For Black Moms, Opting Out Is Not an Option

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(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.  

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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.

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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.

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"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."

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"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.

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"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.

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"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."

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.

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"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?'"

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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.

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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.  

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"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.

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"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.

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"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. 

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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.

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