Caviness lets us know that she feels sorry for “the others,” the angst-ridden “usually white” women who panic all day over every aspect of child-rearing. Unlike these women who have turned “mothering into a hot mess of guilt, confusion and hard labor,” Caviness doesn’t “have time for all that foolishness.” And she attributes her carefree parenting spirit to being a black mom.
I, too, am a black mom. And I know plenty. But what I know about parenting can’t be reduced to racial stereotypes about black women eschewing books in favor of their intuition. I know that you don’t have to choose between reading and common sense to raise your kids.
Caviness mocks white women for looking to books for parenting advice. (Of course, Caviness has a book herself, entitled “Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself.” Who is that for?) And she admits that her judgments of white mothers are derived from “mommy blog fodder, daytime TV, and new parenting guides,” but the fact is these media are not representative of the lived experiences of most white mothers — or any mothers. Caviness buys into this false representation, and then presents herself as a counterpoint to it: confident, intuitive, and reliant upon her own mother’s no-nonsense wisdom about parenting. She is a mom who simply “knows how.”
I agree with Caviness when she says that parents often err in making their children’s happiness a goal at the expense of teaching them to be independent, resilient, and responsible. I, too, have observed differences in parenting practices along racial lines among parents I know, and among some strangers in public. But where Caviness and I part company is the sweeping nature of her generalizations and the fact that much of what she attributes to race, I believe is attributable to class. Working-class moms, regardless of their race, probably aren’t wringing their hands over Mandarin lessons for their kids. How can they? And black moms don’t have a monopoly on having the good sense not to overindulge a child.
Certainly, there are affluent black helicopter parents. In fact, by her own account in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Caviness was on her way to becoming one. If she, as a black mother, has innate “know-how” about parenting, why was she peeling the skin off her babies’ peas, and, later, scheduling her kids’ every waking moment? Why didn’t she embrace her mother’s parenting wisdom and take a more relaxed approach when her kids were born, instead of years later when she found herself drained from overly anxious parenting? Could it be that Caviness’ approach to parenting wasn’t limited to her innate mothering knowledge, but rather it evolved over time, as it does for many mothers, across race?
So even as she rightfully dismisses the Mommy Wars, she then promotes a similar us vs. them mentality along racial lines. The Mommy Wars is largely a media construct, given that most women work because they have to and don’t have a dog in the fight over whether moms should work outside the home. I find that the average mother doesn’t feel the need to chastise other women for making different work-family life choices. And yet the authors of “Mommy Wars” books that barely sold 5,000 copies have been given huge platforms. Their morning talk-show circuit appearances and long think pieces in magazines created the illusion of armies of women battling it out over personal choices, when in reality, these “wars” only involve a relatively small group of privileged white women.
So when Caviness attributes the parenting choices of mostly educated, affluent white women to “all” white women, she’s ignoring class and building her position on the same overstated battleground that the Mommy Wars is built on. Meanwhile, the vast majority of mothers of all races are just trying to do the best they can for their kids and aren’t interested one-upping other moms.
In her book, I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, Washington Post columnist Lonnae O’Neal observes that black women have grappled with the work-family life question for generations. But O’Neal doesn’t suggest that black women now have it easier, or have the perfect answer, as a result. In fact, in many ways, striking the balance is harder for everyone today. Like Caviness, I was raised in part by a grandparent who lived in my home and by neighborhood aunties, while my mother worked. But many of today’s working mothers don’t have that support. Our communities are no longer informal communal childcare centers, and no amount of black mama magic will make safe, affordable childcare appear. Suggesting that black women simply “know how” to make things work lets employers and policymakers off the hook when it comes to childcare and family-friendly workplace practices.
Caviness’ assertion that black mothers have it “easier” than their white counterparts is also problematic because it reduces mothering to juggling work and family. Especially in the current climate of black men, women, and children being shot and killed by police (which Caviness references in her article), I would say that raising a black child is anything but easy.
Like the Tiger Mom before her, Caviness’ Know-It-All Black Mom is an archetype based on racial stereotypes—the sometimes sassy, idealized black caretaker, Mammy, as well as a retread of the Black Superwoman. This idea of the tireless, natural caretaker is not only a myth, it’s a dangerous one that can take a toll on black women’s emotional and physical health. Left unchecked, stress from trying to “do it all” can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Heart disease is the number one cause of death for women in the U.S., and black women are at greater risk for it, as well as for stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, according to the American Heart Association. Thankfully, Caviness shares that she knows “how to go someplace and sit down” when parenting gets to be a challenge. But this appears at the very end of long ode to black-mama heroics.
What do black moms know? Plenty. Some of us know and relish the old-school parenting lessons we learned from our mamas. Some of us are trying to parent differently than how we were parented. We don’t just “know how”; we seek out the best for our kids, and that includes wisdom from others about how to care for them. We learn from other parents, and yes, sometimes, we learn from books. Maybe we even write some of those books.
At our best, we do trust our instincts, and the good parts of how we were raised are woven into the fabric of how we raise our kids. We learn from our parents’ mistakes and our own mistakes. We are thoughtful, intentional, and strategic about raising conscientious children who will thrive in the world. And we can recognize and celebrate the gift of good parenting we give to our children, without diminishing what other moms give to theirs.
Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, the co-founder of co-parenting101.org, and the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, in collaboration with her ex-husband.
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