For Black Moms, Opting Out Is Not an Option

While other mothers who left the workforce are trying to get back in, we never left in the first place.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — On the long list of rhetorical questions that remain perpetually unanswerable, the problem of whether or not women can “have it all” is right there at the top. Adding to this never-ending debate is a recent New York Times Magazine article that checked in with a group of women who a decade ago “opted out” of the workforce in favor of motherhood, but who now want back in.  

But even as the Times article and the philosophical question of motherhood versus career was predictably a top Twitter topic for much of last week, there was a subset of women — highly educated, equally motivated and happily married — who thought the point particularly moot: black women. 

“Historically, black women, even of means, have always worked outside of the home and have always valued education,” explained Bari, a wife, in-house attorney and mother of a 3-year-old.

New mom Aliah echoed those same sentiments.

“Generally the black women who are in positions to even have this conversation — in other words, successful, well-educated professionals — are the kind who were raised and taught to be independent and take some larger role in society,” explained Aliah. “It was never a question for me about being a working wife and mother.”

Both women, among the others with whom I spoke, reaffirmed an as-yet-untested theory that I, as an as-yet-unmarried and childless woman, have held for quite some time. That, all things being equal, most working black moms see their careers as integral parts of who they are, not as hindrances to marriage and motherhood. So much so that the recurring popular refrain about “having it all” and “opting back in” have been conversations they’ve simply opted out of.

Even those who had replaced high-powered careers with more family friendly hours still believed in the power of the working mom.

“I was an attorney for 10 years and I ‘opted-out’ at the end of 2011 because the stress and guilt of working while my kids spent their afternoons and evenings at aftercare and with our nanny became unbearable,” explained Stacey Ferguson.

But Ferguson didn’t dream of opting out completely. Law school loans, a sizable mortgage and three young children keep her and her husband from making what she described as “rash decisions.”

“I’m very much still a working mom,” explained Ferguson, who is the co-founder of Blogalicious, an online community and annual conference for bloggers of color. Ferguson — who is also an active member of Mocha Moms, a support group for stay-at-home mothers of color — added that the majority of the stay-at-home moms she knows are women of color. 

Nicole Blades — a novelist, wife and mother — left her 9-to-5 job in magazine publishing to work from home when her son was born. Emphasis on work.

“Many moms I know, me included, feel it’s very important for their children to see Mama working, see Mom handling a career, see the different parts of the person who makes up Mommy,” explained Blades, who added that as a “creative” she never simply stops being a writer.

Family history also played a huge role in how many of the black mothers with whom I spoke viewed their own legacies in the work place and at home.

“Part of valuing that education is putting it to use,” said Bari. “My great-grandparents were college-educated, as were my husband’s, and so the idea of taking that for granted and not utilizing that education seems wasteful to me.”