The '50s housewife image many of us think of when we picture a "traditional" family is anything but, even in its own time period. The fact that it's blatantly untrue is just one of several reasons we really need to stop saying being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) is "traditional." Even back then, the kind of "nuclear family" life now considered "customary," was only possible for families where the husband made enough money to support a family by himself; something that wasn't true for as many as 40 percent of families, even in that incredibly affluent time in American history.
Now, this is not a knock on stay-at-home (SAHM) moms. I'm a work-at-home mom who chose to be a stay-at-home mom when my son was born, so I'm in no way suggesting it isn't a legitimate and worthwhile life choice. I believe all care work, child-raising included, deserves a lot more support and respect than it gets, and that this work can't just be women's responsibility. The joys and burdens of family life should be everyone's gift and everyone's responsibility.
But I also believe that we should be honest about what family life is really like, because misperceptions create false expectations, and false expectations set people up for disappointment and grief. And the truth about family life is that in every other post-industrial time period — and in every culture but the affluent, straight, typically white families like those shown on retro television shows — women (and until workers organized to change the law, children) have simultaneously engaged in paid work and care work out of necessity. If it's at all true that being a SAHM is "traditional," then that tradition isn't very long and it's far from universal.
Being a SAHM doesn't have to be considered "traditional" in order to be a perfectly acceptable choice. However, by pretending that it is traditional, we're needlessly misleading people, and making it harder for both SAHMs and parents who work outside their homes to actually make family life work for us. We need to stop saying being a stay-at-home mom is traditional, because: