Susan Vollenweider: Who’s a stay at home parent?

02/11/2014 12:00 AM

02/10/2014 1:11 PM

I have no desire to contribute to any further Mommy Wars, but I have had a few conversations of late that caused me to look at a hard-earned scar from previous battles: what defines a stay-at-home mom?

“Parent” or “dad” could be substituted for “mom” — but I thought that there was a universal definition: The parent who stays home and is the first responder for kid and house duties. Stay at home parents don’t bring in an income, but are on duty 24/7. Synonymous with “housewife” or “househusband.”

When my children were pre-school age I was a poster-mom for SAHPs. I was a traditional, full-time housewife. If I had been wearing pearls and heels you could have mistaken me for June Cleaver. When I met people and they asked the question that people always ask, “What do you do?” I was fast to answer, “I stay home with the kids.”

Why do we ask that question? We need to, it’s part of the getting-to-know-you process. Getting to know people is a good thing. I never had issue with that question until I didn’t know how to answer it.

When our youngest child went to school full-time, my duties at home changed. I still thought of myself as a SAHM, but I had other interests and activities that were important to me that had nothing to do with house and family: I volunteered, I started writing for fun and took my friend up on her offer to start a podcast. Nothing brought in any money, so when I met people and they asked the question that people always ask, I gave the same SAHM answer. But I always felt like I needed to explain myself. “Now that the kids aren’t home during the day…,” I prattled on. It felt like I was justifying my existence. Although I was always proud to call myself a SAHM, I didn’t think I was doing everything that I should to earn the title.

So I started changing my answer. “Writer.” “Podcaster.” “Volunteer.” The first one started taking more time and I started to be paid for it. The last one dropped off a bit and the house cleaning got less, well… exact. Then there was that pesky issue of income. Part of my husband’s definition of SAHM is that they don’t bring home the lion’s share of the income.

He’s not alone although, gratefully, he is not the extreme. There are husbands (plural, it’s a thing) and people in general who think of stay-at-home-parents as parasites. Those who don’t bring in an equal income are simply living off of those who do and the majority breadwinner is afforded certain perks. Basically: salary defines who is responsible for the household duties and kid raising responsibilities. If Parent A makes 48 percent of the family income and works five less hours a week than Parent B, Parent A is on kid, cooking and cleaning detail.

I don’t know who is to blame for this thought: The people who judgmentally think like this? The parents who modeled it? The spouses who accept it? To me, it seems antiquated (and not in a good way).

But it works in some families.

And in some it doesn’t, but learning through several conversations that people think this way helped clarify my blurred definition of a stay-at-home-parent: there is no universal definition.

Next time you are with a group of parent-friends, ask them, “How do you define SAHP?” When I did the conversation was lively and the definitions varied but I got to get to know my friends better in the light they saw themselves.

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