Not long ago, I told a friend of mine that I thought the term, stay-at-home mom, was outdated. “Of course it is,” she answered. “It makes us sound like all we do -- all day long -- is sit on the couch.”
Fortunately for us, dissatisfaction with the term may be on the rise. Just a few months ago, Slate ran a piece entitled, WhyDo We Call Them ‘Stay-At-Home Moms?’ There Must Be a Better Term, in which the writer urged that “we, as a culture, are free to come up with a new word[.]”
Having the freedom to change something, of course, doesn’t mean it’s easy. I think there are some big cultural barriers to changing the term, including some that live in the hearts and minds of my fellow “stay-at-home” mothers. Still, I think a good argument can be made for sending the term into early retirement. It comes from feminist theory, and it’s about the cultural power of language.
1. Language is power.
One of the most important contributions of feminist theory has been to show us that language – the words we use to describe ourselves and others -- has the power to shape culture. The best-known theorist of discourse was probably Michel Foucault, whose early studies of mental illness and punishment and sexuality demonstrated that cultural institutions and cultural languages are mutually constitutive.
In fact, this fundamental idea has informed everything from medicine to politics. Discourse analysis has shed light on the ways in which the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) classifies psychiatric disorders, for example. While the classifications are based on dominant notions of what is normal (and therefore, abnormal), people have argued that the assumptions behind these notions -- about how people should behave, how they should act, and even, what they should want -- are culturally biased. So rather than taking our normative cultural words like hyperactive, or depressed, at face value, we need to interrogate them.
This analysis was not lost on the earliest of second-wave feminist writers. Feminist writers from Betty Freidan and Germaine Greer to Judith Butler to Joan Scott fought gender discrimination, at least in part, by exposing how it operated through language. It would be impossible for women to attain more rights and freedoms, they taught us, without interrogating dominant cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality.
Discourse analysis is a popular pet theory in academia, but it’s at work in popular culture all the time. To this day, dominant assumptions about how women should act -- and even, what they should want –inform how women are treated under the law. One of the clearest examples is the language used in rape trials, where people’s understanding of concepts like force and consent are driven by dominant assumptions about how women should dress, talk, or otherwise behave. Without interrogating language that presents itself in courts all the time – about a woman “getting herself raped” or “asking for it” -- prosecutors can’t even clearly establish victimhood.
2. Language is totally power at work.
The same theories explain why women have always challenged gendered language in the work place. If your boss doesn’t call you a lady or a girl, you have feminism to thank for not being patronized and infantilized. And if your boss does call you those things, you now have recourse to complain. Because women now have rules against denigrating and sexualized language in the workplace, which create hostile work environments, and disrupt our capacity to get our jobs done.
Feminists didn’t get too far with symbolic terms like Herstory and Womyn. But it was good they tried. Because they focused our cultural attention on the ways in which language reflected male dominance, and female marginalization. And in specific vocations, women workers made changes to help them create a more modern, gender-neutral work culture.
The list is long. Women struggled to be called flight attendants instead of stewardess. People insisted on saying office or administrative assistants, instead of secretaries, which was a loaded and old-fashioned term. We say child care providers instead of babysitters. We say firefighters instead of firemen, mail carriers instead of mailmen, and police officers instead of policemen. Increasingly, our culture is even coming around to calling prostitutes and strippers by the term, sex workers, to underscore their labor and their rights. It’s the right thing to do.
As a culture, we really do change terminology all the time. Women have lobbied for such changes in order to make work more visible, to make professions more inclusive, to gain more respect in their vocations, and to emphasize the rights of entire categories of workers.
3. The language of staying at home is disempowering.
So, having established the constitutive power of language in women’s lib, why should we care about stay-at-home moms? The main reason is that the term, stay-at-home mom, embodies no discursive association with the concept of work. And even conceals one. And this basic fact makes the work that a lot of stay-at-home moms do seem undervalued, and invisible.
This is partly a problem of gender-neutral terminology. Colloquially, when we say work, we mean paid labor. And there really isn’t a great way to describe the work done by women who don’t work for pay. Stay-at-home moms do not, in fact, receive a paycheck.
I know women who underscore their own work (at home) by referring to other women as working for pay, or working outside the home. Some feminist writers, of course, have tried to assign hypothetical salaries to their daily labors to show exactly how much value stay-at-home mothers should have. Germaine Greer and others have even argued that mothers should paid, on the grounds that it would better redistribute wealth toward families and children.
This is a challenge but not an insurmountable one. As a culture, we have no problem saying the word work when we’re talking about the unpaid work that people other than mothers do. When people volunteer for an organization or a cause, it’s often called volunteer work. When people get an unpaid internship, even if they don’t get the same labor protections, we say they’re working as interns. Domestic work isn’t an option for mothers, because that carries a different kind of baggage. But in regards to the unpaid work of moms (and increasingly, I might add, of dads), we could embrace words that imply or invoke some parity with paid work. Such as primary caregiver. Or full-time parent.
A bigger problem, to my mind, is that there’s still a segment of our culture that doesn’t really think the work done by stay-at-home moms should be valued according to modern, workplace standards. Some of these people are stay-at-home moms themselves. According to this viewpoint, women who are privileged enough to have the choice to stay home – a choice that comes with other social benefits, and is absent of the pressure of providing financial support -- don’t need to be any more empowered. Staying at home might be hard work but theoretically and practically, they would argue, it’s nothing like paid work.
Choice is a real issue, and it’s correlated with cultural empowerment. But I think this is a truly misleading bias. It’s not only misleading because mothers choose to leave paid jobs for all kinds of reasons, and often sacrifice some financial stability in order to do so.
But more important to this case, feminist activists have never made the rightness of a choice -- or the absence of choice -- an eligibility requirement for liberation. Some women choose to become sex workers. I don’t agree with that choice, but I’d never suggest we belittle their labor through language. Other women choose to go to medical school, or work at low-paying non-profit jobs – choices that may be funded through parental or governmental or spousal support. The amount of choice, like the amount of pay received, should be irrelevant.
Even when you sideline the work-language issue, though, the terminology is disempowering. I can understand how it may once have sounded liberating, as a replacement for the term, housewife. Defining women who were caring for children in a modern cultural context solely in association to their husbands was antiquated.
But the language of staying home was obviously constructed out of a certain feminist historical moment, too. It was constructed in opposition to another social group. That group was not men. It was women who were not staying home. Women, in other words, who were doing what men did. Work.
Associating stay-at-home moms with the home wouldn’t be nearly as detrimental if our culture valued the domestic sphere as highly as it values the public sphere. But it hasn’t. And it doesn’t. Women’s work in the home has historically been less valuable and less visible. The fact that the myriad tasks performed by modern stay-at-home moms also take place in the car, at the school, on the soccer field, in the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, in the dentist’s office, at the car repair garage, at the laundromat, at the tutor, and in the park hasn’t done much to change their visibility by the standards of the public sphere.
But even if we accept that home is meant as a kind of linguistic shortcut -- representing any number of child-rearing related tasks -- the language of women staying at home still connotes a lack, a failure to do…. something else. Think about the issue in reverse. If we talked about working women in the same oppositional way, but privileged the domestic sphere instead of the public sphere, we’d call them: leave the-home moms. But of course, we don’t. That would be totally disrespectful.
Working outside the home became linguistically normative to women for good reasons. Women had been excluded from a fuller range of work choices outside the home. But by using language that continues to privilege one role over another – even now, when women are gaining equality in the public sphere -- we make the work of stay-at-home mothers seem even less valuable.
All of these problems, to my mind, are made worse by the passive nature of the word, stay. Let’s fact it: The word staying happens to be one of the most passive, unproductive, and motionless words in the English language. Staying implies a choice and for many, that choice is empowering. But the choice to stay is fundamentally a choice to do nothing, rather than something. We teach dogs to stay when we want them to wait. People stay – in a physical space, on a board game, in a job – when they can’t move forward. Stay can mean to persevere – patiently, and tactically-- but its more common meaning is postponing, stagnating, lingering, or stopping.
This may sound like nitpicking, but when it comes to work and the history of feminism, modernization has often meant moving away from passive, gendered language and toward active, task-oriented language. Many of the professions I addressed earlier – stewardess, secretary, babysitter, prostitute – have been renamed to include more active, task-based words. Attending. Assisting. Providing. Working.
Ultimately, the fact that we define stay-at-home mothers mainly in terms of what they don’t do – leave and work -- becomes only clearer when we consider that other people who work in the home, are spared the same label. There are entrepreneurs and website designers I know, for example, who work in home offices. There are child care providers who do the same set of tasks that mothers do, and get paid for it. Yet we don’t call them, stay-at-home entrepreneurs, or stay-at-home web designers, or stay-at-home nannies.
Why not? Because their work roles and identities aren’t defined exclusively in contrast to entrepreneurs and web designers who work in offices. What they do isn’t fundamentally about where they are. Or in the case of mothers who stay-at-home, where they aren’t. Small wonder why some women feel the term detracts from their cultural value. As a culture, we don’t talk about stay-at-home moms as people (gender-neutral) who work in the home. We don’t even talk them about mothers (social role) who work in the home. We talk about them as mothers. Who stay. At home.
Over the years, a lot of feminist writers have discussed the terms and boundaries of women’s domestic work. But we’ve now reached the point where the term stay-at-home mom feels like it’s lagging behind the curve of cultural enlightenment.
If this were still the ‘80’s or even the ‘90s -- and we hadn’t been discussing the issue of work/family balance for the better part of three decades -- it would be harder to make this case. But our culture has changed. Every time we talk about jobs, the notion of “opting out” enters the debate. For good reason. Many women just don’t believe in having it all. Many women don’t want to juggle it all, to be sure, and they have that choice.
But many women have discovered that their professional choices are still shaped too much by biology and institutional sexism and unequal pay, and so, find themselves “staying home” for at least a portion of their children’s lives. Since the language we use affects how millions of women are treated and identified, since many of them will eventually return to the paid workforce, and since how we treat them influences how our culture views the work of all mothers, we should come up with something new.
Eventually, maybe stay-at-home mothers will have reclaimed the term in an empowering way, the way women have (sort of) taken ownership of the word, bitch. This would definitely be easier than talking about paid work, unpaid work, full-time parenthood, and part-time work outside the home. Getting people to use more words in place of stay-at-home is objectively harder than changing secretary to office assistant. But really, it’s not that hard. And it’s not whiny. And it’s not radical. I’m not suggesting moms get paid. I’m not suggesting anyone itemize their labors. Or find financial equivalency in their daily tasks.
So, call me a bitch if you want. But please, don’t use passive, negatively defined, and totalizing language to erase my everyday labors. It’s just outdated.