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Sympathy for the Stay-at-Home Mom

An argument about work, life, and the modern calendar


My first mommy date—you know, those painstakingly-dressed-for occasions you hope will turn the mother of your child’s new best friend into your best friend, too—also gave me my first taste of the shame that makes the mommy wars so bitter. Tali’s husband worked on Wall Street, she stayed home with the children, and the playroom in their restored Victorian on a lake in Westchester was photo-spread perfect. There was an expansive, carpeted space for our toddlers to run wild in, an air-hockey table, a big-screen computer, Legos, kindergarten-grade wooden blocks, and a play house, all of it neat on a Wednesday afternoon despite there being no housekeeper in sight.

And what did this particular messy working mother feel? Pure envy: real-estate and clean-house envy, attentive-mother envy, and, when I saw her lovely kosher kitchen, Jewish envy too. Despite sending my kids to a Jewish school, I’d never quite managed the exhausting logistics of kashrut.

Getting over all this, I discovered that Tali was the child of Holocaust survivors, themselves the only living members of their families, and that, despite a wide circle of friends and an active synagogue life, she had the air of a person profoundly alone in the world. I figured that this had more to do with her history than her present situation, and that family life was her consolation. But she told me that she’d left her job in investment banking when she’d had her second child only because when she’d had her first, she’d gone part-time, which had meant working 40 hours a week instead of 60. In other words, five days a week, she had left her house in New Rochelle at 7 a.m. and returned from the city at 7 p.m. For any mother, let alone one who had obviously missed out on the warmth of a large family growing up, this would be hard to take.

The women I met through Tali were also mostly former high achievers with professional degrees—smart, appealing, non-helicoptering, non-Desperate Housewives-like, full-time, suburban mothers. They were the kind of women profiled by Lisa Belkin in her famous (or infamous) 2003 “Opt-Out Revolution” article in the New York Times Magazine; by Judith Warner in her 2005 book Perfect Madness; and by Lisa Miller this week in “The Retro Wife” in New York magazine—to give just a few notable examples. These tales of handsomely educated and perfectly sane members of my sex who abandon great careers for children have become so common they constitute a genre of their own. Some of these pieces (or books) explain women’s flight from the professions as the waning of feminist ideals from one generation to the next; others blame the rise of over-mothering, attachment parenting, and other trends of that ilk; some cite all of the above. Miller’s piece introduces “neo-traditionalism,” which she defines as a rejection of feminist definitions of success. In many such essays, Betty Friedan appears as a touchstone, used to show how little has changed since she wrote The Feminine Mystique, or implicitly chided for failing to see how intractable work-life balance would prove to be. Each writer accurately characterizes their subjects’ lives and is right about the trend they represent and is by no means wrong about the pleasures and comforts of the stay-at-home life. And all of them, in my opinion, miss a key point. 

To understand why female lawyers, doctors, bankers, academics, high-tech executives and other, often expensively pedigreed, professionals quit work to stay home, you need not search their souls for ambivalence or nostalgia. In fact, searching their souls guarantees that you won’t get the story, because it’s not to be found in individual decisions and personal stories, which are always complicated and hard to parse, but in the structural realities of the American workplace. And by this I don’t just mean the family-unfriendly policies of the kind Marissa Mayer is accused of advancing—though refusing to let workers telecommute doesn’t help, and let’s not even talk about how few American companies have on-site child care or adequate parental leave. I mean that among the professional and managerial classes, success at work requires more hours in the office, more hours on the computer at home, more trips out of town, and a much less predictable schedule than it did in Betty Friedan’s day. The life of a Joan or a Peggy at an advertising agency looks almost easy by comparison.

When Friedan was writing The Feminine Mystique, the 40-hour-a-week office job was still a norm, even for executives—a norm well on its way to changing, but a norm nonetheless. Today, whether you’re male or female, if you’re taking home an upper-middle-class salary you’re expected to work an average of 50 hours, and probably more, a lot of it after you’ve gone home. As of 1997, the average workweek for a man with graduate education was 50 hours, and for a women 47—that three-hour difference can be accounted for, of course, by all the women who went on mommy tracks. Among American dual-career couples, in the 1990s, 15.2 percent of those with at least college degrees worked a joint 100 hours a week or more, whereas only 9.6 of couples without diplomas did that. Try to imagine what that 100-hour workweek looked like to a child: that’s five 10-hour days, plus commutes, for both parents. And those are just averages—for people at the top of their fields, the numbers were a great deal bigger.

That the workweek is ballooning for America’s educated, salaried classes, even as it’s shrinking for less educated, hourly workers, or turning into part-time work, has been called the “time divide”—the increasing inequality of time spent working, which tracks with the rise of economic inequality. As of 2002, for example, Americans in the top fourth of earners toiled an average of 15 hours more than earners in the bottom fourth. I called the sociologist Jerry Jacobs, who along with another sociologist, Kathleen Gerson, coined the phrase in their 2005 book The Time Divide, to ask what the time divide looks like after the recession, now that so many workers, including white-collar ones, are unemployed. The workforce is more unequal than ever, he told me. “People who get a job feel that they have to be willing to work whatever they’re asked to work,” he said. And those lucky enough to work are working with greater intensity. “The American economy is producing more than it did before the recession,” he continued, “and it’s doing it with 8, 10, 12 million fewer workers. Employment isn’t where it was pre-recession, but the productivity, the total volume of stuff being produced, is higher. The only way that can happen is if people are working longer and harder.”

Confirming the sense that those at the top of the heap are feeling the pinch of our increasingly competitive world are studies reporting that they’re more stressed out than they used to be. They juggle more tasks more quickly and with more interruptions, do more work after hours at home to get it all done, and take more out-of-town trips. In 1977, according to a survey by the go-to organization for work-family balance, the Work and Families Institute, 65% of men said they had to work very hard at their job, and 52% said they had to work very fast. By 2008, those figures were 88% (very hard) and 73% (very fast). In another study, the institute reported that half as many high-paid managers and professionals (24%) as low-paid employees in other occupations (48%) say they’re able to wall off their non-work hours from contact from co-workers, supervisors, or clients. As for business travel, among employees whose earnings put them in the bottom quarter of the American pay scale, only 9 percent said they had to do it, whereas among those in the top quarter, 38 percent said they had to travel.

If such sacrifices of time are now routine for office workers, what does it take to move up through the ranks? Jacobs, who teaches at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, told me the story of a recent graduate who had been determined to be among the top ten performers among several hundred peers at a Wall Street firm. He worked non-stop for two years, getting four to five hours of sleep a night. By the end of that period, he was named the very top performer in his group—at which point he decided he’d had enough, and left finance.

To reject a high-flying career, as this man did and so many women have done, is not to reject aspiration; it is to refuse to succumb to a kind of madness. Professional accomplishment shouldn’t and doesn’t have to look like this. The main reason white-collar workers can be driven to work 80-hour-or-so weeks is that very few of them have government protections. Most of them are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates the 40-hour-week and overtime pay. American managers aren’t allowed to join unions. Other countries have laws that protect against overwork even for professionals, such as standard or maximum number of hours anyone can work in a week. 

And then there’s the way we talk about the problem, which makes it hard to see that the culture of overwork hurts everyone, not just those who can’t hack it. “One of the things that feminism had at core was that it saw these as societal issues that needed to be addressed at a large scale, not at the individual level,” Ken Matos, a researcher at the Work and Families Institute said. “The narrative changed. It became the story of the unique individual who overcomes barriers in spite of all odds. That wasn’t the story that was supposed to be told.”

When my children were toddlers, I worked at home, which is to say, I didn’t do much work at all on a book I turned in four years late. So I spent a lot of quality time with mothers who weren’t trying to do anything other than mother, women who walked their children up and down my block or hung out in the parents’ room at my kids’ preschool. I admired them for having stood up to our society’s denigration of the important and unpostponable work of care; I liked them, their kids, their homes, their sense of community, and their comparative serenity; and I was scared to death of turning into one of them. Luckily, I’m a writer, rather than, say, a surgeon or a corporate lawyer, so all I had to do to pull myself up out of the ranks of what we’re no longer allowed to call housewives was sit down and actually write. When I meet young female undergraduates and graduate students today, which I do when I speak at universities, I don’t find them neo-traditionalist or lacking in aspiration. They don’t seem to want to stay home with their kids. They have every intention of using their formidable educations to achieve professional success, just as I did when I was in college. And like me back then, they don’t really grasp what that will require.

In our interview, Jacobs told me about a recent class in which he and his students discussed a study done of graduates of the University of Chicago’s business school. After 10 years, the study’s researchers found, the female graduates were making half of what their male classmates were making; the 90th percentile for women was where the median was for men. “Of course,” added Jacobs, “they’re all making a ton of money. It’s not like you could feel terrible for these women. But in terms of the disparity, it was pretty dramatic.” As the discussion continued, the young women in the class started putting their heads in their hands or on their desks. They hadn’t heard any of this before. But they’ll be hearing a lot more of it in the years to come.