It is about time we stop criticising women who choose to ‘stay at home’ and instead focus on the systematic challenges of why some women cannot.
“My ‘stay at home’ job is the priority. I don’t expect him to ever do the groceries or do the dishes or cooking,” Bianca Batten says.
The 28-year-old lives in New York and is one of thousands of women sharing their everyday life on social media, but what sets her apart from other influencers is her decision to fully embrace traditional gendered relationship roles by being a ‘stay at home’ girlfriend.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a ‘stay at home’ girlfriend (SAHG) is much like the name suggests: a girlfriend who stays at home and chooses to introduce more ‘traditional’ roles within the relationship than the average modern couple. Usually, the SAHG chooses to be financially dependent on her partner and in return do the majority of housework.
Their days, proudly portrayed on social media, consist of making coffees and meals for their partner, doing laundry, cleaning and spending hours on their appearance and shopping.
These videos have ranked up millions of views on TikTok over the past six months. Consequently, with views comes comments and critique – but is it not time we stop slamming women for their decisions regardless of whether we disagree? The current bullying of SAHGs is not justifiable considering the vastly more important aspects of it.
A wealth of choices invites critique
Amongst the thousands of videos, some comments seem to be understanding, and perhaps even jealous: “Well said!! So fed up with people putting down women that choose a different path, as long as it’s their choice, that’s independence!” says one.
“Girl… I wish I had your life! I’m a full time receptionist but I want to work towards being a stay at home mom one day,” says another. On the opposite side of the spectrum however, are those who heavily critique and slam the women.
“I can’t decide if you’re being serious or not?” and “Is this a genuine video?” while more provocative comments include: “Women fought for the right to vote, the right to work and equality and here you are showing off laziness, compliance and financial reliance on a man.”
Before going any further, it is important to note that anyone who chooses to post online opens themselves to critique. However, after being in the media for months, it is evident that this criticism has turned into hostility.
“It’s not like my boyfriend’s telling me that I cannot ever work or should or will ever have a career. I think there’s a very big difference in forcing me to be a ‘stay at home’ girlfriend and providing back for me and I think that providing it is the right direction because I think it does fantastic things for society as a whole,” Bianca says.
Having worked in finance for over six years before making the switch, Bianca says she has always felt comfortable in her ability to work if and when she needs to. Importantly, she adds: “if he wants to [help] and voices that at some point then by all means but it’s very fulfilling to me to have those as my roles in our relationship.”
Jessica Martin, programme manager of MA Gender Studies at Leeds University says that the increased visibility on social media have reinvigorated critiques around women’s choice.
Although not conclusive, she believes it comes down to the huge range of choice women finally have: “from entering the labour market to staying at home (or a combination of both) and though the wealth of choices available to women signifies progress, it also invites intense critique.”
Furthermore, amongst the reasons for becoming SAHG, Bianca highlights that her time being at home was an investment in her future as a mother. “We do intend for me to be a stay at home mum at some point but I wanted it to have ‘me time’ first and not feel as though the first time in my life that I was taking time off was only to actually having a full-time job of being a mum.”
Another prominent TikToker is 25-year-old Kate Emelyanchikova, who lives lives in Istanbul and was a SAHG for eight months until January 2023: “I was raised to be a hard worker so I haven’t been raised like ‘you need to find a rich husband and just chill’,” she says.
In fact, at the age of 23 Kate worked for a company, did freelance projects and had her own assistant. Although hustling and loving her jobs, they took a big toll on her mental health which is when her journey as a SAHG began: “I just had to tell myself ‘you need to stop and relax and do something for yourself and your mental health’.”
She decided to quit her main job and go to Istanbul for some time off. As luck would have it, this is when she met her current partner: “It was an interesting moment because we had lots of conversations as friends and I understood that we could actually be a great couple and I told him ‘you see now I’m not in the best moment in my life, I don’t have a full-time job so I need to take my time, are you ready for that?’ and he said ‘oh don’t worry at all, do whatever you want’.”
A step back from feminism?
Many allude that the rise of SAHG is a step back from feminism. This statement points to the idea that because women have had to fight for their rights, all women should work outside the home. However, feminism is all about having the choice to work or not work.
Where does this critique stem from? Kate’s previous point is crucial to moving forward: perhaps the reason why people choose to slam SAHG is not in fact because of their decision to stay at home – but rather the lack of choices other women face.
After all, there are many versions of the same message in their comment sections stating that X amount of years ago my grandmother fought to have the ability to vote and to have a job and now these girls are promoting this lifestyle.
Domestic work and reproductive labour have been devalued for decades and this devaluation is clearly seen in the critiques of those who choose to stay at home: “Because the domestic space is often perceived to be a feminine, private space in comparison to the masculine, public sector the labour that takes place in this space is routinely dismissed, ridiculed or ignored – this can be understood as misogynistic,” Jessica says.
To that Kate is clear, that just because they fit traditional gender roles does inherently mean they are anti-feminist: “I don’t blame them but for me it’s not about stepping back, it’s actually a step forward to be able to do what you want with your life. If it’s ok for you and your partner then it’s OK.”
This is a shared mindset amongst most SAHGs. Kendel Key is 26 and lives in Puerto Rico – she has more than 500,000 followers on TikTok. She is arguably one of the most followed SAHGs on the platform and is the main SAHG that sparked criticism in the early weeks.
Kendel does not see the trend as a backwards step: “Feminism is about women’s rights and SAHGs have the right to enter the workforce if they’d like. They’re using their power of choice in that they’re choosing their role as a SAHGF. No one is forcing them into it. Having different roles within a relationship does not translate to inequality.”
Significantly however, is the current prominence of white upper-middle class couples within the community. Although it may come down to how algorithmic culture affords more visibility to white, middle-class women who uphold particular beauty standards, Jessica says it comes as no surprise that this is the most visible demographic of SAHGs.
“The critique routinely fails to take into account the constraints and limitations which determine these choices for many women, including stagnant wages, the gender pay gap, increasing childcare costs and the over representation of women in low paying, part-time and precarious work,” Jessica emphasises.
She also points to how the current SAHG discussion does not consider the material realities of the women who are SAHG. For instance, who has the financial stability within their relationship for only one partner to work.
“This erases discussions around who is able to stay at home (when time is increasingly a commodity), who may be encouraged to stay at home because of the structure of the labour market and the care work provided by women, who may be struggling to find work.”
Both Bianca and Kate had savings and were able to take months off work due to their partner’s jobs. But to what extent is this possible for non-white or upper-class couples?
According to Hillary Osborn’s article for The Guardian, people of colour are worse off than their white counterparts with “lower earnings and less cash in private pensions, investments or other assets to draw on.” Furthermore, their data also showed between 2019 and 2020 black people had the highest unemployment.
However, it is clear that it is their own responsibility to take the consequences should their relationship end. Kate is firm on this, talking about how important it is to have a plan B, not necessarily because you think you will break up but rather to understand that anything can happen. “It’s not just about being protected because your boyfriend will break up with you, it’s just about general stuff. You need to have your plan B and savings before quitting your job.”
Where do we draw the line of ‘unemployment’?
While most are slammed for spending their days making meals and doing laundry, isn’t content creation a job? Jessica believes it comes down to how social media also “obscures the labour of women who produce SAHG content by reframing this as leisure, when in fact we know that establishing and maintaining a digital brand can include engaging in various forms of labour.”
Perhaps they do not work a typical nine-to-five, but they are all active on social media and create content documenting their daily lives. In addition, with their kind of following there is no doubt that they make their own money. Does that make them unable to qualify as a SAHG and what constitutes work in the digital age?
Kendel says that working has never been a goal or big priority in her life and while social media is her main income she appreciates that her partner is able to support them both.
“My partner and I aren’t yet married but he is already showing that he can provide for me which to me is a sign of security, not risk. If our relationship ever ended, I would continue my career as a social media influencer as I had in the past. Right now I’m able to create content for the pure joy of it but could rely on it as an income source if need be.”
For Bianca, she claims her secure relationship is down to communication and having a strong foundation of trust, respect: “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re gonna get married and start a family together because we both value each other’s time.”
A retreat from the hussle lifestyle?
There is also an element of “retreating” into the slower-paced domestic space with SAHGs which can be perceived as a welcome alternative to the increasingly fast-paced public life. Whilst this fantasy of retreat is easy to indulge, it obscures the realities of who is able to retreat – and who is left in lower paid precarious work in this fast-paced public life.
Kate’s experience has been very different from both Kendel’s and Bianca’s. While Bianca is currently working, she does aim to become a ‘stay at home’ mum when she has children.
Kate has decided to go back to a full-time job: “For once in my life I was able to stop and think about what I want to do in life. Before that time I was always pushed to make more money and just live my life and those eight months were so great and I’m so grateful for my boyfriend to have this opportunity to understand what I really want and that’s why I came back for the full-time job.”
For many, women choosing to stay at home and financially depend on their partner might sound bizarre and even reckless at a time where feminist and gender issues are a hot political topic. But, regardless of why they chose to stay at home, Bianca, Kate and Kendel are proof that the SAHG lifestyle is not just those without work ethic and their daily life is also filled with their social media and perhaps part-time jobs — although that is not everyone. That is OK too.
Regardless of what women do, they will always be criticised. The women who work too much and spend ‘too’ little time at home. Women who spend ‘too’ much time at home and do not contribute to society within the workforce. Women who do not want children, and women blamed for having children early.
Finally, it is time to stop criticising women when there are other parts of the discussion that are more valuable and productive. In this instance, debating the realities of who this lifestyle is achievable to and the reasons it may be unachievable to other women.
Although criticism may be difficult to handle, Kendel has found constructive feedback liberating: “It allows me to think critically and navigating difficult questions only reinforces my decision to be a SAHG.”
Featured image by Tina Dawson via Unsplash CC