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.