How often do white women consider ways that motherhood differs for black women in the United States?
Watching Soledad O’Brien and CNN’s “The Black Woman and Family ” made me consider this provocative question – and it’s one reason why you should watch it.
I thought motherhood was color blind until the first day I dropped my child at Johnson & Johnson’s employee daycare center. He’d been on the wait list since I was three months pregnant, so I was thrilled. But I was torn, too, to be leaving him with total strangers for what felt like the rest of his life. Especially since he’d been home with me, and then a nanny, since birth.
Outside the classroom, I befriended another mom also dropping off her firstborn for the first time. Marcus had been born three days before Max. His mom was my age and worked in a division near my office. The only difference between us seemed to be skin deep – she was black, I am white.
“Are you sad about leaving him here?” I asked, smiling at Marcus gurgling in his car seat.
“Are you kidding?” She answered. “I had to go back to work when he was only six weeks old. I’m a single mom and the only daycare I could find until his spot opened here was a place where they kept him strapped in his car seat in front of a tv for 10 hours a day. Some days they didn’t change his diaper. Today is one of the most joyous days of my life.”
What a reality check -- more like a punch. Here I had been, immersed in what was suddenly obviously an elite white mommy guilt sandstorm. I was close to tears – why? Because I had to leave my child at what is arguably the finest daycare center on the planet – a 22,000 square foot, I.M. Pei designed facility with a cafeteria, security desk, two nurses on staff full time, and a master’s degree requirement for all teachers. And did I mention the company subsidized 50% of the cost?
Marcus and his mom helped me realize how lucky we were. That was the beginning of my education into the different realities of motherhood in America. After writing Mommy Wars , I delved more deeply into the specific differences between the two majority ethnic groups in our country. The result was “Women in Black And White,” a survey created with a black colleague, Paula Penn-Nabrit.
Our findings were fascinating: Black and white women were eager to discuss issues of race and motherhood, with over 1,100 responding within 24 hours and 24% adding personal comments in addition to answering 100 survey questions. (It’s important to note that this survey reflected an educationally and economically elite set of black and white women: respondents self selected to take the survey and had to have Internet access to do so; 96% were college educated, and 82% had household incomes over $50,000. All statistics quoted below refer to this privileged slice of the U.S. female population.)
When it comes to working motherhood, black women didn’t report the same kind of “should I work or stay home” angst so common in white mothers’ lives. Ninety percent of black women’s mothers worked outside the home during their childhood (vs. 78% of white women) and 97% of black women reported that their mothers expected them to work (vs. 83% of white women). Black women reported worrying about things rarely on the minds of white moms – like when, and how, to explain to a child the safe way to respond to a suspicious, and likely prejudiced, police officer.
White women who took the survey lived in households with higher annual incomes, but black women were more financially independent, with more (percentages in the 90s vs. 80s for whites) having checking and savings accounts solely in their names and a higher percent of black women supporting their extended families and giving to charities (74% vs. 65%). Although white women reported being more highly educated (55% having advanced degrees vs. 44% of black women), educational goals were more consciously important for black women, and they set higher educational goals for themselves and their children (with 34% expecting their children to attend graduate or professional schools, vs. 22% of white mothers).
Soledad O’Brien’s two hour documentary, “The Black Woman and Family,” aired this week. O’Brien knows her subject, as an accomplished Harvard graduate and working mother of four, and the daughter of a Cuban black mother and a white Australian father. With a light touch, she explores sensitive issues of Americans’ shared racial identity, stubborn educational, achievement, employment and medical care inequities, and a range of solutions to the most pernicious obstacles facing black men, women and children in America.
As a white woman -- part of the majority ethnic group in this country -- it’s been clear to me over my life and career that it’s easy to live in a homogenous racial cocoon at work and at home, without confronting the troubling problems facing women who, sometimes literally, are our American sisters. One of the most striking findings in “Women in Black and White” was that black women live far more racially integrated lives, at home and at work. More (42% vs. 25%) grow up in integrated neighborhoods, attend integrated high schools (71% vs. 53%), and have teachers of a different race (79% vs. 12%). At work, far more black women report having a supervisor/manager of a different race (96% vs. 41% of white women).
I’ve been lucky to work for and with black, Asian, Latina and Middle Eastern women in my career at Johnson & Johnson, Leo Burnett and The Washington Post. I changed for the good due to my lack of insulation. I hope I’m a better mentor, employee, manager, friend and mother as a result. What about you?
To watch “The Black Woman and Family,” check cnn.com/BLACKINAMERICA or your local listings; the DVD is also available at amazon.com and the download is on iTunes.