Stay-At-Home Parents And Working Parents Have So Much More In Common Than Just Raising Kids
Dear working mom: I want to hear about your day and I want you to ask about mine.
This past fall, I ran a stealth social experiment at my kids’ school drop-off. One week I strolled in wearing leggings; the next, I sported a button-down blouse, wide-leg pants, and sensible flats. Without fail, when I was in sweats, all the incoming questions I got were about my kids, but when I dressed the part of a woman who goes to an office, the conversation eventually turned toward me. The most frequent one I got was: “What do you do?” The second: “What are you up to today?”
These might strike you as benign, everyday questions, but many parents in my position — who primarily focus on mothering their kids but may also do some paid work or have a passion project — say they dread them. (I know this to be true because I run Mother Untitled, a media brand and Instagram account built for ambitious women who downshift their careers for family.)
But seven years into primary parenthood, I’ve realized that there is a fate worse than awkwardly rambling about a non-traditional career or a pause for parenting. It’s far more painful — even detrimental — to be overlooked and never asked at all.
Today's stay-at-home mom is not and has never been the apron-clad caricature from those 1940s cleaning commercials, who is disinterested and unaware of work and ambition.
In most ways, my school sidewalk experiment confirmed what I already knew: I’ve often felt boxed out or ignored when social conversations turn toward topics perceived as part of the work world, from how to “balance it all” to what’s happening in the economy. For example, when my oldest son was still a toddler, I hosted a friend for a weekend playdate, and she brought along another mom from the neighborhood. This mom was in a demanding role as an entrepreneur in the tech space. An hour and a half into watching our children babble and gnaw on bagels, I realized that I had yet to field a single question about myself but had spent upwards of 30 minutes sharing the ins and outs of my husband’s career. I could almost visualize the thought bubble over this well-intentioned peer's head: "I have nothing in common with this person. Maybe I'll have better luck with her partner."
I didn’t say anything at the time, but looking back, I wish I could have burst that bubble. I have a background in digital marketing for millennial-centered brands and a passion for interior design; she ran a company focused on the millennial first-time homeowner. By disregarding my past work experience and deciding not to inquire about my life beyond my child, she missed out on bouncing ideas off a design lover and consulting (for free) with a seasoned digital strategist. I also regret losing an opportunity to connect with a woman who built a successful team at work, nurtured a loving family, and somehow still prioritized self-care. I would have taken mental notes for my future if only I’d had the chance.
I don’t think the working parents in my circle deliberately exclude at-home parents from conversations beyond childcare. And even if it is deliberate, I don’t believe their intentions are cruel. Instead, I think they feel awkward or even rude for asking, as if they are spotlighting our failure to hang onto adult purpose.
The question “What do you do?” may seem like a standard icebreaker, but without it, there’s no way to access the follow-ups that help us understand and learn from one another.
But today's stay-at-home mom is not and has never been the apron-clad caricature from those 1940s cleaning commercials, who is disinterested and unaware of work and ambition. Our daily tasks (and, more importantly, our thoughts) are not limited to family admin, home upkeep, and child-rearing. Millennial mothers are members of the best-educated generation in history, and many amass significant career experience if and when they step back for motherhood. The women in my community have chosen family life for a chapter, and at the same time, they are growing their networks and staying connected to work, not to mention consuming media that expands their thinking and advocating loudly for social equity.
Of course, not all working parents approach primary parents in this way. I used to have a neighbor who spent hours in my home sharing career stories and even introduced me to her colleagues, who remain friends to this day. In return, I sometimes acted as her eyes when she was at work, observing her son in music classes and on the playground. (Once in a while, I was also a second set of eyes on her client presentations.) And recently, at a parent coffee at school, one mother in a busy, high-profile role told me she leans on a stay-at-home mom friend to help her keep tabs on school emails and events. I didn’t say this then, but I rely on her candid conversation to stay abreast of her industry and trends in the workplace.
The question “What do you do?” may seem like a standard icebreaker, a dull bit of small talk, but without it, there’s no way to access the follow-ups that help us understand and learn from one another. These include: So, how did your career start? Do you like what you’re doing? What do you aspire to be? What’s challenging you lately? When mothers come together to talk about our goals, hobbies, and work, we pay one another the respect we each deserve. Asking about work is another way to say, “I see all you are doing and all that you are. Let’s help each other out.”
Neha Ruch is on a mission to update the perception of stay-at-home motherhood in America, infusing it with ambition, dignity, growth, and potential. She established her independent media brand, Mother Untitled, in 2017, and today she is a go-to expert on the topics of the Great Resignation, finding empowerment during career breaks, flexible work alongside motherhood, and returning to work after maternity leave. Follow her @motheruntitled.