Is Choosing To Stay At Home Sustainable For Women?

Our nostalgia for the 1950s blinds us to the reality that the stay-at-home mom was always a historical anomaly. As the economy declines, so may this option. What can families do then?

Since time immemorial, with the exception of very rich people who could afford servants and child care, women worked. Women had to work. (Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the home was an economic center.) I’ve discussed some of this before. The postwar strong economic expansion, job security, and innovation in household appliances created what we call “the stay-at-home wife and mother.” The era is signified, in movies and many memories, as a time when the family had a suburban home, appliances did much of the housework, and the mother could be home with the children while the father went off to a decent job that gave the family this standard of living.


During the recent British prime minister race, candidate Andrea Leadsom made the following comment: “Genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.” Many said the statement sounded like criticism against Leadsom’s Tory leadership rival then, Theresa May, who is now the new U.K. prime minister.

It’s hard to say whether Leadsom was engaging in “mommy wars” rhetoric against May, who has no children. At any rate, Leadsom apologized, and stepped down as PM contender. May, it turns out, has been married for almost 40 years; she and her husband wanted children, but couldn’t have any. Many lessons can be learned from this little episode, the most obvious being: you do not know the mind and heart of another person, so be charitable!

It’s true that everyone, whether a mother or not, has a tangible stake in the future of their country. But mothers also carry a certain anxiety concerning their children’s fate. In light of the thinning middle class (see here, here, here, and here), some of our children may not be better off than we are. The upward mobility and economic progress we’ve enjoyed, which has generally allowed each generation to land in a slightly better place than their parents, may be slowing down.

If this continues, some of our daughters may not be able to take the at-home option as mothers. Those of us who care about the future of the family (whether we have children or not, and whether we are married or not) should discuss the future of the at-home mom option. Certainly this is largely an economic issue, but here I want to approach the question from a primarily cultural perspective.

Nostalgia for the Stay-At-Home Mom

In his newest book, “The Fractured Republic,” Yuval Levin discusses the particular set of circumstances that coalesced after World War II to give us what some call the “golden age” of America—the midcentury decades. This was the age of national pride and cultural cohesion. While other countries took time to recover after the devastation of that war, America “emerged as a strong, unified, global colossus…embark[ing] on a period of extraordinary economic growth accompanied by impressive cultural dynamism and liberalization….low economic inequality, high confidence in national institutions, and widespread optimism about the nation’s prospects.”

We moderns, Levin says, hanker after a fabled lost paradise. “We are frustrated because we are so nostalgic” he goes on to say. We are nostalgic for what we believe is a “lost ideal.” Because of this, we tend to forget or diminish the troubles of those years: “epic battles over communism, civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, and countless other fronts: the burning cities, the political assassinations, the campus radicalism, and the social breakdown of that time.”

This very nostalgia plagues some conservatives fighting for “family values” in our culture. This is nowhere more evident than in playing up the midcentury stay-at-home-mom—the bête noire of radical feminism. This nostalgia lends credibility to the farce that we have fallen from an ideal in the arena of motherhood. That lie hurts our cause.

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