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)

Aliah also sees her career, which she enjoys, as a return on the investment she made in her education and as following in the footsteps of most of the women in her family who, by necessity, have always worked in some way.

“It’s partially about feeling like it’s an integral part of who I am,” said Aliah, “and partially this feeling that I should be able to do it all.”

Blades said the example of her working mother was the model she followed, even when she realized she couldn’t do everything herself. “When I was working [outside the home] and finally decided to hire a cleaning person, it took me forever to admit that I did to my mother,” said Blades. “I thought, She did all of it. Worked, cleaned — without help, mind — and took care of an entire household. How do I look hiring someone to clean up after two working adults living in a two-bedroom in Brooklyn?'”

When she finally “got over it” and admitted to her mother that she’d hired someone to help, Blades remembered her mom laughed and said, “Good move.”

Of course, the consequences of leaving the workforce, even for well-educated women with high-paying careers, reverberate beyond their monthly bank statements.

Aliah made sure to point to the difference between having money and accumulating wealth. “My financial decisions aren’t just about me or even just my nuclear family. I’m thinking about helping my mother in her retirement and the rest of my family. Until we have true wealth and not just money, I feel opting out is shortsighted,” she said.

Taking the long view, said Bari, is crucial. Because most black women lack the same access that white women of equal education might have, to simply go missing from the corporate world altogether is a luxury black women literally can’t afford.  

“Women of a certain means and class levels have access to job creators that can hire them themselves or know someone who would be willing to take a chance on someone dusting off their resume 10 to 15 years later,” said Bari.

For Monica Byrd, who plans to opt out in the future, it’s all about exit strategy.

“I’ve known several women who can’t leave the corporate life because they fear their families will suffer and no one will be able to pick up the slack,” explained Byrd, creator of the Baby Bash and Bling Expo & Show, an interactive lifestyle trade fair for expectant mothers.

Byrd plans to avoid the pitfalls by plotting her corporate retreat meticulously. She currently has a time frame, seed money and a concrete deadline.

“I’ve passed the point of fear,” continued Byrd, who has been married for five years and has a 1-year-old son. “I’ve past the point of giving my life to a company, building their dreams while mine is on the back burner. I want to redefine the role of the ‘at home’ mom.”

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.