Joan LaRose remembers the first crack in her corporate armor. An auditor working for Motorola, LaRose was in Chicago giving a presentation when her husband’s father died. Because Tom LaRose was home with the couple’s two young children, he couldn’t pick up and fly to Louisiana to meet his family obligation.
"If I had left right away, I would have shortchanged my job," LaRose says, but she thought her husband was getting shortchanged because his wife was on the road. She left her job a year and a half later.
There are 5.4 million stay-at-home moms (and 98,000 dads) in this country, according to a 2003 U.S. Census Bureau report. For the most part, stay-at-home moms operate as air traffic controllers, negotiating the health and happiness of their families.
According to Salary.com, the stay-athome mom shoulders an incredible workload and long hours. A provider of pay data, Salary.com puts the workweek for stay-at-home moms at 90 hours and fair compensation for the tasks performed at $131,471 annually. That compensation is based on importance, frequency and average time spent being, among other things, a day care worker, teacher, taxi driver, facilities manager, short-order cook, laundry attendant, janitor, counselor and CEO. But the stay-at-home mom receives no pension, no 401(k) and no sick days.
"At times it would be easier being an accountant," the 45-year-old acknowledges. "Being a mom is a hard job."
It’s hard to get a handle on domestic duties, not having adult interaction and peer recognition, and not getting a paycheck. Still, she prefers her soccer-mom sneakers to office pumps.
"We figured I’d quit for a couple years and then we’d reevaluate the situation about going back to work," LaRose says. Nine years later, she’s not contemplating a switch.
"You can always quit your job, but you cannot quit your family," LaRose says.
WORK VS. HOME
Many women are in the workplace today because that’s what it takes for families to achieve middle-class status, says Mary Margaret Fonow, director of women’s studies at Arizona State University.
"The vast majority of women are not in a position where they can choose not to work," Fonow says. Or at least that’s what they think.
Today’s women have a different definition of "needs" than women a generation or two ago. At one time, if the essentials were covered — food, clothing, shelter — families made do on one wage. What they couldn’t afford, they did without.
That’s how it was for Ruth and Max Cox of Mesa, and how it’s been for their daughter, Anita Farnsworth, 70, who was a stayat-home mom all her married life.
While some aspects of the job have changed over time, Farnsworth believes the fundamentals were the same for her mother as they are for her daughters, also stay-at-home moms. They ground the family, keep the family organized and dole out love and discipline when needed.
"My mother was a wonderful example for me," Farnsworth says. Ruth Cox took care of her family by canning, baking bread, sewing and doing laundry. But she also had time to counsel and kiss an owie.
"We knew she’d always be there," Farnsworth says. "We knew we mattered to her."
Though as a youth Farnsworth knew of female teachers, secretaries and nurses, "most moms were home." Her plans were always to be a mother, too, but she attended Brigham Young University and ASU to earn a degree in nursing. But when she married and had children, she decided against working when her children were young because she believed the attitudes and values her children would learn were too important to entrust to someone else.
The investment she made in her children has, she believes, paid off in that each is a productive member of society.
Farnsworth does not regret not having a career, though she admits at times she didn’t feel valued.
"Part of the time I wondered if anyone cared. A child doesn’t see clean laundry as an act of love." But she did, especially given the number of loads she did each day.
"I think the greatest thing that ever happened to me was when I got a second washer," Farnsworth says, laughing.
Years later, on her 70th birthday, the Farnsworth children would recognize their mother’s commitment to them through a quilt made from childhood clothing. Around the bed cover’s edge are the words, "Mom, We Love You."
"I used to think when my kids were gone I’d do something," Farnsworth says, smiling. "But by the time the last one was out of the house, I couldn’t remember what I wanted to do."