Ain't I a Mommy?
Shortly before the birth of my first child nine years ago, while browsing the bookstore for mommy wisdom, I discovered Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year and fell in love with the author and the book. More than any parenting truisms the book might have contained, it was Lamott’s writing style—funny, self-deprecating, and brutally honest—that kept me reading. The big mommy insight I gleaned from Operating Instructions was that I wasn’t quite as neurotic as Anne, so my kid and I would probably be all right.
This was the only book of its type that I read all the way through back then because, like a copy of a copy, subsequent mommy memoirs just weren’t as sharp. I found them to be one-note and lacking in whatever essential quality that had drawn me to Operating Instructions in the first place. In the absence of top-notch writing, I really needed to see myself in those pages. In other memoirs, I saw college-educated stay-at-home moms who felt equal parts gratitude, mental fatigue, and boredom, but I didn’t see any women who were black like me.
Now, with two kids and a freelance writing career under my belt, the current mommy memoir offerings whose titles I skim on bookstore shelves are even less appealing. A sample: Surrendering to Motherhood: Losing Your Mind, Finding Your Soul; The Second Nine Months: One Woman Tells the REAL Truth About Becoming a Mom—Finally; Let the Baby Drive: Navigating the Road of New Motherhood; Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child. A “funny” mommy memoir subgenre has emerged (notably Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom, and Jenny McCarthy’s Belly Laughs and Baby Laughs). Some of these books reference alcohol in the title (Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay; The Three-Martini Playdate) in an attempt to differentiate these authors as the fun-time gals of the momoir world. But I’m still not buying.
A cursory look at the descriptions and reviews of post–Operating Instructions mommy memoirs reveals that the messages espoused in them hasn’t changed much over the decade: Childhood is fleeting, so cherish every moment. But don’t lose yourself in your kids. Know what’s really important (which varies depending on which author you ask). Cater to your husband. Don’t cater to your husband; make him help with the kids. Ignore the parenting experts—but listen to my story.
And, it appears, these books are still written almost exclusively by white women.
A few years ago, Lori L. Tharps, author of the combination travel memoir and racial coming-of-age story Kinky Gazpacho: Love, Life and Spain, approached her agent with the idea of writing a mommy memoir. The response was less than enthusiastic, Tharps recalls: “She told me, ‘Please don’t do that.’” The market was glutted with these books, the agent lamented—and Tharps, who admits the idea came to her in the midst of her postpartum hormonal haze and love affair with her first child, let it go.
I can see the agent’s point about the glut, but in the 15 years since the publication of Operating Instructions, why weren’t black-authored mommy memoirs part of that oversaturation? Did publishers think no one wanted to read about a black mommy with a Yale degree like me gritting her teeth through endless games of Candyland? Did they presume that a minority of middle-class and upper-middle-class married white women could speak for all mothers? Or was Tharps an anomaly—were black women just not interested in penning these types of books?
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 genesis of the mommy wars can be traced back to the “cult of true womanhood” (also known as the “cult of domesticity”), the 19th-century view that delicate white women bore the sole responsibility for housekeeping and childcare, and were to be placed on pedestals at home and kept out of the public sphere. By contrast, since 1619 when the first slaves arrived on the shores of what is now the United States, most black mothers have had no choice but to work. Instead of being placed on pedestals, black women watched as our babies were placed on auction blocks. And yet, we pressed on through the most dehumanizing conditions, working on the plantations, and caring for the children who remained.
Speaking at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, abolitionist and former slave Sojourner Truth reportedly asked the assembly of white men and women where her pedestal was. Over the objections of the white women’s-rights advocates who sought to silence her that day, Truth spoke of the brutality she endured in slavery and wondered aloud why she didn’t receive preferential treatment as a member of the fairer sex—asking, famously, “Ain’t I a woman?”
Shortly after Emancipation, most rural black women attempted to adopt the cult of true womanhood, tending to home and hearth with the blessing of their husbands. But this experiment was short-lived, as white politicians and plantation owners sought to rebuild the cotton economy in the post–Civil War era. With the 1865 enactment of the federal Black Codes (a precursor to Jim Crow segregation laws), the labor of newly freed slaves was once again controlled by white people through exploitative sharecropping arrangements. As a result, black mothers and their children were forced back into the fields.
Less than a century later, when World War II moved record numbers of married white women into the labor force to take the place of their deployed husbands, the cult of true womanhood mostly died in practice. It left in its wake decades of public and private debate over whether women—white women—can be good mothers while also pursuing successful careers.
The current mommy wars resurrect this hand-wringing for a new century. Profit-seeking magazines, book publishers, and talk shows capitalize on the guilt and fears expressed by some working mothers, and on the “Should I go back to work?” doubts of some at-home mothers. From Dr. Phil to the New York Times, the media shamelessly pit the two camps against each other, fueling the flames of their anxieties. Never mind that after a year or so of maternity leave, most women return to work, and 75 percent of mothers with school-age children work—most doing so because they have to. Never mind that most at-home mothers aren’t interested in bashing their working counterparts.
Magazine articles begat inflammatory books begat appearances on tv morning shows. In 2004, Caitlin Flanagan turned a New Yorker article into a book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, in which she—a wealthy, white, self-described antifeminist who once employed a nanny and a maid and has never changed her own sheets or cleaned her own house—had the nerve to write, “Women have a deeply felt emotional connection to housekeeping,” and therefore, should stay at home. In the other corner was Linda R. Hirshman’s Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, which also began life as a magazine article (“Homeward Bound,” published in the American Prospect). Released in 2006, this book speaks mainly to affluent, highly educated women, essentially arguing that the only worthwhile life for them is one driven by professional ambition. By staying at home, a woman is creating her own glass ceiling and harming society as a whole, says Hirshman. The book was re-released last year in paperback with the kinder, gentler title Get to Work…And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late.
Last year saw the release of Leslie Bennetts’s The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, which, like Get to Work, predicts doom and gloom for educated women who opt to stay home with their children rather than stay in the office. Bennetts warns of long-term loss of income and retirement funds, difficulty reentering the workforce after a long absence, and the risky venture of total financial dependence on men.
While these book-length volleys in the mommy wars tended not to be bestsellers, they still managed to capture the attention of media outlets hungry for ratings, magazine sales, and website hits. Despite selling only about 4,000 copies (as of April 2007), Hirshman’s book landed her on The View and Good Morning America. Flanagan’s book only sold 5,000 copies more than Hirshman’s, but she got to hawk it on The Colbert Report and whine about her critics in an essay for Time.
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.
Thankfully, there have been some more temperate voices in the wilderness of all this judgment about motherhood and work. Though still mommy-centric, books like Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels do not shove women into boxes labeled “stay-at-home” and “working,” respecting the fact that many mothers move in and out of full- and part-time employment throughout their lifetimes.
Two anthologies, The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood and Marriage and Mommy Wars, also steer clear of the finger-pointing. The former includes essays by at least two women of color, though neither appears in the book’s “Mommy Maddest” section. Black writers Veronica Chambers, Lonnae O’Neal Parker, and Sydney Trent contribute to Mommy Wars, a collection that explicitly seeks to bridge the gap between alleged “warring factions.” And yet Random House subtitled it, over the editor’s objections, with the mommy wars-ian descriptor Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families.
That black mothers were not among the combatants on the fake battlefield of the mommy wars is not coincidental. This simply wasn’t our fight. In her book Having It All: Black Women and Success, Veronica Chambers notes, “Guilt just isn’t a currency in our lives the way it is in the lives of white women.” Further, as economist Julianne Malveaux observed in USA Today, “Some African-American women want to yawn at the angst about shouldering multiple burdens and juggling multiple roles. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt so long ago that I recycled it.” Since the 1940s, black women have outnumbered white women in the labor force. According to some reports, the black middle class owes its existence to black women’s presence in the workplace.
After Emancipation, those black women fortunate enough to pursue higher education took advantage of the professional opportunities available to them. Many of these middle-class, college-educated women embodied the “lifting as we climb” motto coined by the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. The NACW and other organizations in the black women’s club movement served on the front lines of the antilynching crusade, advocated for workers’ rights, and sought to improve the quality of life for their impoverished brothers and sisters.
Fast forward to the present day and this “we’re all in this together” legacy lives on. Professional black mothers can generally count on other black women they know to cheer them on as they advance in their careers, and they in turn may lend a financial hand to extended family members who need it. Mocha Moms, a support group for at-home mothers of color with more than 120 chapters nationwide, lobbies for quality childcare for low-income working women. Instead of deriding working mothers, the organization makes this statement on its website: “We support the choices our members are making…but respect every parent’s right to make different decisions.”
I asked one Mocha Mom I know, Jennifer, what she thought about mommy memoirs and the mommy wars. She responded, “Historically, we’ve had to take care of our kids and their kids,” referring to black women’s roles during slavery and as domestic workers in white households after slavery and throughout the ’50s and ’60s. “Now we only have to take care of our kids, and we just don’t have the same level of angst as white women do. Definitely not enough to write a whole book about it.”
Jennifer, a married mother of two with an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia, adds, “I struggle with the daily demands of mothering. But I also remember that I’m standing on the shoulders of my great-great-grandmothers who were enslaved, beaten, raped, and they pulled through and made it. My existence is proof of their survival, their victory and perseverance. So how can I have a meltdown because my kid is having a tantrum when I’m trying to cook? Of course our grown-up needs have to be met, too, but still. We do what we have to do.”
Of course, black mothers are not endless founts of strength. Nor do we live charmed, guilt-free lives. Some black at-home mothers are asked by family and friends to justify the decision to “waste” their educations. Professional black mothers may have to forego material comforts and greater financial security in exchange for more flexibility and time at home with their kids. But all this struggling and striving happens in the context of our history. If a black mother’s household income is such that she can afford to stay at home with her kids or opt to pursue a career full-time instead—either way, we’ve arrived at a profound historical moment. Either way, she is living a life her foremothers could only dream about.
So if black women haven’t beaten down publishers’ doors with manuscripts about mothering or about pulling second shifts, it’s probably because this is what we’ve always done, without fanfare and without the luxury of “what about the children?” pearl-clutching. Perhaps because many of us are only a generation or two removed from poverty, we can’t in good conscience write unconcerned screeds that ignore the hard realities for poor women and children. Maybe we look at our girlfriends—working women who aren’t mothers—and are reminded that it’s not all about the mommies. Maybe we realize that mommy-centrism lets employers and policy-makers off the hook with regard to family-friendly workplace changes that would allow mothers and fathers to work more flexible hours without sacrificing their careers in the process.
This is not to say that black women never sweat the career-family stuff, nor is it to say we aren’t writing about motherhood at all these days. However, the number of such books is woefully small, and the results are not as shrill or as navel-gazing as the typical mommy book tends to be.
Said navel-gazing was what motivated Washington Post reporter Lonnae O’Neal Parker to write her first book. In 2002, Parker penned an article for the Post called “The Donna Reed Syndrome” about her decision—reached when she fell asleep in her driveway one night after covering an event for work—to take a yearlong break from her job in order “to have gleaming hardwood floors and to hang out with the kids.” Parker recalls, “I wrote about what that year meant to me, and how at the end of it, I returned to who I was—a reporter. I returned to my career…with a better set of tools in place to give myself more rest and a greater ability to do what I do.”
Among the responses to that piece was a letter from a woman who wrote: “I suppose you think I’m pathetic. I have stayed at home since the birth of my son three years ago.” Parker was floored. “As if what I wrote was an indictment of her! The total obliviousness to black women’s history, and that it had always included work, was just galling.”
The encounter led Parker to write I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, a book that combines memoir with the stuff good U.S. history texts should be made of. In it, Parker presents her personal experiences as a mother, wife, and professional woman, as well as the larger historical legacy of black women and work. Of the mommy wars, she writes: “Understand, it’s not that I think that black women have all the answers—only that we have struggled with the questions longer and that sometimes our tool sets are more expansive. I am clear that in all cultures there are other committed women who deeply believe they must stand on one or another side of a work-family divide and agitate in order to create a better world for their children. And really, I can dig it. I’m actually quite grateful that I can skim some of their best parts off the top. But these women must never, ever try to give me any of their excess baggage.”
Parker approached three publishing houses about her book. Two immediately “got it” and, of the two, Parker ultimately chose Amistad because the head of that HarperCollins imprint was living a life parallel to hers: a black woman and mother who recognized the book’s cultural touchstones. “Both houses were enthusiastic about the book, but there was a layer of translation that I didn’t have to do with [the Amistad head].”
Black women readers embraced I’m Every Woman, hungry for a perspective different from that found in the usual mommy-book fare. And, as Parker had hoped, some white women “tired of the echo chamber” are now teaching the book in university classrooms. “This isn’t just about the mommy wars,” Parker says. “It’s…necessary to hear other voices. It’s human, it’s sisterly, it’s progressive.”
Then there’s writer Kim McLarin, who placed the main character in her 2007 novel, Jump at the Sun, squarely within the historical context of black mothers and work. Grace is a sociologist who becomes a stay-at-home mother after being denied tenure. Ambivalence about her new role is further complicated by her mother and grandmother’s differing takes on motherhood and its sacrifices.
And in her second memoir, Baby Love, biracial writer Rebecca Walker used a journal format to chronicle her pregnancy. The book’s subtitle—Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence—reflects Walker’s uncertainty about how, when, and if she wanted to parent. During the course of the pregnancy, the author’s mother, writer Alice Walker, decides to sever their already strained relationship, disagreeing with Rebecca’s decision to have a child and with Rebecca’s account of their relationship in her first memoir, Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. Black women’s writing on motherhood has been anthologized twice, most recently in Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood. This collection of short fiction, poems, and essays is edited by Cecelie Berry, a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom. Berry sought out a diverse array of well-known and lesser-known contributors including journalists, Internet columnists, a doctor, and a minister—some to discuss their everyday lives and others to address how social and political influences shaped their motherhood experiences.
Still, when compared with the vast number of memoirs and nonfiction books about motherhood written by white women, these books still seem tiny in number. It’s possible that these books exist in theory—that other black women have written motherhood-themed books only to be rejected by publishing houses like the one Parker encountered where “they just didn’t get it,” or because of outright racism. Is it likely?
Nicholas Lewis, a black entertainment lawyer and literary agent, says, “The publishing industry is no more racist than any other industry in this country. The industry is actually aware of issues pertaining to race and publishes books that confront America’s race problems. There are also imprints like Harlem Moon and Amistad that do really wonderful books. But there’s only so much that can be published. The market is competitive, and you have to go with what you think is going to sell.”
Lewis wonders if there aren’t more black mommy books because “we forgot about Claire Huxtable,” the black lawyer and mother of five featured on The Cosby Show, whose iconography stood in stark contrast to the stereotypical imagery of the Mammy figure and Reagan’s Cadillac-driving “welfare queen.” The 1980s tv hit, after all, generated national discussion about the black middle class and challenged the notion that families like the Huxtables were an anomaly. By contrast, today’s black tv moms are more likely to hover in the background in sitcoms that are vehicles for the comedians-turned-actors who portray their husbands.
While most of us know that she never left the building in the first place, Lewis thinks the media is ready to declare that the sophisticated, educated black mother is back, and would-be first lady Michelle Obama is Exhibit A. In a 2007 Washington Post article, Obama revealed not only ambivalence about leaving her job to support her husband’s presidential candidacy, but a long-time internal debate as well: “Every other month [since] I’ve had children I’ve struggled with the notion of ‘Am I being a good parent? Can I stay home? Should I stay home? How do I balance it all?’” This admission inspired more than a little feminist tsk-tsking. Yet in a subsequent interview in Vanity Fair, Obama asserted that both she and her husband weigh such concerns and make their daughters’ well-being their top priority. In another article, Obama said she viewed the position of first lady as a full-time job, but she reserved the right to change her mind about that if she assumes the role.
For Lewis, embracing the crossover appeal of the Michelle Obamas of the world looks like a catalyst for change. “Now is a great time for books about black mothers with careers,” he says. We’ll see if black women choose to seize this literary moment.
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