Stuck-at-Home by
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Being child free, I never faced the stay-at-home parent dilemma personally. That doesn’t stop me from opining that our society has made a hot mess of the issue.

Stressed, unhappy parents create stressed, unhappy children.

I don’t think the hunter-gatherers in the featured image would understand the concept of stay-at-home. These moms work 24/7 to make an essential contribution to their “tribe.” No distinction between paid and unpaid work. Their children are with them, “at home” and “at work.” Looks like three generations of women share their energy and expertise in gathering and preparing food, making clothing, and raising children. These women’s roles are defined in ways that aren’t desirable in the United States in 2021, but their work isn’t taken for granted.

I come to this issue because my mother desperately wanted to continue her career, but had me instead. Wanting both a career and kids in the early 1950s was considered pretty odd, and having both at once was really rare in my suburban neighborhood. My mother’s employer told her during her pregnancy that she could come back any time she wanted after she had the baby. Likely that wasn’t typical either. My grandmother, who had always worked since the age of 12 (no concept of stay-at-home then) and was now retiring, offered to take care of me so my mother could return to her job. But, the social pressure was too much, and my mother refused. As much as I’m tempted, I can’t judge her because I wasn’t in her shoes.

All I can attest to was the impact this decision had on me, and later on my brother: being raised by someone who felt frustrated, unappreciated, bored, and resentful all at the same time. My father, a man of that time, didn’t understand the frustration and so wasn’t supportive. After all, he was out doing “interesting” things all day. As a kid, I took this personally. My family wasn’t like those on TV or in the neighborhood. They weren’t happy. Mom was not happy to see me when I came home from school or playing. I did not receive praise, so I must have been deficient. My mom was so unhappy that it must have been my fault.

When I was about 11 and my brother 7, my mother finally had the opportunity and tenacity to go back to work, although not in as good a job as if she’d continued her career. My brother and I were ecstatic to see her go. The family situation did improve for us but hardly was rosy. Throughout high school I stayed away from the house to keep busy with school and extracurricular activities as much as possible. The extent of the damage had been so significant that it took years for me to have even a satisfactory relationship with my mother.

It boggles the mind that somehow hunter-gatherers and most high-income countries in the world have workable, if not perfect, solutions to balancing work and parenting, but the United States doesn’t. The pandemic only made it tougher on parents, with moms, whether stay-at-home or stuck-at-home, taking the biggest hit. What to do?

Staying at home with kids is real work. Sometimes when asked why I didn’t have kids, I’d respond that I didn’t want to work that hard. I was only partially joking.

Parents, particularly moms, need male allies. Until more men start taking parental leave and otherwise demand more flexibility, change will be slow.

Remember elder care. With our longer lifespans, working people often are caring for elderly parents. At my last full-time job, many in my department were in our 50s and 60s. Of the 12 people in the group, within the same month 6 were dealing with an issue with an aging parent or spouse. Twice during my 11 years at the company, for periods of weeks, I worked from home entirely or had reduced hours in the office to care for my partner and also keep my job. This was thanks to a manager who could be flexible. Many people wouldn’t have been so fortunate.

We’re all family. The broader we define family, the better off we will be. Fewer people have mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins around the corner to help out with child or elder care. We need community more than ever.

When forced to go to work or to stay at home–when they want to do the opposite–stressed, unhappy parents create stressed, unhappy children. My vision for stay-at-home (or not) parents is for better options so that they can make the best arrangement for their children and their own careers. I’d like to see all parties thrive.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Very interesting read, Mare. Having had a difficult relationship with my own mother, I can relate. She didn’t know how to mother, not so much because she wanted to be at work, I think. More because she was insecure about everything in her life. She just didn’t know how to BE. She had an artistic temperament, but couldn’t find an outlet for it in domesticity or caring for children. She grew up in a household that included her own grandmother and I think probably felt cut off from having that experience. She had a sister close by, but she was a wealthy, successful club leader, who had little time to help my mother, aside from instructing her on how to entertain or how to dress. That sister had a full-time housekeeper, so never learned how to cook.

    Your tribal Featured photo makes an interesting point about living in a community where everyone knows their role, is valued for it and are dependent on the whole, as opposed to individuals. Our society has a lot to learn about how to care for its members. You’ve given us a lot to think about. Thank you.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Well said, Marian. I totally agree with this and thank you for looking at the issue in a broader sense. The way we approach child rearing in America is a mess and leaves so many women unsupported and unable to work at jobs for which they are highly qualified.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Your story definitely resonated with me. Respect and reward for everyone’s role in taking care of family is so lacking here. I loved the picture of the San with the ostrich egg, reminding us that all work is important. Like you, I never had children (by choice), and a mother who endured her stay-at-home phase. Your four points at the end are eloquently made. Thanks.

  4. Thanx for your interesting take on women’s stay- at-home or go-to-work dilemma Marian.
    I wrote about my own stay-at -home experience but I left out some of the chronology.

    My son was born in March, and I had been feeling fine and worked until a week or two before the birth.

    I had loved my high school librarian job, and thought I’d go back to work the following September. Over the summer I weaned the baby, found a wonderful nanny, and did go back in September.

    But although I left work at 3:30, after coming home and taking over the childcare, doing the marketing, making dinner, and handling the million household tasks until my husband came home, I was physically and emotionally exhausted.

    So I finished the semester, but then took another child care leave for three years and loved being a stay-at-home mom. But I remember the exhilaration I felt getting dressed and driving to work on the morning I eventually went back!

  5. Wow, Mare…great take on the prompt, the span between hunter-gatherers and some high income countries, excluding the U.S., then your distilled message, “We’re all family.” I agree, the broader we define family, the better off we’ll be. I’m always amazed (appalled!) at how far behind our country is in terms of taking care of each other, particularly women and our elders. Do you really think it’s to keep women in their place, or is it just plain greed and/or selfishness?

  6. I appreciated the sources you drew upon to begin and end this post Marian. As with so many of us, you have a well-developed clarity about your upbringing and the impact our parents’ had as individuals — and members of a male-dominated culture… and economy. And the difficulties and limits you describe so well could be addressed now! With the great awakening of the Biden administration. I think, in many ways, the plans for childcare and education are as radical as anything proposed in decades. They will be opposed, of course, and by those who need to dominate. Money, power, racism, sexism, ageism, all on the front lines. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis!

  7. Suzy says:

    When I saw the featured image, I wasn’t sure where you were going with this, Mare. You make an important point about how women’s roles are valued in other cultures as they are not in our own. But I’m glad you also told us about your own mother, and how she stayed home because of social pressure and was very unhappy as a result. What a shame that this led to an unhappy family situation for you and your brother, and that everyone would have been happier if she had returned to work.

    Your four points at the end are so important, and I hope our society comes to recognize them sooner rather than later.

  8. John Shutkin says:

    As an anthropology major — years ago, of course — I particularly appreciated your broad approach to the prompt, starting with the hunter- gatherers. As you note, they don’t exactly ponder the work/life balance the way we in the first world in this century do.

    But your focus on our own, current issues, particularly as refelcted through your mother and how her options and (limited) choices had an impact on her relationship with you, was truly insighful. I especially appreciated the fact that you not only identified issues, but also possible solutions. And I found the point about the need for “male allies” — at least so long as we have a male dominated workforce — to be spot on. Depressing, perhaps, that it has to be this way still, but, to use an overworked cliche, it is what it is.

    Again, thank you for sharing your keen insights with us.

    • Marian says:

      Loved my anthropology courses at Mills, John, and good to know that was your major. As much as I’d like to think women can raise kids on their own, and many do, until men have a bigger role, change will be slow.

  9. Risa Nye says:

    Marian, I totally related to the situation you describe with a frustrated, underappreciated, and bored mother. Mine started making hats, which I’ve written about here, but she always felt like the world owed her something more. I used to wonder if her injuries and illnesses served to provide the attention she craved. It’s a shame, really, that so many women of that era felt unfulfilled. Motherhood wasn’t their finest hour, and we, their children, paid the price. I bet you and I could have a very interesting conversation some day!

    • Marian says:

      We certainly could have a conversation, Risa. My mother did have some physical and psychological issues, but I think if she’d had a better balance in her life, they wouldn’t have been so pronounced.

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