Something that has bothered me for a very long time is that people are still commonly using the term “stay-at-home mom.” Most people these days even recognize its initialism form (SAHM), which entered our parlance via internet shorthand. First of all, the term doesn’t account for situations where the father is the one holding down the fort while the mother contributes as part of the workforce to bankroll the household. Society “solved” that by adopting “stay-at-home dad” or the less specific “stay-at-home parent”, but these don’t measure up either. Sure, during Covid those parents who didn’t have income-producing jobs probably did spend a lot of their time at home, but even then the term seems so insufficient to express the most essential aspects of what the parent who doesn’t head into work every day (in person or via Zoom during that time) does all day. During non-pandemic times, these parents are rarely just “at home”, or even if they are, that fact does so little to illustrate the nature of their occupation. It beggars belief that, of all of the ways we could describe these parents (or even those who are NOT parents but aren’t traditionally employed for other reasons), the phrase “at home” is the one chosen to identify them. Some posit the option “full-time parent”, but I find this insulting to parents who work because it’s not like they’re only parents when they’re not working. Working parents aren’t “part-time parents”; in fact, one of the major reasons they work is to provide for their family’s livelihood. And don’t even get me started on the obsolete notion of the term “housewife”.
What are they doing if they’re “at home”? Cleaning, shopping, driving kids to and from school and appointments and activities, planning those appointments and activities, reading and sending school-related emails, communicating with family members and friends about things like holidays and birthdays, making sure there are enough clothes to fit each growing child as the seasons change, meal planning and cooking or arranging for food to be available in sufficient quantities and variety to suit dietary preferences or requirements balanced with nutritional needs, scheduling service appointments for vehicle- and home-related repairs or maintenance, volunteering for school parties and field trips, and researching things that would only serve to benefit the family, like the best deals on pet food or what new release chapter books are available in the library. They are picking up prescriptions and making sure all of the bathrooms have enough toilet paper, rotating pantry stock after unloading the groceries, washing and folding laundry, changing the sheets, sewing buttons back on jackets, wiping fingerprints and footprints off the walls, helping with homework just enough but not too much, organizing family photographs so that they aren’t accidentally deleted, doing dishes and vacuuming cat hair from underneath the sofa, mailing the thank-you letters and looking up answers to questions the kids have asked. The list is probably actually endless.
What are those parents NOT doing? Sitting around idly at home. My friend Carmen, who was teaching French and math part-time at a girls’ school, was leaving work one day when a colleague noticed her packing up her stuff. He said, “So, you’re heading home now, huh?” as if she were just cutting out early to go put her feet up (as if that were such a terrible thing for someone getting paid to work part-time to do). I’m sure she wasn’t as scathing in her reply as I’d have been tempted to be, but she did say something like, “Well, now that I’ve finished teaching for today, I’m going to pick up my youngest at preschool, then I’ll make him lunch and entertain him while I prepare dinner before I have to pick up my other three kids at their school so I can get them home and finished with homework and fed in time for my oldest’s virtual ballet class.”
What are other “stay-at-home” adults doing? Caring for an ailing family member, perhaps. Volunteering at any number of organizations. Doing the heavy lifting during a project like a home renovation or landscape overhaul. Walking the dog. Taking care of things that the working parent then does not have to handle, allowing him or her to focus more fully on professionalism, which then favors his or her ability to do better work. And maybe, just maybe, they are taking some time for themselves to do something that helps them function at such a high level for the rest of the day: reading a book, creating art, going for a run, talking to a friend. They might even (perish the thought!) take a nap to prepare for the arduous afternoon and evening of devoting attention, time and energy to others after a morning of the same. Humans (in general) aren’t programmed to be happy if they are constantly giving to others without also giving to themselves. Those moments of time that might seem selfish are actually quite the opposite; for me, at least, when I’ve spent half an hour reading a book for pleasure or taken the morning to write or turned on a podcast while I whittle away at a craft project for a little while in between all of the tasks and line items on my “to-do” list, I do better for my family. I’m more patient and less distracted. I’m more inclined to genuinely enjoy spending time with them rather than feel exhausted by their incessantness (and they definitely pick up on this). The metaphors abound: who wants an overtired pilot flying their plane? Who would choose to board a ship with a nervous wreck for a captain? How happy can a workplace be when run by a resentful boss? No one can run a marathon on an empty stomach, and even if they could, neither would the results yield “personal best”, nor would it be healthy.
I’m going to suggest that we espouse a new term to replace the old ones: Family Administration, Management, and Life Improvement Executive, or, in short, FAMLIE. We could use the acronym in writing, but I think when we’re asked what we “do”, we should answer in full to give verbal recognition to the multiplicity and breadth of our occupation. We have certainly earned those twenty syllables.