I am a feminist and a stay-at-home mother.  Is that an oxy-moron?

The past two years of my life have been devoted to organizing library outings, play dates, and parent-tot activities.  I spend too much time obsessing over potty training, toddler tantrums, and teaching a two-year-old to consistently say “please” and “thank you.”

I am also highly educated. I had a coveted job as a tenure track professor at large public university.  My mind was challenged; my schedule was flexible; and my income was adequate.  When I married a man who valued me for my intellect (as I did his) and supported my professional decisions in every way, I had almost everything I ever wanted.  The only thing I felt was missing in my life was a child.

A couple of years into my marriage, we decided to start trying to have a baby.  When I didn’t get pregnant, I saw a fertility specialist.  After five years, three miscarriages, and more money, scans, and injections than I want to recall, I finally had my daughter–and I couldn’t imagine going back to work and leaving her with a sitter.  It took me 4 years to complete my doctorate, but even longer to achieve this precious baby.

After a prolonged maternity leave, many discussions with my husband, and a conveniently timed job promotion for him, we together decided that my staying home was a possibility.  Two years into this journey I have few regrets.  It still feels odd to live solely off my husband’s income, and I certainly feel like there is far less respect given to this “profession,” but I am fully “woke” to my choices and the challenges they may present me down the road.

What I continue to ponder regularly is how I can be a feminist while following so many traditional gender roles and how I may or may not be setting a strong feminist example for my daughter.  As I prepared for my baby girl, I thought carefully about traditional gender norms and how to employ gender neutral toys and clothes to allow her every opportunity to one day be who she wanted to be.  Yes, she had a doll, but she also had building blocks, Legos, and cars.  She had nonfiction books about outer space, scrap yards, and construction equipment sharing the same bookshelf as Goodnight Moon and Llama Llama Red Pajama.  We spend as much time outside as this transplanted Southerner living in the cold Midwest can handle, and I work hard to let her get dirty and explore.  We visit science centers and look at bugs, take time to pick up leaves and sticks, and look at the world through binoculars and magnifying glasses.

Yet the first time I saw her play pretend she didn’t pretend to be a construction worker, doctor, or even teacher; she was cooking and taking care of her baby doll.  And I balked.  The daughter of a feminist was mimicking her role model (me), and it was jarring to see the example I was setting for her.  No number of books on baby Astrophysics or trips hiking through the county parks could alter the fact that she watched her mother spend her days taking care of her child and household.

Did I need to return to work so that I could role model other possibilities?  Was I inadvertently teaching her that a woman’s role was limited to housework (especially since her father’s corporate career often has him running in just in time to read her a quick bedtime story before she goes to sleep)?

After some consideration, I came to several conclusions.  First, my college-educated, feminist mother worked full time.  I stayed with sitters who treated me like their own and went to a daycare center I loved.  I had a wonderful childhood.  Despite her example, I decided to stay home with my child.  Lesson 1:  Modeling doesn’t guarantee my child will mimic my decisions; and if one day, she chooses to follow my lead and stay home with her own children, I know she will make that decision with the full knowledge that doing so is one choice among many.

Additionally, my favorite times as a child were when I was home with my mother.  She followed an academic calendar so was able to be home with us in the summer.  Those summers have a shimmery, magical quality in my memory.  Mornings of slow waking followed by long, hot afternoons spent at the local pool, hanging from the monkey bars, or running wild in the neighborhood were made possible by the proximity of my mother.  Lesson 2:  The time children spend with parents will be powerful and magical (Note: I truly believe this happens with parental connections regardless of whether a parent works or not), and it also passes in the blink of an eye.  I can’t slow down time, but I do want to savor it.

I also considered the societal value of mothers and homemakers.  Our society has spent generations putting women and “women’s work” on a pedestal while simultaneously devaluing both.  I am forever grateful to the women who fought for their rights so that I may have choices.  I am grateful to the suffragists who faced arrest so that I can vote and can only imagine all of the accountants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, and all the other women who have and continue to hit their heads on the glass ceiling weakening it so that younger women could eventually break through.  You only have to turn on the news to realize the challenges that women continue to deal with as they try to advance in their careers.  That said, I rebel against the idea that choosing to parent full time in any way diminishes the hard work of my fellow women.  Lesson 3:  My life and choices shouldn’t have to be a political statement.  Choosing to leave my child when I don’t want to simply to take a political stance would be as limiting as wanting to go into an occupation that was closed to me due to my gender.

Finally, she is so small and the world is so big.  It takes time to learn that we can take on the world; but I work to teach her this everyday as she slides down a higher slide than she did the day before or as she bravely faces a new situation.  Every challenge she faces and overcomes with support and encouragement from someone who believes in her gives her more confidence in an uncertain world.  Lesson 4:  As I move through the world replete with the belief that my daughter can do anything — that I can do anything — I am being a feminist role model.

As I think about feminism, I think about having choices as a fully actualized human being, not limits because of my gender.  When we create hierarchies amongst us, idealizing women who do or do not work outside the home, it creates divisions and weakens all of our positions.  As feminist women trying to negotiate a complex, too often scary world, we should work to lift each other up and support each other no matter what our decisions may be.

I can’t leave this discussion on feminism as a stay-at-home mother without recognizing that the decision to or not to work while raising young children is about much more than personal choice.  There is an inherent privilege in getting to make the decision to leave my job.  I have a spouse who is able to support our household on a single income which is often not the case in modern society.  It is also worth pointing out how the cost of childcare was a significant point of discussion as we determined if I would leave my profession to stay home full-time. In many fields that are traditionally dominated by women, such as education, the pay is often not commensurate with experience and education.  After subtracting the cost of childcare from my take-home pay, it simply wasn’t “worth it” to me to go back to work.  This makes my decision, ultimately, about more than just personal choice, but also about politics, economics, and, yes, gender.

To my fellow moms who are working full-time because you have to or because your work fills your soul (or your wallet), YOU ROCK!  Your kids are doing great and have a wonderful role model in you!  To my fellow moms who have foregone their careers (at least temporarily) to focus more fully on their children, I know it isn’t as easy as others often think it is.  Your kids, too, have a great role model!  Our children need to know they are loved unconditionally, see contentment (and passion?) modeled by their caretakers, and be taught that gender shouldn’t limit their choices; parents working in or outside of the home can do that.  As Elaine Heffner wisely noted, “Women do not have to sacrifice personhood if they are mothers.  They do not have to sacrifice motherhood in order to be persons.  Liberation was meant to expand women’s opportunities, not to limit them.”


Continuing the Discussion

In what ways do you model equality to your daughters (and sons) in your daily life?  Are there ways in which you feel conflicted?  In what ways can we support other parents in all of their employment variations?


Joanna Durham-Barnes is mom to a fierce and feisty 2-year-old and stepmom to a strong and sassy young millennial. Joanna is a former elementary school teacher and college professor. She earned her master’s degree in International Education Policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction from Indiana University. She focused her career on issues of social justice in teacher education before becoming a stay-at-home mom (who never stays at home).  When not spending way too much time on social media, Joanna loves to spend time with her family, travel, read, and watch live theater.

About Joanna Durham-Barnes

Joanna Durham-Barnes is mom to a fierce and feisty 2-year-old and stepmom to a strong and sassy young millennial. Joanna is a former elementary school teacher and college professor. She earned her master’s degree in International Education Policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction from Indiana University. She focused her career on issues of social justice in teacher education before becoming a stay-at-home mom (who never stays at home). When not spending way too much time on social media, Joanna loves to spend time with her family, travel, read, and watch live theater.

View all posts by Joanna Durham-Barnes

2 Comments on “On women’s work: Feminism and the stay-at-home mom”

  1. One aspect that’s so important in this discussion is the developmental aspect of having a parent a parent home during the critical ages of brain and specifically language development. Gordon Wells (Meaning Makers ) and Shirley Bryce Heath (ways with words) both studied language development over time ) both found the family context had a great influence on language development. (Particularly for the first born or only child)

    1. I think the research is clear on the importance of parent-child interactions; quality time with engaged parents is important whether or not the parent works full-time. Thanks for taking time to read and comment!

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