It is not at all difficult to find a story amongst parenthood magazines, websites, and blogs that is centered around the supposed dichotomy of the working mom versus the stay-at-home mom. Who has it harder? Which is better for the children? Which lifestyle is healthier for you?

Since having my now 11-month old son, I have worked outside of the home in various temporary and contract gigs, in addition to working from home doing two fellowships where I write, do research, and make videos.

I’m also my son’s primary caregiver — my partner and I do not have daycare, a nanny, or a live-in grandparent. 

I consider myself a working stay-at-home mom.

A working stay-at-home mom is a mother who is the primary caregiver of her children, but who also performs paid work either outside of the home or remotely and earns an income on the side. The nature of this work could be part-time, weekend, casual, overnight, contract, short-term, online work, or running a small business from home. Picture a mom that takes care of her children from 7:00am to 6:30pm, and then trades the kids off with her partner so that she can pick up an evening shift as a waitress, or write and answer work emails until midnight, or take photos of products for her e-commerce business. 

The second shift, reversed

Anyone who has taken an introductory course in sociology or gender studies is probably familiar with the term “the second shift,” coined by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild. In the 1980s, women entered the paid workforce in droves, leading Hochschild to study the lives of these working women and their partners by interviewing, observing, and reviewing time diary data of 50 couples. She found what she called a “double day,” where women spent their workweeks doing full days of paid work only to come home and do an unpaid “second shift” of housework and childcare. Hochschild’s 1989 book, The Second Shift, describes the exhausting and frustrating lifestyles of these working families. 

But what about the reverse second shift? Rather than spending nine-to-five in the workforce and coming home to do childcare, dishes, laundry, and cooking — as was common for Gen X mothers — what if your nine-to-five was the childcare, dishes, cooking, and laundry, and evenings and weekends (and baby’s nap times) were reserved for working?

The latter scenario describes, more or less, my life as a working stay-at-home mom. 

Indeed, it is a lifestyle of little sleep and little to no free recreational time. So why do it? 

Speaking for myself, I had my son at 24, right after graduating with my M.A. I have student loans to pay off. But aside from debt, I enjoy the fulfillment of working and enjoy contributing financially to the household. 

I made a Youtube video on this topic in October 2019 and put out a call for “working stay-at-home moms” to answer a survey where they could share their circumstances and experiences with me.

I received 154 responses between October 1, 2019, and December 31, 2019.

I was impressed by the grit and insights of working stay-at-home moms. They are tutors, bakers, artists, writers, piano teachers, waitresses, and school crossing guards and lunch monitors. They do freelance bookkeeping, run home-based daycares, sell thrifted clothing online, and operate Airbnbs. Some work while ensuring they can still be in the vicinity of their child, by teaching group fitness classes at gyms with a drop-in childminding service or by working at a summer camp that their own child attends. 

Legend has it that being a stay-at-home mom is a luxury only afforded to upper-class women who don’t have to work because their husband’s income is enough to support the household. But in a time when wages are stagnant, housing costs are rising, many are still burdened with large student loans, and childcare costs are sometimes equivalent to paying a second mortgage or rent, being a stay-at-home mom can be an economically-motivated decision. 

The cost of childcare

Let’s say you’re a Torontonian mother-of-two earning a $45,000 after-tax salary — that would be $3,750 a month.

If you’re paying the average full-time childcare costs in Toronto, Canada, that will be $1,685 a month for your infant and $1,150 for your preschooler — $2,835 a month. Maybe you’ll get a 5% discount for enrolling both of your children in the same daycare.

You’ll have about $915 left over every month after accounting for daycare costs. 

To be a working stay-at-home mom, then, would be more of an economic payoff even if you brought in a relatively modest $1,000 a month, and you don’t have to worry about missing important milestones in your child’s life. 

There are other motivations besides economic ones for wanting to be working stay-at-home mom: Alyssa, 25, states “I find being a mother to an infant to be a lifestyle centered around consumption. Working allows me to produce so I don’t feel like my entire life is about consuming…just buying diapers, formula, baby food, necessities, groceries, repeat.”

Some other motivations for working part-time include intellectual engagement, socialization, or balance and mental health maintenance. 

It is worth noting that just because some mothers work, that doesn’t make them better than a stay-at-home mom who doesn’t do paid labour outside the home. Many worthy pursuits are unpaid, such as volunteering for a food bank or being on a parent’s committee, or just trying to raise your own children! Certain circumstances must also be in place in order to be a working stay-at-home mom, such as having the support of a partner or a second caregiver. A single mother, or a mother of a child with special needs, for example, likely wouldn’t find the working stay-at-home mother lifestyle feasible. 

The working stay-at-home mom lifestyle

Rachel, 29, is a mom of two who sells crafts on Etsy and at craft fairs and who formerly taught preschool. She notes, “It is and was extremely difficult to work these jobs… I read once that it’s impossible to be a good housewife and mother who is in shape, keeps a beautiful house, and has a good paying job. For some silly reason, that felt like a challenge to me and I actually think I can do most of those things very well, though after child number two I’m letting my Etsy shop go a bit.”

Rachel remarks she stopped teaching preschool, what she went to college for, “because the irony of needing someone to watch my kids while I go out and watch someone else’s kids is not lost on me.” In her case, she wasn’t working out of financial necessity — her husband has a well-paying job. “My jobs actually made life more difficult since he had to watch the kids while I was teaching at the preschool or at a craft fair.”

Studies show that dads are more involved than ever in childcare, a change that enables moms to put in more working hours. Additionally, more dads are staying at home than ever before: according to Statistics Canada, stay-at-home fathers accounted for approximately 1 in 70 of all Canadian families with a stay-at-home parent in 1976. By 2015, the proportion had risen to about 1 in 10. 

Married couple Chris, 38, and Maria, 47, were ships passing through the night for many years. 

Would Maria consider being a SAHM her primary occupation? Yes and no.

As Chris explains, “My wife and I chose to work opposite shifts. I worked my 8:00am to 4:30pm and she worked as a server from 5:00pm or 6:00pm until close. We did this until our youngest son was ready for kindergarten.” 

“This worked out really well for us,” he goes on. “I got to cook for the kids most nights, help them with homework, give them baths, get them ready for bed and read to them…We struggled for a long time, but it was worth it!”

Chris and Maria’s case demonstrates the blurred lines between a stay-at-home parent and a working parent.

Dads are doing more care work, part-time childcare is becoming more popular, shifting cultural norms expect mothers to be earning an income, debt levels are growing, and the internet and social media are presenting women with more opportunities to work from home. With all of these factors present, the stark dichotomy of the “working mom” and the “stay-at-home mom” may well be on its way to obsolescence.

Lindsay thanks everyone who participated in the Working Stay-at-Home Moms survey for sharing a snippet of their lives with her.

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