Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Michelle Obama is Covered in Handprints: Women Want Their Piece

michelle obama popularI agree with some of the details of Jolene Ivey's commentary speculating that Michelle Obama is reinventing the stay-at-home mom, but I can't shake that the piece starts on a faulty premise: "America's vision of the stereotypical June Cleaver at-home mom is about to get a shake-up." I keep thinking that America tossed the notion of June Cleaver on the garbage heap at least two decades ago, recognizing June's limitations.

It's true that some of us mothers still have in our minds that we've failed if we don't reflect a little of the fictionalized mothers of 1950s television, but that's more our guilt speaking than reality. Nevertheless, will Michelle Obama be a SAHM or a WAHM? Perhaps she'll be a temporary SAHM, then a WAHM-WOHM hybrid. (SAHM=stay-at-home mom/WAHM=work-at-home mom, and WOHM=work-outside-home mom. Don't you love these labels?) I'm leaning toward her defying classification.

What rings true in Ivey's piece is that in parts of the black community we have tended to look at staying home with one's children as wasting a good education while in the white community it wasn't unusual at all to see a woman go to a prestigious university, graduate with honors, and then stay at home after obtaining her MRS degree. In fact, some white women of the older mindset only went to college to lasso a man and get that Mrs. in front of their names. The majority culture used to promote that women didn't go to school to find careers but to find husbands, a doctor or lawyer maybe, and that is one of the inequities the feminist movement has worked to correct.

The majority population also promoted that people who take care of children, such as black housekeepers and mammies, were not as valuable as others, which may be one of the reasons the African-American community began to devalue staying at home with children. (Let's not get too snooty on these ideas being old-school or that we're enlightened today because traditional "women's work," which is often mother's work is still undervalued in this country.)

Another reason African-Americans have resisted applauding stay-at-home moms is that black folk are often poor folks. No use staying at home to take care of a child if your staying home means the child won't have her basic needs met. Children require food and shelter.

For black women the world has been a different place as Sojourner Truth made clear as early as 1851 with her powerful speech "Ain't I a Woman?" While white women were kept from reaching a higher potential with myths that women are delicate flowers who should never endure the hardship of work, black women were forced into fields and factories, kept from the benefits of being dedicated, stay-at-home mothers. Ivey touches this historical fact in her commentary as well.

I guess what I'm not getting with Ivey's premise is that Michelle Obama's break from the traditional workforce to look after her children is a shake-up. Michelle Obama has not elected being a full-time stay-at-home mom as career choice, it seems. She's only promised that she will stay home until her daughters Malia and Sasha have adjusted to life as first kids--settle into school, decorate rooms, make friends, find a church, get a dog.
Well, my first responsibility will be to my girls. It’s a big transition to move to a new city and home, so I’d focus first on making sure that they’re comfortable and happy.

Once they’re settled, I would keep working on finding ways to support working women and families. To me, policies that support families aren’t just political; they’re personal. They’re the issues I carry in my heart every single day. And that’s why, since very early in the campaign, I’ve been hosting roundtable discussions with working women and military families to hear firsthand the concerns of women in their communities, and to help communicate Barack’s plan to support America’s families. (from future First Lady Michelle Obama's own mouth from her exclusive BP interivew.)
From what Mrs. Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, has said about her daughter, Michelle Obama has always put her children's welfare first, a value she undoubtedly learned from Robinson who did elect to stay at home and raise children.

I don't see Michelle Obama's decision to put her aspirations on hold for the sake of her family as unusual for an African-American mother. And it seems even less unusual for an educated woman who's sensitive, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law, and is now steps into the role of America's First Lady. I sincerely doubt that any conscientious mother with children as young as Sasha and Malia would move into the White House, get straight to work, and ignore the needs of her children. And again, it's the job of being First Lady that Michelle Obama's placed on temporary hold. Once she's satisfied that her daughters have adjusted she will move forward not in her previous career but in the career many other first ladies have accepted, that of First Wife, lending her skill and voice to causes compatible with her husband's agenda.

If anything, I think what we'll see in the White House is an ideal of how modern marriage should work and a focused mother should operate. I'm not sure we'll see anything new under the sun, just something new to many Americans whose only experience with African-Americans has been the black criminal or black victim on the nightly news or the black woman or man they nod to in the hall at work and sometimes joke with at the water cooler. America's not used to seeing regularly a real, well-educated, affluent African-American family, but beyond that the Obamas and Michelle will be very similar to other American families with goals and socially-conscious priorities. Will that be the shock, that an upper-middle class African-American family is very much like other affluent families, that black skin doesn't make you stupid, a gangsta rap aficionado, or hate white people? Will it mean that the Huxtables were not so far fetched after all as even some black people thought they were?

Now if Mrs. Obama were going into the White House asserting that what her husband, President-elect Barack Obama, does has no bearing on her life choices and so she will return to her work in hospital administration and call in nannies for their daughters because she believed a woman's personal career should never take backseat to her husband's, then that would be unusual. I admire Michelle Obama, but the only mold she's breaking is one in the minds of people who think all black women are the same.

She's being what she should be, an asset and not a liability to her husband, the President-elect, a loving mother, and a First Lady with a cause, the same cause she makes clear in that quote and also spoke of at BlogHer. I expect her to shine as the talented, well-educated, thoughtful woman we've seen over the past few years.

I guess like so many of us, Ivey, the founder of Mocha Moms, is excited about the Obama family heading to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and like so many of us women, she's busy admiring Michelle Obama, watching her, and hoping the new First Lady will reflect our needs, desires and causes.
I can't think of a better ambassador for Mocha Moms than Michelle Obama. For all the 16 years I was home with my kids, no one cared what my views were on anything more exciting than toilet training. She'll be in the position to bring light to issues and organizations that are currently working in obscurity, and energize their efforts.

Two issues she's chosen so far are on the work-home life balance and the needs of military families. I hope she'll also take on eliminating domestic violence as an issue. It crosses class and race, and has such long-lasting negative effects on families. We can use some star power on that one. (Ivey at CNN)
I certainly won't fault Ivey for projecting her own interests and aspirations onto Michelle Obama. The former political press secretary is not alone in imprinting Mrs. Obama with her dreams. As PunditMom observed Michelle Obama may already be dragged into the so-called Mommy Wars, and she too thinks of the future first lady as a defacto stay-at-home mom and quotes Rebecca Traister on the "momification" of Michelle.

Pundit Mom and Traister's post examine the possibility that America must mommify Michelle Obama to make her less threatening. That's possible because I recall in 2007 that Michelle Obama took heat early for supposedly speaking out of turn or being the strong black woman. Later she had to fight the stereotype of the angry black woman. If we must mommify Michelle to make her less strong, then that's a sad commentary on how America feels about mothers and implies that to not stay home with children is to be less motherly. I'm sure Ivey would disagree with any notion that weak women stay home. I would as well.

For the record, I like Ivey's Mocha Moms concept. Perhaps if a group like that had been around when I tried my hand at staying home more than 21 years ago, I would have been more successful as a stay-at-home mom myself, content in my own skin, and not spent much of my life running away from mothering.

Yes, I'm one of the African-American women to which Ivey refers who had impressed upon her that staying at home with children was a waste of a good brain and education. But I was also a female raised with images of June Cleaver and white women on TV who got to stay home and make everyone else's life happy. No wonder I suffered with a double-mind, discontent with both staying home with children and kicking it 9-to-5. Perhaps had I been raised with only my working mother and aunts as role models and a TV shows featuring Claire Huxtables, I would have been more stable internally. Well, maybe not more stable, but at least a little less conflicted and guilty.

Nevertheless, my gut tells me that if we see more African-American mothers deciding to stay home, it will not be so much a shift in African-American cultural values creating the shift. African American mothers have always loved their children and longed to be more available to them, weeped when they had to leave a sick child at home alone in order to earn a living just like any other mother who had to work. If we see more African-American mothers staying home, what we'll be seeing is the arrival of more African Americans to affluence which comes with options. More money makes the hard choice to stay home easier.

However, if the African-American family continues to drift toward a one-parent household model, money will continue to be scarce. Most black mothers will continue to work and never have the luxury of choosing to stay home.

With our economy as it is, any parent who can stay home with children without sacrificing healthy food and safe shelter should consider him or herself blessed. And you don't have to be a future First Lady to know a blessing when you see you one.


blackwomenblowthetrumpet.blogspot.com said...


I never wanted to be pregnant and raise children....that was not a role I felt was necessary to embrace my womanhood.

I do see many black women...and white women too...have short-changed their children by not devoting enough time to their emotional and intellectual and moral development.

There are many women who did not think about planning WHEN to get pregnant...black women especially....the pattern of illegitimate children has to stop...we need to bring that pejorative term back because when we stopped using it, we were normalizing out-of-wedlock pregnancies among blacks.

We were removing the stigma.

We need to bring the stigma in the open in order to discourage this pattern from continuing.

There are too many black women who are working long hours, and return to their children with the "scraps" of what is left of themselves mentally and emotionally after being drained at their jobs.

This is unfair to the children. Why do they have to take WHATEVER IS LEFT??

I hope that Michelle's example will be an inspiration to black women to work hard at being part of solid marriages and to stop carrying the "we don't need a husband" banner when black children without fathers in the home are consistently behind in EVERY category.

Thanks for starting such an important dialogue...it is a conversation that we MUST continue to have.

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

To all,

Please join the online protest of the racist campaign by Princeton students that targeted black scholar, Dr. Yolanda Pierce:


Mary Lynn Plaisance said...

An enlightening piece, Nordette. I love it all. Thanks for sharing.

Chi-Chi said...

Came by your post through Rev. Lisa's blog and I am in complete and total agreement with you! I shared my own personal experience (http://originalwombman.blogspot.com/2008/12/i-dont-participate-in-mommy-wars.html). Off to read more of your posts!! I'm liking what I'm seeing. :)

msladydeborah said...

I just read this post.

I stayed at home with my youngest son. It was an experience that I wanted to have as a working mom. The three years were interesting. I had an opportunity to do a lot of different things during that time. Which I still appreciate to this day.