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'Stay-at-home Mum' - archaic title ripe for extinction?

Each time I come through immigration at an international airport and scribble madly to complete the dreaded arrival forms, while simultaneously manhandling my overtired children, the ‘what is your occupation?’ question frustrates me.

Do I write ‘lawyer’? That is what I did for most of my professional life. I trained as a lawyer, I was paid good money to practise as a lawyer and I consider myself a ‘lawyer by trade’. But it is not what I have spent most of the last 7 years doing. I’ve been having babies, raising children, managing a household, cooking, cleaning, driving, counselling, negotiating, teaching, feeding, nurturing and caring for my family on a full time, 24/7 basis. I’ve also cared for and supported my husband, and captained the ship that is our somewhat chaotic household.

Now you might be thinking that I could have written something like ‘Stay-at-home Mum’ in the occupation field instead. The truth is, I have grown to despise and resent that term, not in the least part because it is generally far from true. What mother just stays ‘at home’ anyway?

Photo - Jessica Podzebenko

The term ‘Stay-at-home Mum’ gained traction in Western society in the 1980s, and took off in the 1990s when large numbers of women worked for pay outside the home. Historically, dating back to the 1800s, the phrase ‘stay at home’ was really used to describe someone who doesn’t get out much. The fact is the role itself has changed in dimension and expectation over the years. So the title now has little relevance to the role it defines.

It is also helpful to look at how the term works without a gender lens on. To do this, how do we describe the Dad (or the other Mother or co-parent in a same-sex situation) in the relationship? Stereotypically, he would be the working-for-pay parent and provide for the family financially. Applying the same logic used in defining a ‘Stay-at-home Mum’, perhaps we could call this father an ‘out and about Dad’? Never. That sort of terminology would just not happen. Indeed, I said it out loud to my husband and he just laughed at the incongruity.

Of course, there are plenty of ‘Stay-at-home Dads’ or ‘House Husbands’, and these titles are equally as offensive and factually incorrect as the term ‘Stay-at-home Mum’. But generally, fathers who work for financial gain are defined by their paid employment position or their career role. They might be a teacher, a businessman, a doctor, a plumber – and they are also a father. But unlike the title ‘Stay-at home Mum’, the word ‘Dad’ or ‘Father’ never gets tacked on the end of their job title. You don’t see ‘Banker and out and about Father’ or ‘working Father’ on a business card. If a father’s occupation is never defined by reference to his parental status and whether he is ‘working’ or ‘at home’, why should a mother’s?

The positive impact of job titles for ‘working fathers’ is clear. A job title which describes work or activity done for financial gain or compensation, or even work done on a voluntary basis which would otherwise be paid for, brings with it positive connotations. Why? The bottom line is because money is earned – or is normally earned – for that work, value is attributed to that role. Whether we like it or not, we still see that as value brought to society, a family and the economy. And where a monetary value is ascribed to work, society generally also attaches a level of respect, power and achievement to the job and person carrying out the work.

Conversely, a ‘Stay-at-home Mum’ does not get paid in the ordinary sense for her work. There is no time sheet, no employment contract and no salary commensurate for the work done. Obviously some couples may choose to buck the trend and have different arrangements in place (a new handbag for reaching domestic KPIs perhaps?) but it is not the norm. In addition, the opportunity and financial cost of spending time raising children and managing a household, instead of working for pay is a huge drain on a family’s finances. So because what we do is unpaid, society in general inherently, and often subconsciously, looks down on ‘Stay-at-home Mums’ as not providing value.

Photo - Jessica Podzebenko

But we are all painstakingly aware, both from statistics, economic modelling and experience, that this work is so hugely valuable and fundamentally important. Yet, still today, the term ‘Stay-at-home Mum’ is full of negative connotations and stigma. It implies inactivity and masks the many roles a mother actually fulfils. No other job description is so multi-dimensional. In my view, the term ‘Stay-at-home Mum’ undermines the very work we do and belies the real nature of this all consuming role. So no, I was not going to write ‘Stay-at-home Mum’ on that form.

A close friend, who has the same immigration form dilemma, shared with me her struggle with the term. “It implies that you stay at home….and do…well…not much. It has symbolised the totally undervalued, horrifically hard role that I took on for a period without properly understanding the job description.”

What is her suggestion for an alternative term? “Super-star-facilitator-of-life-for-others-and-self-if-time-and-energy-permits”.

Less verbose options have been thrown around for years, ranging from domestic engineer, household CEO, parenting professional and chief operating officer of X household. None really fit the bill, and even writing this article I can’t think of one catchy, short title. Homemaker and housewife are even more archaic and derogatory.

There is no empowering, respectful and positive term that is widely used and truly encapsulates what it is that women or men who are raising their families and not also in paid employment, do on a daily basis. Until we find an accurate, empowering term, which is universally accepted and used in society, then the stigma won’t change. Any progress society makes in terms of women’s equality, will be undermined by the very language we use to define the role of a parent who does not work for pay (clunky isn’t it!?). Of course, semantics won’t change the underlying societal attitudes, but it’s a start.

Don’t get me wrong, this article is not about passing judgement on a parent’s choice (or need) to work for pay outside the home or not, it is to probe us to think in a way that ascribes value to the unpaid work all parents do, and coin a positive and empowering term for that work. I have done it all as a mother – worked part-time as a lawyer, ‘stayed at home’ full-time and now I am writing from home for free in my ‘spare time’. I am still working out the best fit for myself, and my family.

So why don’t we define a woman’s occupation by the actual work and activity that is done, rather than using the title of ‘Mum’ or ‘Mother’ – which is something we are for the rest of our lives. Yes motherhood brings with it responsibilities and work, but no more than it does (or should do) for a father. Gender equality starts with equality in the choice of semantics and language used by society.

If a suitable title were to be adopted, perhaps we could increase the value perception of the role and more adequately prepare for it. What other role exists where the job applicant jumps blindly into a partly irreversible job (the motherhood bit!), with no training or real concept of what it involves?

Another alternative title came to me after a recent flight. I had flown solo from NZ to Sydney with my three sons, all under the age of 6 including a 9-month-old baby. Much to my amazement, the flight was fine thanks to a helpful bassinet and a wonderful array of in-flight kids’ movies. My normally spirited boys knew they had to step up that day. At the end of the flight a woman across the aisle said to me “I’ve got an 18 month old at home, and I’d like to say that you’re a superhero”.

It was one of the nicest things I’d heard for some time. My boys overheard it and they thought that Mum being a superhero was pretty cool. While the compliment was heart-warming, I didn’t feel that I was any sort of superhero though – I just got on with the job. I didn’t have a choice. And I certainly don’t feel like a superhero parenting my boys every day.

I’m not sure if Australian immigration would have appreciated me filling in the occupation section as ‘superhero’.

This blog post was also published on the news and views website Women's Agenda.

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