Four Most Dreaded Words for a Stay-at-Home-Mom

What comes to mind when you hear that an educated woman, a woman who once had a burgeoning career, has stepped down to become a stay-at-home-mom?  Really, what do you think?  That she is a great mom?  That she wasn’t really all that successful and found the hidden trap door in the floor?  That she couldn’t hack the pressure of the dual lives that most parents lead?  That she found the best solution for her family?  That somebody’s husband must be doing well or that somebody cannot afford childcare? That you pity her or want to be her?

Today, at The Atlantic, Lisa discusses the question she dreads most of all, “What do you do?” (Photo credit: John Schultz/flickr)

Stay at Home Mom, The Atlantic story on stay at home mom

‘What Do You Do?’: A Stay-at-Home-Mother’s Most Dreaded Question

The four most dreaded words in the English language, according to a recent study, are, “We need to talk.” But for me, as a long time stay-at-home mom, the four words I dread most are, “What do you do?” It is the question that sneaks up on me at a parent-teacher conference or the sidelines of a soccer game. Each time I am momentarily dumbstruck and struggle for an answer. Yes, I take care of my kids, but working parents take care of their kids, too. No, the question “What do you do?” really means, “What do you do besides look after your family, clean your house, grocery shop, and volunteer in your community?” The question touches on our identity and ambition, how others value us, and even how our children perceive us. The question asks, “What does someone pay you to do?” And for that, I had no answer.





    • Anonymous says

      I know this is an old thread but I happened upon it and really feel the need to give you my reply to the question : What do you do? I have ALWAYS said: “I am lucky enough to be able to do anything and everything I want. My freedom from paid labor is a wonderful gift I have given myself”. It shuts them up immediately – probably because they are used to stay at home moms being very defensive and thought is was going to be an easy ego boost/put down for themselves. Try it. It works.

    • JayBee says

      @ enchanted seashells, confessions of a tugboat captain’s wife.

      For some, its the most important action she can do, not all women are meant to be parents.

  1. happy outlook says

    “What do you do?” is such a hard question to answer. Really thoughtful post.

  2. says

    Eight months after I had my first baby and was finally reassembling the parts of my life that I’d stepped away from to be home, my sister-in-law (with a high powered NY job and no children) asked what I was doing lately. I bounced my daughter on my lap and told her I was back playing with my orchestra and had resumed some private teaching out of the house and was starting to do repair work part time when my husband could be home with the baby. I was feeling pretty good about all of that and then she said with pity, “Why aren’t you building violins?.” I just looked at her and pointed to the baby and just thought, “Wow, there will always be people out there for whom what I do will never seem like enough,” and at that moment I ceased to care. I do what suits me and people can think what they will.

  3. Carpool Goddess says

    Oh, how I dislike that question! Now that I’m blogging more and volunteering less, I get this strange look from people when asked “What do you do now that you’re an empty nester?” I tell them I have a blog, to which they reply “That’s so nice you have a hobby.” Hobby?!

  4. says

    i’m sorry that you’re struggling so with this. i think part of it may be the stages of empty nest because there are stages – just when you think you’re done…here comes another phase you didn’t anticipate. but i wouldn’t presume to say that that is anything other than a small part of it.

    What you gave your children is far greater than anything you might have missed.

  5. says

    I love the reader’s response above, “What don’t I do?” That’s more apropos. Great article with much to chew on

  6. says

    How I wish I could have come up with a clever response like Carpool Goddess and Mrs. Tucker! Instead I fumbled about, embellishing the story of some committee I was volunteering on, then feeling stupid.

  7. JayBee says

    Why is this such a dreaded question? Take the time to brag about all the things you do with your kids and in your home.

  8. says

    I think the question is daunting for stay at home moms as well as part time working moms. I work in a restaurant a few nights a week and when that question comes up, I want to say anything other than ” I am mostly a stay at home mom but I also wait tables at night.” Like I am saying that we clearly can’t afford for me to stay at home all the time so I work nights. It’s a tough question for so many. Our work has become our status when in reality, if I had recognition and status for all the things I do as a mom… Well it would be incredible. Until that day, I guess I’ll just have to hope for my kids to look up to me.

  9. says

    I shudder when think about how I would tapdance around this question. My husband is a professor and when we would socialize with other professors I would feel like I needed to drop my graduate degree in conversation to establish that I could do things other than quarter grapes.

    Then I realized that I was desperately seeking their approval. And that I honestly didn’t give a damn what they thought. Why was I dancing like a monkey to impress them? Because I was insecure.

    I don’t know how I made peace with this but I did. Also it helps that I blog (I started in part to HAVE an answer to this question). No more dancing monkey routines for me…

    • Laura says

      Alexis, my husband is a Prof, too – I never had the advanced degree to throw around – but I’m with you, I learned very early on, that I didn’t need anyone’s approval – I was confident in my role and so was my husband. My answer was, with a great pause – “I just Be.” “The old saying goes, “I am human being, not a human doing.”

      Then I ask them, “Who are you? I mean, not in a job sense, but really, who are you?”

      Because, I know who I am, and I’m really happy with that. Most people are still struggling with that question, even with a PhD. Prof types like this line of inquiry though, and it leads to other things quickly. Like, who are you reading right now? Or have you ever been to Budapest? or Salamanca?

      Who are you? works in all kinds of situations. They’ve just told you what they do, how can you ask such a thing? Keep asking.

      • Laura says

        one more thing, you probably don’t remember the shampoo commercial – “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” – This is a good line to say to yourself before you answer the “What do you do?” question – “Don’t hate me because I’m happy.”

  10. says

    What I don’t understand are the people who *don’t* get why that is such a tough question for some of us.

    • JayBee says

      @ Deb – Then please explain, why IS that such a tough question because I’m just not getting it? To me, I’d completely blow the person off and go on.

  11. says

    I get that question too and I don’t know how to answer it. Only it’s not because of being a stay at home mom, its because I was laid off almost a year ago. I don’t have a job. And its not for lack of trying. I’m beyond frustrated in my job search and when someone asks me what I do or where do I work, it hits me hard. No matter how I grit my teeth and smile and answer the question (i.e. “I volunteer”, “I’ve been taking college courses”, “I blog”, etc.), I can’t escape the fact that I’ve lost my work/career identity and it hurts.

  12. Anne says

    Why not answer with “I’m doing the most important and most satisfying thing I have ever done. I am nurturing and guiding a young life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
    What can anyone say to that?


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    […] What comes to mind when you hear that an educated woman, a woman who once had a burgeoning career, has stepped down to become a stay-at-home-mom? Really, what do you think? That she is a great mom?  […]