My great-grandmother was a domestic worker in a White home in The South. She worked hard raising other people’s children, cooking their meals, scrubbing their floors,wiping down their windows, doing their laundry, and otherwise doing the work that people of a particular shade were “too good” to do. If you were a White woman of means in the South, you didn’t have to work, you didn’t have to clean, and you didn’t have to do the “dirty” work of taking care of children. My great-grandmother had two children of her own, and while her husband was cooking food at the local school for the Blind during the school year, and building the very important military fort during the summers, she spent the bulk of her time caring for other people’s children. One of the most poignant stories of my childhood is hearing Nanny’s pledge: She worked for and dreamed that her children and grandchildren would be valued “for their brains, not their backs.” My mother told me that story over and over again. Learn to be valued for your brain, not your back, not your hands, but the beautiful mosaic that is your mind. My grandmother worked two jobs–a teacher’s aid by day in a segregated school and a cleaner of offices by night–so that her children would have a chance to realize her mother’s dream (and her dream as well). My grandfather worked countless jobs to do the same. My grandmother, at the time, worked a job that afforded her the ability to be home in the afternoons for her four children: to shepherd them through homework and chores, cook them dinner, referee whatever problems there were, and then prepare for whatever the evening was. She did this for the stability of her family, to assure the future of the next generation that she created. My grandfather did the same. They were lucky enough to retire with good pensions and healthcare, affording them the luxury to enjoy a long time with their granddaughters. My grandfather passed in 2009. I call my grandmother every Sunday and happily share with her my trials and tribulations of motherhood.
2 out of my grandparent’s 4 children would be college graduates: My mother being one of them. She became a journalist and, understanding that 1) she needed to financially contribute to her family, and 2) she had an opportunity to create a great career, she worked hard outside of her home. She reached great heights in her career, and indeed, still has a lot of amazing things to do in her field. I am proud of all that she has accomplished, and watching her ambition blossom into achievements and awards served as a great blueprint for my own ambitions. My mother, though, came to the hard realization that women can’t “have it all.” It is hard to be a working woman and raise children. Especially after the divorce, it was hard for Mom to be an awesome mom and be an awesome journalist at the same time. She tried very hard, she succeeded in many ways, and in the end, my sister and I are successful women who are loved and supported by great men. There are some memories that were missed, there are parts of our relationships that are not perfect, but my mother is one of the lucky ones: Two daughters with college degrees, no children out of wedlock, positive trajectories toward the future.
And here I sit, the fourth generation in a line of hard working and smart Black mothers, the result of all of the hard work that all of those women did. I was able to attend college and even an Ivy League graduate school–the first Ivy League graduate of my family. My great-grandmother took care of other people’s children, my grandmother taught other people’s children, my mother told other people’s stories, and I took my place by teaching our history to other people’s children. I was a proud teacher and was happy to take up the mantle. I taught children of color in a rough neighborhood at a school that operated under the auspice of social justice but fell short (another post for another time).
But when it was my turn to become a mother, I had a choice to make: Continue to care for other people’s children at the partial sacrifice of my own, or halt my career for the moment (or potentially, indefinitely) in order to give my sons a chance to be highly successful. For me, as a Black woman, such a choice is rare and luxurious. The height of privilege. My life, finances, marriage, self worth, education are all good enough and stable enough that I have the opportunity to make my primary function in life the raising of my children.
I’m writing this because I got lost in the Mommy Wars again today. A blogger who I really admire wrote a wonderful post about how she defines her life and role as a full-time mother. She vents her frustrations but also lists the many, many wonder aspects of stay-at-home motherhood, and I’m so grateful for the post. Honesty around motherhood is important. She linked to another post, a study that I cited in a previous post, that some 75% of women, when asked, would rather divorce than be a “housewife.” This led to a quick post by Mona Gabe, arguing that calling Motherhood a “job” or a “career” is actually devaluing and degrading to women. I was intrigued enough to click on the article that she cited, which is an article by Jessica Valinti which questions if motherhood really is the “hardest job in the world?”
And throughout my reading, I really came to the acute understanding of why the so-called “mommy wars” makes me so utterly angry: It is the height of privilege and hypocracy that so-called feminists get to quibble over the validity of their identity, lives and choices based on how they choose to mother their children. Indeed, White women have oscillated between mothering their own children as the highest and most patriotic of privileges (See: Republican Motherhood) to finding it almost contemptuous in nature. White women of certain means still opt to find quick, cheap labor to take care of their children. I see them at the parks and at the Children’s Museum: Women of every shade of brown carting around White children in $500 strollers to their weekly visit to this or that educational place (children’s museum, science museum, aquarium), where the membership fee can be upwards of $200 a year. The women behind these wars are the ones who are the most privileged. Their children will benefit, no matter what, from their station in life: They are White, they are middle class or better, their parents are educated. They will be exposed to anything and everything, and anything their parents can’t provide for them now they will be able to go out and get on their own. Because in this country White + Middle Class + a modicum of exposure = Golden Ticket to just about anything if you want it.
I mother for Social Justice. For Liberation. For Political and Economic Security. I mother because despite my education and the education of my Husband, despite our middle-class status, despite how my sons may present to us in their coloring, I know that they are not born into a Golden Ticket life. I understand that it takes one or two discipline incidents, one moment of poor judgement, one morning without breakfast, one night without sleep, one moment of indiscretion, one step into a wrong place at a wrong time, one uncaring teacher, one prejudiced anybody that can send my sons from forward and positive trajectory to something all together different. I mother because I understand that my sons will live in all sorts of different sociological boxes all at the same time: They will have to negotiate the power of being middle-class American Males, with the confidence and context of Whiteness (from their father), but the perpetual second-class status of their Blackness (from their mother), and the power and understanding that they may pass as White (thanks to their skin color) and sometimes they will be excluded because they are just too Black (because of their hair and facial features). I have the knowledge and the intellect and the understanding and the reflection to at least give them a fighting chance to navigate that. I mother because I know that if I do everything I can (note, I didn’t say everything right, because that’s impossible), I can make this the generation of my family that hits that set-for-life status. The status where no one ever has to wonder. I know that if I do everything I can right now, suddenly “college” isn’t the goal anymore, “Ivy” is the goal. Business school (“Like your father”) is the goal. Medical School (“like your uncle”) is the goal. Business ownership, inheritance, legacy, is the goal. My “sacrifice” now could be the rocket to the moon for my two boys (and potentially, a daughter, God willing).
Or it could not. But it could. And it is the could that keeps me here. The could is enough for me.
I protest the notion that White women should be able to define what motherhood is, what motherhood does, who motherhood is for and why women should or should not mother. Just as much as I protest the notion that men should dictate to women where their proper place in society is. I strongly protest the notion that Black women, Black mothers should not be part of the conversation, especially because Black mothers were often mothers to two sets of children. It’s beyond The Help, it’s beyond our current Mom-in-Chief, it’s about a recognition that motherhood, for some, is more than going through the motions of diapers and dinners and sleepless nights. It’s about an appreciation for the women who came before and the children who will come after these children. It’s about the privilege of giving opportunity to generations. I’m seizing the opportunity to set up my sons in a way that White women have taken for granted for decades, if not a century. This society just handed some women this gift. This opportunity was earned for me through the hard work of 3 generations before (and even more).
And moreover, all of that expensive education, all of that ambition, all of that training, all of this intellect isn’t lost because I’m watching Thomas and changing diapers and scrubbing toilets. Indeed, it’s being put to the best use ever. If my talents cannot move my two precious boys to “better than I did” status, then my talents were wasted. That’s the point. This is what we train for.
So yes, my job is the hardest job in the world, because my job is about so much more than the grueling day-to-day task of managing a household. My job is a physical, intellectual and emotional exercise that has ramifications that have the potential to reverberate far beyond my modest kitchen table. My motherhood, and indeed, my womanhood, is defined by more than a title that is looked down upon by those who are privileged. My motherhood and womanhood is even defined by more than how well my sons do in life. But I will not let my motherhood or womanhood be defined by people who have not a single clue about the history of the women who came before me.
And that being said, I’m looking for other Stay-At-Home Mothers of Color. I want to know you and find you and write with you. There are so many more of us out there, and our voices must be heard in the context of mothering, parenting, and advocating for our children. The tide that rises for our little ones has the potential of raising all ships of others. The Mommy Wars are meaningless and trite when you choose to take out the other, larger factors. It’s about more than diapers and spit-up. It’s about more than today. It’s about tomorrow. That’s the point.