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:
It’s Not Really True
Unless you focus only on affluent, white, American nuclear families headed by straight couples for a relatively short time period during the 20th century, you won't find a very long "tradition" of families where the dad went off to work somewhere else while the mom stayed home and focused on the kids and household.
As historian Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were, writes, "There is no such thing as the traditional male-breadwinner family. It was a late-arriving, short-lived aberration in the history of the world, and it's over. We need to move on."
Nuclear families themselves are pretty novel compared with other family structures found throughout the world, and across human history. For most humans, living with some form of extended family has always been the norm. Going off to work at another place that's distinct from home is also a relatively recent thing for humans, so the idea that men have "always" gone off to work and women have "always" stayed home, even in America, is just not true.
It Pretends A Certain Vision Of Motherhood Is Innate To Women…
When we say that being a SAHM is "traditional," we reinforce the idea that caring for children and taking care of a home is something women "naturally" tend to do. However, not all women want to have children and loving and caring for children is something anyone who actually wants children can do, regardless of gender.
Likewise, the responsibilities of keeping a home are no more innate to women than they are to men. Our society just tends to teach and expect girls to help at home from a younger age, so they're more adept at it by the time they grow up. That's learned behavior; it's not innate.
...When That's Actually A Cultural Construction
Companies selling home goods, public officials, and other leaders in times past actively taught the rest of society to think a certain way about home and family. They advertised certain norms about what it meant to be a good wife and mother (and husband and provider), and even taught these ideas in school. While gendered messages about family life are somewhat less overt now, they still persists in things like commercials (which tend to show women doing household work more often than men), parents' choices in assigning chores, and in the kinds of toys people tend to give boys versus girls.
It Marginalizes Moms Who Work Outside The Home...
By pretending that being a SAHM is the default or "normal" role for women to take, we also make it possible for most employers and society at large to refuse to make accommodations for mothers who work outside the home, even though the majority of mothers necessarily do so. The "traditional" role argument misleads people into thinking that the choice to take on paid work is optional for women when, for most women, it isn't.
...And Makes It Harder To Win Social Policies That Make Life Better For *All* Families
By extension, by acting as though taking paid work is a personal choice for women, we perpetuate the idea that it should be each individual woman's responsibility to figure out how to balance her parenting and professional responsibilities, rather than a collective social responsibility.
If society instead recognized that working parents are the norm, then it would be completely unfathomable to not have policies like paid family leave, universal child care, and other policies that actually make everyone's life easier.
It Limits People's Imaginations About What Family Life Can Be Like...
By positioning a SAHM-style family as the default template for families in our imaginations, we all (employers and other social institutions included) end up using that model as our starting place for creating our own families, instead of coming up with our own ideas. That's boring. It also makes it harder for families to actually be able to do something different, because workplace policies, school schedules, and similar things are often set up around the assumption that there is an adult at home whose primary responsibility is to be available to take care of kids and other household responsibilities.
...And Misleads People About How Families “Should” Function
By perpetuating the idea that the current notion of a SAHM is "traditional," people falsely come to believe that their lives would be easier or better if their families were set up that way, or that their lives should be functioning more smoothly than they are if mom stays home. That means loads of unnecessary mom guilt and envy if she goes somewhere else to work every day, and needless guilt, shame, and even conflict for SAHMs whose lives aren't perfectly spotless and calm (like the idealized image goes).
It Makes Moms Who Struggle With A Really Unnatural Situation Feel Like They’re Broken
A July 2016 article in the Chicago Tribune reported on a Gallup survey that found stay-at-home moms are more likely to experience sadness and anger than moms who work outside the home.
That's likely because being a SAHM is often a really lonely experience. Raising kids to ridiculously exacting standards — all by ourselves — is simply not something people have ever been expected to do in any other place and time in human history. Yet by acting as though this model of parenthood is "traditional" and therefore natural, mothers who understandably struggle to do the impossible end up feeling inadequate, depressed, and broken, when they're actually perfectly capable mothers trying to do the work of an entire village completely alone.
Instead of reinforcing the idea that being a SAHM is "traditional," we should be honest about who mothers really are, what's really possible for any single human to do with and for a family, and the many different ways mothers can fit into families. We need to get real about what family life is really like, so we can make better choices for our own lives and so we can get to work winning the kinds of social support and public policies that all families need in order to thrive.