Thursday, June 30, 2011

To SAHM or not?

Recently, Mama J wrote a great post about the job of being a stay at home mom. I also really struggle with the title of SAHM (sorry, too lazy to write out stay-at-home-mom every time) and if you would indulge me, I would like to add my confusion to the conversation.

I have a PhD in Engineering. I worked as an industrial chemist for a few years, then quit my job and am now home with my two young kids. I am extremely privileged to have a husband who can support us and give me the luxury to be home with my two small children. I think that being a SAHM is a perfectly respectable career choice and REALLY REALLY HARD WORK OH MY GOD. But I just can't seem to own the title. It just doesn't feel right to introduce myself as a SAHM.

I left my job a little over a year ago, and when I announced I was leaving I was met with one of two reactions:

#1: Oh wow, that is such great news. You will never regret this decision. Your son needs you! They grow up so fast and you have to take every opportunity to be with them when they are little! Good for you!

Clearly, I liked hearing this one. It helped buffer the gut-punch from reaction #2 and its many variations:

#2: What? Why did you bother getting a PhD?
#2a: Another one bites the dust, huh (meaning young women at my company).
#2b: Oh, your (boss, mentor, advisor, etc) will be so disappointed.

And my absolute favorite (actually said to me by a fellow young woman scientist):
#2c: I don't know why they bother hiring women at all.


I believe the words of reaction #1, but reaction #2 is what plays in the background of my head. It was there when I left, it is there as I try to figure out what is next for me, and I’m not really sure why. Is it an ego thing? I need people to know that I could work full-time as a scientist, I just choose not to? Is it a responsibility to womenhood that I feel I should stick it out in science to try to add to the ranks of women in science? Is it a responsibility to my (parents, teachers, mentors, anonymous people who donated to the scholarships I received) to achieve as high as I can in my chosen field?

Is it a legitimate to toss these concerns aside so I can spend more time playing with my kids?

I think it is, and that is why I've made the choices I have. But I can't shake the feeling that this is not where I really belong. I feel like my kids are benefiting from my being around, but they don't really need me (and not some other carefully chosen caregiver) around all the time to grow up into healthy, good people. And I feel like I have some ambition to do something in addition to the work of parenting.

Perhaps I should also be perfectly honest admit that full-time parenting is a LOT OF WORK OH MY GOD, and I am afraid of totally losing myself in it. Are the SAHMs who love being home full-time just better at this than I am? Further removed from having an infant and a 2yo? Better parents? Worse?

It really bothered me that the job of SAHM was seen as a cop-out when I left my science job. If I decide not to stay home, am I reinforcing the idea that SAHMing isn’t a real job?

At the end of the day it really shouldn't matter how I stack up to other SAHMs or how many times I hear reaction #1 or #2 or what other people think of my decisions. In fact, I am sure most people don’t even care what I do. What should matter is what combination of working and SAHMming makes our family the happiest. And while that is easy to say I am not sure what that means in practical terms. Or how to separate the reactions of others from my internal monologue about what's best for me.

So what I am wondering is, does anybody have this figured out?


  1. Great article! I've been home for two years and still feel the same way. I actually really like "staying home", but I am always wondering if or when I should return to "work". Maybe it's the title of SAHM that bugs me??!! Or it's the look on someone's face when they find out that I quit my lucrative job to be a housewife? Or the assumption that it's easier to stay home than work??!! Or seeing former co-workers get promotions I was promised?? Most of it is wiped away by the extra hugs and laughs I share with my girls. Moments I know that are a luxury. I send the 2 yo to nursery school three mornings per week and that decision, while it's been awesome for my daughter, me, the baby, is also met with lots of criticism. So, I guess the bottom line is that every parenting decision is right and wrong and you just need to figure out what works in your heart.i

  2. I love your article - I'm so glad to see you put all these questions out there. Of course we (moms struggling with this question) care what you do, because your decision process is a precedent for all of us. I think it could be helpful to break out a couple smaller component issues.

    1) Owning SAHM: We are worried about how we perceive society perceiving us. I know it's easy to say, but perhaps we can somehow put this worry in a box and reduce its influence on our decision? When you get this figured out, please let us know! Seriously, I would love to see blog posts, a discourse, a movement, on how to be proud of staying at home.

    Our post-feminist generation of SAHMs who leave professional careers by choice is a new beast, and we need to be the ones defining the title.

    2) Your responsibility to other young women in your profession: IF a woman scientist really wants to stay at home, the bravest thing to do might be to stand up and set a precedent by staying at home. I am already seeing flexibility in the workplace in my own profession because women ahead of me have paved the way by staying home for a few years and then returning. To the young woman at response 2c in your article: "They hire women for our long term potential, recognizing that a great scientist will be a great scientist for decades even if we take a few years off in the middle."

    3) I don't think anyone has this figured out, because it's different for every parent and family. I agree with you that what really matters is what makes your family happiest. Please keep us posted on your journey as you navigate this jungle - we are each other's inspiration.

  3. I actually wrote about this topic on my personal blog after reading Torn (which you might like reading). The link to my post is at

    The truth of the matter is that economically most families cannot afford to have a stay-at-home parent. I work in an industry where most men's wives do stay home and it is difficult on the husband to have to make so many sacrafices to keep a job that they don't always like. And the spouses at home (understandably) hate that there is no backup or support most nights and weekends.

  4. I think this was a great post. I absolutely love staying at home with the Duchess and Honey, but nonetheless, there is a little voice deep down saying, why did you bother getting that expensive MBA? Aren't you just hiding out instead of competing in the work world and seeing how good you really are - or are you afraid to find that you maybe aren't as good as you think you are? (Yes, the voice says all that). I think what we all forget when it comes to careers is that we are in a dynamic situation. Unlike any time in the past, what we choose to do starting out in our 20s is not necessarily what we have to be doing decades later. Even people who have extensive (and expensive, both in time and money) scientific training have switched careers successfully. Here is how I try to look at it: Suppose you continued to do paid work, but you had an offer that sounded great in a slightly different field and went off on a career tangent? Sure some people would criticize you for leaving whatever you were doing now, but you would blow them off, right, because you were following your passion and interests. So think of being a SAHM (not loving that term either but can't think of anything better) as a little career diversion. Hope this is helpful.

  5. When are people going to understand that women cannot do it all and stay sane? Working full-time at a J-O-B and then coming home to a full-time family life is overrated. Something has got to give and usually it is a mother's ability to take care of herself.

    I have 2 professional science degrees and I work part-time. That was the best compromise for me because being in academia you get obsolete pretty fast if you don't keep your foot in the door. I'm probably breaking even when it comes to what I make and what I'm paying for daycare, but there is always some sacrifice.

    Do what feels right for you right now and tell everyone to shove it.

    You have plenty of time to go back to work once the kids go to school. Or even if you don't make that choice that is what works for you and you are the one that lives with it, not all the opinionators!