“Mocha moms” take over the white house.

I am not totally sure how to respond to this commentary on CNN about Michelle Obama’s choice to stay at home during the presidency of Barack Obama. I don’t want to be too hard on it, because I do think on one level highlighting that there are also women of color that stay at home and sometimes feel isolated and alienated so they should build relationships, well that is great. Having the resources to be a stay at home is even better. However, suggesting that you should stay home to do it for the betterment of the country and to uphold traditional values-well that is just not OK.
She makes an apt argument about black women taking care of wealthy white people’s children.

From breast-feeding to bathing to rocking them, the women tended their owners’ children, while not being allowed to lavish such attention on their own. Long after slavery was over, little changed in this dynamic.
It was common for black women to leave their own children at home to fend for themselves and go to work for low wages as domestics in the homes of well-off white families. As African-Americans have gotten more opportunities, a college degree has been a ticket to the career ladder. Period. Devoting full time to motherhood is considered a waste of education by many in the black community.

And while I think there is some cultural impetus for black women working outside the home, I think more times than not, it is class privilege that gives people the ability or idea to “stay at home.”
Outside of the class assumptions behind the idea of the “stay-at-home” mom, I don’t necessarily think that Michelle Obama’s choice to stay home is a win for us women of color that are just looking for a role model to let us know we can stay at home nor does it disrupt the racist idea that only white women stay at home. I think it feeds into antiquated notions of motherhood that make her more palatable to a wide audience suggesting that yes, she disrupts the idea of the “normal” American by being black, but is as American as apple pie, by staying in the home.

via CNN.

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73 Comments

  1. artdyke
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Well just because they don’t view it as a privilege thing (which i agree, very few do) doesn’t mean it isn’t. i mean, to survive on a single-parent income, it has to be a pretty decent income. you do have to have some level of class privilege going on for it to even be feasible.

  2. artdyke
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I admit that I do look down on the choice to be a stay-at-home mom, unless you are homeschooling. It is work, of course, but it’s not a job. A job means financial independence. It just seems, well, stupid to me to curtail your own ability to support yourself for the sake of a spouse who, in all likelihood, will eventually leave you. Over 50% of marriages end in divorce, and nobody thinks that their marriage will until it does.
    My own mom stayed at home to take care of, well, everything, while my dad worked to be a doctor. I understand why she did this during his training and residency – there’s really no other choice when he’s working 36-hour shifts with 12 off to sleep – but I am made uncomfortable by the fact that she continued to do that after he had a more reasonable schedule. I asked her last night, actually, why she did that, and she said that one the one hand, she had just already gotten into that pattern, and on the other, the one time she did branch out and start doing her own thing, my father basically threw a hissy fit. It was not long after he had finished his residency that we got shipped off to Okinawa for 2 years, where my dad felt like he was just wasting his time not doing much, because career-wise, he was. My mom, on the other hand, joined up with a jazz band there (she is a very gifted musician – it is her passion) which became quite successful over there, even touring the Japanese mainland. She tells me now that the whole time he did nothing but gripe and complain that she was out “singing in bars” while he was stuck with us. So when we moved back to the states, she went back to being a SAHM.
    I always thought my dad was a wonderful father growing up. I thought about how lucky I was to have two parents who still loved each other and were still together when literally all of my friends had divorced parents. Well, a little over a year ago, my father began cheating on my mom with, you got it, a woman almost half his age. He had had a drinking problem for a number of years before that, but he didn’t really change until he started cheating. Suddenly he was a mean, selfish person who didn’t give a flying fuck about his family. I haven’t seen him in all of that time and I hope I never do again. My parents are in the middle of a divorce now and my mom is in a terrible situation having to depend on a spiteful alcoholic for support (which means so do my siblings and I) until they can get some kind of settlement. She never finished college because his job required us to move a lot (navy brat) and now she’s trying desperately to find a decent job. And we are all struggling and begging and crying to get him to send us money every month like he said he would so we can afford to eat and pay rent. I am about to graduate and will be able to support myself soon, but my siblings are still stuck depending on him.
    It is a terrible, terrible situation that could have been made much more livable had my mom pursued a career.

  3. pololly
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    It’s pretty interesting to me that everyone has stripped the racial dimension out of this discussion to rehash, albeit politely, the ‘mommy wars’. This is the position in which black women like me constantly find ourselves. Our unique difficulties made invisible to instead spout generalities contextualized within a different history.
    Forgive me if this seems hostile but this is why it has taken women of color so long to feel truly embraced by the feminist movement. I know as a woman of color, articles criticizing Michelle are beginning to enrage me.
    A lot of the white female feminists constantly commenting on Michelle Obama’s so called identity as a SAHM and how terrible it is – they are displaying their own prejudice. Black women are not allowed to be vulnerable, they are not allowed to be complex. Michelle Obama must fit into some 2 dimensional box created by the white male media. And that is the identity that so called progressives are going to run with. These feminists don’t want to discuss the interplay of sex and race, they just to define, define and essentialize this woman who they do not know.
    The best is an article in Root by a white feminist saying that by wearing J Crew etc, Michelle is acting white! These so called feminists, if they are completely honest, hold such an extreme stereotyped view of what a strong black woman should behave like. Michelle will never live up to this unless she puts a pick in her hair and wears a dashiki. Talking about her family is ‘pandering’, smiling at her children is ‘pandering’, perfectly sensible childcare arrangements are ‘setting women back’.
    Well, let me tell you something. Michelle Obama and other educated black women – WE DON’T NEED YOU. We know ALL about pandering, we know allabout passing. We know all about sacrifice. We have juggled family and work with quiet dignity – before it was something rich white women did when they felt ‘dissatisfied’, we have coped with racism, prejudice and injustice, we have carried the load for broken communities and have made agonizing decisions about where loyalties lie. We have been pilloried and humiliated and ignored and despised.
    Michelle Obama can be whoever she wants to be. She has my 100% support. She belongs to me. Let me say that again – she belongs to me. She doesn’t belong to you – you’ve only borrowed her. Barack belongs to everyone but Michelle is a triumph for black women everywhere.
    We don’t need middle class ‘color blind’ white people essentializing us. We don’t need middle class white people defining us. We don’t need you to tell us how we can dress, who we can speak to, what we can wear, where we can work.
    I sincerely hope that as the Hispanic and black communities grow, they use their heft to create a stronger counter point to the lazy, white feminism (which is not meant to define third wavers, but always seems to creep up there).

  4. Okra
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    This is tragic. My heart goes out to you and your family.
    Thanks very much for sharing it; it helps to put a human face on a problem that’s often couched in hypotheticals and statistics.

  5. Mariella
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    you make good points. I guess it’s foolish to say “let’s leave aside the racial dimension for this discussion and just talk about the implications on sexism.” the racial dimension isn’t something Michelle Obama or anyone else can just leave aside

  6. Tsunade
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Extremely good point! I myself do NOT look down at SAHM’s. God knows that the workload of holding down the fort is enormous (I couldn’t do it). The media is doing all the judging for me on that front. MY point was that she already scraped and climbed her way to Princeton, and Harvard, held her own as a professional, so I think she’s earned her right to have ONE (highly stressful) job instead of MULTIPLE ones right now (as so many women have at the moment).
    The fact that we’re discussing her decision to not hold down another (yes, another) job is a sign of the times. If Laura Bush had worked outside the home during her husband’s term, that would have certainly raised some eyebrows.
    And yes, let’s not give FL’s a salary. If we had a female president, how would you feel about the FM getting a paycut? I consider the considerable power and platform wielded by FL’s to be a salary in itself. Why not give military wives/husbands/baby’s mothers and fathers a paycheck, or more benefits for the constant moving and deployments instead?

  7. Atena
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    It’s certainly your prerogative to “look down on” your own mother for your own personal reasons. To generalize your situation to every woman who chooses to stay at home does not make sense.
    A job does not mean financial independence – not as a matter of definition. It means that you work in exchange for something – usually money. If you have a job that pays you less than you are worth and doesn’t pay all of your bills, is that better than being a SAHM because you get a paycheck? No.
    Try not to judge all women who choose at-home parenting for your mother’s choices.
    And back to the topic at hand, Michelle Obama has choices and resources. Her situation is pretty unlike that of most women. She doesn’t owe anything to anyone but her family – her professional success is admirable, but it was socially valuable because of her choices to serve communities. She will still have plenty of opportunities to do that, and to use all of the skills and lessons made possible by her academic and professional pedigree. Jobs, in and of themselves, are not always fulfilling. Seldom, in fact.
    The first lady’s job seems to be to visibly serve for the good of the nation. Her job as a mother is to protect and care for her kids. It seems that she’ll get to do both, and I suspect she’ll do it on her own terms. If that’s what she wants to do, that sounds alright to me.

  8. a.k.a. Ninapendamaishi
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    It does not necessarily require a big income. It depends on where you live, and how you want to live.
    To the extent that yes, some basic income is required, you could make the same argument about many, many other dimensions in life. The concept of privilige is always somewhat relative. To have a roof over your head or to eat three meals a day is a privilige thing. Why aren’t we condemning people who do those things as “priviliged”?
    The point I was making, I guess, was that there are many people MORE priviliged than the majority of stay-at-home moms, both financially and in other ways.

  9. Mama Mia
    Posted November 28, 2008 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Okra,
    I definitely agree with you that all aspects of women’s lives need to be examined, that we all need to be conscientious about how we fit into the whole and how we affect other people with our decisions. My frustrations stem from two things: first, when people talk about wasted educations and vindictiveness of SAHMs in one breath, then when someone says they find that offensive, they immediately say they completely value the choice of being a SAHM; to me, that is disingenuous.
    Second, I still haven’t seen evidence of massive numbers of women “dropping out”- it just isn’t happening, yet the few women who pause for a few years (most SAHM’s DO go back to work, or start small businesses, despite what people seem to think) seem to take the brunt of the blame for setting back all of women’s rights.
    I absolutely think there is reason to critique how SAHM’s fit into society, and I think about my own role quite a bit. But there a lot more reasons that women are underrepresented in politics than just me. That’s my frustration.

  10. Ivory
    Posted November 28, 2008 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Michelle Obama is a talented and successful woman whom we all as women should be proud to have as a sister. She does not belong to anyone but herself.
    If you choose not to find the accomplishments of non-black women meaningful because they don’t look like you that’s your perogative. I guess we’ve cast aside all that nonsense about judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
    With the number of multi-ethnic kids out there, narrow definitions of race are about to be thrown out the window or at least turned on their head and I hope this sort of narrow racial stereotyping goes with them. Michelle’s kids are part of that wave – being part white and all…. Do their own mother’s accomplishments belong less to them because they are “tainted” with non-black blood? Is my daughter supposed to not relate to the lessons she can learn from a powerful smart woman like Michelle because they are of different apparent ethnicities? I think you might want to rethink this a little.

  11. Ivory
    Posted November 28, 2008 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    You are in a tough spot – however, my mom worked for most of her married life and it didn’t stop her from being totally screwed by my Dad in their divorce. He wanted tons of alimony and quit his job so that he would get a more favorable judgement.
    There’s no easy answers – all you can do is pitch in, help your mom, and encourage her to get a good lawyer.

  12. Roja
    Posted November 28, 2008 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    I think Michelle Obama is making an intelligent and strategic career choice. and no, i don’t think her role is a “stay at home mom” because I don’t think she will be staying at home much, or doing things that a stay at home mom does. I think she is being underestimated and misrepresented by the media.
    on the subject of SAHMs: as a professional, I have a huge problem with the concept of a “stay at home mom” because this creates “stay at work dads” who end up setting ridiculous standards for my work environment (working 24/7) and women have to compete with them at work.
    pololly, I have a sense for where you are coming from. as an immigrant middle eastern feminist, I have had to deal with condescending misconceptions myself, and the mentality that considers middle eastern women a little less human than american women (and this condescending attitude didn’t come just from white americans). Although I know that is not the same as the historical racism against black people here.
    I think michelle not only belongs to everyone in the US, but she also belongs to the world now, including where i come from. and everyone is looking up to her. Don’t mind people passing judgment, she is not in a position of weakness.
    I think michelle obama is going to kick ass.

  13. Mama Mia
    Posted November 28, 2008 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    artdyke, I’ve thought quite a bit about your situation, and it really is terrible. I think what it illustrates is not the inherent problem with being a SAHM, but the fact that our society is designed to see being a SAHM as invisible, non-work.
    If a man chooses to get a job at Boeing as a machinist, over the course of 10 years, he develops a very specialized skill set that doesn’t necessarily translate well to other jobs. When the economy drops, Boeing always lays people off, and a lot of these people, like this man, find they can’t get another job with the skill they have built. We, as a society, have said we will help them until they can transition to new work, by offering unemployment benefits, and in good cases, help with job re-training. We never say to the man that it was his own stupid fault for choosing a job so specialized that would make it hard for him to get a different job should something unexpected happen.
    With SAHMs, we do say it is their own stupid fault for giving up “real” work and they are to blame if they end up divorced. Instead, as feminists, I think we should be saying there are a lot of women doing this kind of work by choice and society is pushing them into it and at the same time punishing them for it. We should be fighting for unemployment benefits and social security benefits (SAHMS don’t qualify for that) and job retraining when it is needed, just like we do for the laid off worker.
    Your mother should never be forced to beg her ex-husband for help. Plus, the government should be doing more to force him to live up to his responsibility to his children. And I would guess that it isn’t that you look down on your mom for the life she chose (although I can understand being angry and conflicted), but the unbearable situation that our society has forced her into because it doesn’t value “women’s work.”

  14. pololly
    Posted November 28, 2008 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Ivory, thank you for proving my point.
    Identifying by gender is fine, but recognizing race is ‘judging by the color of one’s skin’. You are one of those morons who says that talking about race is ‘racist’ because we should all be color blind!!!
    I’m not going to restate my point because it was 100% right last time but let me just try yours one more time.
    You are sitting here commenting on a woman and how her personal decisions (which are none of your business) impact on her role model status… to other women, like your daughter. These women will look up to her and her decisions, because she is a woman. And they want to relate to her in her status as a woman. You are relating to her by GENDER
    But when I point that her status cannot be determined or even understood without looking at her as a BLACK woman, and what that means, you point out that race is arbitrary social construct, one which (you seem to assume) can be wiped away by a bit of interracial fucking. It’s not important and we shouldn’t use it to classify people. It makes the ghost of MLK cry!
    Well, why does your daughter even need female role models? Why can’t she just be inspired by Warren Buffett – he’s a great man with plenty of life lessons. Why are you teaching her to judge people by what’s between their legs, instead of by the content of their characters!! You shouldn’t look for female role models for her – that’s sexist – by your standards.
    I mean gender and race are totally different. Race is a totally arbitrary biological phenomenon given its significance through social structures and cultural norms. And gender is…
    Oops, oh yeah. I guess you just decide what’s important. Oh great wise white feminist? Can you tell me when I can go to the bathroom? I’d do it myself but I forgot that you set the priorities for the entire world. Race isn’t important because you said so. We should stop judging by race – just live life color blind. By the same token, we should stop talking about Michelle Obama. Stop telling your daughter to admire her – she’s only another woman. Gender isn’t important. Women trying to share and build on ‘collective experiences’ is sexist and I’m pretty sure would have made Martin Luther King cry that little bit harder.
    There. See how ridiculous it sounds?
    So how about you step away from lazy platitudes and stop marginalizing and ridiculing something just because you don’t identity with it.
    FYI – when someone needs to quote MLK in an argument against recognizing the the powerful impact of race they are generally pretty stupid. You know, you’d probably learn something if you put down ‘great quotes of the 20th century’ and picked up an actual book. FYI.

  15. Mama Mia
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    “on the subject of SAHMs: as a professional, I have a huge problem with the concept of a “stay at home mom” because this creates “stay at work dads” who end up setting ridiculous standards for my work environment (working 24/7) and women have to compete with them at work. ”
    Nope. Not taking the blame for that. If you look closer you will find that most “stay at work dads” today have working wives. They don’t suddenly start leaving work at 5pm just because their wives work. They expect their wives to pick up the slack. That’s called the “second shift.” Don’t lay that at the feet of SAHMs.

  16. artdyke
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    I didn’t mean to imply that I look down on my mother – I don’t at all. She’s a kick-ass lady. She has done so much for all of us during this whole mess, and even done so much for him to try to help him through rehab and everything when I kept telling her that he was a dickface and she should divorce him (she has since come around to my thinking). She is my hero, and has been my whole life.
    It’s not just the financial independence thing… I guess taking care of the kids seems to me to be like doing the dishes and visiting your parents. It’s just *life* and both spouses should be splitting it. Doing the dishes is work, but it’s not a job. Kids are part of the life you build together outside of your career and I am bothered by this couching of the world of the home in career terms.
    My mom had plenty of other goals she wanted to pursue – music, school – but she couldn’t because of the demands of, well, ostensibly “the family” but really it was my father. I hate this idea that it’s ok to give up the things that matter to you so that the other spouse doesn’t have to contribute as much to the “life” part of work, and unless their goals are conducive to achieving them in the home during school hours or after the kids go to bed, it’s very likely that many women wind up pushing them aside when they stay at home. If society is pushing them into it, I suspect that, like my mom, it’s not totally their choice in a large number of cases. I guess I just wish more women wouldn’t get pushed along with the tide like that. And it does seem like squandered potential.
    But I agree with all you said about valuing the skillset and experience that being a SAHM gives you. I am well aware of how the system is stacked against divorcing moms from all my friends. I had many who were forced to visit abusive fathers who *never* paid child support, including my new wife. (got it in before the prop 8 buzzer!) There is certainly a lot of work to be done on that front and I vehemently support those efforts.

  17. artdyke
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    I, for one, talk about the broader issue here of SAHM in general rather than the interplay of that with race because I don’t feel qualified to talk about it. I don’t know much about Michelle Obama personally or what went into her decision-making process so I don’t feel in a position to comment. I don’t think it’s trying to erase the race issue; I just don’t have a personal relationship to it. I’m not familiar with the nuances of the issue, and so I’m not going to just throw my “wise white feminist” view on the issue out there.
    I think a lot of white people are afraid to talk about race because they aren’t really qualified to. I know I am quite often bothered by what straight people say on the rare occasions they try to speak about the socio-cultural nuances of sexual orientation. Similarly, I usually keep my mouth shut when race comes up and just listen, unless it is to point out obvious racism.
    So this all brings up an interesting question – how do we bring to the forefront issues of race when so many of us are quite frankly unqualified to talk about it (or at least feel that way)? How do we navigate around this issue and prevent a mere falling back onto issues that most of us are more comfortable talking about, like the “mommy wars”?

  18. Mama Mia
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I think your mom is a good example of the wrong situation for a SAHM. She didn’t choose it, when she tried to branch out, she wasn’t supported, she wasn’t allowed to pursue the things she wanted to.
    Older SAHMs from a previous generation were expected to do it for their entire lives, and I think that sounds very difficult. I think a lot of younger SAHMs feel they are assumed to be in the same position as older SAHMs, pushed into it by society and unsupported or acknowledged. In my own circle, everyone plans to go back to work, and we have been doing things to keep ourselves up to date. We know it will be hard, but we aren’t giving everything up for the long term, just 2 or 3 years. Our partners also want us to go back to work when we are ready. We feel like we have chosen this, we understand what we are doing, we are learning something about ourselves as we do it.
    I would guess that for the SAHMs that are often so frustrated on threads like this, the underlying thing is knowing people assume we are no different from that previous generation, but we are different.
    artdyke, I really feel bad for your mom and your situation. It is so unfair and unhealthy. And I don’t blame you for wanting to avoid a similar situation in your own life.
    And also congratulations! I’m so glad you snuck under there before Prop 8. Now we just have to get it overturned so it will stick!

  19. nausicaa
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I think Michelle Obama is making an intelligent and strategic career choice. and no, i don’t think her role is a “stay at home mom” because I don’t think she will be staying at home much, or doing things that a stay at home mom does. I think she is being underestimated and misrepresented by the media.
    Totally agree. On a slightly different point, the whole “SAHM” debate has the really annoying feature of totally ignoring the fact that most women return to the workforce after taking time out for childrearing. Michelle is just taking a break from the traditional salaried workforce; there’s no doubt that in four or eight years she’ll be back working in some incredibly impressive capacity — maybe head of a new foundation, maybe a university professor, maybe head of a nonprofit. Maybe…senator??
    In many ways Michell is following a time-honored path for highly successful women: take some time off to attend to family, then go roaring back into the workplace. While this pattern of course reflects some gender disparities (why don’t the husbands take the time off and sacrifice those years themselves…?) I think that in the case of the Obamas we can make *some* concessions to the fact that one of the spouses actually has a more important job at this point. At any rate, the point is that acting like Michelle has suddenly thrown away her education and career is just silly. She’ll be back.
    Another angle is that it would be totally impractical for Michelle to have a job outside of the Whitehouse. Security alone would be a nightmare, and she’d have to take so much time off to attend to Whitehouse and diplomatic events.

  20. Caton
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry. All too often this is the terrible outcome. I swear, I don’t understand how younger women, not your mother’s generation, but mine, and after mine, yours, can even think of quitting their careers to be full time moms, for good. Haven’t we seen what you describe happen over, and over and over again?
    I hope things get better for you and your family.

  21. Caton
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard to read you, you’re too angry. Your sarcasm destroys any points you may have. I also need to point out, you don’t speak for all black women. You remind me a lot of a black leftist I know who was always yelling at me during the primaries that I didn’t know anything about how black women might feel about the primary – which I had never claimed to know. He of course, had apparently been appointed as the Great Black Father Spokesman for black women, at some meeting during which a bunch of black women said “we need a penis to talk for us”.
    It never occurred to him that I might have some common experiences with black women, based on gender, just as he might have some common experiences with black women based on race, nor that, we both might have some experiences simply based upon our mutual humanity.
    It seems to not have occurred to you either. I am almost tempted to ask if you are single, I would offer to hook you two up, but I would be smiling as I wrote that, and you don’t come across as being interested in a little levity.

  22. Bex
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    It seems really petty to me that all of us would sit here and argue whether MO should be a “stay at home mom” or not.
    My kind of feminism is the kind where we support women’s choices, and when they aren’t allowed to choose what they’d like because there are walls in the way, we help to break those walls down.
    If she wants to keep her kids home and school them herself and bake pies all day long, right fucking on.
    If she wants to work a full-time job while her husband is president, right fucking on too. She knows better than I do what the right choices for her, as a woman, in her life are. I will not belittle her choices by trying to access what they mean for all of woman-kind because I don’t ever want for someone to do that to me.

  23. pololly
    Posted December 1, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    You’re right I am angry.
    I’m angry that there is such relentless criticism of her and she hasn’t even done anything. I’m angry that people (even feminists) will not admit that a good portion of it is racially tinged. I’m angry that people are happy to leave the racial aspect out of it.
    Here’s a scenario: my married friend has just quit her job to take care of her kids. I’m not gonna discuss the gender angel though, I’m not an expert. I know people are being respectful but it’s disappointing that we are even here.
    And you know what – I’m sure you sound as shrill, angry and crazy to all the men calling you a whiny feminist as those black ‘leftists’ sounded to you. Just because it’s not your experience, don’t presume to know it.

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