Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Hard Labour: Should We Ditch the Term ‘Stay-At-Home Mum’?

Is there a better term than ‘stay-at-home mum’? Because they’re not lounging around at home – and, actually, they’re often out. Sarah Lang weighs in.

The term ‘stay-at-home mom’ and ‘stay-at-home mum’ has become ubiquitous. It’s in the media, it’s in everyday vernacular, it’s even in research studies. Sometimes it’s shortened to SAHM, and most of us know what that acronym stands for.

Personally, I don’t like the term. To me, the term ‘stay-at-home mum’ comes with connotations that they’re lounging around at home. To me, the term feels a little dismissive of all the work these mothers do.

As the article ‘What Research Says About Being A Stay-at-Home Mom’ says, “some [people] might think they’re lazy or not contributing much to society”. As another article states: “People often think being a SAHM is easy because they don’t have to clock in or clock out. They think SAHMs watch television, are lazy”.

There’s that word ‘lazy’ again. It’s exhausting to be a mother. And it’s exhausting to have to point out that motherhood is labour. Unpaid labour. Hard labour.

Also, why are we giving ‘stay-at-home mums’ a label dependent on their location? When I had a baby-turned-toddler-turned preschooler, there were visits to playgrounds, the library, walks in the pram, Tumbling Tots classes, etc. 

Apryl Duncan, an American writer who also describes herself as a ‘stay-at-home mom’, has written an article called ‘What Does a Stay-at-Home Mom Do?’. Answer: a lot. “A stay-at-home mom works many jobs throughout the day. They’re a nurse, chauffeur, chef, teacher, playmate, housekeeper, laundry attendant, accountant, and babysitter all rolled into one… The stereotype of a woman sitting at home watching soap operas while eating bonbons is a distant reality for the SAHM.”

“In fact, many stay-at-home moms aren’t home much at all because they’re running kids all over town to school, soccer practice, dance lessons, and doctor’s appointments, plus attending school meetings, grocery shopping, and running other errands. And when she is at home, she’s doing everything to keep her house running smoothly, including managing the household’s budget, taking care of the house, and planning the family meals. Most importantly, she’s taking care of the children and their every need, especially when they’re younger.”

Josie*, a 37-year-old library assistant who raised three kids unpaid for 10 years, dislikes the term ‘stay-at-home mum’. “Because that sounds like I spent my entire existence in some kind of voluntary lockdown with my children! But calling myself a homemaker was repulsive to me. I have ADHD, I’m abysmal at housekeeping, and ‘homemaker’ made me feel like my identity and existence was based on all the domestic stuff I’m terrible at rather than being a parent without a paying job.” Josie sometimes put ‘full-time parent’ (for want of a better term) on forms before she returned to paid work.

One woman says that many working mums don’t like the term ‘full-time parent’ in this context, “because they’re full-time parents too; they don’t switch it off when they go to work and the wording makes them feel like that isn’t valued”. Fair.


So what’s another term we could use to recognise that this is a demanding JOB?

Several women like the term ‘primary caregiver’, because its connection with the title ‘paid caregiver’ is a reminder that this is a job. Others say that ‘caregiver’ implies medical issues or disabilities.

Jessica Hammond – a public servant, mother-of-two, and co-deputy leader and candidate for Ōhāriu for The Opportunities Party – prefers the term ‘parents who aren’t in paid work’. “Most parents see themselves as full-time parents; some parents with shared custody are not in paid work; and someone like me who is in (part-time) paid work is still the primary caregiver. ‘Not in paid work’ acknowledges that unpaid work is still work.”

So: ‘Primary caregiver’? ‘Unpaid parent’? ‘Home-based mum’? ‘Project Manager of Child’? Nothing seems quite right, does it?

Do we just need to ensure that we use the term ‘stay-at-home mums’ in the right context? One that acknowledges that theirs is unpaid labour – a LOT of labour – and no, they’re not always at home!

Linda Jane Keegan from Tākaka, who calls herself “a “worker of paid and unpaid employ,” says “I do want to do away with the idea that ‘stay-at-home’ parenting isn’t real work. I’m not sure if there’s a term that accurately captures that, but if we continue to challenge that assumption, hopefully the tide will shift in that direction.”

Email us at [email protected] or comment on our Instagram if there’s a term you prefer, or would like to suggest!

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