It’s gender week on Salt & Seed! As a gimmick to motivate myself and to build readership, I’m going to put up a short post on a gender-related topic every day this week. Check back each day to see what’s new. By Friday I expect to have alienated almost everybody!
A woman I really respect decided to go back to work last year. She had been home with her kids for years, but now, she felt, the time had come to quit mooching — her word — off her employed husband and begin contributing economically to the family.
I’m proud and excited for her. She has been doing important things during the years she has been home with her kids, and I know she’ll do important things now that she works outside the home, not least contributing to her family’s financial stability.
But I felt sad that as she looked back on her years at home she saw herself as a moocher, a parasite selfishly spending her husband’s hard-earned money. No doubt I felt a bit defensive too, since that is essentially my own position: because I am not employed outside the home, my husband’s paycheck is our only income. Any money that is spent in our family was earned by him.
The thing is, my friend was not a moocher in her household, at least I don’t think she was, and neither am I. I am an important contributor to my household’s financial health, despite the fact that I draw no paycheck. The mistaken notion that a stay-at-home parent mooches off money that is rightfully his or her spouse’s reflects two bad ideas: first, that a household is a collection of independent individuals; and second, that income is the only relevant variable in a household’s finances.
Before I defend those propositions, though, I want to forestall objections by making clear what I am not arguing here. I am not arguing that stay-at-home mothers are not financially vulnerable, both in the short and long term: they are, because their contributions do not pay into health or retirement accounts. (The same is true for many employed men and women, however.) Nor am I arguing that women should stay home, or any other claim about the relative value or contribution of stay-at-home and employed parents, even though there are many interesting claims to be argued. And obviously, I’m writing here about two-parent households, not households headed by single parents, whose household finances look very different. The only thing I’m arguing here is that stay-at-home parents can contribute financially to the health of their households.
Economically speaking, my husband and I are not two discrete units of earning and spending. Instead, we are two parts of an economic collective, our household. The household is the proper unit of measurement, because the household organizes the ways in which money flows in and out: it flows in to our joint bank account, and it flows out to purchase food, shelter, necessities, healthcare and entertainment that we all use together. It doesn’t make sense to think of myself as a parasite mooching off a hard-working breadwinner, because we are partners in the household, and the household is the economic unit that describes the way we live.
Furthermore, the financial solvency of a household is not determined solely — or even primarily — by the money coming in. The money going out, our household expenses, constitute a crucial element of the equation. As a stay-at-home mother, I hold many of those purse strings. The adage “a penny saved is a penny earned” is never more true than when applied to family finances: because money is fungible, it makes no difference to our household’s bottom line whether I earn $300 a week or save $300 a week. Either way, I’ve contributed that sum to our household finances.
As a stay-at-home mom, I have the time and flexibility to watch our expenses very carefully. I drive to the cheaper grocery stores or flexibly plan my meals to use cheaper, seasonal foods. I keep track of coupons and sales. I take the time to shop second-hand for clothes and toys. I make sure we never incur late fees on bills. I bike around the neighborhood, saving gas money. I DIY household repairs and decor. I organize the family to clean our own house and maintain our own yard. I provide our own tutoring and music lessons to our children. And of course I save the money I would need to spend on childcare, commute, clothing and convenience foods if I worked.* Moreover, many of the ways I earn-by-saving also have environmental benefits, further adding to the value of my work.
We are fortunate that my husband earns a solid income, and many of these cost-cutting measures are not strictly necessary to make ends meet from month to month. I undertake them in order to save for our retirement and our children’s futures, and so that it is always clear to myself, my husband and my children that I am a contributing part of our household’s economic health. My husband and I are financially interdependent: I rely on him for one important element of our household health, income, and he relies on me to control the other element, expenses. Both of us need the other, and both of us would be in trouble were the other to leave or shirk their part.
So to my friend I say, give yourself more credit! Now that you are working, you contribute to your family finances in an important way. (Especially if you’re able to avoid the two-income trap.) But give yourself credit for the important ways you contributed while you were at home. Stay-at-home mothers are not moochers.
*Of course, it is certainly conceivable that some stay-at-home mothers take no responsibility at all for household expenses, spending heedlessly and needlessly and with no sense of contribution or partnership. In these cases, I think criticisms of mooching may be justifiable. And on the other hand, it is also surely the case that for some families no amount of economizing can make a small single income stretch. I recognize that, and in those cases both parents should probably focus on the income side of the equation.
Coming tomorrow: what modesty discourse means to me personally.