The housewife versus the career woman. It’s a divide that’s well-entrenched in pop culture. In movies and TV, the housewife is condescended to yet revered; the working woman is vilified yet admired. Today, the split often falls along economic and class lines, since many families can’t afford to have one parent not work. But since the pandemic, with remote and hybrid work becoming more common, and daily expenses more unaffordable, women are embracing more fluidity in terms of whether they’re working full-time, part-time or moving in and out of the workforce. And it’s exciting that this stay-at-home versus working binary is fading.
The housewife versus the career woman. The stay-at-home versus the working mom. It’s a divide that’s well-entrenched in pop culture. In movies and TV, the housewife is condescended to yet revered; the working woman is vilified yet admired. Yet today this divide is breaking down. And it’s becoming clearer that the binary was kind of invented and exaggerated in the first place – as we can see in insightful contemporary shows like Big Little Lies and Fleishman is In Trouble.
Today, the split often falls along economic and class lines, since many families can’t afford to have one parent not work. But since the pandemic, with remote and hybrid work becoming more common, and daily expenses more unaffordable, women are embracing more fluidity in terms of whether they’re working full-time, part-time or moving in and out of the workforce.
And it’s exciting that this stay-at-home versus working binary is fading. For too long women have been pigeonholed into these caricature-ish, loaded ideas of identity that prioritize capital and a social order over humanity and nuance. Here’s our take on how the popular stay at home and working mom stereotypes are largely made up – and how pitting these categories against one another hurts women and feminism everywhere.
In media and pop culture, we often see a dichotomy between the “high-powered business woman” and the “housewife.” The successful businesswoman is often viewed with awe and some fear, but she’s also frequently portrayed as being lonely and sad in her personal life due to all she’s had to sacrifice.
Miranda Priestly: I can just imagine what they’re gonna write about me. The Dragon Lady, career-obsessed. Snow Queen drives away another Mr. Priestly. -Devil Wears Prada
The housewife or stay at home mom is typically painted as wholesome, but pitied in a different way; there’s a sense that her individual, “interesting” life ended when she sacrificed all of that to have a family. But neither characterization is fully true. Women don’t suddenly lose their individual identity when they stop working a paid job, and mothers who prioritize career don’t lack feeling or concern for their children.
The 2022 show Fleishman Is in Trouble gives us a wake-up call to how both the working mom and stay-at-home mom are in “trouble” – because they’re not sufficiently supported by contemporary society. It’s commenting on the age-old rivalry, which has recently resurged on TikTok and media in general.
Kayla: I haven’t been able to successfully get that balance between work and my life at home and I feel so bad. -Middle Ground
And at first the show, based on the 2019 novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, sets up the familiar tropes: Rachel is a working mom, and is vilified as not-a-good mom (or a good person) because she works too much, and is preoccupied with money and status. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the stay-at-home mom Libby, who’s bored and feels the housewife life isn’t a reflection of her full, creative self. Both women are judged by their husbands: Rachel by her ex Toby because she doesn’t put her family first, and Libby by her husband Adam because she’s not satisfied with their privileged life. Libby, who happens to be one of Toby’s oldest friends, initially sees Rachel through Toby’s eyes as a cold, money-obsessed egocentrist.
But as the show goes on, we see that the story is, as Inkoo Kang writes in The New Yorker, about “ditching the clichés”. We eventually empathize with Rachel as we learn more about her unconventional childhood, traumatic delivery of her first child, and difficult postpartum experience. We also see how much she loves her career, as well as how hard she’s had to work to make it – a struggle her ex-husband never had to go through, due to his gender and comfortable upbringing. Fleishman states that it’s just a fact being a working mom is harder because it’s literally two full-time jobs.
Libby Epstein: The culture was so condescending to stay-at-home mothers that we allowed them the fiction that being a mother was the hardest job in the world. Well, it wasn’t. Having an actual job and being a mother is the hardest job in the world. -Fleishman is in Trouble
Years of constant striving lead Rachel to a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Libby is fighting against an equally powerful cultural caricature of the stay at home mom – someone whose life is comfortable but feels inconsequential, repetitive and small. Libby looks back nostalgically on her college days because, back then, she was a writer, seeking exciting adventures. In the end, the way that both Rachel and Libby’s stories find resolution is through softening their differences. Libby is the one who listens to Rachel’s story and comes to see her in a more nuanced light. Reactions to the show also illustrate that many real women feel like they’re both a Rachel and a Libby in some ways. Like Rachel, they may feel too stressed, overextended, and running on a hamster wheel to keep up with the Joneses. And like Libby, they may feel they have lost touch with some deeper selfhood.
Big Little Lies - another series about affluent moms – similarly exposes this working versus stay at home mom divide, only to reveal how fabricated and unnecessary it is. In the end, being mothers brings these women together in a far deeper way than their current work status separates any of them.
Renata Klein: She hasn’t unraveled. She’s a single mom and a widow with two kids. She’s done a damn good job. -Big Little Lies
And in Reality TV since 2006, the Real Housewives series has inadvertently led the way on breaking down the housewife versus working woman binary in our cultural consciousness. Breakout housewives stars like Bethenny Frankel weren’t actually housewives (Frankel wasn’t even married at the start). And by now, none of the women are really housewives, as they’re getting paid substantial figures to be on the show and frequently using it to pitch their own products.
Meanwhile, the explosion of the Mommy Blogosphere has ushered in the professionalization of the Stay at home mom. These influencers reflect blurred lines where more women may be spending more time with family without leaving the professional world. And the truth is moms across the board are feeling more demands from their family. Stats say that even full-time working moms today spend more time with their kids than stay at home moms did in the 60s.
While many feel unsatisfied and/or overwhelmed choosing either the housewife or working mom lifestyle, trying to do both can also be a trap.
Kate Reddy: I have two lives, and I don’t have time to enjoy either one of them. -I Don’t Know How She Does It
Fleischman basically argues that they are two sides of the same coin. In our modern capitalist society, career moms and stay-at-home moms are both having breakdowns.
At first, we’re led to think Fleishman’s story is about Toby. The narrator Libby becomes obsessed with Toby’s apparently newfound power and freedom after divorce from his “crazy” type A working wife. But Toby’s character is actually what actress Lizzy Caplan called “trojan horse” for a story about women. Lizzy’s obsessed with Toby’s freedom because she feels like she has lost her freedom and her power, after giving up on advancing her career in a male-dominated field. Rachel and Libby are both dissatisfied and unhinged by the lack of support and understanding for their full humanity – not only by their seemingly “progressive” husbands, but also by our society.
So any animosity between the Rachels and Libbys of the world is what psychoanalysts call “narcissism of small differences” – hypersensitivity to perceived minor differences between actually similar people. Driving alike people to scuffle with each other over false differences helps blind them to shared systemic problems, such as the commodification of everything, wealth inequality, and the normalization of profit before people.
So what if moms didn’t have to feel constantly on the verge of a breakdown? What if the U.S. joined other countries in improving support for and access to maternal leave, reproductive care, and care work in general?.
Today’s media is getting better at exploring more of the nuances of motherhood, as well as modern issues moms are facing. There’s still lots more to portray, though, about what a robust “care work” focus would actually look like.
“Care work” is defined by sociologist Ito Peng as “work and relationships that are necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance and protection of all people – young and old, able-bodied, disabled, and frail.” Whether it’s burping your baby or charging a $150 copay to patients, this is all “care work” that sustains life. But because capitalist economies do not prioritize work that it deems unprofitable, many people – be they new moms caring for their newborn or daughters caring for their aging parents – find their work insufficiently supported or valued.
Kate Reddy: I’ve given everything I have to this job, and I love it, I do, but I can’t dump my family at a moment’s notice anymore. I won’t do it. -I Don’t Know How She Does It
We see how this devaluation of care work leads not only to mom struggles, but to loneliness among the elderly, older people being pushed into retiring later, and overall uncertainty about care. It makes the very basic processes of life – birth, childhood, again, and death – fraught with anxiety.
In light of these issues, people are looking for new ways to form communities. Dutch students are living rent free for socializing with the elderly; cohousing communities are helping to prevent social isolation; and some cultures continue intergenerational household living as it’s existed for thousands of years. To help circulate these ideas, we need more media to explore different forms of care work. We need more shows and movies where the absence of care – whether it be for the baby, the wife, the community member, or the grandfather – is explored. Real-life moms are sharing more – and it’s time to come together about the shared problems facing all of us.
Kang, Inkoo. “How “Fleishman Is in Trouble” Ditches the Clichés of the Female Midlife Crisis.” The New Yorker, 26 Dec. 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/01/02/how-fleishman-is-in-trouble-ditches-the-cliches-of-the-female-midlife-crisis
Moscatello, Caitlin. “The Fleishman Effect In a city of Rachels and Libbys, the FX show has some New York moms worried they’re the ones in trouble.” The Cut, 6 Feb. 2023, https://www.thecut.com/2023/02/the-fleishman-is-in-trouble-effect.html
Peng, Ito. “What is the Care Economy and Why Should We Care?” Care Work And The Economy, American University, 2 Apr. 2021, https://research.american.edu/careworkeconomy/blog/2021/04/02/what-is-the-care-economy-and-why-we-should-know-more-about-it-particularly-now/
“Today’s parents spend more time with their kids than moms and dads did 50 years ago.” UCI News, 28 Sep. 2016, https://news.uci.edu/2016/09/28/todays-parents-spend-more-time-with-their-kids-than-moms-and-dads-did-50-years-ago/