According to Pew Research Center, only 23 percent of black children and 26 percent of white children are being raised by stay-at-home mothers, but 37 percent of Asian and 36 percent of Hispanic kids have moms at home.95 Why are so many Asian and Hispanic moms staying home to care for their young children? For some it is economic, but for many it is about a belief system that values having mothers home raising children when they are young. With the growing diversity of our country and the continued influx of well-educated immigrants,96 we are likely to see a further increase of highly qualified women of color who pause from the workforce when their children are young.
As a white woman, I can’t presume to understand the subtle complexities of race and class Michelle Obama and other college-educated women of color face each and every day. But Kuae Mattox does. She’s an African-American broadcast journalist who paused her career when her three children were young. Kuae was deeply conflicted about her choice and not just because she was a college-educated woman with a rising career, but also because she is a black woman whose cultural heritage of economic hardship meant that to “give it all up” was doubly challenging.
Kuae and I met in New York when I moderated a panel on women who have successfully relaunched their careers. She told me, “Historically, African American mothers have not had the opportunity to stay at home with their children. The heavy focus has always been on rising up economically. Financial success has always been the pinnacle. Staying at home was seen by many as something that white women did. But I remembered the few years my mother was able to be home with me and my siblings. I wanted to be there for mine as she was for us.”
Kuae needed community support for her untraditional path, and so she joined Mocha Moms, a national organization for stay-at-home mothers of color, the vast majority of whom are college-educated. The group was founded in 1997 and now has more than 100 chapters across the country. It is, as Kuae told me, “growing like wildfire.”
Kuae became so actively involved in Mocha Moms that she rose to be its national president. During that time, she was consistently dismayed by the misperception of women of color who had stepped away from the paid workforce.
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“When I speak at conferences or with other groups, I often realize people have certain assumptions about our organization,” she told me. “They wrongly perceive that we are single mothers on welfare. We are mostly married, college-educated professionals who have temporarily stepped away from the workforce to raise our kids. Mocha Moms is committed to setting the record straight. We are here to prove there are, in fact, professional couples of color who elect to have the mother stay home.”
Kuae was out of the paid workforce for nearly fourteen years, but like so many of the women I interviewed, she eventually re-ignited her career. Her re-entry path wasn’t easy, partly because she was out of the workforce for so long, partly because her industry changed, and also likely because she was a woman of color who had challenged expectations about working and the definition of success.
But despite her lengthy pause, Kuae did relaunch her career. She is now working as an editorial producer for CNN’s top-rated morning show, New Day. Kuae Mattox is yet another model of how women can work, pause, and thrive, but her story is even more complex given the deeper issues of race and class.
Kuae said, “My generation of accomplished women of color are creating a new narrative around being a mother and a professional. We are going to see more and more women like me step back for a period of time to be with their children. I would argue that making the choice to stay at home is the new indicator of success.”
If Kuae’s prediction becomes the new reality for accomplished women of color, will we see a greater connection for college-educated mothers across the race divide? I can only hope so. At the very least, perhaps it will help reinforce what my hero Michelle Obama wrote in an article for More magazine entitled “What Women Owe One Another.” In it, she said,
The real story is what happens as we each struggle, agonize, compromise and make the best decision we can with the information and resources we have. And it’s time that we all stepped back, took a deep breath, and started really listening to one another rather than viewing one another through the layers of our own judgment, insecurity, and anxiety. When we do that, we can finally start to understand the challenges other women are facing and the doubts they’re wrestling with. Only then can we respond appropriately: with compassion, support, and respect.97
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