There’s a whole lot of debate out there about “working moms” and “stay-at-home moms” and about which of the two is better for children. In theory, “stay-at-home moms” should have more time for their children. But it gets complicated if a mother spends that time irritated, stressed, lonely or bitter. It gets complicated if a family needs an extra income. It gets complicated if a mother feels called to a particular cause outside of the home.
I think we have been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking whether a woman should work or stay at home perhaps we ought to be asking why there’s such a dichotomy in the first place. Why do so many women feel torn and pressured in both directions? Our culture seems to say it’s all due to gender stereotypes— that women have been held back by all the men in offices— that the dichotomy is due to their struggle to join those men in those offices. But what if it’s the other way around? What if the men ought to join the women at home?
Now, I’m definitely not saying that every parent should stay at home. Even if that were the ideal, for many people it is an absolute impossibility in our modern economy. But I do think it is worth wondering why working outside the home ever became the default expectation for anyone. Certainly, for much of civilized history, it was not the default. Women and men, mothers and fathers primarily worked at home. Going away from home or the farm for eight to twelve hours a day, every day, was not normal. Life revolved around the family, and work was simply an understood means for that life together.
Did this mean things were perfect? Of course not. But here’s what we know about relationships: they don’t happen if you’re not together. Home doesn’t become home if nobody is ever there.
So, naturally, how often a mother is home matters. But it also matters how much a father is home. It matters how much children are home. It matters how much grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins are home. But the reality is that our current culture does not promote anyone being home. In fact, it promotes the very opposite. From the moment children enter school they are primed and prepped for individualistic careers that continually pull them further away from their original homes and involve no training whatsoever for the creation of new homes. Certainly, some people are meant to put individual careers first; in order to contribute to the world in a unique way, some people are not meant to start families or stay at home. But I believe these people are the exception to the rule. Most of us probably expect for “settling down” to be a part of our future. But will the settling down ever actually happen? Will the home really be home or just a facade— a house that many different people with many different lives reside in, coming and going, but never really living together at all? Indeed, isn’t that the American stereotype? Where family dinners are rare or even non-existent and nobody knows anything about each other?
If home is the center of love and love is the meaning of life then we absolutely must fight for the home. But it is naive and simplistic to cast that responsibility on mothers alone. After all, what good is a mother at home if nobody else is ever there? No wonder so many stay-at-home moms feel alienated. No wonder so many feel like their jobs are not appreciated or taken seriously. Home is often treated like a launching pad for everything else, rather than the very center and purpose of everything else.
But what would happen if we did treat it like the center and purpose of everything else? Many people will say that family is the most important thing to them— that it’s the “reason” they work at all. But if foreigners came to look at us would they believe that? I’m afraid the answer is obvious. I think that Americans are afraid of putting the family at the center. I think that Americans are afraid of being home. Because being home requires simply being. And simply being can be quite scary. When we are home, life is slower and sometimes more mundane— sometimes even boring— life at home forces us to face ourselves as we are in front of the people who know who we are. But a good life at home also nourishes us in the deepest parts of our souls. Indeed, as so many of the greatest stories tell us, home is not meant to be launching pad; home is our final destination.
Again, I’m not saying that all mothers or fathers should work from home. I’m certainly not saying children shouldn’t leave their parents’ house. But I think families in general need to honestly ask themselves, are we running away from home? And if so, why? Whenever we run from home it tells us something about that home and something about ourselves. Sometimes it is not something we can fix. Sometimes people justifiably must run from home and find a new home. But a lot of the times we can fix whatever it is about our homes or about ourselves that puts them at odds with each other. Maybe it means dealing with and healing family wounds. Maybe it means finding a better or safer house. Maybe it means working from home if that is reasonable for your occupation. Maybe it means simply turning off your phone when you get home. Maybe it means reconsidering whether the eighteen-year-old really needs to go to the college furthest away if a comparable college is close by. Maybe it means marking the calendar with set times to spend with extended family members. Or maybe it means picking up and moving the whole family to a farm in the middle of nowhere.
In the end, whether or not a mother should stay home is only one question amongst many and the right answer varies so widely according to circumstance. Certainly, children usually benefit from being around their mothers but even more so, they benefit– we all benefit– from growing up in a home where everybody isn’t running away.
Image Source: Gladiator, 2010. Maximus returns home.