Apparently, only white women get to argue about whether to stay home or seek employment out of the house. That’s the takeaway I got from the online vitriol sparked last week by Ann Romney and Hillary Rosen. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 2012, 1992, or 1972 — the Mommy Wars continue to pit white, privileged women against even more privileged white women.
Business people and a woman with a stroller rushing by, credit: Shutterstock
Listening to the arguments between the wife of a tycoon and a high powered professional made me want to raid my mother’s closet for a polyester blouse with a floppy bow tie. Which made me remember that when my mom was raising small children back in the 1970s, the decision to stay home or work full-time was not even a choice. A recent immigrant to the United States from Taiwan, she took a whopping one month off for childbirth, before heading back to the workplace. That was all the maternity leave allowed by her employer. After all, that was the job that allowed her to come to America in the first place.
My family’s story is just one of the many that have gone untold in the Mommy Wars. While experiences like my mother’s may have happened in the Bad Old Days, the impact still reverberates in my generation. And for some women, particularly vulnerable low-income minorities, such things are not in the past. I can only speak of my own personal journey, but the US Census Bureau has been gathering data on stay at home mothers since the 1960s. During all time periods, reports show that each minority group has unique variables, and the rates for black and Hispanic mothers to stay at home to raise children varied the most from the statistics for white women. According to Census data,
“Black women were about half as likely as White women to be a stay-at-home mother,”
“…married black women have always been employed outside of the home in large numbers, even following World War II, when many of their white counterparts had withdrawn from the labor force.”
Even First Lady Michelle Obama was a married, black working mom, keeping her job as an attorney after having children. After all, as she quipped during the 2008 presidential campaign, she and her husband had student loans, which they had just paid off. According to a 2010 report by The College Board, African Americans carry the highest amount of student loans, with 27% of Blacks borrowing over $30,500 for a bachelor’s degree.
And the latest data on who’s staying home with the kids may surprise you. While the posturing around stay-at-home moms suggests that mothers who opt-out of the employment are white, middle-class, and by choice, Census studies show that the stay at home moms are increasingly younger, have lower educational levels, foreign-born and Hispanic.
Why is race important in discussions of motherhood? Because America is getting browner, so are its mothers — who are a diverse group facing very different challenges in the juggle to pay attention to their kids and pay the bills.
Latinas may have opted out of the workforce because of “cultural propensity for family life,” as Estelle Gonzalez Walgreen writes on Hispanically Speaking News, Or, as the Census report suggests, they may have been forced out of the workplace by lower wages and lack of affordable childcare options, a key factor in keeping women in the workforce. Or perhaps they are self-employed or among the 40% of privately employed Americans without paid sick leave. But where are their voices in this discussion?
Whether to raise children full-time or work outside the home is a complicated issue, one that for most women is fraught with heartache and regret no matter what path is chosen. My mother laments to this day that she had to leave me at one month old to be babysat by a neighbor. The institutional memory of these trade-offs is powerful, and when my first son was born, I agonized over what to do. We could barely afford for me to stay home. If I kept working, I’d be riddled with fear of missing out on the first words and first steps. If I quit my job, I felt like I was throwing away all the opportunities my parents had sacrificed and worked hard for in immigrating to America. At the end of my maternity leave, I walked away from a PR job to stay home full time.
My mother called the night before I was to give notice, urgently begging me to reconsider. After all, she had eventually become a stay-at-home mom after giving birth to my younger brother. At the end of seven years spent caring for us full-time, she experienced another common side effect of taking leave of the workforce: she found herself unemployable. As a non-native English speaker who had been educated overseas for an industry that had passed her up, she found her job prospects slim.
The untold story of the Mommy Wars is that for many women of color, the “choices” are already limited. The decision is not as simple as whether to opt out of the workplace and raise children with a husband whose income comfortably supports all the family expenses and more or to pursue a professional career with paid time off, medical benefits, and salary enough to cover quality childcare.
My mother eventually had to give up on the career she had studied and trained for, and had to learn a new vocation. Her journey is one I have reflected on many times during the past few years, as I’ve transitioned from being a stay-at-home mom to a work at home mom – another demographic that is largely overlooked in the Mommy Wars.
The real war we moms should be fighting is less glamorous than Hillary Rosen versus Ann Romney. Unfortunately, it’s a battle that is going to take more than a few sound bites or 140 character zingers. Our call to arms should be to demand equal pay – regardless of gender or race, policies which allow adequate maternity leave and health care, and support for women to make the choices they deem best in the face of their cultural traditions.
What is your journey as a Mom? How did your race or culture affect your path?
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