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The Old Debate

Woman wearing fake mustache

I’ve been part of the Stay-at-Home vs. Working motherhood debate my entire life. Literally. My mother was working as a Registered Nurse (because she thought she had no other choices, as she’ll tell it, today) up until the point she had my brother and me. She cashed in on “early retirement” and was a Stay-at-Home (henceforth referred to in this essay as a SAH) forever after, all the while making a point to distinguish herself from female family and friends with children who, for whatever reason, continued to work despite having had them. I was brought up to look down upon the Working Mother (or, WM)–with her boxed baking mixes and children in daycare whom my mother considered abandoned, for all intents and purposes–thrown to the wolves of early socialization and young personal responsibility.

My mother scratch-made everything, from our clothes to our bread. She would often say that she didn’t marry for money, and imply that her staying home in lieu of staying in the workforce was a huge financial sacrifice at the altar of my brother’s and my well-being, and that all WMs had made an active choice to worship the mighty dollar instead.

But my mother married a chemist (my father), who worked successfully in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in mineral and natural resource research and development. While she may not have “married for money”, my mother married a man who had taken his education very seriously and had made enough right choices that his family could live comfortably without much concern over buying groceries or being able to buy the one gift my brother and I each wanted most every Christmas.

The message of not marrying for money, repeated and rephrased throughout my “growing up” made enough of an impression that I definitely did not marry for money. In fact, it wasn’t even a blip on my radar to consider how much a man earned or had potential to earn, once I was let loose to make my own decisions about whom to date, let alone to marry. If a thought crossed my mind about a man’s net worth, I quickly disposed of it, choosing to focus on the degree to which any given man loved life and fun–failing to consider whether he could financially support his living of it or having it, respectively.

Nonetheless, I grew up looking forward to, and almost exclusively equipped for, a similar arrangement to that of my parents: 1950s-era, God-conscious perfection. Give me a recipe book, a home, and a checkbook–I’ll give you back a nuanced feast to appreciatively devour in your clean, comfortable home while we discuss world news, art and culture (I was a competitive pianist and I graduated from a private college through which I studied abroad for a semester. I financed my education with a combination of scholarships, a CD and loans which I paid back myself once I began working, thank you very much, and before you compartmentalize me with the Daddy’s Little College Graduates whose degrees may as well be another charm bracelet). I’ll get to have as much sex as I want, so long as I wait until I’m married (no doubt to a carefully selected, similarly upstanding, personally and financially responsible, worldly, God-conscious man)? Sign me up!

Mine was the California of life trajectories–all set up to be beautiful, sustainably developed yet exciting. But hidden underneath its surface was the “don’t marry for money” fault line.

When I met my husband, he was General Manager for a sporting goods retail store. Certainly far from doctor or lawyer material, but appearing to carry a satisfactory amount of personal and professional responsibility. He was also pursuing professional-level car racing which was an endeavor he bootstrapped from his own earnings.

Long story short and a series of what maybe should have been seen as red flags (instead of checkered flags–ha ha) later, I am the one loading up the kid and the car in the sub-zero early mornings to commute into town for some semblance of a reliable income and benefits package. I am the bigger breadwinner, as an assistant-to-an-assistant for a real estate title company (and guess what–it’s not possible to work somewhere else full-time, have a kid or two, maintain a comfortable, clean home, eat food that doesn’t always come out of a cereal box…dare I say, stay on top of laundry [Amy Glass, “I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I'm Not Sorry”]…and celebrate holidays in any manner that is better than completely unsatisfactory and rather depressing. And it is important when there are people trying to function successfully and with a degree of mental health outside of the home, even if that person is you). If he has awoken in time, my husband sees me off to work, then pads around in his socks working as a commissions-based travel sales agent from home, periodically wandering out of our guest room-cum-office to cook his lunch and play with the cats. He earns about a 20-year-old-seasonal-hotel-reservationist’s salary at best, and slowly chips away at a distantly foreseeable financially sustainable future in professional motorsports, all in the name of loving life.

I live the antithesis of a SAH, and most months our improvisational, adjusted financial equality is in question until we know whether my husband can contribute his “half”. We aren’t having much sex.

Still having some single friends, the trend I’m seeing is that of boyfriends moving into their girlfriends’ paid-for places; if my friends or I want a fun night out with a man, it is up to us to at least be ready to pay for it; and most of the time, we do. Neither example is bad, but the pendulum is quickly swinging the other way from the Donna Reed days, without stopping in the middle as I believe was intended by the “women’s lib” movement.

I see the SAH vs. WM debate as being less about who has it worse, who is making the bigger sacrifice, whose work is more “important” (see again: Amy Glass) etc. and perhaps more about women’s fear of, or reality of being taken advantage of, and not being able to fulfill and support her own interests, goals and values–whether that is by staying at home (and everything that encompasses), or working. Because if given the chance, most of us will default to whatever is best for everybody instead of what is best for ourselves; family survival (read: food and shelter) leaving little room for “choice”, contrary to Kaci Dross’ (“I Would Give Anything To Be A Stay At Home Mom”) notion that anyone can stay home that wants to.

I’m going to tell my son that the greatest gift he can give to his spouse is the flexibility to spend her life and energy contributing equally to their life together in whichever manner she chooses. And the same will be said to a daughter, key word being “equally”. As for me and my husband, I figure the next many years’ worth of this figurative gift is bought and paid for.

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