Neither group talks about women they should be talking about: poor mothers, especially poor single mothers. For example, the single mother on government assistance working two minimum wage jobs who are doing everything they can to provide for their children. The kind of job that will fire her if she calls in sick or calls in because her child is sick. The single mother who cannot find daycare because she works evenings or nights. These women are usually invisible in this debate.
Either mothers should not have to work outside the home, which means that women in poverty ought to be provided for, so they do not work outside of the home. Or a certain class of women (women who have the choice) should not work outside the home, which means it is not a moral issue at all but a class issue.
Mothers have a special role in the lives of our children, obviously. We have the right to have a fulfilling career that inspires us where we can use our gifts to serve our communities and the world. How we balance these two realities is where the tension in this debate lives. But it is also a debate based on race and class.
When middle class women argue about mothers working outside of the home, they almost never talk about single mothers on food stamps. They talk about married white women, who might not be rich, but are not poor women living living on food stamps having “all those kids”. Those women are “irresponsible”.
While poor white women suffer from this stereotype, they do not also have the added burden of dealing with racism on top of it. This is an issue for women of color, particularly Black women. There have been times in this country’s history when laws were made that Black women had to work. Not only because not working was seen as laziness, but because their not working meant that a certain class of white woman lost her help. People are even quicker to judge a poor mother of color than they are to judge a poor white mother.
If you have kids outside of wedlock or with a man who does not “provide”, you made your bed and now you must sleep in it. You must work whatever job — or jobs! — you can get and you ought to be thankful you have one whether it is in or out of the home and whether you get to be a part of your children’s everyday life or not.
That is the thinking of the people who join in the debate about working mothers. No one asks why those mothers are poor. No one thinks that their husbands might have left them, or they might have had to leave a husband who was abusing them and their children. Or that they might have been the victims of childhood sexual abuse and not been able to make good choices about men. The people who argue about this don’t think that the “irresponsible” mother might be amazingly responsible, and still need help.
When I was a single mother waiting tables to feed my children, I missed a lot of their childhood. I longed for the day when I could stay home and make them dinner, because I worked the dinner shift most of their lives. I could not wait to be able to be a stay-at-home mother who could pick them up from school. Never have I seen that perspective shared in the debates about working mothers.
People in this debate who do not consider the single mother’s right to stay home with her children do not actually believe a mother ought to be the primary caregiver of her children. If they did, if every person arguing about mothers working outside of the home, believed their own argument, they would be fighting for the right of women living in poverty to stay home with their kids instead of working. Especially the women who work two or three jobs, go to college and are single mothers of Color.
I have yet to see anyone who spends time typing up arguments about the immorality of working mothers ever mention single mothers, much less single mothers of color, and their right to stay at home with their children.
Leticia Ochoa Adams is the creator of the Catholic Speakers of Color resource for conference organizers. She writes from Texas, on life, death, grief, suicide, faith, motherhood, doubts and whatever (else) happens to be on her mind. Her previous article was Disney and Jesus.
Photo credit: African American women working outside the home, doing reconstruction work in the southern United States, circa 1920, transporting tanbark for the tanning of leather. (FPG/Getty Images).
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