Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why I'll Never Be a Stay-At-Home Girlfriend

(Flickr/mrrobertwade (wadey))

The "Stay At Home Girlfriend" (I guess the "SAHG" acronym was intentional since it was in the headline, but something pronounced "sag" -- really?) piece on Brokelyn caused a lot of ladyblogs to protest and mock it.

Edith Zimmerman in her quintessentially concise way, just said, "LOL, is this a joke?"

Jessica Wakeman, bless her heart, defended the piece, "I don’t think there’s any shame in being a 'stay-at-home'-anything, so long as it works for both partners. A homemaker can still be a feminist. My mother stayed at home and raised five children; she quit her job when she married my widower father, adopted his three daughters from a previous marriage, and stayed at home to raise them so they no longer had to be taken care of by babysitters and relatives."

Sadie Stein over at Jezebel had a thoughtful response, saying that though she would also defend the right of a stay-at-home anything as a legitimate choice, "let's face it: the tone of this is ... troubling."

The piece, written by Quiana Stokes—who, if this is her on LinkedIn, worked at JP Morgan and went to Wesleyan—says this is definitely an unexpected situation and, for all we know, she views this as a temporary excursion into domestic bliss. But I have to agree with Stein. This is troubling. Much of it seems to be pulled directly out of the stuff that Betty Friedan criticized in the Feminine Mystique—right down to the ideas of presenting your man with beer when he arrives at home and keeping "yourself up." (Fun fact: This book was the first ever feminist book I read and I recommend it; I found it all-too-relevant despite the fact it was published nearly half a century ago.)

Like Jessica and Stein, I'll admit that there's no shame in staying at home, but I will say that women feel a unique pressure to stay at home when possible (even though few women could possibly ever afford to do so—ahem, "two-bedroom Greenpoint apartment" that Stokes and her unnamed boyfriend seem to be able to afford on one income), but here are the reasons I'll probably won't ever stay at home while my partner works. If Stokes can lay out tips defending her position, I can lay out some reasons why I'm not likely to jump at the chance to be a SAHG.

While retirement seems a loooong way off when you're in your 20s or 30s, all the time you spend not working is time that you're probably also not contributing (or having your employer contribute) to your IRA or 401K—let alone Social Security. This has a serious long-term impact on what you will be able to afford when you're older. Since men generally don't live as long as women, you can't necessarily expect to be supported into the sunset years of your life. You're better off squirreling away for the future now.

Your partner could stop being your partner
This is an uncomfortable and sometimes painful thing to think through for a lot of women. It's awfully sweet to think you'll be with your current boyfriend, husband, or partner (or girlfriend/wife) forever, but the reality is that bad stuff happens. People break up. People get divorced. And, as awful as it is to imagine, people die. My mother was widowed when I was seven, and I've been eternally grateful my mom had her own income to raise us on. If any of those things happen when you're a stay-at-home wife/mom/girlfriend, you are in a much more financially precarious situation. I will continue to be haunted by this Salon essay by a divorced stay-at-home mom lamenting her financial situation now that she doesn't have the income she once shared with her ex-husband.

Diminished long-term earning potential
Let's face it, taking time out of the working world, as the long-term unemployed in this recession could tell you, has a real cost. If you ever need to jump back into the workforce, as the writer for Salon discovered, gaps on your resume look really unappealing to potential employers, especially if you don't have an illness or disability to explain it. Is that unfair to homemakers? Absolutely. It's also something that's really hard to counteract. Staying employed in some capacity is almost always better than just stopping work for long periods of time.

Achieving gender equity in housework
The bits Stokes adds about cleaning and cooking every day so her boyfriend doesn't have to—"I’d much rather pick up behind him"—makes me a little ill when I think about the giant picture of women and housework. Though there isn't much data out there for unmarried partners living together, a well-publicized 2008 study shows married women do a staggering 7 extra hours of housework a week. You don't have to make your personal relationship a battleground for women everywhere, but fair is fair, and it makes sense to split household chores evenly. Or at least as evenly as you can. It's really easy to say women are "better" at housework than men, but you know how you get better? You do it.

Granted, Washington, D.C., is filled with lots of semi-employed and and freelance people so if I ever ended up as a stay-at-home something I'd probably have plenty of company. Still, if I was really not working—not even blogging or, I guess writing pieces for Brokelyn—I'd probably end up bored. Eventually I'd start to feel like I do when I haven't left the house for several hours on Saturday because I was too busy watching television. Socialization is good, even if we sometimes have aggravating moments at our jobs.

The problem that has no name
I'm going to go ahead and cite Friedan again. Studies show that stay-at-home wives and mothers tend to be at higher risk of depression than working women. This is something Friedan talked about in the Feminine Mystique at length. Careers stress us out, but they're also good for our overall happiness.

I can't afford not to work
For a lot of women who work, this is the big reason. It'd be wonderful to stay at home with the kids to aid in their learning development or read a novel a day, but lots of us can't afford to not work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that despite recent trend pieces on highly educated women "opting out," this isn't really true. So many families are struggling to make ends meet, even on two incomes, and the recession is leaving a lot more people out of work than before. An even better reason to hang on to the job you've got.

To be sure, this isn't an attack on those that do choose to stay at home. I'm not saying feminism and staying home are mutually exclusive. But for I had to remind myself of the reasons it's not for me. God willing I'm not laid off tomorrow.

Update: I'm not sure why I didn't put this in my original post—probably because it's too obvious—but I should also add this last point:

Men don't sit around and talk about how awesome staying at home is
This is another big reason why I'd never do the stay-at-home thing. Men don't think about this. They just don't. True, some men think about what they'd do if they were really wealthy and didn't have to work, but because we live in a culture that's so imbued with the male breadwinner mentality that women are by default the ones that think about not working or staying home. Women just seem to make this "choice" a lot more than men do. And women are often in a compromised bargaining position—women still often make less than their male peers, women face hard choices about career and children, and women aren't usually promoted as quickly as men. I have a hard time with entertaining the notion of stay-at-homeness when it seems to be taken on disproportionately by women.


Kerry Scott said...

One aspect of stay-at-home parenthood I rarely see mentioned is the fact that very few stay-at-home parents spend their days solely on the house and the kids.

I've been home for 2.5 years. I have a blog that earns some income, plus freelance work, plus a genealogical research business. Every other stay-at-home parent I know also does side work of some sort...and not just the Junior League stuff, but real work.

I can't imagine how I would have survived being home in the Betty Draper era, but I don't have to. I have internet access, and the world has changed. The line between "working mom" and "at-home mom" is much blurrier than it used to be.

Kay Steiger said...

Kerry --

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think you're right. The line is a lot blurrier these days, especially with more flexible work options and permalancing opportunities out there. It's wonderful your blog earns money -- I certainly can't say the same. I do wonder, however how those incomes are compare. Could you afford to do so even without your partner? For me, personally, that's the line. If I could afford to live independently on my freelance income, I would absolutely do it. But if I'm dependent on another person and simply supplement the household income with my freelance work, I'm not sure that's for me.

Kerry Scott said...

Oh, I definitely couldn't afford it without a partner. My stay-at-home motherhood started as part of a career change; I had been thinking about leaving HR, and when I had the opportunity to eliminate my own job and get a nice severance package, I took it. My kids were very young, so nobody thought it was strange that I was home with them...which actually provided some (not a lot, but some) protection against all of the people who thought I was crazy for giving up a successful corporate career to become a genealogist. I think I would have taken a lot more crap for making that choice if I'd been the husband instead of the wife.

That said, I'm changing to a career when I think I eventually CAN make a full living without a partner if I have to. In fact, I get up very early and work in the middle of the night to make it happen as fast as I can, because it makes me very uncomfortable to not have a way to support myself if something happens.

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