Yes, We Do Need A New Word For 'Stay-At-Home Moms'

Checking on dinner
Checking on dinner

The childhood rhyme is wrong, of course -- words CAN always hurt you. They have power, and pack a punch, which is why we spend so much time parsing and dissecting them.

Jessica Grose does some particularly pointed desconstructing over on Double X this week, asking “Why Do We Call Them ‘Stay-at-Home-Moms?’ There Must Be A Better Term.”

She starts, as one should, with the history of that term. As with so many descriptors that become laden with connotation -- first Negro, then Black, then African-American, for instance -- this one started as a replacement for one that had itself become outdated and insulting. First there were housewives, then homemakers. Only in the early 1990s, when women rightly objected to both of those because they made raising children more about the home than the kids, did the term stay-at-home-mother enter the language. And now many of us think that sounds like a slap, too.

When you write about parenting, you quickly learn that there is no way to describe mothers and their relationship with the paid workforce that doesn’t insult someone.

Stay-at-home mother? “Makes me sound like a shut-in!”

Working mother? “Don’t ALL mothers work!”

Non-working mother? “Really? You think I’m eating bonbons?”

Full-time mother? “What, you think because I have a job I am only a mother part of the time?!”

Let’s ignore for a moment the excellent point that we never seem to feel the need to modify “fathers” with “working” and focus instead on whether it is time to change what we call mothers who do or do not receive a paycheck. Because what we call them simultaneously reflects and alters the way we perceive them.

The problem with the current options -- working mom (let’s call her WM) and stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) -- is that they create a paradigm that is black and white, polar opposites. As MORE editor Leslie Jane Seymour wrote recently of the time she asked, as a brand-new mother at a PTA open house, whether she might join both the club for SAHMs AND the one for WMs, “Oh no, you need to choose.”

But in real life few of us are all one acronym or the other. I have rarely met a SAHM who was not at one point fully engaged in the workforce and who did not have plans to reenter at some future point. And I know very few WMs who have not changed the way they work to adapt to the changing rhythms and responsibilities of children. Women who are “at home” are also running small businesses or local charities or school fundraisers. Women who are “at work” are leaving early, or arriving late, or working after children are in bed, or arranging part-time, flex-time and telecommuting schedules.

Last week, New York Magazine held Kelly Makino up as the poster person for SAHMs -- “the Retro Wife,” she was called on the cover -- and yet, in an interview with me and Nancy Redd on HuffPostLive, she said that she is hardly an example of all-or-nothing. (You can watch the clip below and read the piece in Jezebel in which Makino told Tracie Egan Morrissey the same.) Though she no longer is paid as a social worker, for instance, she uses her training in her work with a 600-family co-op that helps parents “pool time and resources.”

If women are not either/or, this/not that, why then is our language so binary? And how do we change that? Or, more specifically, what do we change it TO?

I would suggest that a replacement term has to meet two criteria. First, that it apply to men as well as women. Second, that it include those who are parents and those who are not. Our social ideal should be a work/life paradigm where everyone shapes a career that includes times where we work full-throttle and times when we ratchet back, and our words should be consistent with that. They should embrace the sense of ebb and flow, more and less that are the truth of most of our lives, rather than the stop and start, one or the other, that are unrealistically divisive.

We already have options out there. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose recent change of her company’s name from the Center for Work-Life Policy to the Center for Talent Innovation reflects that broadened perspective, uses the analogy of a highway, with on-ramps and off-ramps. Cathy Benko of Deloitte uses the image of a lattice rather than a ladder, allowing for zigs and zags.

And perhaps the answer will turn out to be Sheryl Sandberg’s recent contribution, that of Leaning In and Leaning Back -- as in “I’m leaning back in my career for the moment and leaning in more at home.”

Whatever the word, it’s past time we find one.

Suggestions? Leave yours in the comments or tweet them to @HuffPostParents and we'll collect them in a slideshow here.

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