Stay-at-home mothers are not moochers

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. 

 

 

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  • JohnH2

    So if it weren’t for this showing up on the front page of Patheos I wouldn’t know that you had written anything past the review of a God who weeps.

    • Rosalynde

      I know, it’s confusing. A few months back we switched up the platform, so that now my space operates more like a blog and less like a column. Unfortunately they were not able to import all the old material seamlessly, but it can all be accessed from the tab on top. Please feel free to follow this new space via RSS or whatever you use, since this is where all my Patheos writing will now appear. Thanks for reading!

  • Alice Fisher Roberts

    I don’t feel like I’m mooching, but at some point, if I continued to stay at home even when I wasn’t necessarily needed at home, I’d feel like I was mooching. (that’s not passing judgement on anyone else, that’s just how I personally would feel)

    • Rosalynde

      Fair enough. And like I said, there are certainly ways of organizing the household that lead to one partner mooching. But being the at-home partner controlling the expenses, as I argued, is a contributing as a partner, not mooching.

      • Alice Fisher Roberts

        I agree.

  • Crazywomancreek

    I love this but would love it more if you changed, “it is certainly conceivable that some stay-at-home mothers take no responsibility at all for household expenses, ” to, “some stay at home parents.”

    • Rosalynde

      Good point. It’s true that I was inconsistent in using gender-inclusive language, which is okay with me. But it probably would have been a good idea to make sure that I was inclusive in that particular caveat. Thanks for reading!

  • Kris

    I appreciate that you acknowledged that SAHM can be a vulnerable position due to money not going toward retirement or health accounts. However, it would be a more accurate to add lack of work experience and higher education too. Should women need to work at some point (e.g. husband disability/accident, unemployment, death, or divorce), they could be in trouble. I had a dear friend with a B.A. linguistics, and without graduate school, became a SAHM but had to work when her husband suddenly was unemployed–she could only find work at a laundromat.

    • Rosalynde

      Yep, it’s absolutely true. Like I said, this wasn’t meant to be a defense of or advocacy for the choice to stay home, which is much too complex to tackle in a blog post. :)

  • ElrondPA

    it makes no difference to our household’s bottom line whether I earn $300 a week or save $300 a week.
    Actually, it does make a difference; saving $300 is worth more than earning it, because earned money is taxed, while savings are after-tax dollars.
    However, I would also state that even if you make no economic contribution to the household at all, that doesn’t make you a moocher. You’re simply making your contributions in different ways, and those contributions (moral, spiritual, educational, emotional, culinary, whatever) are every bit as important (or more so) as economic contributions. A moocher is someone who takes and gives nothing in return; I know of no SAHM to whom that would apply.

    • Rosalynde

      Yeah, that occurred to me, too. It would be interesting to see a full economic analysis of the benefits/drawbacks of saving vs. earning — savings is after-tax, but doesn’t get social security credit, etc; earnings are taxed, but they also sometimes get employer-matching for 401Ks, etc. Good points.

      • ElrondPA

        If you’re a second-income earner in the household, and your income is substantially below your husband’s (and you take some years out of the workforce entirely), it’s quite possible that the social security credits will be basically worthless–you may get more benefits as a spouse than for your own work record. Even if you do get benefits off your work record, the current formula means that you’re likely to more or less get back what you (& the employer) put in. But the federal & state income taxes are simply lost. And an employer 401k match typically tops out at 3%, not enough to move the needle (though if you are working, you definitely want to grab it).
        About the only time the results would be different is if you’re getting the Earned Income Tax Credit, and are in the range where more income means more credit. But that only applies with household income less than $13K, which isn’t likely here. For just about everyone else, a penny saved is more than a penny earned.


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