Who gets to call themselves a SAHM?


Last week I wrote this post on the absurd, six-figure salary assigned to the tasks of being a stay-at-home mom. By calling this number inflated I set off a spirited debate on my Facebook page and several other blogs around the web. The arguments were as-expected: lecturing about judging others, proclamations of equal effort exerted by moms and professionals, and the challenges of affording day care (if this is you, contact me off board so we can brainstorm some ways for you to keep your foot in your career part-time while caring for your kids. I am happy to help!)

What struck me most in last week’s debate is that the strongest defenders of their SAHP positions turned out to actually have jobs. After a long-winded defense about why she and her family are far better off for her to be home full-time, one woman finally confessed that she teaches at a college; a “SAHD” is actually a DJ with an entertainment business, and one vocal nay-sayer is a blogger and aspiring writer. These are professional jobs. They may be part-time gigs or startup enterprises, but each of these ardent defenders of her or his position as a SAHP actually has an active career.

Which brings me to the question: Who gets to call themselves a stay-at-home parent?

The key word here is”get” — as in: Who has the privilege of using the title of SAHM?

As I have written here and for DailyWorth, there is a cultural belief that the stay-at-home parent is the better parent. This notion is bolstered by the grossly inflated dollar figures cooked up by the $114,000 SAHM salary which is triple that of a full-time working woman in this country. I urge moms to abandon this notion and embrace your status as a working mom — most especially if you do in fact have a paying job. Because if you do, it’s because you need to for financial, emotional, psychological or social reasons — all of which are critical to your wellbeing and that of your family.

Which is why it is especially bothersome that these parents are disingenuous about their titles. Maybe they earn a small fraction of their family’s income — or even (as I suspect in the case of the blogger) — none at all. But they still reap the many benefits of professional work: investing in a career and related financial security, nurture of their own intellectual and creative needs, interaction with professional adults, and a break from home life. These benefits contribute to the fact that actual full-time stay-at-home moms are more prone to depression and anger than their working peers, who are more likely to report happiness and a sense of thriving, according to this Gallup poll.

So, how do you define a SAH parent? 

Does it mean that you do not earn a living? Or that you have no professional pursuits whatsoever? What if you spend 20 hours weekly in unpaid blogging, or selling garage sale finds on eBay (it’s not work if the IRS doesn’t know about it, right?!)

Or is the differentiator that you do not pay for child care?Or maybe does it simply not matter. The bottom line is that there is zero shame in being a working mom. If you are a mom with a career — embrace it and do not feel guilty for it. And for crying out loud — do not lie about it.

24 thoughts on “Who gets to call themselves a SAHM?

  1. Yes: I think it means that you don’t earn a living. Most people don’t consider it “work” unless you get paid for said work.

    I’m curious of your opinion: if I blog 20 hours per week, but it’s unpaid, am I still putting my kid in “financial peril?” Or due to the fact that it could, some day, bring in money, is this more fiscally responsible?

  2. As I wrote above: “Maybe they earn a small fraction of their family’s income — or even (as I suspect in the case of the blogger) — none at all. But they still reap the many benefits of professional work: investing in a career and related financial security, nurture of their own intellectual and creative needs, interaction with professional adults, and a break from home life.”

    1. Which is it then? At one point (in response to my post), you say to do everything in your power to ensure financial security. That would be working outside the home, full time.

      You’ve also suggested working 15 hours a week, to which a friend of mine commented that those jobs are hard to come by.

      Now, you are stating simply to “nurture intellectual and creative needs, interact with professional adults…” Many SAHP do that already, maintaining a hobby that keeps them mentally stimulated.

      If your message is to get involved and stay active in the world outside of your children, then being the Social Butterfly Mom, we speak the same language.

      Forget about the intellectual benefits, because that’s not the purpose of your “building a rich family” blog. My question still stands unanswered: “If I blog, unpaid, do you still think I’m putting my family in financial peril?”

      1. SBM: I answered your Q at least four times in my post and FB thread.

        My work aims to empower women to be their best selves which includes financial autonomy.

        Best wishes to you in your endeavor.

  3. Why is it that you only write ethics that paint the picture you want. You are narrow minded and don’t put others into concern… I apologize for being a “SAHD”. I am so sorry I put a strain on your life for putting my family first. I would like to know your sources for this article… You must have done your research to be able to mock me with quotation marks!

      1. Thank you for your comments.

        SAHD is put in quotes in reference to one specific person who in fact has a paying job yet calls himself a “SAHD” — the paradox of which is the point of this whole post.

        Of course this is painting my opinion. It is not a blog. Sources are in links, though this is not a reported “article” as you call it — but a blog post from my point of view.

  4. Emma, you seem to have an axe to grind with the SAHP? There is zero shame in being a SAHP if you are a Dad or Mum embrace it do not feel guilty about it! I also think you’re missing a vitual point of the SAHP, it isn’t just about looking after the child/children it is about looking after and caring for the working parent.

    1. @Ian – very interesting perspective re: the SAHP is to “look after and care for the working parent” — that is very contrary the the dominant attitude in this culture, which is that staying at home with children is at least as equally taxing work as a paid career and is expected to be treated as such.

  5. Hi Emma, not sure if you remember me but we did an interview a while back for a piece you were writing, and then did a RetaiMeNot Google Hangout chat with a couple of other SAHDs as well.

    If you recall, I am and do call myself am at-home parent, even though I do work on the side (beyond the very very little money I make from my blog) occasionally such as freelance design/illustration and have written some children’s books that make me a few bucks a month.

    That work doesn’t make me no longer a SAHD, any more than a mom is no longer a SAHM just because she also sells Avon or Tupperware or what-have-you. In fact, most SAH parents I know do or look for some sort of paying work, either “on the side” depending on what they have time for, or perhaps in the evenings or on the weekends.

    The actual answer to your question of “Who gets to call themselves a stay-at-home parent?” is pretty simple: any parent who is making their role as primary caregiver for their child(ren) their primary job. Any money they may make doing additional jobs is irrelevant.

    Incidentally, the US Census, like you, questionably defines a SAHD based on the idea that ANY paid work (or even looking for work) is a disqualifying factor: http://www.daddydoctrines.com/2013/09/04/statistics-on-stay-at-home-dads-and-why-the-media-needs-to-start-digging-deeper/

  6. Hi Chris – of course I remember you, thanks for chiming in here.

    You wrote: “Any money they may make doing additional jobs is irrelevant.”

    Wow, I could not disagree more.

    As far as defining oneself: My primary job is also as a mom. I just busted out the calculator and found that I work more hours caring for my kids, who are in my sole care 75% of their waking hours (plus 6/7ths of their sleeping hours), and more hours than I do on my career, even though I happen to be 100% financially responsible for them. But it is a given that I take care of my kids. That is part of being a parent, so I don’t lead with that as my title, despite the number of hours I devote to them.

    But even more importantly: work is not just about the dollars attached to the task. The benefits go far, far beyond that: bridging your skills into a fulltime career later, the emotional and intellectual benefits of participating in the creative or professional tasks at hand, your identity, mental wellbeing, etc., etc. Just check out that gallup poll findings about the well being of SAH vs working moms – the differences are striking re: the happiness factor.

    And of course, beating my financial drum: nearly all families benefit from the financial security of having two careers at the ready. Divorce, illness, disability, death and other unforeseen tragedies are very, very real risk factors. You cannot afford to take them lightly.

    I know all about how dads get totally screwed when it comes to credit by the government, and it is a crying shame — and also another topic entirely. For the sake of this singular blog post I am grouping all SAH parents together.

    1. Emma, let me ask you this: should a single parent only *really* call themselves such if they have SOLE custody of their child, 100% of the time?

      After all, a shared custody arrangement of just about any configuration still bestows at least SOME of the tangible and intangible benefits of having dual parent household (a regular “break” from the kid, the likely the additional income in the form of child support for one of the parents, etc. never mind the benefits for the child having both parents involved) even if it also adds other complications.

      I would guess that you would say no?

      So why would a stay-at-home parent be disqualified from being considered such just because the small bit of work they do on the side offers a few of the tangible and intangible benefits that work outside the home can provide?

      I think you are absolutely right that the benefits of even doing *some* work are very real, but rather than being a disqualifying element I see it as practically being a necessity to being a successful full-time at-home parent and being happy. This is WHY so many moms take up Avon and Tupperware, or turn their interest in photography into a side-job of some kind — less because the family needs the extra income (though that may be desired too) and more because of the benefits of having that other outlet.

      Incidentally, I happen to think that single parents and stay-at-home parents have a lot in common in terms of the struggles both can face. In my mind single parents (at least with some level of shared custody, even more so with full custody) are functionally stay-at-home parents in many ways. We’ve had single dads come to the At-Home Dad Convention and get just as much out of it as the full-time at-home dads.

  7. For many “stay-at-home parents” the most accurate term is probably “primary caregiver” because many work a little. I mean, what parent who is with his/her children all day doesn’t do some kind of “work,” as you define it. Unfortunately, that term is not as easily understood in our culture as “stay-at-home mom” or “stay-at-home dad.”

    The Census tracks both stay-at-home parents and primary caregiving parents. They find 189,000 stay-at-home dads (dads who care for children and do no work) but nearly 7 million dads who are primary caregivers (dads who care for children but do work). Does this make things more clear or more complicated?

    What we need to realize is that some stay-at-home parents work a little but that work is usually not a significant contribution to their family’s income.

    Why does it matter? The numbers. At 189,000, stay-at-home dads look very insignificant. At 7 million, that is something. That shows there is a significant trend in our country of dads being primary caregivers. It should affect how society understands fathers and how government resources should be allocated.

  8. Hi Emma, I feel like I need to chime in here. In the case of a single parent–and since it was mentioned above, I include that I have sole custody of my child after my ex husband experienced a psychotic break- the discourse around even being a SAHP seems like a luxury. Thank goodness I cultivated my career and financial life during parenting or I would really be in dire straits right now, having risked my daughter’s and my financial future. I certainly did not enter marriage thinking that I would eventually be raising my daughter on my own. But life happens-job loss, sudden illness and death-and then what? I find the Salary.com survey elevates the SAHP above the working parent-I, like the SAHPs above, put my family first-it looks different, though, because I am also financially responsible for my family. I think saying that being a SAHP puts the family first(implied unlike working parents) is needlessly insulting to parents-who choose to work, or who have to work.

  9. @Chris – I’d love to hear your thoughts on what SAHPs and single parents have in common. Not a whole lot from my perspective. If you are one of the rare evolved couples who maturely navigate a two-household family with flexiblity and reverence for your ex, have sufficient funds to make the luxurious decisions as to how to best care for the kids in terms of time and money — then yes, that may be akin to a very functional family with one parent home fulltime.

    Otherwise, the vast majority of single moms (and yes, pretty much all are women) have little if any financial support and no help with child care from their kids’ father. I happen to be somewhere between these situations, and trust me — I do not relate to SAHMs. For medical reasons I am the sole financial provider — there is no parent who could even contribute if he wanted to. Emotionally my kids do have contributions from their father, who — on a good day — can be helpful with child care, but is quite often inconsistent with visits, leaving me in a child care lurch. After hosting this blog for 1.5 years and hearing from so many families, I am confident that my situation is better than the vast majority of those headed by single parents — and looks absolutely nothing like a middle- or upper-middle class SAHP family.

    And Valerie – me love you long time for this nugget: “the discourse around even being a SAHP seems like a luxury.” This convo is 100% a First Wold Problem issue — as, for that matter, is building an awesome life as a professional single mom. Which in and of itself is a sign that we have untold riches in opportunity and wealth in this culture. For which I am grateful.

  10. I feel compelled to comment here, which is rare for me.

    I heard you at the tail end of an interview on NPR a few weeks ago, and decided to check out your blog. I will no longer be following it. Instead of just deleting you from my bloglovin’ account and quietly disappearing, I feel compelled to respectfully explain why I am no longer interested in your thoughts or opinions.

    First, I want to concede that I respect thet idea that you are trying to promote women to have financial independence and to consider multiple ways to look at gaining that independence. However, it is your tone, your condescension, the way you attack instead of encourage, the way you demean and berate that is insulting and complete turn off to me. I don’t see the spirit of these messages as supportive and uplifiting, but bitter, biting and attacking.

    I am particularly offended by this tone and the incorporation of feminism.

    Feminism: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes

    “Feminism.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2014. .

    You could certainly offer many of the same financial principles you spout in a manner that is supportive, encouraging and educational. When you are berating women for the choices that they are making, or how they define themselves, you are not promoting equality. Instead, you are at miniumum implying that what works for you and your family must be used by all women and their families or they must just be plain stupid, i.e. “You are stupid if you do your own laudry”. More aggregiously, you are using your platform as a way to bully other women to feel bad about themselves and their choices. That is the antithesis of feminism.

    You obviously have a following that you resonate with, and I am all for consumer choice. This consumer chooses to no longer follow you.

    But please, please, don’t spout feminism, when in your own writing, you so clearly demean and berate women regularly.

    1. Hi Kim – Sorry to see you go. Clearly we have not only different opinions but different styles — and tolerance for anything but the status-quo respect-every-single-thing-every-woman-does-because-we-are-all-sisters sticky sweet business. Best wishes to you!

  11. I am a stay at home parent and I also agree the figures don’t fit the position. I used to have a career outside the home and came home and did all the doctoring, cleaning,cooking, driving. I have never looked at my role as a parent as a job. It’s my responsibility I made a decision on doing. I live with one income that comes from my husband. Sure I would love my dreams of being my own business owner to come to fruition without the responsibilities I face everyday interfering. But such is not life. I applaud parents who work outside of home and also parents who are trying to make it in the home. No one group is better than the other. As parents we can do only what we can so our kids get the best chance to have a successful life. And as I have experienced what you say about depression and anger. It’s so true. I am angry and I suffer depression now that I’m home now, but I’m happy that I can finally be here for my kids. It’s a double edged sword.

  12. Wow. I had 4 babies in 3 years and 9 months, no doubt I stayed home until the youngest was 2 and was getting divorced. To me it comes down to how much time you spend with your kids. If you are feeling like half a person then that is what they are getting. Doing 24/7 isn’t good for anyone the parent or the kid. I worked for many years after my divorce but part time and we were poor but for me I knew how to budget so I could still raise them. I had no real family support and their father was abusive so I felt I had to be with them as much as possible.
    Now they are 13, 14, 15 and 16 and their father and all grandparents have passed away so I am still working part time so I can be with them, and continue to attempt to raise them. Haha. They need me now as much as when they were little. The only thing that matters is the time we spend with them. But we have to have time apart to be our best.

What do you think? Please comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>