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Moms share why they are fighting the ‘stay-at-home mom’ label

And if so, what should we say instead?
Child sits in front of TV while mim vacuums
"We’ve been stuck with a caricature that we have yet to update," says Mother Untitled founder, Neha Ruch.Kelsea Petersen / TODAY Illustration

The term "stay-at-home mom" often refers to women who are not working for pay outside the home. Even a decade ago, Time questioned why we still use this “clunky, outdated term.” Yet here we are, 10 years later, still using it.

TODAY.com spoke with moms who used to work full-time outside the home and ended up taking a step back to spend more time with their families. Technically, they fall into the category of "stay-at-home mom," but in various ways, they're fighting the stereotype.

"We’ve been stuck with a caricature that we have yet to update," says Neha Ruch, a mother of two and founder of Mother Untitled, a community for ambitious women on career breaks. She uses her platform to explore the grey area between motherhood and paid work.

Ruch notes that as a result of workforce shortages, women worked outside of the home "in droves" during World War II, and they remained in the workforce afterward. "Print ads featured vacuum cleaners and dishwashers with women teetering around in heels and aprons, and that became the portrait of the stay-at-home mom," Rush says. "As the power chasm grew between women working out of the home and this sort of traditional sensibility in the home, we never updated that image."  

As a result, Ruch and Mother Untitled conducted a 2023 survey called "American Mothers on Pause." It includes responses from 800 women who downshifted from their careers and upshifted into motherhood, and from 400 women who worked outside the home for 20 hours or less every week.

Ruch suspects that the phrase "stay-at-home mom" may do "a disservice" to everything that you are. "The challenge is: do we want to find a substitute for the phrase 'stay-at-home mom,' or do we want to ignite more respect for that role?"

TODAY.com spoke with four different women who identified as "stay-at-home moms" — from across the country and in various stages of motherhood — to gather some additional perspective.

"Just as hard as any office job"

Carrie Klück in Hoboken, New Jersey, is a mother of three kids — ages 10, 7 and 5. Before becoming a mother, Klück, who has a Master’s degree in public policy, worked in government in Washington, D.C.

She and her husband moved to the New York City area, and because Klück wasn't able to work remotely and found out she was pregnant shortly after the move, she decided to try her hand at being a stay-at-home mom.

"It's a really, really tough job, but in the end, I'm glad it's been me," she tells TODAY.com.

When asked how she feels about the term "stay-at-home mom," Klück says, "Ugh I hate that term. It just sounds like you gave up and decided to stay home and it's just the exact opposite.

"It's just as hard as any office job I've ever had. It's even harder. But yet somehow it has a stigma, which is a shame."

Klück also rejects the idea of pitting stay-at-home moms against working moms: "We all have each other's backs."

"I'm on a pause"

Helen Ortiz of San Francisco, California, has two kids, ages 3 and 5. She has been home with her kids full-time for the last four years.

A former kindergarten teacher, Ortiz has a "very, very, very part-time" position assisting the admissions team for a private school. She's on the brink of testing out a 10 to 20 hour per week position for several months to see if she'd like to work more outside the home.

Ortiz says she's one of just three moms in her son's pre-k class who is the primary caretaker for her kids. It's not unusual for her to be the only mom in a sea of nannies at the playground. As a result, "It feels like I have to justify it a lot," she says. She objects to the term "stay-at-home mom" because she and her kids are rarely home; they're out and about at playgrounds and museums. Plus, she doesn't do most of the cooking — her husband does.

If approached by someone who asks what she does for a living, Ortiz follows Ruch's script, saying, "I'm on a pause. I'm at home with my children right now."

Reclaiming the title of “stay-at-home mom”

Christine Merritt moved from San Francisco — and a high stress job at Google — to Austin, Texas. She currently has 11-year-old twins living with her, and she also has 19- and 22-year-old stepsons who moved out when they went to college.

Merritt left her tech job when the twins were 3-years-old. Her husband had been promoted to CEO at his job, her Google team was growing and travel became a "dealbreaker" ... in part because her kids began removing her shoes from her suitcase to make her stay at home.

Merritt says that her decision to leave Google “was really coldly met, like I was letting down the girls in the generation after me by proving I couldn’t do everything.”

Even so, she says, “I made the decision to just say, ‘You know what? You wanted these kids for so long and they’re here and you’re not going to get this time back.” Merritt has been home full-time with her children for the last eight years, but now that her kids are older, she's starting to branch out.

Though she's not a trained songwriter, Merritt woke up with an idea for a song, and that song, "Don't Worry, Mama," now has 1.5 million views on YouTube. Merritt spends about 20 hours a week on her songwriting pursuit and has reclaimed the title of "stay-at-home mom," naming her publishing entity "Housewife Productions."

"It just feels so limiting"

Lisa Ziemba from Denver, Colorado, has two children — an almost 3-year-old and a 4-month-old. In her pre-baby days, she was the HR director for a group of construction companies. But just two months after returning from her first maternity leave, Ziemba realized her job could never give her what she really wanted: time with her family.

Ziemba keeps her skills sharp by running a small family foundation during naptimes. She uses three hours of time a week at a coworking space with childcare to make business calls.

Ziemba considers the term "stay-at-home mom" to be "so loaded."

She adds, "It's honestly really triggering. And I wish that it wasn't but it just feels so limiting. Because even if you don't use the word 'just' when you say 'stay-at-home mom,' that's what I hear."

Again, Ziemba doesn't have a replacement for the term. She cites "Home CEO" as feeling too forced in the same way that "girl boss" does.

"I don't really have a term for what I do," she says.