Is “stay-at-home-mom” the most dangerous job in the world?

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Every now and again, in discussions about the gender wage gap, you see some misogynist yipping about how women get paid less because men work the more dangerous jobs. This is pretty absurd, given how many dangerous jobs pay badly (military, police, fire department, in many regions), but it also ignores something the 20th century had a lot of trouble processing: women are especially endangered just by being born into a class that’s considered ideal for victimizing.

While many stay-at-home wives and mothers are never subjected to any kind of abuse, a couple of social factors make this an extremely risky job. First, because employers don’t recognize what SAH partners do as work experience (managing a household, particularly with kids, involves skills that would entitle you to at least a career in middle management, if you’d done it in an office setting), SAH partners don’t have the option of just leaving and getting a job that will allow them to care for themselves and any children in a way that doesn’t invite state interference. Second, employers still think of men as needing jobs to take care of their families, and women as needing to stay home to take care of their families. When a SAH male partner’s situation flops, that’s only to be expected, since it defied gender norms. Employers may scorn a man for having done the domestic thing, but they will perceive themselves as big damn heroes for giving that poor deluded fool a chance to get back on his proper gender track. But a woman with kids and no provider? She must’ve screwed up somewhere. She failed as a woman, by failing as a wife-servant. Why give a failure a job? Additionally, women always face certain prejudices from employers who secretly wonder what they’re not allowed to ask: will she get pregnant and leave? Will she have a widdle emotional upset and go all flaky? Will she just sit around, painting her nails? Will she successfully play the gender card if we try to let her go?

By the way, there are two simple solutions to this problem:

  1. Force employers to recognize “household manager” as a real job with real skills, and teach SAH partners how to write a resume detailing those skills. This transforms a lamentable “lengthy gap in employment” into the valuable work experience it really is, and enables SAH partners to divorce without fear they will be lucky to work sixty hours a week at various minimum wage jobs until the state decides their kids aren’t being kept in proper style and returns them to the abusive parent. (This, for those of you who want a SAH partner but think alimony is such unfair punishment for having had one, could also provide a way to eliminate alimony eventually. But by all means, don’t use your brains and encourage your legislators to do this. Just keep whining about how unfair the courts are to men.)
  2. Teach kids in school that absolutely anyone can fall for an abuser, because most abusers are great actors and can appear not only nice but even progressive. But no, let’s not – that would shatter our stereotype that abusers are never middle class educated employed white guys.

If you own a television set, you’re probably aware of many of the ways women end up in abusive marriages or partnerships. Some are primed from childhood to believe men abusing women is normal. But if you think a woman coming from a loving, functional family can’t end up in an abusive relationship, you are so very wrong. The only difference is that a loving, functional family won’t let an abusive son-in-law isolate them from their daughter, and that gives her at least one option in escaping the abuse with her kids and some hope of providing for them.

Here’s a typical pattern:

  • Young woman marries man who seems wonderful. She believes staying home for the kids is good for them, and plans to. Her unpaid labor helps husband make it through school, or the first years of work with repayment of school loans.
  • Meanwhile, husband turns out to be physically, emotionally and/or sexually abusive. Thanks to a social conspiracy of silence, she lacks a framework for the abuse, and assumes the abuse is somehow her fault, and won’t be visited on any kids they have, so she has a child or two with him.
  • Then he starts abusing the kids, of course, because abusers will abuse anybody. But she’s only just figuring this out.
  • She threatens to leave, and either he gives her the beating of a lifetime, or he threatens to get custody of the kids if she leaves. Maybe by now he’s also turned her family against her, since the predisposition to believe stories that women are crazy often trumps the urge to defend one’s kin, especially when that kin is female, and hey, we all know what they’re like. (This is where the woman from a family that values her has a big advantage. Many families – even arguably functional, loving ones – simply don’t rate daughters as highly as sons, and these women can expect to be blamed by their own family for letting that lovely son-in-law get away.)
  • So she waits, doing the best she can to protect her kids and suffering through whatever torture he doles out, until the kids are old enough to leave without him being able to stop them. In the meantime, she may try to get a job or some schooling, but he’ll know what that means and most likely stop it or sabotage it. Or her hours at the job or school may simply give him time alone with the kids, which is a terrifying prospect. (The link is to a series of articles on Dolores Claiborne. If you want a 2+ hour crash course in really understanding how few options women have in protecting both themselves and their kids from domestic violence, I can’t recommend it highly enough.)
  • Then she leaves, if he lets her (see the “beating of a lifetime” link: the overwhelming majority of domestic violence happens when you try to leave), and finds herself an “unskilled” forty- or fifty-something woman in a job market that’s firmly entrenched in ageism, sexism and prejudice against workers without traditional employment histories.
  • Meanwhile, her ex-husband is well-employed, thanks to all her free labor that helped him pay off college loans and get on with those promotions, so he can afford divorce attorneys and endless court battles, and she cannot.

And heaven forbid the abuse gets bad enough for her to feel she must leave before the kids are adults. He’ll almost surely get custody of the hostages (oops, I mean “kids”) because it’s not true that judges are biased toward women: judges are biased toward narcisissts, like everyone else in this society. Emotionless and conscience-free, narcissists stand there looking sad and wronged, unable to understand the venom coming from their spouse, and portraying him or her as mentally unstable because s/he is exhibiting emotions and self-doubt, like a psychologically healthy person who’s been exhaustively mistreated. Judges, like the rest of us, are taught to mistake functionality for healthy psychology, and no one is more functional than a narcissist who has no attachments or morals to get in the way of his functioning.

By the way, there’s a third solution to help with these problems: educate judges and social services personnel on how to recognize an abuser. This isn’t the place to get into detail about it, but abused kids often develop these skills instinctively. It’s very easy to recognize a narcissist once you’ve been taught what to look for. And sadly, you can safely assume that no narcissist genuinely loves anybody, because the inability to see others as anything but tools is part of the disorder.

So, I’ve stated the problem. I’ve offered three practical solutions to make it better. But by all means, just keep whining about how hard the menz have it.

Comments

  1. Maria says

    What a great post – two things I would add is that experiences of DV vary depending on other factors as well, such as race and citizenship status, and on what job your partner has. DV is a pretty big problem in the military for example, and a lot of spouses feel like if they support they either won’t be believed or that their partner’s career will be in danger or that instead of it being a legal issue it’ll be a “Relationship Issue” and treated as such. Here’s a good article on that.

    Plus there’s this feeling that you should just suck it up if there’s any hint of PTSD. (that talk of “embracing your duty” is pretty common.)

  2. says

    Maria,

    Great points. Abusers are great at sussing out the social hierarchy – the lower down you are, the more marginalized or isolated you are, the more they figure they can control you, because society isn’t there for you. There are a lot of protected professions, too – the military, as you said, but also preachers, doctors, lawyers, cops, any “pillar of the community” or “brotherhood” type of job. Imagine trying to report your abusive cop partner to cops, or ask another local minister what God would have you do about the fact that your minister husband is abusing you and/or the kids. Do you lie to the doctor who tends your bruises if he’s a doctor pal of your abusive husband? And the nightmares I’ve read about abusive lawyers who golf with every judge and lawyer in town making it impossible for their partners and even kids to get anyone to sue them.

    I can see how the military would be a doubly messed-up case, because it’s a brotherhood AND a pillar of the community AND your patriotic duty to support your husband/partner. From those articles, I’m thinking people need to understand a couple of things. (1) Having PTSD does not rule out that you are also an abusive personality, and the PTSD has maybe just “freed” you to start lashing out the way you always wanted, and (2) even if PTSD has messed a person up, and it’s really not that person’s fault that sometimes they’re violent, how is sticking with him/her and continuing to get hurt helping anybody? If I really couldn’t help being violent, I would want to be physically separated from anyone I loved. I’m suspicious of anyone who claims they can’t control their violent urges, but doesn’t urge their loved ones to go elsewhere and be safe, at least until a working treatment is found.

  3. says

    Even if there is no abusive situation, there’s no failsafe against a husband just up and leaving. I have seen a seemingly normal, happy husband leave his wife with their young children after she put him through school. She was devastated. (I’m not saying all or even most men do this, but it can happen.) And she had put her schooling on hold until it was “her turn” but now she was a single mother with 2 little girls. It’s going to be much harder for her now.
    And my own mother’s father left her to start a new family. My grandmother had been a SAHM for 5 children and now didn’t have a pot to piss in. Their marriage had not been happy, but my mother said he wasn’t abusive at all. Mom and her siblings had a tough childhood after that, and my grandmother took many years to recover and stand on her own two feet.

    Or what if something happens to him, like health problems, that affects his ability to work? Then a woman who has been out of the workforce for 15 years has to take entry-level or minimum wage jobs in her middle years to support her family. Even my own comparatively brief stay-at-home gap has cost me. I spent my 20s building office experience but after my “jobless” period of less than a year, no office will touch me in this economy. I am working for close to minimum wage now. I can’t afford school.

  4. says

    You’re absolutely right. There are a lot of aspects of being a SAH partner that can lead to financial devastation, which may not be immediately physically dangerous, but certainly can force you into unsafe cheap neighborhoods, insecure housing, or even getting into illegal trades to make ends meet (which puts you at the mercy of unscrupulous people you can’t report to law enforcement without outing your own “crime” of trying to feed yourself).

    JT,

    I think it’s actually fairly common for men to get through school or get some promotions at work, and then meet new people, or realize their social status has risen to the point where it could snag them a much more fashionable wife, and there they go. If you flipped the genders, the same scenario could happen – this is totally just human nature, to take for granted how partner #1 has contributed hugely to your newfound success and status, and figure you’re entitled to a new partner you relate to better or who impresses your friends more (depending on what your priority there is).

    I’m sorry to hear about your situation. I hope you catch a good break soon!

  5. Ida says

    Fantastic post. Another solution is challenging this idea that staying home with children is automatically good for them. I don’t get where that idea comes from. My mom quit her career because my parents believed that was what women are supposed to do. It made her extremely depressed, which she never got over. It made my dad very stressed from the pressure. It sent me all kinds of unhealthy messages that I am still working hard to push out. I don’t see how anyone benefited.

    It’s certainly possible that there will be some instances where Mom or Dad staying at home will be beneficial to the kids. But the idea that it is automatically beneficial for the kids without any specific reason to be, that’s just silly.

  6. Maria says

    Ida,

    I think a lot of that benefit is code for “it’s cheaper and better for the family financially,” since AFAIK the educational differences between daycare and stay-at-home kids disappears around 12?

  7. says

    JT,

    Good luck! :)

    Maria,

    SAH parent doesn’t equal homeschooling. Loads of SAH mothers do household stuff while the kids are at school, then pick the kids up, cart them to their extracurriculars, and then take care of them at home in the evenings. The financial benefits are definitely huge, but there’s also a lot of chatter about how if you don’t stay home with your kids, they will turn out all screwed up in the head. Because THAT’S why kids become criminals, doncha know? Ted Bundy’s whole problem was that Mommy didn’t stay home with him. /sarcasm

    What it’s really about is a requirement that women allow their kids’ needs to completely subsume them, until Mommy is no longer a person at all. AFAIK, the findings in psychology suggest there’s a balance: yeah, parents should be there for their kids, and be willing to put their kids’ school play ahead of their own desire to spend the evening doing something else, but parents should also appear to their kids to have their own personalities and desires and accomplishments. Seeing Mommy as a sort of cheerful, hyper-reliable robot damages a girl’s view of herself, and teaches boys that women are more like machines than people – wind ‘em up, watch ‘em perform. (Yes, you could flip the genders on this, BUT at least the media is full of men who are NOT cheerful, hyper-reliable robots. Conversely, as the choir here well knows, the same is not true with representation of women.)

  8. Patrick McGraw says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    Ted Bundy’s whole problem was that Mommy didn’t stay home with him. /sarcasm

    Or pornography, or whatever else the person talking to him wanted to hear. Which is exactly how NPDs and ASPDs like Bundy get away with so much, even, as you described, when they’re up in front of a judge.

  9. says

    Excelent article! The ‘typical situation’ you describe is so true, and not only for abuse victims: I know a lot of cases of women who were willing SAHs in non-abusive households and then, when they wanted or needed to go back to work found themselves unable to get any jobs. Top notch!

  10. says

    Patrick McGraw,

    Yeah, they’re awfully good at confusing even psychiatrists. They can play “Oh, I really WANT treatment” as well as they play the good citizen, good boyfriend, etc. That’s why something like the Paul Ekman training is a better solution – he’s the guy who really developed the stuff the guy on “Lie to Me” uses, and it WORKS. Microexpressions are all about empathy and genuine, unconscious, unfiltered emotion, which NPDs and ASPDs simply don’t have and can’t fake fast enough to pass the Ekman tests. Granted, the Ekman tests need to be studied more and legitimized through the usual scientific process before they’d be ready for court (it IS possible to make mistakes, as seen on “Lie to Me” – ok, he’s lying, but about what? She’s guilty, but about something else, or maybe even something irrational?). But it’s the way to go, IMHO.

    It’s certainly something that comes naturally to me, as someone who grew up with NPDs around. For years, I would just “get a bad feeling” I couldn’t quantify about somebody. Frequently, I was proven right (and I mean by consensus of people who knew the person, not just my own biased perception). After studying Ekman, I’m much better at articulating how I know someone’s lying, lacking empathy, etc.

    Nuria,

    I’ve heard there’s a lot of prejudice against mothers in the workplace. The science doesn’t attempt to explain the feelings behind the prejudice, but I would guess it’s the old belief that women must choose between careers and families, but men can have both. But what employers fail to notice about themselves is something I’ve seen many times in offices: a child is pretty sick, and the school has called a parent to come pick her up and get her to the doctor. Mom wants to leave work for that – it’s eye-rolling time! Dad wants to leave work for that, and it’s all “Yeah, yeah, whatever you need, can we help?” Big damn hero syndrome. (There are exceptions: I’ve also known of employers who tell dad “Are you kidding? Get your wife to do it!” But in an attempt to overcompensate for this misogynistic behavior, many are going to the opposite extreme in supporting dads as caretakers… but they still punish women for it. GO FIGURE.)

  11. savagebeard says

    A great analysis, and very scary to think about it happening to you.

    Even without the abuse, as other commenters have said, SAHM is probably one of the worst professions to get “fired” from or to quit, in terms of finding a way to support yourself afterward. In this economy, even a couple of years off after your first child is born could doom you to hunting around fruitlessly forever.

    Just to put in the depressing personal anecdote, my parents divorced when they were both in their late forties/early fifties. My mother had had a few entry-level or a step above type jobs before she had me; afterward, she stayed at home. They formally separated in 1997 and divorced in 1999 after a very nightmarish marriage during which both were intolerable jerks, but neither was abusive. My mother had been staying at home for thirteen years by the time of the divorce. The economy wasn’t too bad, but she couldn’t find a job. She went back to school, did volunteer work and took internships and finally landed a ~$28,000 a year job after seven years of looking.

    Six months later, she got cancer. After she had been out for months, they finally fired her and hired someone else. She had no recourse, because she hadn’t been there long enough. She did get better, but besides a $400/month part-time gig that lasted briefly, she has never gotten another job since. She’s 63 now. Who wants to bet that she’ll ever find another job?

    She has been surviving precariously for the past twelve years based on alimony that my dad doesn’t want to give her, since she was a jerk during their marriage and he has a new family now. Also, I help support her with money every month and larger amounts when she needs it. I’ve done this for the past five years, and I’m 25. It’s clearly going to continue forever. It’s limited my own life options and will continue to do so.

    Everyone who preaches about women needing to stay at home with children needs to wake up. Now that divorce (or the husband losing his job) is a very real possibility, being a SAHM is simply far too risky for a woman to even contemplate. I don’t care if studies show that children are better adjusted when they have a parent home, if any studies actually show that. The sexist attitudes that led my mother to stay at home didn’t benefit me, her, or anyone else. Her anger and depression, partly resulting from her dependence on a bad relationship, didn’t benefit me, her, or anyone else. The now twelve years of financial teetering and tottering has certainly not benefited me, her or anyone else. I have no siblings, she has no relatives in this country, and I fear for the future.

    And, by the way, it is indeed not acceptable for MRAs to insist on women staying at home and then bow out when it comes time to pay the alimony. Ridiculous!

    • says

      Be sure to check state/nation laws re: alimony recipients receiving financial help from other sources. Some states have extremely ludicrous laws that enable alimony payers to sue for reduction if they find out anyone else is financially helping the recipient. In cases I’m familiar with, that’s rebuttable as long as she can prove she really needs the alimony for basic expenses. But still, it is absolutely criminal that some states have laws that are intended to catch any sort of lover the recipient might financially benefit from, but could have the unintended consequence of punishing kids who send checks or kids and in-laws who let Mom move in to save on her rent and make the alimony go further. Absolutely criminal, and so is anyone who attempts to take advantage of it against his own kid. And yes, that has been done.

  12. says

    Thank you for this article, it’s a very important topic and you treated it with very clear reasoning.
    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that, as far as I know, the majority of accidents – including mortal accidents – happen in the household. So cleaning, cooking, driving kids to school and stuff like this is actually physically dangerous even without the other dangers of domestic violence, losing social status, financial risks etc. But all of these risks are just ignored. I think that is part of the problem and also a symptom of sexism, because if it’s a “women’s job” it can’t be dangerous, right? It doesn’t require (or teach) any special or valuable skills, it isn’t hard to do, it is really a cosy and safe option for a women who lets a man work hard to pay for her needs. At least that’s what modern myths tell us. (Did you know that the word myth originally meant “tale of the absolute truth that needs no proof”?)
    If women do it, it’s just not treated with the respect it deserves.

    I don’t think the best solution to this would be to raise women to the same status as men and offer them the same choices – I think society needs to change on an even deeper level, so that everyone regardless of gender (or race or class or sexual orientation) does have the same rights and respect and choices, but they shouldn’t be as restricted as they are now. Our current capitalist society is based on and couldn’t function without seperating people from each other, their own bodies and feelings and the rest of the world. If we weren’t so seperated, we couldn’t destroy ourselves, each other and the whole world (global climate change, anyone?) or let others destroy us, the people we love and the world we relie on to survive.

  13. SAHM says

    I came across this through a Google search. I’ve made my way through this article and the Dolores series.

    I agree that being a SAHM is scary in that it places significant limits on a woman’s future.

    My husband did not become abusive until after the children came and I left work to be with them. He started completely controlling the finances (I get a weekly cash allowance and would be in trouble if I touched the bank accounts without prior permission.) Then he started controlling the decisions. Then he started bruising me. He also doesn’t seem to be able to parent without verbal abuse or physical threats. He yells and argues instead of being a positive example or strong mentor.

    I tried to leave once but I realized I had no way to get out with my kids. I was a teacher before they were born and a teacher’s salary wouldn’t pay for their daycare and our housing/food/health needs. He is a firefighter and we wouldn’t get much support that way. He has even said he’d quit his job so we’d have nothing from him.

    I keep a bag with our most important papers, the kids’ birth certificates, my teaching license etc just in case we need a quick escape. But then what? Stay at a motel? Go to the DV shelter? How long would we last there? We can’t camp out on relatives’ couches – I have 4 kids and the oldest is only six. The youngest is a mere 4 months. We’d overrun any home we tried to stay at.

    I see no way out with my kids but there is no way I’d leave them alone with him. So I stay. And he isn’t scary and hurtful all of the time. But enough to make me frightened and pack up a safety bag. It all happened so gradually. If he had been like this in the beginning I would have run for the hills.

    That is why being a SAHM ended up being so disastrous for me. It took away my economic stability, forced me into dependency, and bolstered my husband’s drive for complete control. Years of being verbally belittled have rendered me insecure – I used to be quite strong but now feel a diminished sense of self-worth… And there are many other women who have a much worse experience than I! It is so sad.

    I wanted to be home with my children because they meant so much to me I couldn’t imagine being away. But it ended up a recipe for disaster. I guess I have nothing in closing except to say…let this be a cautionary tale.

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