The absence of black mommy memoirs mirrors the relative absence of black women’s voices in mainstream U.S. media discourse about motherhood in general. In particular, this discourse is concerned with how women balance the demands of family and careers, and with the decision by some college-educated women to opt out of the labor force altogether and remain at home with their children. When this discourse ceased to be polite, the explosion was dubbed “the mommy wars.”
…The abundance of ink and airtime devoted to a vocal minority of women promotes the idea that this minority’s experience is somehow universal. Low-income and working-class women, black women, and other women of color don’t see their mothering experiences and concerns reflected in the mommy media machine, and we get the cultural message loud and clear: Affluent white women are the only mothers who really matter. Further, media overexposure of these women bolsters the perception of them as self-absorbed brewers of tempests in teapots.
The “mommy wars” as it has been framed is part of a topic known in academic circles as “work-family” (or, the more general “work-life”). In my field, the topic of “work-family” balance is very hot, with at least two of my academic mentors actively pursuing work on the subject. Because of our relationship, these researchers have been very open to listening to my objections about and concerns with how much of this work is conceptualized and carried out. Chief among my beefs are the very issues that Deesha brings up. I will be attending a conference of my professional organization soon. It will be interesting to see how much of current research on work-family issues addresses the diversity of parenting experiences.By the way, I have to say that since first reading Deesha’s article, I have a new twist to my own reaction. For many years I resisted moving back to the city where the majority of my family resides. But in the past year of living here I can say that I was very wrong on so many counts—and a big part of where I miscalculated has to do with work-family issues. There is nothing like being able to call a grandmother or a cousin or a teenage brother to help with child-related needs when work issues conflict with other areas of my life. Nothing like it.
In addition to the day-to-day help, however, is the sense of connection my children are now getting just by virtue of being near their family members on a regular basis. This year several people have asked me what my daughters want for the holidays. My answer has always been “nothing; they are in no need for more material things.” But this year I am adding a request. A request to come by the house and cook a special family recipe with them. A request to bring by some photo albums to share with them. A request to write them a letter that they can keep forever.
Of course I am continuing to “build family” with non-related families. When we lived away from home this was more challenging, but I did it as a matter of necessity. Now I do this as a matter of choice. These relationships and connections, too, have been incredibly valuable to me as a mother and to my daughters.
Since making this move, the “mommy wars” are even more foreign to me than they were before. It seems that this kind of angst is intensified in situations where mothers are living in isolation from the kinds of extended kin that can make childrearing less lonely—whether the mother works outside the home or not. At the heart of the (fake) wars is probably a sense of feeling unsupported, of feeling that one’s work (broadly defined) is not recognized or valued.
Yet another casualty of the American middle class focus on the nuclear family.
Yet there are other tensions that I now have, being a Black mommy raising kids around family. What happens, for instance, when my values for my children conflict with my extended kinfolks’ values? I have had to explain and justify all manner of decisions from why my children do not have a kiddie perm to why we do not regularly attend church; from why I let them read some of the books they do (e.g., the Harry Potter series) to why I believe anti-homophobic parenting needs to be as big a part of their upbringing as anti-racist parenting; from why we do not feed them many processed foods to why they do not get an allowance.
Of course, none of this parenting disagreement has reached a level of “warfare.” Nor is it ever likely to. But as a Black mommy, I wish more of the conversation could be around these issues rather than the ones the media (and academia) seem content to focus on.