How Millennials Do Stay-At-Home Motherhood

We’re in the middle of something of a revolution in terms of what it means to be a working parent, and how that experience is represented. There are books, podcasts, roundtables, and foundations dedicated to navigating the delicate-sometimes-impossible juggle of career ambition with childcare duties. For stay-at-home moms, a group quietly growing since 1999, there is less dialogue surrounding their day-to-day choices. People aren’t asking their opinions on “doing it all,” even though they often do very much at the same time, sometimes envying friends and spouses who can go to work, talk to adults, and drink their morning coffee with both hands.

Pew Research found that more women are staying home with their kids now than in recent history: 29% of mothers now stay home with children, a sharp increase from 23% in 1999. It may still be the path less taken, sure, but it isn’t one trod by women given no choice; the Stepfordy-1950s stereotype of a woman keeping house can well be retired. In a quiet way, millennial stay-at-home moms (or SAHMs) are rewriting some of the rules of their predecessors.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family history at The Evergreen State College in Washington and author of Marriage: A History, says that for the past couple of decades, stay-at-home moms have only been a majority among women married to men in the bottom of the income distribution. These tended to be younger, less-educated straight couples, where the combined cost of childcare, transportation, and work clothing would often exceed the woman’s earnings.

Pew research echoes this, showing that the more education a mother has, the more likely she is to go back to work after having a child: 70% of mothers with a bachelor’s degree and 80% of mothers with a master's degree return to work after having kids. A growing share of stay-at-home mothers say they are home because they cannot find a job (6% up from 1% in 2000). But that still leaves a vast majority who are staying home because they choose to.

Meanwhile, more millennials are becoming parents. Pew estimates that one million millennials become mothers each year (no word on the number who become dads), and the total is expected to rise, as the generation continues to age into their 30s. That same research finds that millennials who do have children “are notably confident” in their parenting skills.

Millennials are remaking the world and attitudes around them in so many different ways. How are they reshaping parenting at home? With much of the conversation dedicated to the working moms — the Lean Ins, the Overwhelmed, and the I Know How She Does It — what do we really know about the parents today who are choosing to stay home? Ahead, we talked to real SAHMs and experts to find out.

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Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
Staying home wasn't always the plan.

Sarah Holden had traveled the world; she had a masters in economics and was working as a consultant for developing countries. When she was pregnant, she imagined she’d keep working from home in Bethesda, MD, while her son, Harry, napped. “But then he didn’t nap,” she says. She was overwhelmed with the demands of a newborn, and as her firm picked up more work in the South Pacific, she was faced with travel to Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. She decided to take a permanent break from the position.

“Development economics requires lengthy trips to faraway places, completely incompatible with being a mother,” she says.

Lindsey* was two months into her maternity leave when she called the small law firm where she worked as a litigator to let them know she’d be staying home. “It was a good firm, I enjoyed the people I worked with, but there wasn’t a ton of fulfillment coming from my work, which made it a no brainer,” she says. The Central Florida-based mom expected to keep working, but then a shift in focus and her responsibilities tipped the scale for her to decide to stay home.

On the other end of the spectrum was Elizabeth* who had never so much as changed a diaper before her son was born, and opted for early retirement from the Air Force, thinking that being home with a baby would be a much-needed break. She was surprised to begin the “much harder job” of caring for him full time.

“I wasn’t at all prepared for it,” Elizabeth says. “I felt totally overwhelmed, and totally side-swiped. I didn’t realize what it was like to be with a baby 24 hours. Law school and the military, I had done — and done well. But kids, I had no clue.”

Sarah, Elizabeth, and Lindsey are considered “opt-out” SAHMs: women with careers they enjoyed but stepped away from to focus on motherhood. The “opting” aspect is what’s significant. Research has shown that following the path you choose — whether that’s staying at home or staying at work — correlates to lower rates of depression. Stay-at-home moms aren’t more likely to be depressed than working moms, unless they wanted to be working. Millennials, in particular, have been branded as a generation in search of fulfillment, so they are more likely to make decisions with confidence and gusto and, when possible, prioritize enjoyment over income.

Meanwhile, trends show that childcare costs are rising while women's salaries are staying flat, a not-insignificant reason for many to opt out.
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Plenty of SAHMs are still working — or planning a swift return.

Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It, says many SAHMs are, in fact, working. “The reality is that very few families can live comfortably on one income, but childcare is so expensive that they can’t afford to work. So moms do some work that doesn’t involve paying for full time childcare,” she says.

Laura Spegal grew up in Tennessee, a place where everyone she knew was a stay-at-home mom, and she was eager to become one herself. She chose not to send her daughters to preschool (“I am fully capable of teaching their colors and numbers.”) and between cooking most of their meals and taking advantage of free classes in her Rockville, MD, community, she also squeezes in a few hours of work for Plexus Vitamins as a “network marketer,” industry parlance for selling commodities to friends. She makes more now than she did as a pre-K teacher five years earlier.

Many of the SAHMs interviewed did some paid work in the gig economy, freelancing in creative fields like writing, design, photography, or consulting with former employers. Several mentioned other network marketing options, such as Stella and Dot, for which sellers peddle jewelry at parties and on social media. But Spegal’s earning power appeared to be an outlier; the more common estimates from the SAHMs who did some work for pay was that they earn between a quarter to a third of the salaries they once earned while working full time (albeit without benefits).

Lindsey, who left her position as a litigator, is confident she’ll return to work when her youngest starts kindergarten (a common reentry point mentioned by these SAHMs). “I see staying home as a positive thing for my career,” she wrote in a follow up email. “I feel like it opens up options once I'm ready to go back to work — options that might be more family-friendly than litigation work for a law firm. To jump from six years of exclusive law firm litigation work straight to something completely different might look a little strange,” she wrote. But making that move after five years staying home seemed “more doable.”

Vanderkam is skeptical, saying people don't "fully appreciate just how hard it will be to get back in." Myriad factors contribute to easy re-entry, including strength of an individual’s network and the market demand for an individual skill set. People who have kept up their license or training, or stayed connected in an in-demand field, like software, nursing, or engineering, may have an easier time returning, she says. For those without a college degree, it would likely be much harder.

It should be noted that all of the women who volunteered to be interviewed for this story had gainfully employed partners. While they spoke of financial constraints, none lived below or at the poverty line, though many stay-at-home parents in the United States do. Nearly half (49%) of whom have less than a high school education and are part of families in the bottom fifth of income distribution.
Photographed by Jackie Harriet.
What do they do all day?

A parent's day begins whenever the first child gets up, and usually doesn’t end until far after bedtime, especially as they seek a few kid-free hours to catch up on email, grab a workout, or just collapse in front of a Netflix series. In time-use studies, SAHMs, on average, spend 18 hours a week caring for their children compared to working moms' 11 hours. All parents, meanwhile, are spending more time with their kids than they did a generation ago, but SAHMs have the benefit of being able to sleep more than their working counterparts, too.

Still, they’ve got plenty of hours to fill.

Maeve Kelly, a former congressional staffer and event planner, was up for the challenge. She structures her days in her Philadelphia suburb with the same rigor she brought to her career. “Someone might laugh at me when they hear I have a day planner,” she says. Every day is marked with an event for her two kids, Finn and Grace: singing with Mr. John, story time at Barnes and Noble, trips to the zoo. And she’s industrious about meeting other moms and introducing herself. At a recent story time, she asked for another woman’s phone number to arrange a playdate.

Of course every mom wasn’t cut from the Maeve Kelly organization model. For many, it’s about setting realistic expectations. “You have to get on board with the idea that perfection is false,” says Jenifer Yoon of Rockville, MD. “You just have to be a lot more willing to roll with it. If people randomly stop by, I say, ‘Yep, there are toys all over the house.’ If you stress out over the little things, you aren’t going to make it through the day.”

One mother said she often spent time cooking or doing laundry while at home, which meant her 3-year-old daughter learned to entertain herself for longer periods of time than she thought typical of the toddler’s age. Another was willing to indulge a picky eater’s numerous food requests, and felt unhurried during mealtimes. These exemplify a trend among stay-at-home moms who spoke to Refinery29: They credit certain differences in their parenting styles to the extra hours they spend with their kids.

All parents endure meltdowns, but one SAHM perceived working parents to be more lax with screaming children, while another felt she'd be less phased or less pressured to give in to the child’s whim. Several reported not feeling the need to apologize to friends and relatives for having a less-than-clean houses or imperfect kids, nor suffering the “mom guilt” that they belive working mothers struggle with.

Despite what all those “send wine” memes would suggest, they are doing fine, thanks.
Photographed by Jackie Harriet.
A “Village” Divided

One of the worst-kept secrets of parenthood is that it can be isolating. In a recent poll for Today.com, more than 80% of moms reported having a hard time making friends, even with Facebook groups and Tinder-inspired apps created to facilitate mom-to-mom connections.

“It’s harder to make friendships when you’re not in school, or college, or work,” says Rachael Goldman, a mom in Indianapolis, who found the change in socializing abrupt once she was no longer working as a teacher. “If you’re not doing a consistent activity, it’s hard to create a bond with the other moms. And it’s hard because you’re running after your kid and you don’t get to talk a whole lot.”

Staying home with her kids is what prompted Abbe Spokane to get to know her neighbors. She meets other moms at library events, playgrounds, or through her older son, Nate’s, preschool in Takoma Park, MD — and soon enough she had a community to tap into for help. When her daughter, Aviva, was born, other moms offered to bring Nate home from school, or she’d ask a neighbor to watch him so she could tend to the baby.

“I am definitely taking more advantage of the village,” she said. “Working moms could do this, but they might have less of an opportunity to ask for help. It takes social effort and time to build that community, and I’m just around more.” Social effort, she and a lot of stay-at-home moms didn’t think working parents were able to put in.

Many of the SAHMs interacted with other SAHMs, or mothers who worked part-time. There was less overlap between SAHMs and full-time working moms. “We never see them,” says Rebecca*, who left her job as a legislative director on Capitol Hill after her son was born in 2010. “They are only free for play dates on the weekends, and the weekend is when your husband is home and you want to do stuff as a family.”

In a focus group with moms who worked full time, Coontz asked what their response would be if they met a mother who said she was a stay-at-home mom. “They said, ‘I immediately wonder if I am being judged,’” said Coontz, who believes the sense of doubt and defensiveness exists for both the working and stay-at-home moms. “They were immediately defensive. We do judge people and their earning power, but there is a sense of, What if I had made a wrong decision? You see that on both sides.”

Rebecca echoes this disconnect: “Once people hear that I’m a stay-at-home mom, there is no follow up. That’s it. They don’t ask, ‘Do you like it?’ or ‘Do you have any free time?’ The conversation is over.” Others felt being a SAHM gave them less to talk about with moms who worked, preferring to interact with others who stay home. “We could easily talk about our kids,” Rebecca said, without feeling any unease that there would be a work conversation to try to avoid. Parents on both paths, it would seem, continue to cling to their own.
Photographed by Jackie Harriet.
They say it's helping their marriages.

One of the most consistent themes to come up was that many of the stay-at-home moms felt, to varying degrees, that their arrangement helped their marriage.

Abbe Spokane felt that her ability to take care of housework and errands on the weekdays while her wife worked freed up more time for them on evenings and weekends. “We have more time to spend together as a family,” she said.

“David’s work is very demanding in terms of hours and odd schedules,” said Brittany Dixon, who lives in the suburbs of Charlotte, N.C., and whose husband works in medical sales. “He can focus on his job knowing that I am taking care of everything at home. We are pulling our weight in different ways but both giving 100%,” she says. Dixon writes effusively about being a SAHM on her blog, A Healthy Slice of Life, leaving no room to question whether it's a family arrangement she resents. (The blog's earnings exceed her pre-kid income as a full time health coach, and point to a large audience who feel the same.)

Many women echoed Dixon’s sentiment that their decision to stay home allowed their spouses to attain a sharper focus for their work. Jenifer Yoon said her husband’s job as a financial planner required client dinners. If she were still working as an interior decorator, she’d need him to be home at certain times for her meetings, and essentially their two jobs were untenable. “This way, it’s like ‘do what you need to do for your job, honey. I got the rest of it handled,’” she says. Maeve Kelly, the congressional staffer, says she told her husband on one of their first dates that she planned to one day stay home with children.

“It’s pretty stereotypical gender roles,” said Sarah Branscomb, who left her position as an oil industry researcher in Texas to take care of her two boys, while her husband pursues his career in the same industry. “But it actually helps because it makes things more clearly defined.” she says.

In 2016, researchers Daniel Carlson and Amanda Miller made headlines when they concluded that couples who divided the housework more equitably had more sex and higher levels of satisfaction than in those relationships where one partner did far more housework than the other. I asked Carlson if the SAHMs who reported the stronger marriage and division of labor would be anathema to his findings. Not necessarily, he says.

“It’s about the perception of fairness in the relationship,” Carlson says. “Egalitarian couples have a higher sense of teamwork.” For the moms in this piece, the team mentality of each person pulling their own weight gave them an overall sense of satisfaction in their marriage.

“For those who choose these conventional arrangements, there can be a lot of satisfaction in that, if this is what you want. And that is what matters. But many times women find themselves falling back into the home, and they are not necessarily happy with that. If you are unhappy, then that is going to take a toll on your relationship,” said Carlson.
Some of them are dads — but the role of gender has shifted.

Even though most stay-at-home parents are mothers, there is a growing number of men who are opting to take on this role. Pew estimates that in 2012, 16% of stay-at-home parents were dads, up from 10% in 1989. (Roughly a quarter of these dads say they are staying home with kids because they can’t find work, which is the case for 6% of stay at home moms, too.)

But for millennials who prioritize fairness and equality over traditional standards, gender need not be the deciding factor in choosing who stays home. The act of making a joint decision, whatever the outcome, is what the SAHMs who talked to R29 valued the most. Having an egalitarian marriage circa 2017 doesn’t require both partners to be working, only that they both feel they’re making meaningful contributions.

One of the most consistent themes to come up in the nearly two dozen conversations with stay-at-home mothers was how many felt this was their decision, something they came to on their own or through careful consideration with a partner. Their pride of ownership shone through, that whatever the ups and downs may be, they were in control of the situation and had opted into it. Millennial SAHMs felt they owned their role, they just felt like they had less of an outlet to discuss it.

One mom was battling a fever before her interview, but made a point to step out for coffee, saying it was a rare opportunity for her to meet someone who wanted to talk about her choices. Another said, “No one asks me this stuff about my life.”

If Betty Friedan said there was a problem that could not be named, perhaps she was referring to the lack of interest society has in the inner lives of women, unless they’re either in the throes of passion or at the pinnacle of their careers. What we’ve learned from millennial parents is that they exist in a sort of limbo — in many cases defying the worn-out stereotypes projected onto them, while no one’s bothering to take a closer look.

*Some last names and identifying details have been withheld.

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