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Why Do We Continue To Stigmatize Stay-At-Home Moms?

Erin Almond: Maybe if we, as a culture, stopped stereotyping stay-at-home moms, we’d do a better job at providing them the kind of support they need to succeed. In this photo, a scene from the 1975 film, "The Stepford Wives."  (flickr) closemore
Erin Almond: Maybe if we, as a culture, stopped stereotyping stay-at-home moms, we’d do a better job at providing them the kind of support they need to succeed. In this photo, a scene from the 1975 film, "The Stepford Wives." (flickr)

Most of the time, when people ask, I tell them that I work from home. Technically this is true, because as a novelist, staring out the window daydreaming while nursing a baby can actually be considered “working.”

But even though I continue to write and occasionally publish fiction, now that I’ve had my third baby the truth is, for the most part, I’m a stay-at-home mom.

So why do I hesitate to admit this?

If I’m being honest with myself, it’s because that label makes me feel diminished, unimportant, perhaps even a betrayer of that wide-eyed dreamer who went off to California to get her MFA 10 years ago.

The truth is, the job isn’t without stigma. As a society, we idealized housewives in the 1950s. Within a couple of decades, stay-at-home moms were demonized as lazy “welfare queens” if they were poor, and submissive, zombified “Stepford Wives” if they were wealthy.

Here in Boston, where intellectual ambition is so important, mothers who choose to stay at home can feel defensive about using their considerable brain power to research preschools and schedule playdates. I know that I have.

The most insidious side effect of this perception is that it allows our society to deny women full adult status. They’re effectively portrayed as little more than children themselves.

In a particularly low moment of my own mothering career (it involved getting down on my hands and knees to pick up crumbs) I actually admonished my children: “I went to graduate school you know!” This is not a moment I’m proud of, or find easy to admit.

So you can imagine my chagrin, then, to read Julie Suratt’s piece in the latest issue of Boston Magazine: “The Terrifyingly Nasty, Backstabbing & Altogether Miserable World of the Suburban Mom.”

This article portrays stay-at-home moms in the small towns surrounding Boston as insecure juveniles, more worried about fitting into the right mommy clique than about the welfare of their children or the state of their marriages. Their social lives are dominated by the most popular mom, the “Queen Bee,” and her disapproval can be enough to force you out of town.

Although I'm sure that the women Ms. Suratt writes about, and their experiences, are real, I have trouble believing they comprise a representative sample.

Perhaps my own East Arlington neighborhood isn't tony enough to qualify for Suratt's demographic, but my experience has been vastly different.

Last summer, I had my third baby. A few days later, my husband had to leave town suddenly when his own mother fell gravely ill. I was deeply moved by how my community of moms stepped in to help out with taking care of our older kids, grocery shopping and meals. They didn’t need to follow the direction of some “Queen Bee.” They simply saw a fellow mom in need and showed some basic empathy.

The problem with Suratt’s piece is that she focused on women who appear to choose friends based on their economic and social status. These are misguided motives that have nothing to do with being a mom, stay-at-home or otherwise. Maybe it’s simply a case of reaping what you’ve sown.

The larger question is, of course, why Boston Magazine would run a story like this in the first place?

It's obviously meant to be provocative (and yes, I realize I've taken the bait). But it seems to me that this decision feeds into a larger, more dangerous, cultural perception about mothers. It’s the same gleeful stereotyping that feeds the popularity of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise. Shows like these portray stay-at-home moms as spoiled brats who spend their time shopping, gossiping about each other and staging cat fights. Viewers who buy into these contrived story lines — just like the readers of Suratt’s piece — can feel justified in their disdain of these women.

The most insidious side effect of this perception is that it allows our society to deny women full adult status. They’re effectively portrayed as little more than children themselves.

Look: There's no job less prestigious than raising children. The pay is terrible. The work is incessant and can often fairly be called “drudgery.” And the external rewards, such as economic power and intellectual respect, are nil.

Yet it's one of the most valuable jobs in the world.

Maybe if we, as a culture, stopped stereotyping stay-at-home moms, we’d do a better job at providing them the kind of support they need to succeed. Such as guaranteed health care, state-run childcare and reasonable family leave policies. You know, the kind of support most other industrialized nations already provide.

Articles like Suratt's not only contribute to the low self-esteem of mothers who work in the home, they distract us from these more important conversations.

In the end, it's a lose-lose situation for all of us.


Related:

Erin Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Erin Almond is a graduate of the MFA program at UC-Irvine, and has published short stories in Normal School, Nerve.com and Small, Spiral Notebook.

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