JK. In fact, while many a trend piece would have you believe that all SAHMs are affluent, educated women who are choosing to stay home to care for the kids while their husbands work because feminism is a failure, the new analysis from Pew Research shows that’s decidedly not the case. While two thirds of SAHM do have a working husband, that may not be true for long. Twenty percent are now single, compared to just 8 percent in 1970. Very few are wealthy or highly educated. They are younger, less likely to be white, and more likely to be immigrants. A third of SAHMs live in poverty, compared just 12 percent of working mothers. Six percent say they are at home simply because they can’t find a job, which is up from 1 percent in 2000.
And even among the rest who are “choosing” to stay home to care for their families, the evidence suggests their options are pretty constrained. Pew identifies the ridiculously high cost of child care as one major driving factor. Average weekly child care expenses have increased more than 70 percent since 1985 to $148 in 2011. Meanwhile, last year we spent less on child care assistance than at any time since 2002. If you’re unable to get a job that pays well enough to offset the cost of child care, then it makes total sense to stay home. But that sure as hell isn’t much of a choice in any meaningful sense of the word. Indeed, most parents, of both genders, say they’d ideally want to work at least part-time.
In my feminist utopia, everyone would be able to stay home if they want and work if they want. Hopefully this research will help put an end to the endless debate about “opting out” and start a meaningful conversation about the policy changes needed to give all families real options. With work-family balance in this country what it is (non-existent), it’s debatable if even the few uber-privileged SAHMs are making a totally free choice to stay home. But I think it’s clear that the vast majority of the rest are definitely not.
Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.