Monday, December 28, 2009

What Are We, Anyway? (Labels We Wear)

It's interesting to observe a few things about the way women who stay at home are and have been referred to. The way we talk about things says a lot about how we view them.

Maybe this seems like a silly thing to start this discussion with, but our vocabulary both reflects and shapes our culture, and in a discussion of this kind I think it's beneficial to understand the culture that surrounds us to some degree, and the label we wear in that culture. It's also of benefit to consider what things we ourselves associate with the label which may present personal challenges for us.

"Stay at home mom" is a label that would be redundant in a culture where the vast majority of moms stayed home. So it's a reflection of our culture, and our times. It wasn't something that was used until relatively recently in history.

The fact that labels and vocabulary also affect how you perceive things is worth thinking about also. People who try to affect public perception are very aware of this. They apparently think it matters enough to make great efforts to change vocabulary where they deem it profitable. Consider "swine flu" versus "H1N1" for a recent example.

What does it imply when a woman says she is a "stay at home mom?"

For one thing it suggests that she stays home. All the time. This has a negative connotation to some, who view home as boring and restrictive, or who love their homes but also have a frequent desire to be "out and about," and envision the mom who stays home as virtually imprisoned by those four walls.

Another implication comes from contrasting the label with other labels, like "working mom" and "work at home mom." In contrast to these, the "stay at home mom" sounds like she isn't doing much. It implies that the moms who leave home for paid work or do some kind of paying work from home are the ones who are really working. So it makes a stay at home mom sound insignificant, like a non-contributor. But shouldn't those terms just be interchangeable?

The passive word "stay" also may imply that it's just a default -- what happens when you don't put forth effort to be something else. What if it were something like "choosing home mom" -- sounds a little more proactive, doesn't it? Strange, yes, but maybe that's just because we aren't used to it like we are "stay at home."

Yet another thing to note is that "stay at home MOM" defines the woman in terms of her children. This is interesting from a couple of angles. First, it is possibly indicative of the child-centeredness which our culture has come to promote (please note that child-centeredness is not the same as valuing children). Second, it suggests that she is home only because of her children.

A common label before the era of the label "stay at home mom" was "housewife." Notice the difference. The stay at home mom does basically the same things the housewife did, but we tend to think of these labels differently. There were some differences in who the housewife was, perhaps. She didn't have to be a mom, but she did have to be a wife. Today she doesn't have to be a wife but does have to be a mom. Hmm.

That "housewife" from the 1950's and before was defined more in terms of her husband, and has been described as essentially a man's useless luxury by some. Apparently this is how some of them felt at the time -- one of the reasons feminism made such big headway in later decades.

And how do we think of that term in our culture today? Outdated at least, I'll warrant. I didn't think of my mother with the label "housewife" (actually I probably didn't label her at all except as being my mom, unless I was required to on some form), and I don't really think of myself with that word either. It seems to belong to my grandmother's generation somehow. Although I hear there's a show these days that uses it in a desperate context. I've never seen that show, but it doesn't sound exactly positive either.

There are those who think we should adopt other labels for ourselves and insist on referring to ourselves by them, like "Executive Home Officer" or something else impressive-sounding. Interesting thought. I've read thoughts from some who encourage moms to take motherhood seriously and treat it like a professional. They make some good points, and I think in some ways we need that perspective. And I can understand why a mom would want to make up a different label for herself. Yet I don't really think it's necessary to go that far, and I'd actually have a slight personal beef with feeling like I have to "live up" to someone else's expectation of a fancy "professional" label (am I just a rebel or does it seem weird and maybe like admitting defeat?). But I don't have a problem with it if ladies want to do that and feel it makes a difference to them.

I will say that while I don't see an urgent need for a more "professional" label, and I'm not going to insist on not referring to myself as a "stay at home mom," I do prefer the labels "homemaker" or "keeper at home." Why? They are more biblical (NKJV uses the former, KJV the latter -- Titus 2:5), while still more inclusive than the mom label. And they sound like I'm actually doing something, which is a plus -- ha. How are these labels viewed by the world? Probably not great among many. "Keeper at home" is definitely more obviously "Christian-sounding" (or another "bad" label these days -- "fundamentalist"-sounding, lol). That can be either bad or good depending on to whom you're speaking. "Homemaker" may be more innocuous. From my research, some people prefer it because it's gender-neutral. I'm personally thankful I don't recall ever hearing a man call himself either a "homemaker" or a "househusband" (seriously?), though. Why yes, I probably am sexist.

Since the discussion I was a part of was concerning the "stay at home" label, which is probably used more often in our culture now anyway, we'll go with that for this discussion.

Much more important than any label is that we are secure and comfortable with ourselves and what we are doing. I think that will come through when we relate with others, which has the potential to change how others view it, without changing or even necessarily saying any words at all.

How can we be comfortable with ourselves in a position which is underappreciated or even despised by many? By understanding and valuing how God views it.

So what thoughts do you have on the labels we wear?

[Follow this link for more posts about being a stay at home mom.]


  1. I'm a 'homemaker' myself. :) I'm not a housewife b/c I'm not married to a house. lol SAHM, yeah, well, that just doesn't quite fit! chuckling

    We make a home with our husband first and foremost--Lord willing, he will be there both before children arrive and after they leave home. But I'll still be making a home for the two of us.

    You are so right--the label itself says a lot about the attitude toward the activity. Love your insight.

    So, are you a 'homeschooler' or a home educator?? :) Or a facilitator? or. . . .

  2. Oh! And the thing that stood out to me the most was your observation that the term SAHM would be redundant in a culture where most moms stay at home. LOVE it!

  3. Ha, yeah "homeschool"-type labels are a whole other discussion, huh? I guess the general meaning to most people no matter your personal preference, would be "strange" -- lol. ;)

  4. I think the tax forms still list it as "homemaker". I don't know if a man would ever put that after his name, though. :)

    If you're like me, you're too busy trying to do things correctly to think long on what to call all of it. What did they call it in Bible times? I'm not even sure women ran around calling themselves Homemakers as if it was a title, and it makes me laugh to think of Jesus asking someone in those times: "So, what does your wife do all day?"

    Women did a lot then, and there is much to do in these times, even though we have great things like electric ovens, dishwashers, dryers/washers, and sinks. Can you imagine being a woman back then? I could definitely see a woman in Bible times looking at us today and saying, "So, what *do* you do all day?"

    Hopefully our days glorify God by the way we use our time and energy for others and Him. It's definitely a constant struggle for me.

  5. very good comments from a mother in Israel. It is really important to figure out early that the world frames debates in ways that make their view look favorable ('pro-choice' is an incredibly evil way of describing what they stand for but it sure sounds upbeat). I like 'guide the home' as a job description, and there may be a good accommodative term to describe that. It may be the most powerful position on earth, which explains why the govt would love to take that out of mom's hands and put in into the hands of 'child care professionals.' The most important people I know are the godly older women in the church, yet they are the most despised in the eyes of the blinded world. Keep up the good work, sisters, and pray that more eyes will be enlightened in the true sense. - Tom

  6. Love this :) I like the idea of having the word "mom" or "mother" in the label. People just do NOT understand what parenting is these days!! I had a very ignorant woman at work tell me this, "My husband and I were teasing our friend who doesn't work and stays at home that the only thing she has to worry about on a daily basis is where she's going to go shopping." I then asked, "Oh, are all of their kids in school?" She replied, "Oh no, she has 2 in school and a 3 y/o at home with her." You can only imagine how this upset me (the arrogance and ignorance at her view on motherhodd). THis same woman told me (in response to me telling her I wanted a big family) that she and her husband wanted to have 10 kids by the age of 30, but they only ended up having 3, because instead of getting married after dating for 3 years after high school, they waited an additional FOUR years for college, didn't get married til they were 22, and when she did start having children, they were in daycare every day because her job is more important. Anyway, as I mentioned, I like having "mom", or perhaps even "teacher"!, in the title :) I apologize for the ranting!!