At the time, she was a new mother with a colicky, high-need baby. She and her husband, Michael, had recently moved to Prince George's County from New York, so she had no friends nearby. Her husband had a demanding job as an Air Force doctor, and between the two of them they had not a single relative within 250 miles to lean on.
Before her son, Brandon, was born, she had thought she would return to the office quickly. That's what society seemed to expect, and as an African American woman she felt that expectation doubly. Black women had always worked outside the home, had done so in the face of formidable obstacles, and were proud of it. "Very few women in my generation or my mother's generation were stay-at-home moms," she says. "My husband's grandmother had seven kids and never missed a day of work." Cheli also had a considerable investment in her career: A degree from Columbia Law School could take you a long way. At the time of Brandon's birth, she was a staff attorney at the Commerce Department, and had worked as a corporate lawyer for a big firm in New York. A decision to get off the career ladder at this point would probably mean playing catch-up with her law school classmates from here on out. "But I asked myself: When I'm 90 years old and dying, what choice could I live with? What am I going to feel least guilty about?"
On one recent day, Cheli is moving around in the kitchen of her modest town house in Bowie. Brandon, now 4, is sitting at the table contemplating a bowl of spaghetti noodles, which he is too sleepy to eat. His mother, 34, an athletic-looking woman dressed in black jeans and a red turtleneck, her hair in neat braids, fields telephone calls from the real estate office where she works a few hours a week, sees her husband out the door, cajoles Brandon into at least drinking his juice and manages to keep talking, all more or less at the same time. The kitchen is adorned with a plaque that reads, "Cheli's Bed & Breakfast: Open 24 hours, year round. Caterer, chauffeur, laundress, moneylender, seamstress, psychologist, tutor, nurse, etc. Gifts and other recognition greatly appreciated."
In retrospect, the groundwork for her decision to stay home had been laid when she and her husband bought this town house instead of a larger single-family home. It was a conscious decision to keep their options open, to live below their means, in a neat but modest development where the front yards are approximately the size of a walk-in bath and the neighbors are just a wall away. Sometimes she gets house envy. "All my friends are in nice homes," she admits, "and that's rough."
What Cheli has done might look to some like an abdication of a promising career; a clear case of downward mobility. So why does she make this sacrifice? What does Brandon get from a stay-at-home mom that he wouldn't get any other way?
Still, the sacrifice looks substantial. The science class this week is about recycling, and the kids' project is to make Christmas ornaments from recycled and found objects. As Cheli and Brandon struggle to affix some glitter to a spiky sweet gum ball, she mutters, "I'm out of my comfort zone here." And I wonder: What would her law school classmates at Columbia think of her now? "I don't know," she says. "But I have a better life than they do . . . Hopefully, I'll live a long time. There will be time to catch up. And if I die young, I'll know I spent the most important years with my son."
Later, en route to a meeting of Cheli's at-home-mom network, a group of black women who call themselves Mocha Moms, she thinks about this issue some more. Brandon's wide awake now, interrupting his mother with questions: Are we going to play group now? (Just as soon as we go home and pick up some things.) Can I play with Austin? (Yes.) "I don't dwell on what the benefits are to him," she says, "because I have too many friends who work full time -- and, frankly, it's not PC. I won't preach."
What does rankle, though, is the perception of some people that stay-at-home moms are some kind of pampered, privileged class. "You have to have some serious self-esteem to do this," she had said over breakfast. "You have an infant who's not going to pat you on the back. You get all the scut work." So when she hears parents say they can't afford to stay home with their children -- as if money were no consideration for the likes of her -- she has an answer ready in her head: "People make choices. You know what? If you hadn't bought that big house for $300,000, you wouldn't have to work."
Some people look at those houses and see the American dream. Cheli sees "golden handcuffs."
For the working poor , for single parents, the choices are limited or nonexistent; for the truly wealthy, maybe, or those who knew, just knew, that motherhood was their only calling, the choices are easier. It's the rest of us who wind up making the judgment calls. Many working mothers who say they "have to" work could, strictly speaking, stay home. They could move to a less expensive house or even rent an apartment; they could shop at thrift stores; they could forgo vacations and new cars. Their children might also have to forgo that private school, a home computer, those enriching summer camps -- but it could be done, if money were all we were talking about.
But, it is not. Work isn't just about money. Men and women do get yoked to their jobs, and what began as a choice may easily become a mind-dulling necessity. In the best of circumstances, though, work reflects other values every bit as all-American as motherhood, and chief among them is ambition. Ambition to be something -- to make your mark on the world. Work can be, should be, something that gives meaning to the arc of a person's life.
The trouble comes in reconciling ambition to reality. I heard a story once about Leonard Bernstein's father, who had balked at first at paying for his son's music lessons. Much later, when his son was a renowned conductor and composer, somebody asked Mr. Bernstein about his early reservations, and the old man shrugged. "How was I to know he'd grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?" he said.
Put the shoe on the other foot, and you have the mother's quandary. Can your child do without your constant presence so that you can go to grad school, work on that important brief, crash that deadline? Of course your child can. And later on, when your work yields great rewards -- even fame -- people will congratulate you for making the right choice. You could be a Madeleine Albright, walking proof that you can be a devoted mom and have a brilliant career.
Or you could just spin your wheels. Maybe your ambition exceeds your talent; it's been known to happen. Maybe, 40 years from now, you'll realize your time would have been much better spent playing jacks with your 4-year-old than attempting to write that godawful novel, but so it goes. You took a gamble and it didn't pay off, and who knows how much your children missed out on? How were you to know you'd grow up to be Mrs. Milton Schwartz?
But that's the point: You don't know. All you can do is take what you do know and plod ahead. That's the conclusion I came to as I emerged from that bleak period, after my book proposal sank without a trace. I asked myself: What's important to me right now? The answers: Emma and my work and my marriage, in no particular order because they were all so interdependent. Do I want to be a full-time stay-at-home mom? Not forever. Was I ready to go back to a full-time job downtown? No. Maybe next year. But at 9 months, she needed me utterly -- and I needed to be with her.
All I had to do, then, was invent some way I could stay at home a little longer and earn enough money to get by, while still staying attached to my career. In this, I found, I had a lot of company.
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