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Dismantling the Stay-at-Home & Working Mommy Wars

Written by Neha Ruch, founder and creator of Mother Untitled

"Of the challenges women face, this culture of judgment among women is probably what we need the least and can do the most about."

In the spring semester of my second year of Business School, I took a beloved class dubbed Work & Family. The final project: write a proposal to your future self on how you might set up your work and family life to healthily coexist. I proposed an integrated setup with a focus on family life. I described a situation where I might work 15-20 hours a week in a freelance capacity, have part-time childcare for those hours, and be mostly at home with my children for the early years of childhood. I got the equivalent of a C on that paper, and the notations included one line that stood out in red. “How is this realistic?”. The equally beloved professor was in her 70s and a tremendous force for feminism.

The thing is it is realistic for many women – now.  I graduated from business school at 30 years old in 2014. I had my first son two years later and suddenly felt the purpose and peace I’d been missing as I had moved home from California for my “dream job” while dreamy in some regard wasn’t ultimately my dream. Motherhood, it turned out, was – MBA or not. So I took a full pause and eventually shifted into freelance work for two days a week, amounting to – you guessed it, 15-20 hours. I wasn’t the only one. I met countless women – I’ve since interviewed them – 280 women to be exact – navigating their own “grey area” of freelance, small business, part-time work or personal projects alongside family life.

In the year to come, I would come face to face with a lot of the societal pushback on the stay-at-home mother and the ambitious woman who chooses to prioritize family life over career. However, the most significant pushback I felt was from my female cohort. Women questioned why I had invested in that aforementioned business school degree or inquired if I might get bored at home. I started Mother Untitled a year later in response as a community to impart confidence and clarity and support women in recognizing that in making room for family life, you can make room for yourself to grow and connect. 

Now that I’ve been firmly embedded in the motherhood content creation and community space for almost five years, I can tell you that every end of the spectrum – stay-at-home or working-out-of-the-home mothers feels the same things. Follow the freelancer community, the work from home mother community, the mompreneur community, or the working mother community, and you’ll get a similar takeaway of feeling slighted by society and not seen in full by their peers. And, this is the kicker that you get if you peel back the digital curtain and dive into the deep conversation – the harshest slights are felt chiefly by their female peers.

The stay-at-home and working mother “wars,” as they have been called fondly in articles floating around the internet, are holding us back. Of the challenges women face, this culture of judgment among women is probably what we need the least and can do the most about. So here’s the hope. 2020 came along. Suddenly we were all at home, and the meme floated along – “no one will ever question what a stay-at-home mother does all day.” I added to that with this: “no one will ever question what a stay at home mother, working mother, or the somewhere in between mother does all day.” So while 2020 was fraught with sadness and loss, there were the silver linings of maybe – just maybe – some long-lasting recognition for each other’s loads. 

I’d love to hang onto that a bit because women and the workplace is a heavy enough conversation; we could all use a friend in each other. So here’s how I think we can take this on and step over the power chasms that separate us:

Re-Think Privilege

We have developed the rhetoric that staying at home is a privilege. Staying at home is not a privilege. Working out of the home is not a privilege. Existing in between is not a privilege. The privilege is in the ability to choose.

Many women have to stay home because their work doesn’t financially yield enough to counter the cost of child care. And many women have to remain in the workforce because they can’t forgo their income. And there are many shades of grey in between. 

I am acutely aware of my privilege to choose and, to that end, the underlying privilege in many parts of the Mother Untitled conversation about women embracing their pause or navigating the grey area. But when we as a culture say one side of this equation is a luxury, we create antagonism, guilt, and shame that does women a disservice in forming an allyship with one another.

Make It About You — The Kids Will Be Alright

Allyship is found in the things that unite us, and we all want to do right by our children and do our best. Unfortunately, here’s a common and possibly harmful narrative that separates us.

It has been said – women who work out of the home want to model independence for their children. It has been said – women who stay at home want to create a secure attachment for their children. Both of those statements may make us feel good about our unique choices, but they elicit emotional responses from women who made different choices. And realistically, what we know about attachment and independence in children is that it can be formed and learned in many contexts. So whatever you choose, if you have the privilege to choose – home parent, working parent, somewhere in between – the kids are all right as long as they know they’re loved and safe. 

So instead, let’s own our choices for what they are. Our choices. When we present ours as one that we made to make ourselves our healthiest and happiest and not about better outcomes for our children, the other mother is better able to see you for your independent choice and not question her own. Change the conversation to be about us and not the kids, and we remain open to other ways of doing life and approach the conversation in a far less defensive posture.

You are the only one who can give your child your best version. For me, I found that version – a peace and clarity and authenticity that I’d long craved – at home. I’m transitioning back to part-time work now on Mother Untitled and my happiest days are still at home. But the kids – they’re happy either way.

The Grey Area Blurring The Edges

Finally, the fluidity I describe in my chapter of early motherhood – shifting from pausing to freelance to passion project while pausing again to part-time entrepreneurship is a reminder that life and career are a long game, and it’s not black and white anymore.

That essay I wrote back at business school would have been better received in 2021. The freelance workplace has grown year over year since graduation (we have a flex jobs board as part of Mother Untitled, but LinkedIn, Career Contessa, Werk, and Reboot Accel are ripe with opportunity). Content creation, freelance work, contract, and remote work have become a massive part of our modern workplace. This creates much more fluidity for women between staying at home and working. 

How does this help us in diffusing the tension between women? Well, it unites us to say we are exploring this stage in our life together, not apart. Claiming this in-between space begins to soften the edges of these antiquated black and white notions. Maybe, just maybe, it begins to soften us all to the unique choices we make in this stage of life and the fleeting nature of it all.

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