Cheli English-Figaro

(WOMENSENEWS)–When lawyer Cheli English-Figaro told her parents she planned to stay home after giving birth to her first child, she says the conversation turned ugly.

“My father was like are you crazy? Have you lost your mind?” she recalls.

As the first lawyer in her family, she understood their shock. “Education was hard fought in our community,” she says. “That was the key to stability and financial freedom. And you just wouldn’t turn your back on that in the last generation.”

But English-Figaro is part of a new generation of black women, who, despite their college degrees and high incomes, have chosen to down-shift their careers in order to spend more time at home with their children.

In white families, there has been an ideal of moms staying home to mind the children while dads support the family. But historically most black mothers were aware that the iconic lifestyle was not meant to include them and, in fact, they had to work since their families needed their incomes just to get by.

Today, the relative number of black full-time moms is catching up with the number of white full-time moms. In 2000, 29 percent of white women and 22 percent of black women with children under 18 were full-time moms. For black women, that was a record high.

In 1997, when English-Figaro had her first child she says she personally knew of 50 black at-home moms in Prince George’s County, Md., the affluent African American suburb of Washington, D.C., where she lives.

“I did not think black women at home didn’t exist,” she says. “I felt we weren’t organized.”

Mocha Moms

Shortly after the birth of her first child, English-Figaro heard about a newsletter written by two black stay-at-home moms in Cheverly, Md., who were looking for other moms like them. The moms got together with a fourth mom and started Mocha Moms, Inc., the first support network for black at-home moms. In seven years, the group has grown from its four founding members to 2000 members in 100 chapters in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and the New York City area. It will hold its second national conference in July in Valley Forge, Pa.

The growth of the organization is in part due to the continued growth of the black middle class, which has allowed an increasing number of black women the choice to stay home. Almost all of the Mocha Moms have made a conscious choice to either modify or leave their careers for some time so they can focus specifically on raising their children.

“This is an important part of African American history,” says Kuae Kelch Mattox, a black at-home mom of three in Montclair, N.J., and the national media director for Mocha Moms. “We are now financially able to make these decisions to stay at home.”

It has been a long time coming. At the end of legal slavery in the U.S., many black moms wanted to stay home and raise their children, according to Gail Collins, author of “America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines,” but whites in both the North and South protested vigorously against it.

Still, English-Figaro says that black women found ways to stay home, some by taking in laundry in the early 1900s. “They were some of the first work-at-home moms,” she says. A few families could afford for the mother not to work, like in the case of English-Figaro’s grandmother who was a stay-at-home mom.

Image Changes

By the 1980s, the image of a black at-home mom had changed to the stereotypical unemployed mom collecting federally subsidized child support–that is, welfare.

And Mattox says that is still the image a lot of people have of black at-home moms. Or, like the dominate media, they don’t believe affluent black stay-at-home moms exist.

She points to the recent Time magazine cover story about how more professional women are taking a break from their careers to raise their children.

“Interestingly, there was no mention of African American moms,” she says. “I wrote a letter to them, saying you missed the most important point.”

Jennifer James, a black stay-at-home mom of two girls in Chapel Hill, N.C., started the online Mommy Too! Magazine in October 2003 because she felt the voices of moms of color were missing from most mainstream publications. Today, James has 12,000 subscribers.

“We’re always seen as either women or someone’s employee or wife,” she says. “We’re really not seen as mothers at all. We’ve always been stripped of that motherhood role historically and that’s been deeply ingrained.”

Other black publications have taken notice of the rise in black at-home moms. Essence and Jet have both featured stories on this growing trend. And Ebony magazine has put black celebrity moms on its cover.

“To have African American moms on the cover of certain magazines means black motherhood isn’t going to be as marginalized as it has been in the past,” says Mattox.

Staying Home a Cultural Departure

Black at-home moms have to deal with other issues that their white counterparts do not. For one thing, choosing to stay home is a cultural departure for most black women.

“Putting aside the bigger house, the nicer car, the nicer clothes is different for us,” says English-Figaro. “Because we’ve tried so hard and so long to attain those status symbols, when you say I don’t care about them, you’re going against the culture. Even your husband needs to know that I’m not the only guy out there doing it all for my family.”

Mattox says one of the main reasons she took a break from her successful career as a television producer for NBC was because she felt she needed to be at home to help her children grow up feeling comfortable in their own skin. She says Mocha Moms discuss media images, racial profiling and ways to help their children navigate situations where they are in the minority.

For some black at-home moms, their greatest concern is their children’s education and, rather than leave it up to the public schools, a growing number are educating their children at home. James, who homeschools her two girls and started a Web site called The National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance in January 2003, says there are more than 100,000 black families teaching their kids at home. About 750,000 white families use homeschooling according to most estimates.

“Black families are saying we are fed up with relying on other people to teach our kids,” James says. “Really it’s history revisited. It’s something families are going back to.”

Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer.

For more information:

Mocha Moms Online:

Mommy Too! Magazine:

National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance: