Reframing the Question:  Moving Beyond Working v. Stay-at-Home Mothers

Natalie Brown is a former BCC blogger. 

It’s common in conversations among Mormons to hear people ask whether a woman works or is a stay-at-home mother (SAHM).  This question may come from a desire to simply understand a person, including their interests and how they spend their time.  But Mormons may also ask this question as a proxy to gauge other values, such as liberal or conservative political beliefs, faithfulness, conformity, educational attainment or economic status.  The problem with this question, aside from the discomfort it may give the women being judged and labeled, is that the distinction between working and stay-at-home mothers is often a false dichotomy, and these terms are a poor proxy for any values we may see behind them.

Problems with the Working v. SAHM Dichotomy

The working v. stay-at-home mother dichotomy is rarely capable of encompassing the fluidity with which women approach their careers and personal lives, which may explain the discomfort many feel when being asked to apply to these labels.

A recent roundtable discussion among the women of BCC captured the variety of Mormon women’s experiences with work in a survey published on BCC.  Women may alternate between periods of school, unemployment and employment, and while employed alternate between full-time work, part-time work, lead breadwinner and secondary breadwinner.  Women who self-present as stay-at-home mothers may in fact also run home businesses or be engaged in other activities designed to further their reentry into the workforce.  Women who are employed may one day not be so.

Moreover, women may not identify with the label “working” or “SAHM” that most closely defines their current position.  Although it’s common to hear of women choosing to work or stay home, for many these choices are dictated by factors that may not align with or fully express their aspirations.  A woman staying home may strongly desire to be employed, just as one working may desire to be home or to be employed in a different profession.  A woman working from her home may self-present as a SAHM because the label accords more with her self-perception and values.

These same critiques could be applied to how we perceive men who work and stay home, but my focus here is on the more commonly discussed topic of women.

The terms “working” and “stay-at-home mother” are poor proxies for any values we may wish to attribute to the terms because they are poor proxies for women’s lived reality. 

Given the complexity of how, why and when women are and are not employed, the terms “working” and “staying-at-home” on their own simply do not convey much information about the values, education, beliefs and aspirations of the actual women they purport to describe.  When we assume they do, we flatten a complex reality.

Reframing the Question

Moving from the dichotomy of working v. staying-at-home towards a sense of women’s fluid career and personal trajectories could improve conversations and friendship amongst Mormons.  Benefits could include making people feel more welcome and less judged by dissociating perceived values from one’s current employment status; including childless women in conversations about work and family from which they are often excluded; encouraging women to think long-term about their choices and potential; and inviting more meaningful critique by focusing on the factors that drive real-life choices about employment.

Moving away from these terms is difficult when we are constantly asked, “What do you do?”  But we can begin to shift the conversation by answering in ways that are more complex than one’s current employment status and by leading with employment status-neutral questions when we in turn seek information.


  1. YES! I stay at home with my kids (and it’s my choice and I love it!) but I always want to scream that there’s so much more to me than just that, and frequently I find myself trying to work into the conversation something about my master’s degree or my mission or the time I spent traveling before I got married so that they’ll realize that there’s a whole lot more to me than just that!

  2. I agree that the label “stay at home parent” is insufficient (sounds like “my wife/husband is at home, and they stay there!!!”), and I’ve experimented with other variations (I used my wife’s “at home,” for a while but it makes it sound like employed women aren’t “at home,”), but frankly I can’t think of a better way to say it. Whatever the case, though, the SAHM (or whatever you want to call it) lifestyle is very distinctive, so I think it does need some sort of a label for ease of communication. Maybe SAHM has too much sociocultural baggage attached to it, but we do need a parsimonious way to refer to people-who-aren’t-employed-so-that-they-can-spend-more-time-at-home-with-young-kids (yes, I know there are other types of SAHMs [near retirement, etc], but their experiences are distinct enough that they deserve their own moniker).

  3. Jobless bum says:

    I usually answer “jobless bum” and smile. One year my daughter put down “philosopher” for my occupation on a school form. I think she had heard rather more than she liked about my philosophy class. If you don’t like being asked what you do, don’t answer. Life is too short to get upset about these things. Lighten up, for heaven’s sake.

  4. Women who self-present as stay-at-home mothers may in fact also run home businesses or be engaged in other activities designed to further their reentry into the workforce.

    I would gather that a very large portion of the self-proclaimed SAHMs in the Jello Belt is, in fact, doing just this. The problem is that their “home businesses” are almost always multi-level/affiliate marketing–a model that is parasitic on the social capital that a high-commitment religion like Mormonism generates among its members. To actually make any money at MLM (as opposed to using it to get products at the “distributor” rate), you have to be a very unpleasant human being.

    If our culture’s fetishization of the SAHM is such that it necessitates women engaging in these sort of activities to pay the bills, there needs to be a wholesale reevaluation of priorities.

  5. Jeannine L. says:

    My favorite answer is that I am a kept woman.

  6. Great discussion! I agree that the frame of SAHM vs. working mom is a false dichotomy and doesn’t really describe anyone accurately. This “SAHM OR working mom” frame is grounded in some basic assumptions I am still trying to unpack. Here are a few of my current musings…
    1) Why do we feel the need to distinguish paid and unpaid work? Because we don’t count unpaid reproductive or care work as “real work.” We don’t include it in the GDP because we actually don’t value it as much as we value paid, tangible work (male work). The Church has tried to counter this devaluation of caregiving by praising the value of motherhood in an attempt to elevate it’s value. While a noble intent, this has played into this false dichotomy of SAHM/Working mom frame. “If you’re following the prophet and have an eternal perspective you would be a SAHM and abandon the “praise of the world” and worldly accolades and care about what God cares about: the family.
    2) Why are we are still using such a rigid definition of “work”? We have all implicitly agreed that work means “leaving the home for 8-10 hours a day/5 days a week” and that in order to advance you have to work more and more to prove your worth. I think we all need to challenge that basic definition. Technology offers so much flexibility that has never been available to us. I think we need to further discuss ways to redefine work to include unpaid caregiving and more flexible definitions of work that center on valuing our relationships more than the bottom line.
    3) Why do we continue to vilifying “working [for pay] moms”? Women have always contributed economically to family life. We need to recognize that the problem isn’t women leaving the home to work, the problem is WORK LEAVING THE HOME as part of the Industrial Revolution and the transition from Agrarian society. Let’s stop talking about bringing mothers “home” and start conversations about bringing PARENTS home by bringing work home and defining work differently.
    I could go on and on…

  7. Oh, and instead of asking “what do you do?” I say to women and men “Tell me about your life…” or “What area of life are you most excited about right now?”

  8. Dr. Hanks: Part of the reason that work left the home is that automation eliminated a lot of the work at home. Think about how much labor went into doing laundry before the invention of the automatic washing machine: a week’s washing for a household of ten (fairly typical for an urban “middle-class” family that might have one or both sets of grandparents and perhaps a boarder) represented 15-20 person-hours of labor–and clothes and (especially) linens went a lot longer between washings than they do now.

    I have a commute of more than an hour each way, so I telecommute 1-2 days/week for my relatively high-paying corporate job. However, I can’t be the only adult at home with my 2-year-old son when I’m trying to telecommute, unless he’s napping.

  9. APM, Yes, I understand why work left the home with automation. Additionally, families have outsourced a lot of work that was previously done at home, like food growing, meal prep, and education, making clothing, etc. The home used to be a production site but has primarily become a hub of consumption.

    I am suggesting we explore alternative definitions of work for everyone to something more flexible to allow parents to participate in caregiving and allow children to contribute to the economic production of the family if possible. The corporate model is only one model of work. For example, I have a brother who makes an amazing living making children’s YouTube videos WITH his wife and children. Another example, I am the owner of two businesses (therapy clinics and consulting business) that I run part-time primarily from home so I have complete control of my schedule.

    Work can take many different forms and technology has opened up even more options. It’s such an exciting time.

  10. Dr. Julie, the corporate model may not be the only model, but it’s the one that now serves the vast majority of women working out of the home, in food service, clerical, retail, and personal service work. Not everyone is suited to be an entrepreneur, and most of us have to go where the elders need care and the bread and milk need to be sold and the photocopies need to be made and filed and the floors need to be mopped and the burgers need to be flipped. What flexibility can you offer us?

    To the OP, I wonder how much of the reluctance women have to announcing that we do or do not work outside the home is the embarrassment that low-paid service work is all we have, or the humiliation that others will think such work is all we are capable of. Not many little girls dream of changing adult diapers when we grow up.

  11. I usually respond with, “I grease the wheels of capitalism with my unpaid labor while mooching of the patriarchy. What do you do?”

  12. I’ve been in both places.
    Both are hard.

    Don’t tell a SAHparent he is she is not “working.”

    But a person who has not worked outside the home for years (or ever during married life) does not/ can not understand the stresses of having to be show up at the outside home workplace and look sharp and act like you didn’t just get three hours of sleep…what it means to have your family’s financial health all depends on you.

    So when people get mad…like they did when the Mrs. Romney was characterized as not having “worked”…I wasn’t. She worked in her home, but she didn’t have to be the one working to pay the bills.

  13. Senalishia says:

    I’m one of those people who just stays at home and cleans up after the kids. They’re all in school but it still keeps me pretty busy. I don’t even have a home business besides beta reading my friend’s books and making a little money on Amazon Mechanical Turk. (There aren’t a lot of biochemist jobs you can do from home.) I don’t often get asked about my profession in person, but I have to put it on a lot of forms. I usually put “homemaker” because people know what that means. I think it would be disingenuous to put something cute like “home manager” and I’m too proud to want to seem like I’m ashamed of it even though I sometimes am. If I could swing it I’d rather be working in a lab. But should someone who needs the income get that job instead?

  14. When I moved to a new Ward I was asked three questions-the answers to which determined my social standing for the next 7 years.

    1. Are you married?
    2.Do you work? (Meaning-outside the home.)
    3. Do you have children?

    I love the idea of ending these questions, but only if the men in the ward stop asking each other, “what do you do and where do you work?”

    The fact if the matter is that we live in a world with social class, and in Mormonism there are fine, but solid distinctions. I’m assuming from this post that the author and posters wish to stop these biases, to have no more “ites” among themselves. In order to do that, the men have to stop it as well- stop answering for themselves and stop saying, “I’m in corporate legal at widgets inc.”

    Everyone has to stop it. Of course the reality is that wards are big messy families and you won’t be able to hide your job long.

    Have you ever noticed that humble people whether at home or in jobs big or small never let on to what they do? They aren’t the ones giving the big long analogies in sacrament meeting talks about their hoity-toity areas of expertise, the ones giving weepy thank-i-moni s for being home with baby, and they aren’t the ones stirring the Mormon mommy wars or playing Big man on campus. They are just there …talking about scriptures or helping people or whatever is their passion.

    Easier said than done.

  15. Natalie B says:

    I find it striking how many comments touch on the (past and present) economics of sustaining a home. I’d like to explore more how housing conditions (past and present) themselves play into or challenge how Mormons view the idea of “home” and how women devise career paths.

    For example, APM’s comment suggests to me that some women may be engaging in home businesses to economically support a certain ideal of a SAHM (Tiberius – I can’t think of a better way to say it!) . Do we envision a certain kind of home that a “SAHM” should occupy, and a certain set of activities that she should engage in? Is this vision sustainable as housing prices rise in many parts of the country?

    I can also think of examples where Mormon women who have expertly decorated their own homes are leveraging their interior design skills into business opportunities. In an era where houses entail consumption, are homemaking skills — or an aura of a certain lifestyle — also marketable?

  16. I would welcome the question, “What do you do?” It would be a first step toward recognition that any area of my life apart from my husband and children is worth talking about. Instead, I almost exclusively get, “What does your husband do?” Perhaps people are feeling sensitive about asking what I do because they want to spare me what they assume will be the conversational dead end of saying that I’m “just a SAHM,” but I consistently feel like I’m being stepped over in order to discuss something more interesting, like a man.

  17. Couple of thoughts:

    The modifier “just” irks me. I’m a SAH parent is fine, or she’s a SAHM is fine, when people append “just” onto it it’s one of those subtle ways of demeaning that lifestyle while still claiming to support people’s decisions.

    Jeannine : The kept woman line is exactly the one my wife uses.

    Glasscluster: I think a lot hinges on the type of employed work. The mental health and employment literature shows that variation on meaningfulness of work, how routine it is, autonomy, etc. really changes how people view their employment and what they get out of it.
    In my experience, some stay-at-home parents who have never had out-of-home employment think that employed people are living this exciting Law and Order/ER/ West Wing life with constantly witty and attractive coworkers and meaningful, edge-of-your-seat-exciting work. The reality is of course much more banal, which is why characteristics of employment options are vital to take into account here. Education, of course, is the key to being able to have the former kind of work.

    APM: I wonder if it’s the stay at home pressure combined with the romanticization of the employed life (as well as financial pressures), that leads to the desire for the elusive stay-at-home job with flexible hours, good pay, and no education required job (which does not exist in any form), which suckers a lot of people into that kind of thing.

    Leslie D: I’ve started asking that, but I’ve been worried that for some people it carries with it an implication that I’m expecting them to be employed (not that I don’t see SAH parenting as doing something, but some people might interpret that as being specifically about employed labor). Once again, it’s not perfect but it’s probably the best way to incite a friendly background-information discussion.

  18. Sometimes I say “trophy wife” which seems to amuse everyone but my husband :-) Usually I start with “I do a lot of volunteer work” and cite some of that and let them figure out on their own that the work I do doesn’t currently come with a paycheck.

  19. Bro. Jones says:

    I ask everyone what they “do” and there’s always a positive follow up question you can ask:
    Got a job? Awesome, tell me more.
    Stay at home? Great, what do you like to cook?
    In school? Neat, what are you studying?
    Retired? Fantastic, what are your hobbies?

    Only time this backfired was when I asked someone who’d just gotten out of prison. But I regained composure and said “Glad you’re here. What are your plans for the next couple of months?”

  20. Zoroastrian Kurd says:

    Breaking news at 11–dichotomies elide some details. Nobel Prize pending for this observation. Categories should be eschewed completely going forward.

  21. “Stay at home? Great, what do you like to cook?”
    Answer: I don’t like to cook. I hate it. It’s a necessary evil though….

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