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A Shift of Focus on the Term “Stay-at-Home Mothers”

By Hannah Whitacre  | Rhetorical Analysis Essays

The term “stay-at-home mother” has become widely known in society over the past few decades but it is only recently that the phrase has acquired almost exclusively negative connotations. The reason for that stigma is the same reason proponents have fought for that right: the choice of the mother or, more specifically, how that choice is regarded by others. Just one year ago, on June 29th of 2017, Ben Young spoke about the importance of valuing rather than discriminating against stay-at-home mothers on a TEDx Talk titled “Why Have we Stigmatized and Marginalized the Stay-at-Home Mom?” He begins his speech by asking the audience to reflect on their initial thoughts, impressions, and attitudes towards the phrase “stay-at-home mom.” Throughout the speech, he uses a series of analogies to describe the absurdity of the negative opinions that society holds towards stay-at-home mothers. Young systematically delves into these analogies as he describes the grammatical flaws with the phrase “stay-at-home mom,” the historical events that have led society to this point, and, ultimately, his hopes to eliminate these negative characterizations before his own two young daughters reach the point of decisions in their careers. Young investigates the historical context for the stay-at-home phenomenon, suggests persuasively that the only opinions being heard by society are from the margins of the population, and establishes his own connection to the term to effectively inform the audience as well as call them to action in eradicating the marginalization of mothers who make the choice to stay at home.  

Young’s speech addresses the recent influx of women making the decision to stay at home and the implications this new trend holds on society. More women in the millennial     generation are choosing to either not work or work from their homes. For the sake of audience-comprehension, Young groups these two types of stay-at-home mothers into one category. With technology evolving at such a fast pace, it is much easier now for women to not miss out on their careers while also staying at home with their children. Additionally, with “the lack of proper maternity leave, the rising costs of childcare, unsupportive or nonexistent family policies, and the ever-present wage gap,” many women have decided to revert back to traditional values and put more focus towards the upbringing of their children (Landrum).  Young targets his speech towards Generation Z (anyone born between 1995 and 2010) who will soon be entering the workforce while simultaneously influencing audience members in their forties, fifties, and sixties who have experienced the changing connotations of the term “stay-at-home mother.”   

Young begins his attempt to alter the focus of the audience from “stay-at-home” to “mother” by displaying the phrase “stay-at-home mom” on the screen. He asks, “Do we feel the need to somehow qualify a mom or are we just providing an additional description?” (0:44). He explains that by placing those three hyphenated words in the beginning of the phrase, we are taking away meaning from the most important and most relevant word: “mom.” He provides several examples of this in other scenarios such as “sit-in-cubicle business analyst,” “fly-on-planes management consultant,” and “stay-at-desk project manager” (01:22). While none of these phrases are inherently wrong, the emphasis shifts to the descriptor words at the front rather than on the noun itself. Young effectively implements humor into this aspect of his speech in order to demonstrate emphatically that the words prefacing the actual noun itself are what people remember even though the word “mom” should be the center of attention. Young emphasizes that women should be valued for   their role as a mothers rather than being defined by where they spend the majority of their day.    

Young also addresses the historical contrast of how women, who used to be forced to stay at home and out of the workplace, are now shamed if they decide to stay at home. The development of the term “stay-at-home mom” hasn’t always been tied to such a negative connotation. The traditional Baby Boomer generation (anyone born between 1946 and 1964) has a much better chance of listening in to speeches such as Young’s than they’ve ever had before with the help of the internet. The people of this generation could have  physically been present during the women’s rights movement when women fought intensely to be allowed to join the workforce. In their minds, the role of a working mother is held at a higher status than a stay-at-home mother.  He portrays this shift in history through a humorous analogy of desserts in which ice cream would be forced upon a person even if it wasn’t what that person wanted and now, the ice cream, representing stay-at-home motherhood, is no longer even an option. Society has come to expect that all women have a career outside the home and no longer even consider staying at home to be an option. Young uses subtle humor through the example of restaurants not forcing a certain type of dessert on customers to convince the audience that, in the same light, society should not be forcing specific occupations and roles onto women.  

The speaker continues to explain the recent shift in perspective from positive to negative opinions of stay at home mothers. Young reaches the audience through a visual display of a Google search for “stay-at-home mothers are” where the answers presented were “lazy,” “annoying,” “pathetic,” and “the worst” (03:05). This aspect of his speech with such critical vocabulary evoked feelings of surprise and sympathy for the stay-at-home moms by the audience. Through this Google search, Young effectively brings the question “Am I being too harsh” into the minds of the audience. Young recognizes that the timeliness of this issue is vital, because Millennials (anyone born between 1981 and   1995) and those in Generation Z will soon reach the decision point of raising a child while either working or staying at home. Young is hopeful that, with the persuasive and visual ways he has presented how stay-at-moms have been viewed historically, he can convince younger viewers to escape the extreme marginal views of stay-at-home moms on both sides of the political spectrum (it’s great, coming from conservatives, and it’s abhorrent, coming from liberals).    

Throughout the speech, Young portrays normal distribution curves on the screen in order to demonstrate how widespread the silent majority (middle 95% of the population) is while the dialogue of the marginalized is the most frequently projected and heard. Although Young is oversimplifying the distribution of opinions in the population, the idea here is that the middle 95% is neutral on the topic. The small percentages of the two extremes, however, are much more vocal with their opinions. Granted, one side is ever-praising towards the stay-at-home mom, but the other side is nevertheless, condemning. Young takes the analogy of the distribution curve one step further in explaining the ridiculousness of these exceptional opinions. On the positive side, the supposed belief is that any woman who is not a stay-at-home mom hates the American Dream and on the negative side is the belief is that any woman not in the workforce bows to the patriarchy and betrays the feminist movement (07:08). Young reasonably suggests that if the silent majority would let their respectful opinions be heard then the overpowering dialogue coming from the two extreme ends would diminish and the marginalization of the stay-at-home mother would be eradicated.     

Young’s credibility and relationship to this topic is established towards the end of the speech when he displays a picture of his own family on the screen. He goes on to explain that his wife, Aubrey, is a stay-at-home mother to their two young daughters, Joan and Ruth.  Young effectively construes to the audience that the stigmatization of stay-at-home mothers negatively affects real families just like his own. His use of ethos causes the audience to consider their own friends and families and the ways that this marginalization could be affecting them. The combination of the visual picture displayed and audible personal anecdote tugs at the heartstrings of the audience to be more understanding and have a more open mind., Although it is true that some might question whether the extreme value that Young places on stay-at-home mothers derives too much from the fact that his wife is a stay-at-home mother, Young is not utilizing his argument for a specific agenda or trying to convince more mothers to stay at home but rather to educate the public to benefit future generations in honoring the women’s choice. Young concludes his speech by reasserting his overarching goal to eradicate the way that stay-at-home moms have been marginalized so that his own young daughters, along with the entirety of the future generation, will be valued for whatever choices they decide to make.  

By including historical context, visual representations of normal distribution curves, and a personal connection to his own family, Young productively requests that the audience, along with the rest of society, respect a woman’s decision to stay at home. Society as a whole has come to accept women in the workforce but this doesn’t mean that the role of a stay-at-home mother should be devalued. Young’s strategic decision to point out the positive connotations and abandon the negative connotations might work for other rhetors struggling to convince audience members to become more open-minded towards a stance that was held in the past.    


Works Cited

Landrum, Sarah. “More Millennial Women Are Becoming Stay-At-Home Moms--Here's Why.”
Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 9 Feb. 2018,  ome-moms-heres-why/#156c05466a2b. Accessed on 16 October 2018.  
Young, Ben. “Why Have We Stigmatized and Marginalized the Stay-at-Home Mom?” TEDx,
TED, 29 June 2017, Oxford, UK. Speech.