The Anonymous Stay-at-Home Mom

A while back I found myself at a social event where I didn't know many people, and I decided to try an experiment: For the first half of the event, when anyone asked the common icebreaker question, "What do you do?" I would answer accurately and say, "I'm a stay-at-home mom."

For the second half of the event, when anyone asked the same question I would reply by saying, "I'm a writer." That description of myself felt like a bit of a stretch, since I spend 90% of my waking hours right now doing anything but writing, but I went ahead and owned that title for the event as part of my experiment.

Sure enough, by the end of the evening, the experience confirmed something I've long suspected about stay-at-home moms and their identities within their communities:

When I identified myself to new people as a stay-at-home mom, the conversations usually didn't go very far from there. There might be a few pleasantries about how that's an important job, maybe an obligatory inquiry about how many kids I have, but the discussions ended awkwardly and quickly.

When I identified myself as a writer, it was a completely different story. That response almost always triggered more conversation, and led to a couple of energetic discussions that ended with exchanging contact info and keeping in touch after the event.

I used to feel insulted by this kind of thing. I felt anonymous and overlooked when I received blank stares in response to saying that I stay home with my kids, and I interpreted people's reactions to mean that they thought I must not be interesting enough to talk to or didn't see the value in my work. But over the years I've come to believe that the problem isn't that people don't respect my answer that I'm a stay-at-home mom; instead, I think the problem is that my answer doesn't give them the information they were actually seeking.

When we encounter new people, we naturally yearn to understand what kind of individuals they are. For most of human history, people tended to be born into small communities and stay there their entire lives. In that kind of environment, it would be rare to encounter a true stranger, and even then it wouldn't be too hard to find out more about the person. For example, I live near the same small town where my family has resided since the 1850s, so I'm pretty familiar with the other old families of that area. If I were to go over there and meet a new person who introduced herself as Ellen MacArthur Parker, I would quickly recall that the MacArthurs are from the north side of town and that many of them are police officers, paramedics, and other public servants. The Parkers are known to be gregarious and friendly people who often organized lavish parties and fundraisers. Ellen and I would immediately have plenty to talk about: I could ask her if she's related to the MacArthur who's the principal of the local elementary school, inquire about whether the Parkers have any big events in the works, and so on.

Most people these days don't live close-knit communities, though. And without the age-old social identifiers like family name or place of residence to help people understand one another quickly, we turn to jobs.

When you find out someone's line of work, it tells you a fair amount about what type of person he or she is. "Crocodile wrestler" conjures up a different image than "kindergarten teacher"; if a person tells you that she's a microbiologist, you would perceive her differently than if she were a Broadway actress. Or, for someone who has never had a career, knowing that he passionately follows politics or that she volunteers at the local animal shelter reveals much about the type of people you're dealing with. It's not foolproof, but it's the best way we have to answer the important question, "What type of person are you?"

I first noticed this when I joined a neighborhood playgroup when I was a new mom. At our first get-together, the conversations were painfully strained. After going over the kids' ages, making a few diaper jokes, and lamenting the woes of teething time, we eventually reached an unspoken agreement to give up and talk about the weather. It wasn't until the third or fourth meeting that things finally got interesting: That's when the topic of jobs came up.

It turned out that one of the women used to be a cancer researcher, another was an accountant, another had managed a local hardware supply store, and another aspired to be a professional chef, even though she hadn't yet held that job. Once that was out on the table, the conversations exploded: "What's your favorite quick weeknight recipe?" we asked the chef. "What is the latest thinking about how to avoid cancer?" we asked the researcher. The store manager regaled us with hilarious stories of crazy customers, and the accountant gave us some tips for doing taxes now that we had kids.

What I saw in that situation is what I see at almost every social event where most people don't know one another: People use "What do you do?" as a social identifier, and answering "I'm a stay-at-home mom" doesn't provide the information they're looking for, since all types of women stay home with kids.

I know that a lot of moms who are out of the workforce feel that their vocations are undervalued by society, and there's certainly plenty of truth to that. But I think that at least some of the time, the negativity that we at-home moms sense surrounding our work is not due to people looking down on us as much as it is due to the fact that we live in a society has come to use people's work as their primary social identifier, and being a stay-at-home mom is a catch-all kind of job in terms of personality types.

There aren't a lot of easy solutions, since the issue is part of the larger problem of the breakdown of cohesive communities in modern society. But I think that understanding the problem, and knowing what people are really asking when they ask what you do, can go a long way toward helping stay-at-home moms feel a little less anonymous.

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