Here’s a common family story among black women in my generation: My grandmother worked as a live-in maid, and my mother lived at numerous relatives’ homes for the first few years of her life so my grandmother could keep her job.
Two generations later, I have a spectrum of choices beyond what was available to my grandmother. I can pursue a fulfilling career, stay home, or find something in between. While I believe women can find commonalities despite their different family and work choices, the two sides of the “mommy wars” do not capture the reality for many mothers today.
The current conversation about motherhood—centered around married, highly educated mothers who “opt out” of the workforce to stay home with their children—gives the impression that most mothers are caught between extremes of staying home or pursuing a career. Yet only 5 percent of stay-at-home moms fit this affluent demographic, according to Pew Research. Overall, American motherhood looks much different: Single moms now make up a growing segment of stay-at-home moms (20%), and the proportion of stay-at-home moms living in poverty has doubled in recent decades.
Despite these statistics, when we talk about “motherhood,” we usually are talking about that small minority: primarily white women with a spouse and a certain level of financial means. Our limited scope ignores the reality that many women in the United States (and the world) are not in positions to make these choices. And for women of color able to make these choices, they may come to that position much differently than their white counterparts.
In her article, “Ain’t I a Mommy,” author Deesha Philyaw traces the mommy wars back to the cult of true womanhood, a 19th century emphasis on women’s roles in private spheres, caring for their homes and children. This value system pertained to affluent white women; black women, immigrant women, and poor, white women remained noticeably absent. Yet the impact of the cult of true womanhood carried over into the 20th century and now the 21st. Philyaw writes:
When World War II moved record numbers of married white women into the labor force to take the place of their deployed husbands, the cult of true womanhood mostly died in practice. It left in its wake decades of public and private debate over whether women—white women—can be good mothers while also pursuing successful careers. The current mommy wars resurrect this handwringing for a new century. Profit-seeking magazines, book publishers, and talk shows capitalize on the guilt and fears expressed by some working mothers, and on the “Should I go back to work?” doubts of some at-home mothers.
Pockets of the modern church also perpetuate this narrative—and contribute to the divide between stay-at-home and working mothers—by teaching that the ideal woman creates a domestic oasis for her family. She prepares the meals, decorates her house, serves as the sole caregiver for her children, and remains fully present in her home. It’s an ideal that only a particular segment of the population—past and present—can fulfill.
Part of our cultural understanding of womanhood emerged out of an expectation of privilege and, in many cases, access to paid and unpaid help. These ideals didn’t make sense for my grandmother’s reality and wouldn’t have made sense for me had I been alive 200 years ago. While certain Christian teachings may remain true in all contexts, the idealized image fails to add up across the expanse of history and the varied current realities for many women in the United States and the world. As this image persists, it only adds to the increased airtime we give mommy wars even in our churches.
The common face of a stay-at-home mother and her working counterpart remains an affluent white woman debating topics like breastfeeding, preschool options, helicopter parenting, and having it all. Yet, we know the numbers betray this stereotype. According to Pew Research, a stay-at-home mom in the US is more likely than a working mom to be an immigrant, less likely to be white, more likely to live in poverty, and less likely to be college-educated.
While some less affluent mothers choose to stay home for family reasons, others suffer from an illness or have a disability, or simply cannot find work. Language barriers and lower levels of education funnel them into less stable, less flexible fields. These shaky job options create a higher likelihood mothers may be forced to leave the labor force if childcare becomes a problem, a child is sick, or another difficulty arises.
When we let the challenges of a certain segment of the population exist as the dominant narrative around motherhood, we reinforce the same hierarchical structures in place when the ideas of the cult of true womanhood rose to prominence. We effectively view certain experiences as those that matter and ignore another’s reality.
It’s important that we recognize the mommy wars for what it is: a conversation that should be played out on a smaller stage. Let’s not amplify it into the collective story for a multitude of women. Let’s certainly not amplify it into a burdensome soundtrack for women without the privilege to choose between pursuing a career—not just a job—and staying home with their children.
Sometimes my mother gets a bit sentimental and glances at me before uttering a cliché. “Your grandmother never could have dreamed what her granddaughter could become.”
My grandmother never could have dreamed that I could choose to build a career or comfortably stay home. Two generations ago is too fresh for me to be at war with any woman. Instead I fight a system that implies certain motherhood stories are universal. Perhaps another way we can pursue unity is when we recognize that as part of the body of Christ, we all stand under the vast umbrella of many different experiences.
Patrice Gopo’s essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Her radio commentaries have appeared on Charlotte, North Carolina’s NPR station WFAE 90.7.