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This essay is part of “Home Ec: The Economics of Stay-at-home Parenting,” a series from Personal Finance Insider about the financial reality of staying home with your kids.
Stay-at-home moms are known for cooking, cleaning, caring for kids, and an endless stream of other minutiae we call “homemaking.” Something that often gets lost in this conversation, however, is that many SAHMs are also earning money working a side hustle.
I am a freelance writer. My income is directly proportional to the time and effort I have to give, which means on a monthly basis, it’s feast or famine. Thankfully, my family’s financial well-being doesn’t depend on my income; it depends on my husband’s steady, 9-5 corporate finance gig.
His income gives me the freedom to quit writing at any point if I want to. But I don’t want to. Besides writing being my lifelong dream, the money I earn is simply nice to have. We may not starve without it, but it helps us afford family vacations and financially survive our kids’ weed-like insistence on outgrowing their clothes.
A sample of my SAHM friends tells me I am not alone. One friend also writes freelance, another manages the social media for a small business, while another models for local designers and acts in commercials. One friend even works 20 hours a week selling imaging equipment to hospitals over the phone, and she still calls herself a SAHM. When you ask her what she does for work, like other SAHMs with side gigs, she responds, “I stay home with my kids.”
The paid work of stay-at-home moms goes unacknowledged
It isn’t hard to understand why we refer to ourselves as SAHMs, even though it undersells the reality of our workloads. For me, this is because, while I love to write and the money I make doing it is a boon to my family’s bottom line, my writing will always come second to my obligations as a SAHM.
Maybe this is because my income is an unnecessary luxury in the context of my husband’s six-figure salary. But I think we can all agree that luxuries are nice to have.
SAHMs contribute to their family’s financial welfare by eliminating numerous household expenses through uncompensated labor. And yet, despite the obligation most SAHMs feel to add cash to their families’ coffers as well, our side hustles remain unacknowledged by society. To such a point, in fact, that the cultural depiction of SAHMs remains a Starbucks-swilling housemaid at best, and at worst, a trophy wife.
This is an unfortunate gap in the cultural discourse, but it’s not surprising. The patriarchal bias against any field populated predominantly by women is built on the idea that women have less value to offer the world than their male counterparts. But, like moms who “just stay home” while also cold-calling hospitals and participating in day-long photo shoots, it’s not that the value doesn’t exist; it’s that it’s overlooked.
For my part, I recognize I’m one of the architects of my complaint. While I’ve gotten better at answering “I’m a writer” when people ask me what I do for work, it still feels like an over-exaggeration. Never mind the bimonthly advice column I write for Insider. Never mind the novels I have written and the hours I spend researching, interviewing sources, and pitching stories. Never mind the times my kids ate cereal for dinner because I had a deadline. Apparently, none of that matters because my husband’s income covers our mortgage payment.
SAHMs deserve credit for all the ways they provide
You might read this and think, “Honey, you’re talking about a part-time job. You’re not even technically a SAHM.” But that’s what I am trying to tell you. Ask any SAHM you know, and I bet you’ll find that most of them consider it part of their job as homemakers to bring in a little money on the side.
Our culture needs to start acknowledging the full contribution of SAHMs, even when part of that contribution is turning a hobby into a money-producing job. Because the guilt of the SAHM stems from the assumption that we aren’t financially contributing to our families, and no matter how much we might bring in from our side hustles, we continue to feel that guilt for as long as we are functioning under the label of “SAHM.”
There are two ways we might curb the guilt that so many moms feel about the value they offer their families: SAHMs can take the issue into their own hands and make their label reflect how they bring in money. This is what I do when I call myself a writer. But is this option really fair? SAHMs spend most of our time and energy on our homes and kids, and yet to get the respect we deserve, we must find our identities in the single aspect of our jobs that earns a check. Or, risk having the check go unacknowledged.
This brings me to the other potential solution. We could simply give SAHMs the credit they deserve. We should continue recognizing SAHMs’ efforts as cooks, housekeepers, and childcare providers, but add another item to the list: Most of us are also working one or more jobs to contribute to our family’s financial future. And for that, we deserve some credit.