A Generation Thing?: Career vs. Stay-At-Home Mom

It’s been nearly two weeks since episode 17 of The Good Wife‘s Season 3 aired on television. In this episode, Caitlin D’Arcy, a young lawyer whom Alicia Florrick, the good wife, has been mentoring, quits the firm. Caitlin submits her notice in this episode, which happens to follow some hard words from Alicia. The reason Caitlin gives, however, is pregnancy with her fiancee’s baby and upcoming marriage. She wants to be a stay-at-home mom.

The show has been directing the audience to be weary of Caitlin, a corporate climber who may be in cahoots with her smarmy uncle, who also works at the firm and is vying for partnership.

Instead of following through with the subtly suggested sequence of events that would reveal Caitlin’s complicity in some sordid, backhand maneuver by her power hungry uncle, the show took a turn in events so sharp and unexpected, for me at least, I dismissed it as a ruse at first. I haven’t been able to forget it, though, wondering why I find it so hard to believe what this character said in her exiting remarks. I’ll show you what they were in a second.

In the final scene with Caitlin and Alicia, who is the older woman with two nearly grown children, a career, and a (wayward) husband, Alicia assumes that Caitlin is quitting because of her reprimand. She apologizes to Caitlin. She offers paranoia, a symptom of office politics, as an explanation of her coming down on Caitlin.

(What she doesn’t add, that I will add here, is the paranoia of successful women, specifically of seeing a young, pretty, smart woman, climbing up in a law firm, and feeling that there isn’t a space for two intelligent women to share success in a place of work, the threat women feel from other women in the work place and, in Alicia’s case, her personal life–at one point she suspected Caitlin had a thing for Will, the man Alicia’s in love with, though she won’t admit it at the moment.)

Caitlin assures her that Alicia didn’t do anything wrong, that in fact she was a great mentor.

And then the scene continues like this:

ALICIA: You’re a good lawyer Caitlin. You’re smart and clever and you handled today’s questioning like a pro. You can’t give this up. If you give this up, even for someone important to you, there’s a chance you’ll regret it.

CAITLIN: I’m not giving it up for my fiancee. I’m giving it up for myself. I like the law, but I love my fiancee.

ALICIA: But you don’t have to choose. There’s no reason you can’t work, be a wife, and a mother.

CAITLIN: But I want to choose. Maybe it’s different for my generation but I don’t have to prove anything. Or if I have to, I don’t want to. I’m in love. Thank you.

(Is this girl for real? And, yes, I say ‘girl’ because I can’t believe that a woman could be so simple minded to think that love and a baby is enough to satisfy an intelligent, educated woman who’s good at her job. And this is where I question myself. Why do I assume that a woman can be too intelligent and well educated just to be a stay-at-home mom?)

ALICIA: I’m sorry I wasn’t a great mentor to you Caitlin.

(Alicia still can’t believe Caitlin and is convinced that it is something she did to tip Caitlin over to the stay-at-home side. Caitlin wears a patient, almost serene look on face, the sort of look that perhaps a magnanimous and wise grandmother might give a young teen-aged girl who thinks that wearing the wrong dress to the school dance is a tragedy.)

CAITLIN: You were a great mentor. Thank you.

You can also see the relevant scenes in this handy clip.

I wonder why I find it so hard to believe that an intelligent, talented woman can be satisfied with just raising her kids and being a wife. Does it, as Caitlin suggests, come from a need to prove something, namely, her worth as a complete human being? And, if so, is this proof for the sake of the woman or others? She suggests that she doesn’t need a career to prove her worth to herself and she doesn’t recognize validity of others’ need for this proof, going so far as to question the very existence of this expectation from others.

Oh, it exists. I have no doubt in my mind of that. As for my own need for a career to feel good about myself, to not have regrets, as Alicia warns, I fall on the side of Alicia. I’ve never for a moment doubted that a person needs something that is all his or her own to maintain a healthy sense of ego and self-efficacy. Depending on others, like a husband and children, to ensure self confidence and self respect seems terribly risky, like building a house on sand. People change and disappoint you. It’s always a matter of when. For those times when you have to get through the let downs by people, you ought to have something that is yours, something that fails and succeeds at your own hand and no other. At least when you’re disappointed that way, you don’t feel quite so helpless, a plaything of folly and fickleness.

Of course, you might argue that nothing in this world can exist on an island, not even a career. You work with people. You depend on them to recognize your work and talents and pay you for it. So in this sense, no one is ever completely independent in their work, in anything really.

The point is this: I wish I could be like Caitlin.

I wish I could believe that such an outlook is possible to a modern, intelligent, well educated woman. That having a career you’re good at and enjoy doesn’t matter. That being able to answer, “I’m a lawyer or a writer or a consultant or an account manager or a business owner or teacher, etc.” isn’t a point of pride and the foundation for a strong sense of self. That raising a family is enough. I’m unemployed and I’m pregnant and I’m married. But I live with the constant hum of anxiety and dissatisfaction and even embarrassment running through the soundtrack of my days because I’m not working.

I wish I could believe her. But I don’t.

What about you? Where do you stand on the career versus stay-at-home mom decision? Do you think you can be fully satisfied and happy without work outside of the home? My readers and I would love to hear from you.

Related articles you might be interested in:

From The Guardian “Apparently, women are yearning to stay at home. That’s guilt talking”

From The Daily Mail “As high-achieving mothers who give up their careers are accused of wasting their education… can a woman be too clever to be a stay-at-home mum?”

From Clutch “Career Woman or Stay At Home Wife — Which Would You Choose?”

6 thoughts on “A Generation Thing?: Career vs. Stay-At-Home Mom

  1. As a married woman who has also throughout my life struggled with this issue, I really see where you are coming from. I want to insert a disclaimer here to say this is all obviously very individual–this is MY story, and it’s not going to resonate with everyone.

    My high school boyfriend’s mother was “stay-at-home” and I looked down on her sooo much–she wasn’t MY incredible mother, who raised three kids while working full time and still managing to be home every single afternoon by 2 or 3 pm to be with us (it boggles the mind). Something must have been so wrong with this woman who only drove her kids around and read books! She wasn’t super woman at all!

    But as an adult looking back, I realize I was basing my assumptions on “stay-at-home-ness” on a horrible example. This woman was clearly clinically depressed and unmotivated to do anything particularly meaningful with her life (like use her Masters education in the arts, for example.) She wasn’t every woman who stays at home with her kids–she was just one, but unfortunately, one that I met early on.

    Now, I realize it’s a privilege (amongst many, many other things) to be able to stay at home and care for one’s children. Or even (gasp) one’s husband! I worked part-time for several years until recently, and I found it really, really satisfying in many ways to get my “work” done and then get to the “real work” of taking care of my home. Yes! I love homemaking! I love cooking! I even frequently love cleaning, and I don’t consider any of it some sort of shackled, sexist system tying me forever to domestic labor. Part of that has to do with my personal situation–my husband is THE most forward thinking young man I have ever met when it comes to gender relations, and he supports me in anything and everything I feel compelled to do. Take an art class? Sure! Take on 2 more part-time jobs (that are essentially unpaid, at least for now) just because? Sure! Cook dinner tonight? Sure! I’m picking up sushi so you can go to yoga and then we can hit a movie directly after? Sure! He has literally told me if I never want to cook a day in my life again, then so be it. There aren’t any of those stereotypical negative expectations that people associate with a couple in which the woman is the primary homemaker.

    Tom’s all about the yes, and when I told him I want to one day stay at home and raise our kids (preferably working part-time, in my home), he said sure (of course). And then I started researching. There are some really interesting and compelling arguments out there that don’t focus on how “kids who go to preschool are smarter and more prepared” v. “mom’s HAVE to stay home with their children or they won’t feel loved,” but are based on economic principles, etc. (Not that I can’t get down with theories of child-rearing, because I can, but that’s another can of worms.) And then I did some soul-searching about our happiness as a family, and about my own contentment and satisfaction with my life, part of it comes down to this, for us:

    If we have built a happy and healthy life for ourselves in which I am not working full time (which at the moment, I actually am, but like I said, across 4 jobs), then anything that will challenge what is actually a GOOD status quo bears serious, serious consideration. I don’t want to take jobs just because “I should work full-time because that’s what adults do” if our income is already sufficient for the life we want to have (which I should add is not exorbitant or extravagant by any means.)

    Crazy, right? So, to address the real question in your post, Hairee–is it generational? I think certainly in part. Women who are starting their families now don’t have to prove anything really, except for to ourselves, and perhaps to other women. Because don’t we tend to judge each other about this stuff more than anyone else (or is it just me)? I can be fully happy not working outside the home–to an extent, I suppose. My ideal is working from home (which I frequently do now) with time to do the other things in life I want to do. I’m an artist, so my situation may be unusual, but having time to work-work some, homemake, paint (and do other creative projects), well, that’s all more important to me now than having the high-powered executive position I once dreamed of. And I can hear someone snickering, saying, “Ha ha! She just couldn’t get one so she’s settling!” but frankly, I don’t know that being an executive still isn’t a very real possibility in my future–it’s just not necessarily the goal any more. Anyway, to me, it’s all important work–because isn’t making an enjoyable, fruitful, life, a noteworthy occupation? I hope so, for everyone’s sake.

    (PS apologies for a response longer than the original post)

    (PPS I love this blog, so, thank you)

    1. Thanks for your amazing response. Wow. you’re husband sounds like a great guy. And it also sounds like you’re at peace with your decisions and where you are right now in your life. I wish I could say the same. Accepting that this isn’t ever going to be easy is as far as I’ve gotten to the problem so far.

      1. I agree! It’s a process–no doubt a lifelong one, for both men and women, deciding who we are, what we want, and what will lead us to fulfillment! Good luck on keeping on with your search! 🙂

  2. So anyone who questions whether or not a ‘stay at home mom’ “can be satisfied with just raising her kids and being a wife” suffers from a serious lack of imagination. Being a stay at home mom is one of the most demanding, creative jobs you will ever have in your life. Keeping a home harmonious takes incredible work ethic, imagination and energy. I’m only just learning how to do it and I’ve been at it for four years.

    Being a stay at home mom is not bonbons, soap operas and getting a whisky on the rocks for the spouse when he comes home from a hard day, while your son and daughter play quietly on the floor at his feet. That is the cliche.

    I am satisfied with being ‘just a mom’ because the word mom is heavy and if you can actually fill the word with creativity and passion and organization, then you will never feel bored. When I worked and mommed, I was neither satisfied with my career nor my momming skills. My year long maternity leave has taught me momming well is absolutely a full time job and I would take a huge pay cut to be able to spend time momming well.

    You just have to learn to ignore the people who equate staying at home momming with boring, lazy and privileged and that is a creative task in and of itself.

  3. I have perspective from both sides of the coin having been both a stay-at-home mother for ten years and now a full time working mother. I think the best thing we can do as women is reserve judgement entirely. It is a deeply personal descision that I don’t think anyone makes lightly. I think the best thing we can do for ourselves and other women is to be more accepting and honor the choices each parent makes based on their own unique circumstances.

    Some women are completely filled up and satisfied in pouring out all their talents and gifts on their family. I admire those women, I tried to be one of those women but ultimately had to admit to myself that I am not wired for that. It was really hard for me to accept or allow myself to own the fact that I missed working. I missed conversations that didn’t revolve around sleep habits and childhood discipline, and I was craving outside stimulation beyond a ‘girls night out’ or a new fitness class. I really am wired to be a ‘working woman’ that is just me and is no reflection on any other woman.

    Anyone who has the persception that full time parenting is ‘playing the happy housemaker’ has obviously never tried it. It is hard work, and detirmination. I empathize with women who did not have the option to be a full time parents (or felt they didn’t have the option) because of financial obligations. I find these are the parents that judge stay-at-home parents most harshly, because they felt robbed of the opportunity. I empathize with every working and non-working parent because I know the road of parenting has equal challenges and equal rewards no matter what path we choose. Part of good parenting is making the tough choices that serve the greater good for our children, our marriages, and our personal life. For me returning to work was the best option, but I know that shoe is not one size fits all.

    1. Wendy, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you: the choice to stay home or work is a very personal one rather than a political choice. I would add though that given the ingrained belief in our culture that defines a person by what they do–and by “do” people mean work, and by work people do not mean housework which includes child rearing–it’s a hard distinction to make.

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