“Get ready to get crushed!” my wife said the morning a recent episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting, came out. During the episode, my co-host Allison Benedikt and I staged a silly “Mommy Wars Lightning Round” in which we went through a litany of hot-button parenting topics and declared our stance on them as quickly and reductively as possible. Natural childbirth or drugs? Drugs. Make your own baby food or jars? Jars. Vaccinate or don’t vaccinate? Gimme a break, I won’t even dignify that with a response.
But I really stuck my foot in it when Allison asked, “Stay at home or work?” “Whatever you think is best,” I answered, before adding: “Buuuut I have a secret disdain for people who stay at home.” When I said that, Allison gave me a real look; I figured that my comment might spur a couple of emails in response. But my wife, upon hearing it, knew better.
And she was right! We received dozens of emails, many of which contained the letters W, T, and F. Angry emails, sure, but angry in a thoughtful, searching, deeply felt way. Listeners wrote about their own families’ situations. Why they made the choices they made. The economic or family circumstances that led them to their decisions. They asked me pointed questions: Was I equally disdainful of nannies or day care workers, people who care for children as a job? Why didn’t my loudly proclaimed ethos that it’s not one parent’s business to criticize another parent’s parenting apply in this case? And where does my disdain come from, exactly?
Many of our letter writers told me that, as stay-at-home parents, they experience the unspoken but palpable disdain of working parents like me every day—though most aren’t so dumb or rude to actually express it like I did. That disdain goes in both directions, I think—at the very least, I, and other working parents I know, often feel excluded and judged by the stay-at-home parents in our social circles and neighborhoods. Why is this such a charged issue? Why do many of us feel as though we’re on opposite sides of a battle, rather than simply parents doing what we think is best?
On this week’s show, we dove deep into the realities of stay-at-home parenting. We talked to a Pew researcher whose data shows how rare the stereotypical privileged opt-out SAHP actually is. And we talked to one of the most vociferous emailers—a mom, Elise, who lives just a few miles away from me in Arlington and wrote demanding an apology—about her response to my disdain, about her life as a SAHM, and how she really feels about working parents.
And how do I really feel about Elise, and others who stay home? My shorthand for it was “disdain,” a very unambiguous word to describe what are in fact my wildly ambiguous, though not necessarily more admirable, feelings about stay-at-home parents: a rich stew of envy, disrespect, thankfulness, and resentment.
Let’s take those one by one.
Envy. Because indisputably SAHPs have the opportunity to spend more time with their children than I do. As a working parent whose No. 1 regret is all the things in my kids’ lives I miss (coaching soccer! Field trips! The kinds of sick days where they just have a fever and want to watch movies on the couch, not the ones where they barf all the time!), this cuts right to the heart of my own insecurities. And while it does no good to compare my life with other people’s, I can never shake the teensiest sense that kids who have a parent at home have it just a little bit better than my own kids—that if only I or my wife could be with them every day, we’d build closer family bonds, have a calmer home, and not constantly feel as though our kids’ childhoods were rushing past at breakneck speed.
I’m not alone in this anxiety: According to Pew, 60 percent of Americans think children are better off with a parent at home. Meanwhile, 48 percent of working dads and 52 percent of working moms say they would prefer to be at home raising their children but economic circumstances require them to work. Would I prefer to be at home all the time? No, but I often feel desperately guilty that I’m not at home very much of the time, even as I know I wouldn’t be well-suited to staying at home. (And so I’m also envious of SAHPs who do feel well-suited to it.)
It’s worth noting that there are times SAHPs are envious of working parents, too. We have more opportunities to carve out personal and professional lives that are separate from our identities as parents. We earn more money. We get to escape, frankly, from some of the banal grind of everyday, every-hour parenting—a grind that even my most chipper SAHP friends admit can be wearying. By 4 p.m. on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I am, I admit, kind of looking forward to the workweek ahead.
Disrespect. Because I do, deep in my heart, view working for a living as preferable to not working for a living. Where does this view come from? From my own working parents, I guess; from watching as brilliant women I knew in high school and college gave up the careers they might have led in favor of caring for children; from growing up embracing a kind of 1970s feminism that celebrated women breaking the shackles of housewifery and ascending, rapturously, to the workplace. From, mostly, the bias of my own experience. Because I am a liberal, I view that as preferable to being a conservative; because I am a Buffy fan, I view that as preferable to not liking Buffy. And because I can’t help but feel that my way of doing things is the best way of doing things, I respect people with jobs and subtly disrespect people without them.
(How much of this is about gender? An uncomfortable amount, because though I keep saying “stay-at-home parents,” I only really know stay-at-home moms. The gender double standard is alive and well in my disdainful heart, because if I met an Arlington SAHD, I would probably idolize him for breaking dad-ground in suburbia.)
I usually keep this disrespect under wraps. I’m friends with many stay-at-home parents, and hopefully I don’t actively offend them every day (just once on a podcast). But that doesn’t mean that SAHPs don’t feel disrespected anyway: “Secretly,” wrote one listener, Meredith, “all stay at home moms fear all our effort and work is being overlooked, or worse, not-so-secretly disdained. So not only do we have a really really hard job, we are treated as lesser.”
Thankfulness. Because stay-at-home parents do a lot of the unpaid work that keeps the wheels of our schools, our neighborhoods, and our churches running smoothly. Because I am sincerely thankful to our friend Rachel, who is the tireless engine behind the school play, my kids’ favorite extracurricular activity of the year. (This year they’re doing Willy Wonka. Cast lists go up soon! Rachel, please don’t punish my kids for my sins!) Because I am deep in karmic debt to our friend Jen, who invited our kids over during multiple snow days this past awful winter. Because I love our friend Deb, who showed up at 7 this morning perfectly prepared for an hour-long support meeting with teachers at her children’s school in Queens.
What warm feelings. But then there’s …
Resentment. Ah, here’s where we come, at last, to what is likely the crux of the matter.
Recently a neighbor in my suburban Virginia neighborhood forwarded me an email invitation. A new elementary school is opening next year a few blocks away, and the just-hired principal was coming to a local mom’s house to meet and greet parents. “Enjoy coffee and pastries,” the invitation offered. The time of the meeting: Thursday at 11:30 a.m.
To many readers, that invitation is worth a shrug. Great, parents can meet the new principal almost a year ahead of time? Sounds nice. That school district must really have its act together. But the invitation exasperated me. Who, exactly, can come to coffee with the principal at 11:30 on a weekday? Not a dad with a job, that’s for sure. Who are the dedicated parents on the front line, the first ones the principal will encounter in her new duties at To Be Named Elementary? Stay-at-home parents, that’s who.
There is, in our community, a subtle but clear assumption that stay-at-home parents are the parents who count just a little bit more than the others. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways: SAHPs are the ones more likely to devote time not just to volunteering for events but in filling the organizational and ad hoc leadership positions in our children’s lives. Therefore, the decisions made at PTA meetings and school planning committees and daytime mommy groups and playdates revolve around the needs and concerns of stay-at-home parents, and are hashed out and solidified among that cohort long before they make their way to the working parents. (I only heard about the principal coffee I couldn’t even attend because a SAHM neighbor who’s been involved in planning the new school forwarded it to me.)
It’s not only that I resent not having more of a say in what after-school clubs my daughters have to choose from: I can’t help but think that the SAHPs in Arlington, at least, think that working parents must not be quite as invested in their kids’ lives. If we were, we wouldn’t be working so much, right?
But maybe I’m just insecure. Because when you’re insecure about your own parenting situation, it sure makes it easy to see judgment behind every missed invitation, every tight smile at the bus stop, every mom who brings backup snacks to the soccer game on your day because she assumes you’ll forget. (I only forgot that one time!)
That arrow from feeling judged to feeling resentful is what’s really at the core of my feelings about SAHPs—and what, I’d wager to guess, is behind the hard feelings that many Mom and Dad Are Fighting listeners now have about me. Because here I was, confirming the secret disdain that they’d always feared working parents had for them.
I’ve been surprised over the past month by how difficult I’ve found it to dig into my feelings on this issue. My disdain is uncharitable and reflects poorly upon me. It goes against my firmly held (and self-righteously proclaimed) philosophy that all parents are doing the best they can and only assholes judge other parents (out loud). But in this case, my feelings were so strong that I apparently couldn’t stop myself from being the asshole.
Why did I care so much that I had to get in that dig? Why were all our listeners so angry and hurt? It seems to me that the choice (or, for many Americans, the lack of choice) about whether to stay home or go to work gets at the root of all our insecurities as parents. It’s not about what we feed our kids, or what they play with, or how they sleep. It’s more elemental: It’s about our very presence in their lives—not what we do but what we are. Are we mothers and fathers first? What kind of mothers and fathers are we? When our children are adults, how will they remember us from when they were young? As all too present? As hardly there? “Every single parent I know,” Elise, our guest on this week’s episode, reminded us, “is terrified that they’re not doing it right.”