No Woman Is an Island: Job Description, Unemployed vs. Stay-at-Home Mom

When the options are "Unemployed" or "Stay-at-home Mom," which one would you choose? Head-to-head comparison reveals surprising similarities and differences.

If you come to a fork in the road, take it. --Yogi Berra

As I have , I was laid off from my job last year and have been unable to find another one. I also have two children and a spouse with a job. So I am in the enviable position of having two identities that are available to me: “Unemployed” and “Stay-At-Home Mom.” Which one to choose? In some ways they are remarkably similar. So let’s compare them, shall we?

Job Description/ Skills Required:

Unemployed (UE): Independent, motivated, “self-starter.” Must show lots of initiative. No supervision. Networking, sales and (self-)promotion skills required. Must be willing to accept constructive and not-so-constructive criticism. Hours: 24/7.

Stay-At-Home Mom (SAHM): Operations and Project Management of household. Scheduling, budget, transportation and procurement. Team leadership, conflict resolution, and individual counseling skills a plus. Must be willing to accept constructive and not so constructive criticism. Hours: 24/7.

Advantage: toss up  

How you actually spend your day:

UE: Check websites and email alerts for job ads. Revise resume and cover letter for each potential job. Read books, websites, newsletters, etc. for job search advice. Attend workshops and career counseling sessions. Attend networking events. Send letters/make phone calls to contacts. Search Linkedin for connections. Attempt to set up informational interviews. Check email. Prepare for interviews. Participate in phone interviews and in-person interviews. Complete “assessments.” Be available for phone calls and meetings.

SAHM: Prepare meals. Clean and straighten house. Exercise. Volunteer in classroom, and other volunteer activities. Coordinate with other volunteers. Drive children to classes, practices, playdates and other activities. Help children with homework. Plan events and activities for family. Grocery shopping. Shop for children’s clothing and shoes, and household items. Various other errands. Be available for emergencies (variably defined). Provide other assistance to family, friends and neighbors as needed.

Advantage: SAHM

Interactions with Others:

UE: Primarily work alone. Occasional interactions are almost always asymmetrical, to your disadvantage: you need something from them and need to make a good impression.

SAHM: Work alone, with other equals, or with your children. When interactions are asymmetrical, you usually have the advantage. 

Advantage: SAHM

Definition of Success:

UE: Success = Getting a job. Period. Some days you may feel like you’ve made good progress toward this goal, but every day that you do not actually get a job offer is in some sense a failure. All other “accomplishments” are ephemeral; they disappear at the end of the day or week and you are back to square one.   

SAHM: Long term, you are successful when your children enter adulthood able to take care of themselves and contribute in some way to society. In the short term, every day that the children go to bed, and they’ve been fed and kept safe, is a success. All other “accomplishments” are ephemeral; they don’t “count” by the next day when you will need to do them, or something very like them, again.

Advantage: SAHM

Public Perception

UE: Society gives lip service to the idea that you are a productive and valuable member of society who has had a temporary setback due to forces beyond your control. But deep down many people believe that there must be something wrong with you. At the very least, you have been quite careless to “lose” your job. I mean, where was the last place you put it? And why is it taking you so long to find another one? You must not be looking that hard. Or else you are too picky, not willing to take the perfectly good jobs that are out there.

SAHM: Society gives lip service to the idea that you are a productive and valuable member of society. I mean “motherhood” is the most important job in the world, amirite? But deep down many people believe that it is not really “work” at all. What do you even do all day?

Advantage: toss up

How much people want to help you:

UE: Very much. Everyone wants to know how it is going, provide helpful advice and suggestions, and let you know about potential opportunities.

SAHM: Not at all. What do you need help with anyway?

Advantage: UE

Rewards and Feedback

UE: Very little positive feedback. A great deal of constructive (and not so constructive) criticism and rejection.  

SAHM: Very little positive feedback. Satisfaction of being more involved in children’s lives during the day; opportunity to spend more time with children; opportunity to have more say in how children are raised and how home looks and is run.

Advantage: SAHM

When I started this exercise, I had no idea which one would come out ahead. “Stay-at-home-mom” and “Unemployed” have a lot of similarities, but I think SAHM wins by a nose. Do you agree?

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Alana Dill October 04, 2011 at 04:55 PM
Nice comparison! All it needs is a bar graph, and a stock photo of a harried mom sitting at her computer with a baby in her lap! :-D There's a third option you may not have considered: self-employment or consultation whether for pay or as a volunteer. I read somewhere recently that volunteering is a good way to job network, but one actually has to volunteer doing something that will add to one's resume. So unfortunately baking cookies for PTA actually won't get us anywhere (dang it!) On the other hand, in your case acting as an educational advisor or grant writing for a nonprofit might be a vehicle to find a great position. I dunno. If I was a great career advisor, I'd have a job, now wouldn't I? :-D
Eric Strimling October 05, 2011 at 01:36 AM
Good article. It seems to me that being a stay at home parent beats a job in every way except financial. On the other hand, "work"- pursuing some life goal of incrementally changing the world through, say, the academe or company building gives a lot of satisfaction. I did that for a long time, then the owner of the company I worked for sold and the business shut down. He got rich, his employees got laid off. On the other hand, my daughter is still my daughter, no matter what. So, where is the best investment of time?
Frances Montell October 05, 2011 at 02:51 AM
Thanks Alana. Mainly I'm comparing the 2 unpaid positions available to me now. "Self-employment" and consulting are different in some important ways. I am doing some volunteering and consulting for friends & nonprofits. It is a very different "job" than the other 2. I'm actually thinking more about identity than money-making, as of course when I consider myself "unemployed" I am still a mom who is at home, and when I consider myself a "stay-at-home mom" I am still looking for a job.
Frances Montell October 05, 2011 at 02:59 AM
Thanks, Eric. There are a lot of benefits for me to having a paying job instead of either of the identities available to me now. Not everyone is cut out to "be their own boss" and set themselves a schedule of productive tasks. Also I enjoy having colleagues and being part of a team. Both unemployment and stay-at-home motherhood are very solitary most of the time. I'm not really comparing the satisfactions of parenthood vs. work. I was still a parent when I was employed, and being at the mercy of a boss is difficult regardless of whether one has children. What I am facing here is choosing between 2 unpaid "jobs." When it comes down to it, I think that thinking of myself as a "stay-at-home mom" is more rewarding than thinking of myself as "unemployed" because I can think of myself as a successful SAHM, but the only successful unemployed person is one with a job offer in hand.
Denise Shelton October 06, 2011 at 08:28 PM
I think most of us view stay-at-home moms as people who have made the choice to do so for the good of their families. Unemployed, on the other hand, indicates that the choice was made for you. The power to make choices is a high priority in our society so, whether or not it's an accurate representation of your situation, I think stay-at-home moms get more respect than the unemployed. If you have no kids, I'd advise telling people you retired early. Then if you get a job, you can say you got bored. To hell, with them. They shouldn't be judging you anyway.
Frances Montell October 06, 2011 at 10:02 PM
Good point, Denise! I think that is very true. The perception of how much control you have over your situation is a big part of how we view people.
Eric Strimling October 07, 2011 at 02:26 AM
Totally agree. Identity is important, and you are certainly a successful Mom.
Frances Montell October 20, 2011 at 04:47 AM
Here is my latest post: http://alameda.patch.com/blog_posts/no-woman-is-an-island-girls-sports


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