Story: Ethnographic Findings of a Stay-at-Home Mom


I spent a decade trying to understand mothers. It was my job. I took notes on their conversations while sitting behind a two-way mirror. I scoured their purchase data and media habits. I went grocery shopping and cooked dinner with them, observing them like rare specimen rather than fellow women.  I was in my early thirties, childless, living in a high-rise, and paid to be an expert on suburban mothers.

I used my knowledge in many ways. I helped cast pretty “aspirational” moms with shiny hair for commercials, and brainstormed ways in which to depict them (twirling in the rain, slipping pancakes off a spatula). I instructed creative teams to “celebrate” moms, and wrote bulleted power-point presentations detailing how.

But despite years of being an expert, advising clients and earning a fairly good salary, there were things I didn’t know.

In 1999, I became a mom. Two years later, I quit my job, cut my hair, bought a minivan and moved to the suburbs. I was searching for a simpler life, and figured being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) couldn’t be that hard. After all, I knew about mothers, and being a SAHM was just like being a working mom, right? Except I’d have more time for coffee dates, construction paper projects and a chance to learn the cello.

My stupidity, and subsequent nervous breakdown, nearly killed me. Turns out, I was far from an expert on stay-at-home moms.  I was a joke. Seriously, time to learn the cello? I barely showered — for an entire decade.

This year marks my tenth anniversary “at home.”  It also marks the year I attempt to leave my “ethnographic fieldwork” and return to the workforce. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about those days in the conference room presenting data on motherhood like I knew what I was talking about.

Dear Diary: I have regrets.

My first regret is lumping too many mothers together under the guise of finding “common insight.” True, this made good strategic sense, but looking back, it may have also led to a lot of work with the same overall tone – sappy, uplifting, and insipid.

Further, I defined mothers demographically, because that’s how media is measured. Tactically speaking, however, this spurred a homogeneous view of their daily experiences. These were pre-digital days, but I was sure we could reach our target mother through a strategic “360 degree experience” complete with charts detailing her “touch-points.”  What I didn’t know was that ear infections, snowstorms, traveling husbands and lice could lead to weeks without leaving the house. Touch-points, indeed.

There’s been a lot to sort through as I ready for the working world. I’ve been dusting off my resume, shopping for heels, and mentally interviewing myself (a process which seems to induce both narcissism and the need for a nap).

One of my favorite self-interview questions is: “What, in particular, have you learned about motherhood that would be helpful to other marketers who target moms?”

Since I never shed my love of bullet points and italicized implications, I thought I’d try a list. It’s not an exhaustive list, nor is it punctuated with self-promotion on how I did the “best thing” for my kids.That stuff is all covered in blogs and Mommy War message boards.

Rather, my list includes highlights of what I’ve observed with how SAHMs navigate the suburbs, disperse their emotional currency, and construct their social structures. I’m hoping to add insight for other childless, high-rise dwelling “experts” who present statistics on mothers — or better yet, prepare another working mom who might be imagining simplicity and cello lessons in the suburbs.

Disclaimer: I live in an enclave of statistical defiance – a suburban “utopia” with a high concentration of educated mothers who choose to stay at home. It’s a lifestyle accentuated by white picket fences and perennial gardens. Pulsing with consumerism, brands ripple through here visibly. You can practically set your watch by their arrivals.

Lessons Learned by a Stay-at-Home Mom:

  • Mothers don’t hang out with women their own age; they hang out with women whose kids are the same age as theirs. Before I had kids, most of my friends were my age. Now my friends span two decades. I forget this disparity until I reference something from my high school years, and realize the mother sitting next to me was in first grade.

Do not be presumptive when pooling us together. Our child-rearing issues may be similar, but our cultural references, social histories and formative experiences are not. Remember: one mother’s “hip” is another mother’s “retro.”         

  • The first child drives everything – he gets the most attention, garners the most emotional focus, and usually generates the mother’s social circle. My eldest daughter is one of the only first-borns in her grade. This made it hard for me to make friends. At preschool drop-off, I could barely make eye contact the other moms. They were in a screaming hurry to get out the door. They’d already done their time loitering with desperate, friend-seeking smiles. They didn’t need new friends; they had errands to run.

When targeting mothers of multiple kids, realize the emotional focus is on needs of the eldest child. Unless there’s a special need, the mother’s involvement is unfairly, but unavoidably, weighted toward her first-born.

  • There’s a social labyrinth among SAHMs that is not unlike high school. Working outside the home affords working moms a certain perspective that SAHMs can lose. We have more time to ruminate over social slights, more rigor to expend on them. We sidle up to like-minded women for company and migrate to cliques. We don’t have job titles, so we organize ourselves socially. It’s unofficial, but obvious – and painful because we know better. Also, we love to gossip. It’s a delicious escape from monotony. We’re smart, strategic and mentally bored. Our smoldering energy just needs a match.

Never, ever, underestimate word-of-mouth among mothers. It’s not only a source of information, it’s our emotional currency and a symbol for inclusion. 

  • Schools are the power source, from which influence emanates. Every school has a handful of moms who volunteer for everything. Because the schools are so grateful for their hard work, these moms gain access to the preferred teachers, coaches and opportunities. They are the moms with influence. I had a friend who was meeting with the principal about her child. Sitting before the principal she read upside down “Parent Involved at School” written on her child’s personal file. She hated to admit it, but she was thrilled by the evidence: she had clout.

 Marketers should stay away from the classroom, parents resent it. If you want influence, find the PTA President. Help her with her job – and you’ve gained an advocate with insider status.

  • Friendships are complicated because they’re everything. Stay-at-home moms are starved for the adult company of other mothers. We empathize and support each other. Friend making is to the mother what dating is to the single woman. It’s all consuming.

Build a genuine and interesting forum that connects us, and we will come.

  • Being busy is both the consequence and the goal. We complain about how busy we are, but we do it to ourselves. We make careers out of volunteering and the PTA. We squeeze into Lululemon gear and push joggers until our knees crack. We host play groups, book groups and parenting groups – cooking, cleaning, and primping for each one. We pretend not to nap or watch TV. If we find downtime, for heaven’s sake, we don’t enjoy it. We get busy.  Enjoyment equals guilt.

As former professionals became SAHMs, the business of being a SAHM somehow became more professional. Yet at some point, the pendulum has to swing. Everyone is dying to get off the crazy train, but no one wants to go first. Perhaps Millennials coming into parenthood will relax the requirements as they have a different work ethic, and view themselves to be more tolerant (“Millennials: Confident, Connected, Open to Change;” Pew Research Center; 2/24/10).  

  • Mothers don’t really care about advertising. We don’t even discuss the super bowl ads. If we talked about a commercial, we’d have to admit we watch TV. We feel guilty watching TV, plus we’re too busy.

Breakthrough is everything. Forget product demos and differentiated claims, be bold. Entertain us.

  • There is snobbery surrounding social media. Mothers may account for the biggest user base, but we pretend we don’t participate. We roll our eyes at people who post too much. “I’m too busy for Facebook,” we say. “Who has time to blog?” As such, we take a bit of a social risk when we “like” a brand. It broadcasts we’re spending a lot of time on Facebook.

I see billboards saying “Friend us on Facebook,” and I roll my eyes. I’m not going to friend a shopping mall, so stop asking. If you choose to use social media, use it properly. Create a Facebook page that’s involving and intelligent. Attach your brand to a grass-roots cause, cultural conversation or source of learning, and we’re more likely to like it.  

  • We don’t openly discuss our guilt for not working, because we’ve chosen to stay at home. This creates pressure to actively demonstrate maternal, domestic, physical and civic success. (See busy above). It’s why we bring homemade treats to school and host elaborate teacher appreciation banquets. It’s why a lot of us only turn to the Internet to anonymously “blog out” our loneliness and worry. It’s what prompts a SAHM to justify her years at home by cloaking them in ethnographic findings.

Businesses would be smart to think holistically about the skills of a SAHM returning to work. More than carpooling multi-taskers, we are women with honed strategic, intuitive, and political skills. We’re trained to organize — literally and emotionally. We’re tireless and devoted. And this SAHM, in particular, is excited to be heading back.       

2 thoughts on “Story: Ethnographic Findings of a Stay-at-Home Mom

  1. Hi Jodi,
    I was looking up enthnographic research on the net when I chanced upon this write-up of yours. As a stay at home mom, who was a profesional journalist for 12 years prior to that, I must say your insight is just briliant and very aptly and interestingly written. I would love to stay in touch with you and read more from your personal keyboard.

  2. Hi Jodi, I found your link in the comments of the gonzo research article. Loved it. Shared it!

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