Last week I saw this Washington Post piece on how women just have to work, which states, “The reality in the United States today is that earning money is an absolute necessity for the vast majority of women.” Such an attitude connects to one I’ve heard many times, most recently, on a facebook comment to my “I Choose Not to Do it All” post, that basically implies that staying home is a pampered option that most women don’t have the luxury to choose. I’m hoping to address many points of this mindset in the coming weeks, but we have to start by asking what lifestyle we women just “have” to have, and what that means for motherhood.
To be clear right off the bat, there are many, many women who do not have the choice to stay home with their children for a variety of reasons, just as the article claims. My own grandma was widowed when my dad was a toddler, and she had to go back to work to support her four children, with a lot of help from her own widowed mom. I have several friends who are single moms, and a double income economy isn’t making things any easier for them. We are in a recession, and many families are struggling. I’m not here to criticize any mom who has to work, but I do wonder how many married 20- and 30-somethings (especially in the well-educated circles in which I run) assume they must work in order to maintain a certain standard of living.
We live in an affluent nation. It’s a given that every family has two cars, two or more smartphones and assorted other electronic devices, in-home internet, and that we not only have queen or king sized beds in our master suite, but also in the allotted guest room in the dream home that we own. We should be able to pick up our daily Starbucks, take the family out to eat a few times a week, dress ourselves and our kids in stylish new clothes, take the family to Disneyland every year or two, buy our girls the American Girl doll of the Year with accessories, and sign the kids up for a plethora of classes and activities that all cost a lot of money. Those aren’t upper class luxuries; they’re middle-class givens. Of course it takes a second income to pay for all that! Don’t get me wrong, I like going out for coffee, I enjoy the benefits of high-speed internet, my girls just got American Girl dolls for Christmas (granted, I bought them used for $35), and we are now homeowners ourselves. But past generations would not have assumed that they were just entitled to all those things, particularly at my tender age of 33.
Let’s crunch the numbers on a few of those categories. I worked at Starbucks back in the day, so I know that the average 20- or 30-something woman buys not the “cheap” $2 drip coffee, but the more expensive $5 grande fancy drink. My Starbucks treat of choice is a grande-no-water-soy-with-whip-chai-latte. It’s $5 a pop. No big deal, right? Well, if you get that drink five days a week, 50 weeks a year, that’s $1,250. That is a quarter of my annual food budget to feed six people. At about 300 calories in one drink (whipped cream alone is 70 calories!), it’s an extra 75,000 calories a year (about 21 pounds worth!). So your Starbucks habit is costing you over a grand a year, plus a gym membership to take off the weight you’re gaining by drinking those calories, plus childcare for your kids while you work out. That little splurge starts to add up.
Eating out is a huge expense for families; ours can’t go through a fast food place anymore without spending $30, and it’s more like $100 when we go to a sit-down restaurant. Just one fast food run and one sit-down meal a week would cost us $6760 a year. Think how many rent or mortgage checks you could write with that money.
Since I live in Southern California, a lot of families we know have season passes to Disneyland. The cheapest season pass is $329, times my family of 6, so it would cost us just under $2000 a year for commercialized family bonding at the Happiest Place on Earth (and that’s with us living within driving distance, so no flights or hotel stays on top of it). My family might have been unique in that we never went to an amusement or theme park in my whole childhood (we camped at free campgrounds or drove to visit family), but even my husband, who had relatives who lived in Florida, only went to Disney World once as a child. That kind of vacation, back in our childhoods, was a Pretty Big Deal, not an annual event we and our kids just deserve.
Starbucks, Disney, American Girl, and Apple products are not inherently evil, but if we value staying home with our children in the early years, we may not be able to afford to splurge on those products as much as our two-income family counterparts. Faithful readers of this blog already know this; I doubt any of us are spending thousands dollars a year on Starbucks or get to buy a new family car every two years. However, this reality may come as a shock to millennials; I live on a college campus, so I see every day how conspicuous consumption is the norm for that demographic! None of my stay-at-home mom friends are pampered; they’ve realized they aren’t entitled to a fancy lifestyle and are attempting to make things work with a simpler one. Children require sacrifice, after all. I’m blessed in that I’ve not had to dial back my expectations; growing up in a frugal family, I was used to this lifestyle, but friends who happily splurged their way through college years and the DINK life are finding it harder to not just go out to eat whenever they feel like it or cut back on their fancy coffee or alcohol consumption now that they are raising kids and have to think about the food budget.
I realize articles about American materialism put most of us on the defensive. I don’t live like that! I always think, I’m wearing hand-me-down clothes and driving a beat-up old minivan! I tend to think we’re doing pretty well at frugal living (or, as my friend Sarah calls it, “playing defense” with the finances while our husbands are out playing offense to bring home the paycheck), then I read a Mr. Money Mustache post or talk to Anna and Bethany and get inspired about more bean-based meals. We could all be doing more if we needed to or wanted to, right? I’m writing this on my nice computer with high-speed internet, and I’ll be checking for comments later on my smartphone. If you’d told this to the Emily of 2006 who shared one flip phone with her husband and went to the public library to check her email, her eyes would have widened at such decadence! When I start feeling whiney about missing out on something I want, it’s always a good exercise to turn things around and focus on what I have. I agree with our critics that I am incredibly privileged to be able to stay home with my children, but that privilege requires me to admit that my “absolute necessities” are far fewer than my culture expects.
Homeschool and mom duties permitting, I’m hoping to write a series of posts responding further to the aforementioned Washington Post piece claiming that work is not optional for women. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the article, too! I know life has gotten so busy for us at E2S that we’re not able to post regularly at this time, but we do always love comments and questions, and we promise we’ll keep posting when we can.