The Myth of the Trend Story Stay-at-Home Mom

What Women Really Think
Sept. 4 2013 3:26 PM

The Myth of the Trend Story Stay-at-Home Mom

SAHM
Staying home for now.

Photo by BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock

In a piece titled “The Overhyped Rise of the Stay-at-Home Dads,” the Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann punctures the trend-story picture of armies of dads taking over the playground. Though the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled since 1994, families with SAHDs only account for less than 1 percent of couples with kids under the age of 15. That number is also very low when compared to the percentage of stay-at-home moms of children under 15 in the U.S.—23 percent.

But that 23 percent number can be misleading too, because stay-at-home-mom-dom is just a snapshot in time: it’s not a permanent title for most of those women. The time women spend out of the labor force when they do become SAHMs has been getting shorter, says historian Stephanie Coontz, the author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. “The mommy wars assume and contribute to a phony distinction between two supposedly distinct categories of women”—working mom versus stay-at-home mom—“but most women transition through several different stages of work and family status,” Coontz says.

Advertisement

The statistics bear this out. According to Sarah Jane Glynn, associate director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress, in 2012, women with a child under age 6 had a labor force participation rate of 64.8 percent, while women with children between the ages of 6 and 17 had a participation rate of 75.1 percent. “This indicates that women often return to work once their children reach school age,” Glynn told me via email. “I suspect the rate would continue to rise if you broke the age groups down even further.”  

The current discussions about mothers, fathers and work tend to treat the issue like a zero sum game: Opt out! Lean in! Regret opting out and try to lean in! But in fact, the vast majority of people, regardless of gender, both want to work and to parent, and fathers are just as likely to feel the pressure of work-life balance as mothers.  These are complicated, nuanced problems—not nearly as easy to write about as those wealthy stay-at-homes carting their kids to the Hamptons because school is starting a week later than usual, but much more worthwhile.

Correction, September 4, 2013: The original version of this post misstated Sarah Jane Glynn's title and the organization for which she works.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 11:25 AM Naomi Klein Is Wrong Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.