she’s always in my head

The mommy wars are battling in my head. They sound something like this:

he's not really choking

I can’t believe you chose to work this summer. You hardly get to see your children. I enjoy working. The two hours I spend with my kids in the morning are really great. It’s true that I don’t always get to see them before they go to bed…What kind of mother are you? You don’t get to see them go to bed, read them that story, even tell them you love them? That’s just a shame. Well, yes, it is sad that I don’t do that during the week, but by working, I’m bringing in much needed income so they can have other things…What is more needed than a mother’s love and time? Money can’t…Yes, but, they spend the majority of their time in preschool anyway, where they are very happy, happier, I think, than if they were sitting at home with me all day. And they are really well adjusted kids, who have tons of friends but still are attached to their parents. I think we have a great balance…Balance? You think it’s balanced to have other people – strangers really – raising your kids? Haven’t you noticed some of the bad habits they’ve picked up from these so-called friends? Well, yes, but…But nothing! You’ve abdicated the responsibility of raising your children to someone else, who isn’t necessarily doing a good job! And you didn’t have to – you chose to! Didn’t your son just ask the other night if you could come home earlier so you could read him a book before he goes to sleep? How did that make you feel?? Well, awful…

The lady in red has a lot to say.

When I decided I wanted to go from my PhD and JD and become an academic, it was for a myriad of reasons. Primarily it was for the lifestyle – the ability to do what I wanted as a career – study what I wanted, make my own life. It was also because I’m generally not a good employee. I don’t respect authority the way I “should,” I don’t like bureaucracy, I don’t kiss a$$, I don’t like small talk, I don’t do face time.

But I also knew that I wanted to work. Being a stay-at-home mom was never an option for me. From the perspective that I grew up with, a black woman who didn’t work was lazy, no matter how many kids she had or how much money her partner made. “Leave It To Beaver”‘s mom was not our reality; Claire Huxtable was. And furthermore, if you didn’t work as a black mother, then you thought you were “better than” the rest of us, with your nose turned up and all. Truth be told, it was not until I moved here, to this very wealthy suburb, that I even knew black mothers who didn’t work. I did not know any black mothers who had nannies or au pairs. And for me, even if the money was flowing copiously, as fascinating as they could be, being immersed in little people’s lives constantly is not engaging or enriching enough for me. And planning charity events would not be either.

This summer, I’m working a 9-to-5 to get a sense of what I might be missing by only going academic. And while I thought I would really not like it so much because of the bureaucracy, face time requirements, and other general BS, it’s really been the lack of time that I can spend with my kids that has really been the largest drawback.

And that’s a huge surprise to me.

At least in grad school, I’ve been a quasi-stay-at-home mom. Working around my class schedule, I can co-op at the preschool, pick my kids up from school in the middle of the day, be available to pick up a sick kid, skip class if I really need to. While I know being an academic is more structured than my life currently, I still see that lifestyle as much more flexible than being an associate at a law firm or working a 9-to-5.

But I’m still working. And hence the mommy wars are constantly going at it in my head.

The mommy wars are partly about privilege, and I think no woman can see the gift and the curse of working and having children more than a black woman. For me, being in this profession as a huge privilege, a privilege that feels uncomfortable. There are very few female law professors. There are even fewer black female law professors. And there are even fewer black female law professors with PhDs. I am (or will be) a rarity. And being rare, in academia sometimes, is a privilege. It’s hard to admit your privilege, especially when you understand the structure of opportunity in our society. Especially when you do not come from a historical place of privilege, and most of your family is not there with you. Yes, I’ve worked hard and yes, I’m bright, but I also had opportunities that had nothing to do with who I am but everything to do with where I happened to be, the chance of being born to certain parents and interacting with certain people who gave me a chance.

It seems that sometimes the meme of being Black in America is that we have to live the life that’s been handed to us. Especially for black women, especially for black mothers, not working a 9-to-5, or a 8-to-6, or a 7-to-7, as I remember my mom doing, is not an option. We, as black women, pride ourselves on working, pride ourselves on doing everything, pride ourselves on not being indulgent or lazy – sometimes taking that to mean that we should be at the bottom of the hierarchy when it comes to taking care of needs. And at one point this was our only reality. We had no choice.

These messages taught me to believe that even if I wanted to not work, being able to live the life that I’ve fashioned for myself feels…wrong. That to decide to use my talents to make life a little easier on myself is somehow…lazy.  And being on the “side” of the mommy wars that favors being at home more than being at work, well, that just feels like being a traitor.

I didn’t write this because I have an answer. Five years into this mommy thing and thirty into this black woman thing, and I’m still just trying to ask the right questions.

4 thoughts on “she’s always in my head

  1. I think the majority of working mothers struggle with this at some point. I know I definitely do. But like your children my daughter is extremely well adjusted and independent. What I do find now that she is older (14) is that she likes me to be in the house. Not necessarily in the same room as me but she likes to know that I’m there. Which is kinda sweet and I’m just happy that at this age, which is well known for being terrible, that she still likes having me around and spending time with me.

    There’s nothing you can do to “make yourself feel better” but ensuring that time with the is quality time goes a long way.

    Oh, and, my law professor was a black woman and had a Phd (I’m English and this was in London – I now live in the US). To this day I still say she was one the best professors I ever had. So passionate about her subject and she made it so interesting.

    Good luck in your journey.


  2. I totally get what you’re saying. I also didn’t know any black women growing up who didn’t do some kind of work that earned some kind of money, even if it was older women taking in ironing. I had a year during my (extended) dissertation work when I didn’t have a either a teachign gig or a fellowship and I absolutely felt like a bum. But now, with children, I think that academics allows me to feel a little like a SAHM without actually doing it all the time. Last summer I kept both children home for the whole summer and, well, it confirmed that it was not good for me or for them to do that 100% of the time. It turned me into a preschool teacher/camp director and I already knew that this was not a job I wanted to do. It also confirmed that I should totally just get royally pissed whenever that annoying “lady in red” pops up, especially in the form of nosy people who think they know better. I always remind myself that men don’t have to answer these questions. Neither should we.


  3. I actually don’t struggle with the privilege I’m afforded as a black female law professor, although I realize that might be the result of different messages we received growing up. My mother, and most women in my family, worked my entire childhood, but I had plenty examples of black (and white) SAHM around me, and I grew up thinking “good work, if you can get it!” I also think, however, that it is simply about recognizing the privilege, and remembering how fortunate you are. I also spend a lot of time trying to show my students how they benefit from privilege, as well, and am not shy about saying to them in class that my black, female, self, has also benefited from extraordinary privilege in my life. I can’t do anything about the chances I got, nor would I want to. But I can make sure that I recognize it, recognize that other people didn’t get those chances, and have that recognition inform my work.

    Also, you’ll quickly discover that being an academic is pretty far from being lazy. Honestly, I work just as much as people working 9-5, and sometimes more. And, what’s more, when I come home, I don’t leave my work at the office. Much like being a student, there is always something else to read, something else to write, another connection to be made for future work. And don’t forget running into your students all over town! What makes it wonderful, however, is that it is extremely flexible, I got lots of lovely benefits–like my own large office that I can close, and research and travel budgets–and that I love what I do. Also, as Steel pointed out, it allows you to feel like a SAHM mom in terms of how hands-on you can be with your children, without feeling trapped by it.


  4. I think that no matter what we choose as women we will question it. I am a stay at home mom but was in the workforce from the age of 16. I worked in highschool, worked in college (undergrad and masters), and when I taught I even moonlighted to make ends meet. So, yes, I have a work ethic and am not afraid of hard work. I decided that I would stay home with my kid- I am aware that this is a privileged choice- not everyone can make ends meet this way. I do NOT feel trapped by my choice- I can go back to work if I choose to do so but I prefer to be at home. Most of my friends who work do not understand my choice and always ask how I can stand to be on duty 24/7 with a toddler? Even my husband says he’d rather operate non-stop than deal with a toddler all day and night. lol! My thought is that I would rather take care of my own child and see her develop than teach and look after other people’s kids. Still, just like working moms, I question if my choice is the best one for my child? For example, I wonder if my child is not being stimulated enough as she is exposed to other kids in play groups but not on a daily basis. However, I also know that she has exceeded all of her developmental milestones and is happy and well-adjusted. I know of many women who choose not to stay at home even though they could afford it. And that is fine! The whole point of the feminist movement was to give women choices. And I say bravo to you LaToya for exercising your choice and following a path that makes you happy.


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