More on the Working/Stay-at-Home Mom Thing

This is a follow-up to my post from last week about the importance of women being in the workforce in order to effect change, and the equally compelling vision of a less-career focused, more family- and community-oriented role for both women and men. There were some good comments there too—check them out.

Disclaimer: I realize that for many people, there is no choice but to work. That can’t be forgotten in this. If you even have a choice to work or not work, that is in many ways a privileged position. Anyway.

This stuff is so complicated. I think what’s hard about this is that there are general ideals and there are specific cases.

Here’s some general stuff, clothed in specifics: I work in a male-dominated field. I gain a whole lot of strength from my female colleagues. And without a critical mass of us, it’s going to continue to be a male-dominated field. The stereotype of the man in his late 30s with the wife and adorable children will continue to be the platonic ideal of the desirable pastor, without sheer numbers of people demonstrating a different way. We need women and their prodigious gifts for ministry. We need the ones who agitate and advocate. And we need the ones who catch flies with honey.

Linda Hirshman got totally raked over the coals for her Get to Work stuff, and I don’t remotely agree with everything she said. But she deserves at least some credit for suggesting that our decision to work or not work has a collective dimension to it. Yes, it’s a private decision, but it has public and societal consequences, assuming you believe, as I do, that corporate boardrooms and halls of Congress should look something like the society at large. And assuming you believe, as I do, that a woman who sets aside career for several years is going to have a much longer slog to get to those boardrooms and halls.

I don’t like slippery slopes and this comes dangerously close, but what the heck: Imagine—what if every woman opted out? Would the world be a better place? Would the workplace be more family friendly? Would the laws of the land reflect the perspectives of women? (And yes, I know men can opt out too, and there are a lot more men staying at home with kids than ever before, but the fact is it’s still mostly the women taking time off for childrearing.)

There is a collective dimension to this. Honestly? Part of what keeps me in ministry is a sense of responsibility towards other women in ministry, both now and in the future. Several years ago I became the unofficial expert on maternity leave policies for the PC(USA). Word got out somehow that I had collected stats and example policies from around the denomination. Women I didn’t even know started e-mailing me for information, asking me how they might advocate for themselves, and so forth. And many of those contacts have continued as we all struggle to do that dance of ministry and motherhood in all its joys and frustrations. It’s one of those peripheral things I love about being a pastor—the crazy camaraderie.

So that’s the general.

But the specific is vitally important to acknowledge too: It is a personal decision. And every situation is different. Some people feel called to paid work outside the home; some feel called to full-time child-rearing/volunteerism/community building. And circumstance is everything. Is there a good support system? What are the spouse’s gifts and work situation? I said that I stay in ministry partly out of a sense of responsibility, but I’m also fortunate that we have a situation that works such that my kids don’t suffer for it. In fact I think their life is often enriched by my vocation. (Not always, I must admit.) I really, really love being a pastor and feel like I was put on this earth to preach. But sure, there is a tipping point beyond which even I would leave ministry.

I’ve been corresponding with a friend who’s taking time off from teaching to be with her kids ages 8 and under. She was kind enough to share her thought process on all that, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a flaw in her logic to stay home. Makes perfect sense. Likewise I have several talented friends, seminary colleagues, who are taking time off from paid parish ministry while their kids are young (and maybe beyond that, I’m not sure). Again, it seems to make sense given the circumstances.

But now, I think, we circle back to the general. Most women who leave the workforce for several years are not going to jump back in at the same pay scale and position as their colleagues who never left. I used to say “You can have it all, just not all at the same time.” I now say, “You can’t have it all, but you can have different things at different times.” Not exactly a rallying cry for female empowerment, eh? But accurate in my experience. Our lives are not infinite and every yes is also a no. The decision not to work for several years has economic consequences, and not just during those years. Perhaps there are some fields where you jump back in easily. But in many fields, the decision not to work has consequences that ripple out for untold years into the future. (Boy, I hope that’s not news to anyone.)

But again, to what extent does that matter? For many people, the positives of being home with children far outweigh the downsides. You can’t put a price on the added flexibility for volunteerism, exercise, hobbies, etc.

And the truth is, I identify with both “sides” of this, because I work part-time. I might write some about that but I’m curious what you think.


11 thoughts on “More on the Working/Stay-at-Home Mom Thing

  1. Cathy says:

    As you know, i am a hybrid. My schedule is flexible…which really means on “call” 18/7. BUT, i can do the field trips, scout duties, wardrobe duties at the recital etc. And,with little/no consequences from a boss etc. Coming out of the corporate world that seems like a huge plus!
    And, yet, my phone is ringing almost as soon as i pick up Claire from school after she has spent an hour in “after school”. Still, i can help with homework…even though i am online til late in the night (if need be working on contracts).
    What is amazing to me are the moms of 2 or 3 children. I honestly have no idea how you/they do it. I don’t have the brain capacity to handle all the scheduling/homework/lunches/traveling that would entail. So, if they have to work full time, i don’t begrudge them the nanny/wife etc.
    But, the shallow side of me, does wonder how some fit in tennis 3x/day. (snark from a worker mom)
    And, i have to say that i think as a mother of a daughter…i would always work to set a good example for her. I am wired to work outside the home. ..always was/always will be. It’s a tough one…i have dear friends who don’t work outside the home.
    I think i am the luckiest of all, to have the choice and to do something that i truly love. And, still manage to have family dinners 3-4 nights/week.

  2. Cathy says:

    And, i do realize i said, “good example” in the same sentence as “worker mom”…won’t play well in Peoria. But, come on…you have to do something between 9-3…right? besides tennis? sorry for being pedestrian.

  3. Erin Sikes says:

    One of the things that strikes me is the different ways in which we can be radical.

    I am part of a profession that is overrun with thirty-something, middle class, white women. There are more of us, in fact, than there are first grade teaching positions, with the district prepared to RIF even more classroom teachers next year, if legislative funding continues to fall. I am not pioneering any new paths, either by gender or ethnicity, and when I left both of my teaching jobs, my positions were filled each time by someone who was, demographically, just like I am.

    As a stay-at-home mom, however, I am an anomaly in our community. I don’t know even one other stay-at-home mom in our neighborhood. In fact, in the almost eight years we’ve lived in our house, I’ve never met another. I am also the only stay-at-home parent in our church community, which is across the street from Janie’s school. I think that parents with flexible schedules have a great deal to contribute to a school community, a truth driven home by the fact that Janie’s teacher almost had to cancel a field trip to the children’s museum on Tuesday because she couldn’t scrounge up enough adult chaperones, and by the letter we received last week that there would be no PTA next year if they couldn’t get someone, just one someone, to be on the board. The majority of families in our neighborhood are firing on all cylinders to pay their rent and keep their phones on, and they frequently work in jobs that offer no paid leave, which makes taking a half day off to go on a field trip a near impossibility. While I don’t have the free time or the discretionary income to play tennis three times a day, I do have a support network that makes it possible for me to arrange childcare for my preschool aged children, so that I can chaperone field trips and, possibly, serve on the PTA board next year.

    Given the needs in our neighborhood, and the skills and gifts that I have, I am putting those to best use right now by being at home. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t see this as an always decision. It is the right decision, for our community, and for our family, for the time being.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Very good point about what it means to be ‘radical.’ That’s what really intrigued me about the Radical Homemaker book. (Hey! it’s right there in the name…)

      I would also guess (though I don’t know) that teachers don’t take as much of a financial hit when they come back after an absence. I read a statistic that women lose an average of 18% of their earning power when the leave the workforce temporarily. In business it’s 28%. That’s substantial. Again, the benefits can outweigh the costs, but that’s a hidden one.

      I hear sometimes from women who would work, would like to work, but it doesn’t seem to make financial sense because their whole salary would go to childcare. I sometimes want to tell these women that if working would make them happier than staying home, then it’s worth it. But there’s also a hidden cost to staying home that people need to know about—future earnings. So maybe they’d come out ahead in the long run if they worked continuously.

      More complications…

  4. Rachel says:

    I, too, have been blessed with part-time employment supplemented by freelance web design work that I can move around to a certain extent, allowing me the best of both worlds. In addition, I work for my son’s school district, my office is at the high school which is around the corner from his school, and my boss is deeply committed to the idea that family comes first. Therefore, my personal and professional lives complement and support each other. I am so grateful I have so little feeling of being torn or having to choose between them. (Of course, I’ve only got the one kid, too, which also helps….)

  5. susan says:

    I have no choice but to work full time, unless I have a long lost rich uncle somewhere. For the most part, it’s good for Selam. She thrives on structure, and I’m not so good at providing that at home, so the school day with its predictabilities is good for her. What I wouldn’t give to have summers off, though. What I wouldn’t give to let her have the freedom of popsicles and playing outside and lazy afternoons at the beach. There’s a piece of me that feels like she is so cheated by all this (add to this that finances have dictated a 14 week sabbatical leave preaching gig, so this summer I’m working 6 days a week–and likely writing on the 7th. I worry and feel enormously guilty about it….but this is the life I have, we have. I guess I”d push you on the idea of what would happen if all women opted out. I think you mean all married/partnered women. If I opted out, homelessness is what would happen.

    I’m babbling, as it’s the middle of the night and I can’t sleep. But the bottom line is this: I have no place in this discussion, but I wonder if those of us privileged to have options were to argue for workplaces that make it more humane to be a working mother? For me that means fairly priced childcare NEAR work, so stopping in to be the mom who reads to the class can happen on a lunch hour. (We have wonderful subsidized childcare at the U—120 spots. There are 10,000 employees and half of the spots are reserved for non-U members, and yet I continue to get emails urging me to not drive my car to work—happy to, if I could find childcare that was less than a 20 minute drive away). It also means school choice that allows kids to attend school near a parent’s work place instead of near a parent’s home. (We already have magnet schools with neighborhood preferences–why not workplace neighborhood preference?) These small things of proximity make it possible for working parents to be active participants in a child’s pre-school and public school life, and not have to always shift the load to those parents who do not work outside the home. (Trust me, I feel plenty guilty that I know that there are 4 moms in our class that have done ALL the field trips and those plus a few more that have done the in-class parties and fundraisers (there are a lot of stay at homes with babies who can’t do field trips but do the others stuff).) I feel like there are 2 orbits of parents in our school–the stay at homes/part timers, and the rest of us.

    I don’t know. It’s complex. And exhausting. Staying at home will never be an option for me, but I do think that humane policies would make it easier for those of us who must work or who want to work to still be active and engaged.

  6. Becca Messman says:

    I think the next frontier will be charting out fair expectations for ourselves as reverend mothers. The majority of the time, I feel overwhelming support from the congregation and staff to “do what I need to do” and “be with my sweet little girl.” I know it is the over-achiever boss living in my head who highlights the difference between a sermon that’s a B and one that’s an A. I know the depression-era voice living in my head who makes leisure seem like an unnecessary indulgence. And I know angry growl from my head when I check email during dinner even though it is someone’s important pastoral need or some administrative thing that if dropped will be messier than the applesauce on the toddler tray. I know my husband doesn’t seem to feel the internal storms (he also reminds me that yes, he’s a guy). My break-through of the week: Talking openly with church about my family life. What we are up to, what we have planned, what I am noodling on. I hear their struggles too. Most of the time they say, “Don’t miss this precious time,” which is somewhat of a barb, but it also acknowledges in the moment what we all want me to be doing. (including my brain’s itty bitty you-know-whaty committee.)

    • MaryAnn says:

      About a year or two into ministry, a woman at the church was venting to me about her sister who “pays someone to raise her children.” That stung.

      I also know how easy it is to take things personally that really aren’t about us. Sure, maybe she was being passive-aggressive with me. But maybe she wasn’t, and she just has lots of issues with her sister. And maybe her sister really does neglect her children. I don’t know. I didn’t confront her about it. I tried to let it go… but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever forget it.

      Similarly, I know some of the dynamics that Cathy is describing… the tennis-playing mom… But of course that doesn’t mean that every stay-at-home mom does that. It’s accurate, but not universal.

  7. Sarah says:

    After your last post, I read Martin Copenhaver’s article in a more recent Christian Century – about rhythms, not balance. Seems to speak, in part, to some of the issues you raise and are part of this discussion. I recommend it.

    And affirm the need to support choice – and to acknowlege that the choices can still seem very radical. Appreciated Erin’s reflection in particular.

  8. […] in Ministry. Tags: church, motherhood, part-time trackback Another follow-up from my recent discussions about motherhood and […]

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