have the education or job experience to earn a salary that would cover the costs of child care or transportation, even though the family could really use a second income.” But given that poor and nonwhite women tend to be more traditionally-minded and religious, I think many of them stay home because of conviction, not lack of opportunity. Interestingly, the poor and uneducated have higher fertility rates than educated women–so if they truly hate being trapped at home with young children, why do they keep having them?

Though I can’t test my hypothesis without conducting a survey of my own, I personally think that lower-class women stay home because they believe it’s good for the children, because they find it fulfilling, and because they understand that paid work isn’t as glamorous as The Feminine Mystique portrays it. Therefore, if we really want to support lower-class women, we shouldn’t trivialize the “mommy wars” or throw universal day care and job training at the problem, but should instead work to strengthen marriage (since one can hardly be a homemaker without a supportive husband), create more jobs for men, and improve community support for mothers.

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Just A Housewife

In an episode of the Donna Reed Show, Donna Reed notices that housewives tend to designate themselves as “just a housewife,” belittling the important vocation of wife and mother. She goes on a crusade to show the world that housewives are as skilled as professionals who work outside the home, since the housewife role comprises many jobs: chef, seamstress, accountant, psychologist, tutor, etc. Therefore, they shouldn’t refer to themselves as “just” a housewife any more than professionals refer to themselves as “just” astrophysicists or college professors.

Nowadays, many housewives engage in an even greater variety of tasks: running a business on Etsy, writing widely-read “mommy blogs,” homeschooling multiple children while simultaneously caring for an infant or toddler, telecommuting from home part-time. As Jennifer Fulwiler argues, this array of options has enabled women to balance family with intellectually fulfilling work and has, to a great extent, rendered the “mommy wars” obsolete.

However, I worry that people now look askance at women who don’t take advantage of these opportunities–like a woman is lazy if she “just” cares for the household and children. But as a person who wrote and defended my dissertation while also caring full-time for a baby, I can attest to the fact that there can be disadvantages to working, even inside the home. In order to get work done, I constantly tried to get my daughter to play by herself–and resented her when she wouldn’t. (She does like to play with her toys, but she lets out bloodcurdling screams if I don’t sit down on the floor playing with her, preferably no more than 2 inches away at all times. I hope this doesn’t portend future psychological issues). I was always distracted from both tasks and probably performed poorly at both. Had I maintained such a work schedule long-term, I would have either had to 1) drug my daughter with television or 2) stop talking to my husband, washing the dishes, and other little niceties of life.

I somehow got through this past year with a completed dissertation (and a modicum of sanity still intact.) My graduation has prompted many inquiries: “So what are you going to do now? Are you going to teach/go on the academic job market/publish your dissertation as a book?” I wish I could retort “Do you not see the giant toddler velcroed to my leg? I think she constitutes an 80-hour work week in and of herself,” but instead I usually mutter something about working on articles for publication and starting an academic editing business. While it’s true that I’m undertaking the latter tasks, they only constitute a tiny part of my daily life. For the most part, I really am “just a housewife.”

And I think that should be enough. A job is just a job, but being a wife and mother is a vocation.