The New Conversation About Being a Stay-at-Home Parent

For years, staying home to raise your kids was considered a luxury by some people—even an indulgence. But when COVID-19 made it necessary for all, that perspective started to change.

Conversations are changing about stay-at-home parent
Photo: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

If you're a parent who's elected to stay home with your children as they grow up, or one who works from home, chances are you've had to deal with questions about what you do all day long. Without thinking, your friends and family have probably said things like, "Must be nice to not have a real job!" or "Wow, I wish I could do that." Each time, you think about the chaos you manage on a daily basis, wishing that they could see everything you actually do (for the record, it involves little sitting).

Then came the pandemic. Suddenly, social media lit up with memes about how, after staying at home with children, no one would ever ask a stay-at-home parent what they do all day again. People who usually had office gigs moaned about the difficulty of juggling it all. No less a personage than Justin Timberlake deemed 24-hour parenting "just not human." And we finally started having honest discussions about how—no matter how much we love our kids—being with them all the time is a lot.

Emily Bass, a mother of three, has worked from home (or parented from home) since she welcomed her first child. Changes wrought by the pandemic have definitely caused a shift in the way friends in her life look at what she does. "I think everyone realizes that this is a lot harder than just staying home and getting to watch shows, or being on Facebook all day, or playing with your kids," she says.

Bass, who runs a frugal living blog, used to hear all the comments at-home parents typically receive. Pals would ask her why she wasn't working and how she filled all her "free" time. "It must be so easy to be home,'" they would say. But after the pandemic began, they changed their tune. "I've seen so many posts on social media saying, 'I had no idea what stay-at-home [parents] did! This is so much harder than I thought,'" she marvels. "I hope more people will acknowledge and respect what we go through."

Stay-at-home mom Amber Jaye Robinson has had a similar experience. "I have been asked on multiple occasions what I do all day," says Robinson of her pre-COVID life, adding that people in her circle have emphasized they could never do what she does. After the emergence of the pandemic, however, the same people started reaching out for advice, wanting to know how she structured things. "All of a sudden I don't seem so crazy about having super strict nap times," Robinson muses.

The Truth About At-Home Parents

No one is trying to argue that being an at-home parent is harder than working outside the home when you have kids. It isn't a competition, and even if it were, there are so many factors, privileges, and nuances you need to weigh in order to compare the two situations that it would be impossible. But most people just don't seem to get how challenging (and relentless) it is to be on duty all the time.

That might be because so many parents who stay home are afraid to complain about what seems to others like a fortunate position. The pandemic added more layers of complexity to that, because some parents (health care workers, food-service professionals) still had to go into "the office" every day, putting their lives at risk. How could anyone moan about what was essentially a privilege, right?

It's a situation that freelance writer Jamie Birdwell-Branson knows well. When COVID loomed large, her husband, a college professor, went on extended family leave. She knew how lucky she was to work from home and to have her husband there, so she felt she couldn't complain. But life was still incredibly difficult. "That's the crazy thing," she says. "Having a child at home with you all day—entertaining them, feeding them, bathing them, tending to their every need—it is absolutely exhausting."

As a freelancer myself, I couldn't agree more. I set my own hours and work fewer than five days a week. And I'll tell you this: The days I work for a paycheck and the days I devote to mothering my twins full-time are equally difficult...and equally fulfilling. It's not so much the juggling of competing priorities, though that's certainly a challenge. It's more the intense pressure of never handing over child care responsibilities to someone else.

As at-home parents, we're often singlehandedly responsible for our children's schedules, meals, development, education, and behavior, while also struggling to work or find a moment to ourselves. It's not always easy on our mental health, something that finally got a lot more attention during the pandemic. The future seems brighter now, but for many parents these struggles will remain.

Attitudes Toward At-Home Parenting Change

There may be a silver lining to all of this. Stay-at-home parents gained much more respect from society after COVID changed the rules; so, too, did parents accustomed to working remotely. "I feel a lot less pressure right now to hide the fact that I'm working at home with kids," says freelance writer Kelly Burch, whose husband is a stay-at-home dad. "I hope that change is permanent. If one of my girls interrupts a meeting, it shouldn't be an embarrassing moment. Yesterday my bare-bottomed toddler interrupted a Zoom meeting with my editor, and it was no big deal, which was really nice."

Jeff Wertz, a video editor who usually works from home, thinks that people started realizing what an imperfect set-up it was once they were forced to do it themselves. "We try to create the illusion that we have an effective workspace, and that we get the job done, and there's no distractions," says Wertz, whose wife also works from home. "But [now] everybody knows the biggest challenge is creating that illusion. Everybody's overwhelmed."

With any luck, we will all come out of this pandemic with a more realistic set of expectations about what our roles are as parents. People who dedicate themselves to being home for their kids are doing work that professionals (from daycare employees to teachers and nannies) are trained to do. And most of them are doing it without any sort of education. That's not something we talk about much.

Stay-at-home mom Taylor Hubler says that her husband, a pilot, finally understood how much work she did when the pandemic kept him grounded more often. Once he witnessed the rigors of full-time parenting, he began to understand why things at home could sometimes be chaotic.

"The expectation is that we are able to do it all and have the answers to everything and automatically know how to juggle and prioritize and handle every situation," Hubler says. But there's "a learning curve," she emphasizes: "It's like going to work and having a boss who gives you a different task every day and expects you to complete it even if you've never heard of the situation before."

Being at home with our children is a privilege and a blessing and we're grateful for our setups. But it's not easy. It certainly isn't perfect—though there's no such thing as easy or perfect where parenting is concerned. I feel incredibly lucky to have made the choice to stay home with my kids. That decision was not easily made, but I'd make it again. And having the option to maintain a career while doing so? It does feel like the best of both worlds. It also feels overwhelming and isolating and so misrepresented.

At least, it did.

"I think everybody's going to have a lot more empathy," says Wertz, of the way things changed during the pandemic. "And a greater understanding of what goes into it when we're done with this."

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