What do you do?

For many mothers, this innocent question can be paralyzing. Why? Because most of the standard answers reflect outdated cultural assumptions and are saddled with stereotypes that don’t match our sense of who we are nor the realities of women with children today.

“stay at home mom”

Conjures up stereotypes of mothers who eat bon-bons and watch soap operas all day, when the reality is usually a 17 hour day spent on the demanding work of caring for children and family. Besides how much time does a “stay-at-home mom” today actually spend in her home and not in the car or at school or volunteering or somewhere else?

“full-time mom”

Suggests mom is always in “mom” mode and has no need for an other-than-mother part of herself.   Plus “full-time mom” implies that employed mothers are somehow NOT mothers all the time. Try telling that to the mother on the job calling to check in on her sick child.

“working mother”

Coined when women started entering the workforce, “working mother” suggests that an employed mother is still an anomaly even though the majority of women with children are employed. Think about it, no one calls my husband a “working father.” Plus, “working mother” implies that mothers who are NOT employed aren’t “working.” Try telling that to someone who has spent the whole day with two toddlers.

So let’s experiment with this equation instead.

Mother (relationship to a child)

+  Work (relationship to employment and/or volunteer work and/or family work)

= What do you do?

“I’m a mother, and I’m employed as an office manager.”

“I’m a mother, and I spend most of my time caring for my family.”

“I’m a mother, and I run a home-based business and I volunteer time at

my children’s school.”

“I’m a mother, and my primary work is caring for my family and I have a background in information technology.”

One way to change our own mental maps and free ourselves up to remodel our lives is to change the words we use. So, next time someone asks “What do you do?” start your answer with “I’m a mother and…” and post your answer here.

More Remodeling Tools:

  • For one week, when you say, hear or read “working mother” or “stay at home mom” can you replace it with simply “mother?” Or “mother who is employed?” Or “mother who works caring for family?”
  • For more on the meaning of “work” – both paid and unpaid, the related stereotypes about mothers, and how those stereotypes are embedded in our everyday language, and why it matters to you – read Chapter 5: Baby Vacations or What Did I Do All Day? in my book This is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today.

11 Responses to Why We Need to Get Rid of the Terms “SAHM” and “working mother”

  1. susanna eve says:

    I like getting away from the distinction of working versus non working. However, we have a long way to go before mainstream society will stop placing value on work done in terms of how much money is paid for that work. People are not willing to see mom A who has full or parttime paid employment outside the home as “equal” to mom B who primarily takes care of her kids or who does a lot of unpaid work, as an artist, craftperson or volunteer, even one who runs a homebased business, unless it generates a lot of income. I usually refer to myself as self employed as opposed to a SAHM or homemaker as so many forms still suggest.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Wow – smart article!! As I was reading though I was chuckeling & thinking “HEY – wait a minute, when asked what they do I have never – and I mean NEVER heard a man say “well, I’m a SAHD”, which would be SAD!” (Pun intended!!) The thing is – why do we need labels, acronyms or even feel the need to justify what we do? Whether we take the job route, the mom route or a combination – every thing we do is very important and should be heralded as such. On a personal note – I have experienced first hand that “reporting” the number of children, when asked, almost serves as a sort of gage for how hard “they” think you work as a mom. I have one special needs 18 yr old and have fiends who have 5 children – all teens. When asked (at the same time, so there can be a comparison of sorts) how many kids we have, I get an “Oh, that’s great” and my friends get an “OH…My gosh – you must be busy! How long does it take you to go laundry? Get dinner on? Coordinate activities” Large families are definitely lotsa work, I grew up in one – but I can guarantee that between the almost constant supervision my son needs, the keeping of his accounts, reporting to necessary agencies/paperwork and supervising his accounts and affairs/special sports/school activities – I’m pretty darn busy! My mom has even remarked that with 4 kids she is amazed at and never had to put in the sheer amount of time I do, just to make his life go and go smoothly! Typically I don’t justify my work/home environment and I don’t expect anyone else to either – we live in a world where we are responsible for lots of things, we have many decisions to make and at the end of the day, make it safely into bed at night. So, I agree, let’s free up our mental maps and remodel our inner and outer conversations and our lives to reflect this: Whatever we choose to do, wherever we choose to direct our focus or simply make a choice that’s best for our family – it IS the right choice, period. Nice article, thanks!

  3. Maybe because I PERSONALLY value “SAHM’s” and “working mother’s” (and “SAHD’s” and “working dad’s” for that matter) I never really thought of it except as semantics. I see your point and it makes sense…No matter what the contribution and sacrifices you make for your family someone will judge you based on choices. Or they will define you by their own preconceived of the above terms.

    “I am a mother and don’t get paid”:)

  4. I’m a mother, and I am a big fan of Kristin Maschka!

    This is a great post and wonderful food for thought. Our choice of words does matter, and does influence our thoughts.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone! I think it’s really important to see how old stereotypes have been embedded in our language. Think about all the hoops we jump through semantically to describe mothers and whether they are employed or not. It’s crazy really. And in the end all of the terms we have just reinforce stereotypes that “caring for family isn’t really work, it’s just what mothers do” and that “mothers who are employed are selfish and must be neglecting their kids.” And at the same time by default we leave fathers out of the picture all together!

    I think it’s important for us semantically to separate “mother” (the role/relationship to a child) from family work (the activities necessary to care for children and family). Otherwise we imply that mothers are the only ones who can do this family work and the work disappears into the “mother” role and cant be seen, or shared with others – like say a father.

    I’ve also stopped asking “What do you do?” in favor of openers like “Tell me about yourself.”

    Changing how we talk about all this can help change how we think about it, and how others think about it too.

  6. PattiM says:

    The words ‘work’ and ‘mom’ are not necessary in the same sentence. Aren’t they redundant. Of course moms work! SAHD, though, is a phrase that’s used. In fact, I wrote an article for Her Life magazine about SAHDs. But you never hear them called WAHDs if they have a home office/job.
    But why do we identify Stay-at-homes? Have we become so techy that it’s not cool to say what it really is we’re doing, being a mother, housewife, etc? We’re raising families, not staying at home. I’ve done both, and am most proud of my role in the family, not in the workplace. In the workplace, you’re irreplacable. In the family, you are indispensable.

    • So glad you pointed out the same issue with dads! And the “stay at home” label drives me nuts – for mothers or fathers. So woefully out of date and practically meaningless. As you point out, “stay at home” can’t even be used to mean “not employed” because so many people have “home” offices and businesses.

      The big problem as I see it is the confusion of the role (mother or father) with the work (unpaid work caring for family, paid work, volunteer work). In particular the unpaid work of caring for family has disappeared over time into the word and the role of mother – we carry this subconscious assumption that “caring for family isn’t really work, it’s just what mothers do.” I think that assumption makes that important caregiving work dangerously invisible to everyone. So I think we need to adopt language that separates the role from the types of work. Instead of talking about motherhood as a job or profession or ideal on a pedestal, we can talk about being a mother as a relationship a woman has with a child. (And being a father a relationship a man has with a child.) We can then talk about taking care of family as important unpaid work lots of people – not just mothers do. And employment as paid work that lots of people – both mothers and fathers – often do. “I’m a mother and I’m self employed as a photographer.” or “I’m a father and spend my time taking care of my family.”

  7. Carol says:

    This is exactly why I don’t like the term “mommy blogger” either. It takes away from the fact that many of us are bloggers of many other issues such as politics, fashion, travel, food, etc., though we are also mothers.

    I have seen the term be used to discredit and put down, and to insinuate that we not be taken seriously, or that we lack intelligence or even logic in a discussion.

    Thank you this post. I agree with it completely.

  8. Roodlyne says:

    When I saw the tweetvi actually roll my eyes and muttered
    Another politically correct rant.. but this is so true
    I work full time but that don’t imply that I’m a part time mom.I’m a mother, I work as an IT professional, and I blog! LOL
    We are mothers and that’s a job we punch out of.

    • Kristin Maschka says:

      Thanks for the comment! And for going beyond the political assumptions to dig into this. I wish we could have a non-politicized conversation about the importance of unpaid caregiving work and the roles of mothers and fathers without the crazy rhetoric.

Leave a Reply

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