Stay-at-home moms were in the spotlight last week after democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said stay-at-home mom Ann Romney had “actually never worked a day in her life.” This statement kicked off what has been dubbed the “mommy wars” — an intense debate between working women and stay-at-home moms about the value of each experience.
President Obama condemned Rosen’s remarks, saying, “there’s no tougher job than being a mom” and “when I think about what Michelle’s had to do, when I think about my own mom, a single mother raising me and my sister, that’s work. Anybody who would argue otherwise I think, probably needs to rethink their statement.”
While women across the country reacted to Rosen’s comments, some black women were mute on the topic. Unlike women of other ethnicities, black women have traditionally not had the choice to become stay-at-home mothers.
According to “Historical Changes in Stay-at-Home Mothers: 1969 to 2009” by Rose M. Kreider and Diana B. Elliot the number of stay-at-home mothers has decreased from 9.8 million in 1969 to 5.7 million in 2009.
“Black women were about half as likely as White women to be a stay-at-home mother, while the odds for women of other races did not differ from those of White women,” Kreider and Elliot write.
Historically, black women have always worked.
“There is evidence that married black women have always been employed outside of the house in large numbers,” (Landry 2000) Kreider and Elliot note. “Even black mothers with young children were in the work force following World War II, when many of their white counterparts had withdrawn from the labor force” (Thistle 2006).
Now, the economy is perhaps the biggest reason why the idea of being a stay-at-mother for black women hasn’t been a reality. The recession took a toll on the economic status of many Americans and the black community was hit particularly hard.
The 8.2 percent unemployment rate is nearly double that for African-Americans at 14 percent.
“Women usually have better success getting jobs than black men do,” said Dr. Camille Charles, a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “So if you’re talking about a two parent household, she’s more likely to end up being the one to pick up the slack because historically the women have been more employable and more desirable employees because of the gender stereotypes we have as African-Americans.”
Black women have an unemployment rate of about 12.3 percent, slightly lower than the 13.8 percent unemployment rate for black men. Black men and women have long worked to close the wealth gap between themselves and other ethnicities.
“The woman’s not going to be the one to stop working and stay home,” said Charles. “She might be the bigger earner. And as long as marriage and divorce rates are the way that they are now, and other contentious things in the black community, I don’t think women are going to feel secure in giving up their careers.”
During the late eighties and early nineties, fictional character Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show embodied being a supermom. She had her own career; she was a dedicated mother and a loving wife. She was a symbol for many black women that they too could have and do it all.
Michelle Obama represents a similar ideal for many women today. She had a successful career as a lawyer before she became the first lady of the United States. She is now technically a stay-at-home mom, but her unique position makes her more of an outlier than the norm.
“I don’t think [being a stay at home mother] has ever been a realistic option for the vast majority of black women,” Charles added. “And even if we think about the black women who are married to the very few men who have the status where they can stay home – you’re talking about a very small percentage of women who can do that comfortably.”
Another reason why black women may have not have the option to stay home is because of the number of single mothers in the black community.
In 2008, 72 percent of African-American babies were born to unwed mothers, according to a Pew Research report. Blacks were less likely than whites to be married, and black children were nearly three times as likely as white children to live with one parent.
Kuae Mattox is president of Mocha Moms, Inc., a support group for mothers who have decided not to work full-time outside of the home. Mattox is a stay-at-home mother who never imagined not working. She received her master’s from Columbia University and went on to climb the ladder at national news organizations before deciding that staying home was the best choice for her family.
“There are many in the black community and in society who don’t understand the value of what we’re doing,” said Mattox. “We understand very well, particularly in our organization, that a stay at home mom in January could be a working mom in September.”
Maria Smith is another black stay-at-home mother and a journalist who describes her family as middle class.
“We’re not the Romney’s,” said Smith, “We have sacrificed so that I can stay home. Not all families who have parents staying home are upper class. We don’t live in mansions and all have maids and help for our kids and all that stuff that some one-percent type moms do.”
Being a part of the upper echelon is just one label that black stay at home moms are given.
“When I was growing up, it never entered my mind that I would become a stay at home mother,” said Mattox. “This was unheard of years and years ago — our parents grew up and fought in the civil rights movement and their dream was to grow up and go to a good college and work their way up the corporate ladder.”
Professional women who give up their careers to raise their families are sometimes seen as throwing away their hard earned success and erasing that progress which past generations worked to achieve through hard fought battles.
“Being a stay at home mother is a shift in who you are,” said Smith, “It is about identity. I was never associated, myself, with just being a television producer; that was just what I did. But those lines get blurred a lot.”
The societal implication that staying at home means you are living a life of luxury versus solely fulfilling domestic duties is not necessarily representative of what mothers at home are doing. Their reality is more complex.
“The whole notion of stay at home mom it’s a huge misnomer, and it implies passivity,” said Mattox, “The moms I’ve met — they don’t stay at home. They are home based parents, but they are moms who are grassroots organizers, PTA organizers, and they are out participating in their communities.”
Balancing career and family life is a natural expectation for African-American women.
“We don’t see the mommy wars as our wars – we have friends, mothers and aunts who all worked,” said Mattox. “It would be hypocritical of us to disparage people who worked and to tell people what to do – you have to decide what’s best for you and your family.”
Ashani O’Mard is a grant development manager who manages a part-time schedule and raising her two children. She has sacrificed having a higher income for time with her family.
“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew I wanted to be a Clair Huxtable when I grew up,” said O’Mard, “My career is very important to me and I wanted to continue to cultivate my professional development, but I did make a choice that it was second to my family. It’s a complex issue. You have to sacrifice something and figure out what’s the most important thing for you.”
According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, there is still a racial gap that exists in education, but the college graduation rate for black students has improved over the past three years.
“We would not be given the choice to stay home if it weren’t for the economic opportunities awarded to our husbands,” said Mattox.