Project W - Family and Career? That’s Not the Right Question
For most of my adult life, I have heard – and been confounded by – the never-ending discussion about whether women can have both a family and career. I've certainly engaged in my share of debates. From my perspective, this false dichotomy ignores the fact that Black women have always been expected to work outside the home. It erases the history of Black female labor and negates their contributions to the success of the U.S. As a child, most of the mothers I knew worked, it wasn't up for debate.
I'll admit that I was simultaneously proud and envious when Jacinda Ardem announced she had "no more in the tank" and therefore was resigning as the Prime Minister of New Zealand. I was proud that she not only recognized that she was overextended but took action. I was envious because she had the agency to do so. Many women are not able to choose the option that's best for their own wellbeing. Regardless of whether a woman chooses to be a stay-at-home mother (SAHM), pursue a career and forego kids, or try to have it all, we need an infrastructure in place to support her decision. While I can't speak for all Black women, I can provide a glimpse through the lens with which I view the debate and share the societal and economic rationale for why I, and other Black women with choices, continue to work.
Family. Community. Career.
This "three-fold commitment" has been the foundation of Black womanhood since the late 1800s. Even as upper- and middle-class Black women were emulating many aspects of the Victorian ideal – a well-managed home, being a doting wife and mother, and possessing an unreproachable character – there were core traits unique to "Black Victoria," most notably a strong devotion to community and career. While broader late 19th – early 20th century society regarded intelligence as a "masculine quality," intelligent and economically independent women were key to uplifting the whole Black community.
Public Perception and The Welfare Queen Trope
In 2010, when I found out I was expecting twins, I briefly considered spending a few years as a SAHM. Conceptually, it made sense. I’d worked enough in my twenties for two women, I would be finishing my master's degree and could focus on my thesis, and frankly, I was bone tired. The exorbitant cost of childcare in Washington, DC, would subsume most of my nonprofit salary, not to mention the low probability of getting two infants into daycare. Despite the rational reasons for staying home, and a group of close friends who already were stay-at-home mothers, I thought about my own family and how media portrayed Black SAHMs and pushed the thought out of my mind.
As a child of the eighties, the TV portrayals of White and Black stay-at-home moms were vastly different. When I saw Donna Reed, June Cleaver, and Carol Brady, they were loving mothers living comfortably. When I saw Florida Evans, yes, she was the anchor of her family and had a loving husband, but they were poor and living in housing projects like me – not the life I wanted as an adult. I wanted to be more like Claire Huxtable who, in my mind, was the perfect woman.
The media further distorted my perception of Black SAHMs. I didn't want to be perceived as yet another lazy, poor Black mother or a welfare queen. I know how irrational that sounds, my family could have lived comfortably on one salary, but I was more concerned by what other people would think. What would the neighbors think? What would the mothers at the playground think? Would people assume I was the nanny? Would I get the same level of deference as my White friends who chose not to work after having their kids? For better or worse, public perception played a key role in my decision to keep working, and I’m not alone. In conversations with other professional Black women, the thought of being a SAHM was not a realistic option.
The Black Tax and Lack of Generational Wealth
Every morning when I wake up, every night when I go to bed, and during most of my waking hours, I am plagued by the overwhelming reality that no matter how educated or experienced I may be, how often I raise my hand, I still have to work twice as hard as my non-Black counterparts. I am still that middle child vying for attention. I am constantly feeling the pressure to overperform. This need for affirmation and success, yes, is part ego, but it's something more.
For many Black women in my position, a lack of generational wealth means that I am not only responsible for the care of my nuclear family but my extended family as well. If not me, who will make sure that my sister can keep her lights on? My nephews' Christmas is as nice as my own kids? My retired mother will have some around-the-town money?
The black tax, the pressure to always do more combined with being an economic resource for a whole family makes, the idea of not working a non-starter for many Black women, particularly those of us who come from impoverished backgrounds. We are an important lifeline to help pull others out of poverty.
On top of working full-time and often holding down part-time jobs, my mother would host fish fries to raise money so I could attend the college of my choice. She deferred her own needs so that my siblings and I could receive good educations and enjoy the advantages that she didn't have growing up. My mother, and so many Black mothers before her, did not have the luxury to debate family vs. career; work was mandatory. Having sacrificed to educate me and ensure I had more professional opportunities, what would my mother think if I decided that I would instead choose to not work?
As Black women, our choices are influenced by those who came before us and how they will impact those who come after us. Ida B. Wells not only raised four kids, but she also had a successful career as a writer and was a well-respected activist. Family. Community. Career. Even in 2023, intelligent, economically independent women are integral to the success of the Black community.
So, the question isn’t "can women have a family and career?"
Instead the question is – and should be – "how do we support women so they can find fulfillment at home and work?"