When Kuae Mattox — the national president of Mocha Moms, a support group for stay-at-home moms of color — was growing up in Philadelphia, being a stay-at-home mom was seen as "something that white women did." That's changing, but this year's most famous stay-at-home mom so far has been a white woman, Ann Romney. And the arguments surrounding Romney's choices — and whether stay-at-home mothering can be feminist — don't really resonate with black moms.
One issue that does: isolation. Historically, black moms have been about half as likely to stay home as moms of other races, so it's a struggle for those who do so to meet moms who look like them. And in communities where most stay-at-home moms are white, black moms can face misunderstanding and discrimination.
Kehli Harding Woodruff, a stay-at-home mom in New York's Westchester County, says she was frequently mistaken for a nanny in her affluent neighborhood. And Raquel Dennie, an Austin mom and author of HomeGirlBlog, says she was excited to join a neighborhood moms' group — until their first meeting. When she arrived at a local park, she noticed just one other mom, a white woman talking on her cell phone. The woman's daughter came to play with Dennie's son, but Dennie overheard the woman talking about her, saying, "Yes, she's here." Says Dennie, "I felt my heart sink to my gut." Then the woman approached, still on the phone, and "reached down and grabbed her child's hand and walked away." That was the last time Dennie attended a meeting of the group.
Black stay-at-home moms can face judgment from their own families too. "This is the first real generation of women of color who have been able to make the choice to stay at home," says Mattox — and that choice sometimes runs up against opposition. Many in the black community, she says, "feel that the path to success is through economic empowerment," not staying home with children. "Constantly simmering below the radar," she says, is the idea that a black mom who stays home is "throwing it all away."
There are also relationship concerns at play. LaShaun Williams, stay-at-home mom and blogger at The L Factor, says that in the black community, "families have been disjointed for a while," and in general "there isn't a lot of trust" of black husbands. So many women see staying home as a mistake, because a husband could leave at any time.
Williams's own mother stayed home, so she doesn't share Mattox's experience of feeling like she had to blaze a trail. But she agrees that in general, stay-at-home motherhood hasn't been the norm for black women. For her, that means the politics of this choice are different for black moms than for white ones.
Williams took some flak for her recent statement in the New York Times that feminism has "devalued marriage and the familial and societal benefits of homemaking and encouraged self-indulgence." However, she told me that she actually does consider herself a feminist, but that "feminism affects black women differently than it does everyone else, because they've never been able to stay at home, they've always worked." Hers is a point of view that often gets lost in debates about stay-at-home motherhood and feminism, which on both sides frequently fail to take racial issues into account.
She adds: "It wasn't a liberation for me to go to work" — if anything, it was a liberation to be able to stay home. She doesn't plan to eschew paid work forever, though — once her three children are all in elementary school, she hopes to focus on entrepreneurial ventures. She's not alone — Mattox says many Mocha Moms are or hope to be "mompreneurs," and that in the face of the recession, "many of our moms are going back to work." And, she adds, many moms only stay at home for a short period — "a stay-at-home mom in January could be a working mom in September."
This reality can impact moms' political allegiances. Gena Shepherd-Keys, a Dallas stay-at-home mom and former teacher, says she feels President Obama speaks more directly to her than his opponents do "because his wife previously was a working mom, and I think maybe she could relate to my circumstances more than Mitt Romney's wife." (And while Michelle Obama obviously has many unpaid duties as First Lady, she did quit her job at the University of Chicago Medical Center in 2009.)
When it came to politics, though, the moms I spoke with were less concerned with, say, Hilary Rosen's comments about Ann Romney than with something that directly affects their children: education. Mattox says many Mocha Moms "feel public education has failed their children." She cited statistics showing that children of color tend to go to underperforming schools, and added that black parents are actually the fastest-growing minority group in the homeschooling population. Mocha Moms is also launching an initiative to get its members more involved in public schools, to "let schools know that parents of color are interested and involved."
Dennie says help with school issues has been a benefit of her own membership in Mocha Moms. She explains that with the other moms in the group, she can talk about "things that only a black mom would understand, like having your child be the only black child in the classroom." She adds that it's "hard to get that dialogue in groups that aren't as diverse."
All the moms I talked to agreed with Ann Romney about one thing: stay-at-home motherhood is hard work. Says Baltimore stay-at-home mom Dominique Farrow-Ray, "our job never ends." And it's even harder if no one recognizes that you're doing it.
Public awareness of black stay-at-home motherhood may be improving, though. Woodruff says that although it used to happen frequently, "I have not been mistaken for a nanny one time since Obama took office." She acknowledges that she'll never be sure if there's a direct connection, but says that Obama's presidency has brought an image of black success to a national audience, revealing to those who weren't aware of it that such success does exist. And for some black moms, part of succeeding is being able to stay home.