by Kuae Mattox
Just when I thought those darned mommy wars had piped down to an occasional simmer on the media hotplate, in walks a fresh face on the national scene and the stew starts to boil again.
Michelle Obama has received the advice of everyone from the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair to former First Lady Barbara Bush. “Get used to the back seat,” she’s been told. “Understand the perils and pitfalls of the ‘trailing’ spouse.” “Michelle Obama is setting a poor example for women”, one author lamented. The feminist fury over the notion that Michelle Obama, an Ivy League-educated corporate attorney, will now be measuring the drapes for a living is plastered across cyberspace. The tug of war is well underway, and it’s making my head spin. “She’s part of the working moms club.” “No siree, Michelle’s going to be a stay at home mom now. She’s trading it all in.” “She’s throwing it all away.” “She really has no choice you know…Oh, by the way, did you see that dress she wore on election night?” Michelle Obama has been defined and pigeonholed, filed and categorized long before she sets foot in the bubble that is the White House.
But in the black community, there isn’t much quibbling between working moms and stay at home moms over Michelle Obama’s employment status. That’s because historically, most African American mothers have not had the choice to stay at home with their children. Most of our mothers worked. Period. They didn’t have the luxury of lamenting what they gave up when they trailed their spouse or left their careers. They worked because they had to. They raised their kids, and in many cases, other people’s children too. The mere notion of staying at home to many little black girls growing up, was, quite simply, profound, and at best, unrealistic.
Yet for the past decade I have been part of a movement of thousands of educated, successful African American mothers who indeed have been able to make the choice to stay at home. We call it a “season,” because we know full well that a stay at home mom in January could be a working mom in September. We know that a stay at home mom is as much a state of mind as it is a reality. What Michelle Obama calls “Mom in Chief” has yet to be truly defined. As First Lady, with a predefined agenda, it will be up to Mrs. Obama to create the balance for the role in which she chooses to play. As far as I am concerned, she can call herself a “working” mom, a “stay at home” mom, a “whatever she wants” mom. Many of us are still basking in the glow, grinning from ear to ear, reveling in the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama are simply “there.”
Over the next four years, Michelle Obama will indeed have the opportunity to define herself, from the outfits she wears to the policies she promotes. She can choose to be on the front lines, joining a longstanding tradition of public service among first ladies. First Lady Hillary Clinton chaired the Presidential Task Force on Health Care Reform and wrote a weekly syndicated column. Rosalyn Carter made an unprecedented trip to seven countries in the Caribbean and South America to talk with leaders about trade and defense. She lobbied for mental health care reform. Betty Ford lobbied state legislators to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Eleanor Roosevelt was a pioneering first lady, fighting for a long list of reforms and giving hundreds of speeches around the world.
It’s not often that America sees the image of a successful, highly educated African American woman who is in charge of her own future. I suspect that white America’s expectations of Mrs. Obama and black America’s expectations of her will be dictated in large part by their own cultural experiences. The question is, how will the lens in which we view her ultimately define her success?
Kuae Kelch Mattox is an award winning journalist turned stay at home mom who currently serves as director of media and publicity for Mocha Moms, Inc., a national, non-profit organization that supports stay at home mothers of color. She is the former editor in chief of Black Family Today magazine, a former producer for Dateline NBC, and has worked with The Oprah Winfrey Show, ABC News and King World Productions. Mattox is a former education reporter for The Miami Herald, and her articles have also appeared in The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Electronic Media.