When my son turned six months old and my husband and I agreed it was time for me to go back to work, I thought of my own childhood. My mother had worked in a full-time government position since before I was born. As a single mother, she worked a first shift as an employee and a second shift as a mother. But by the time she’d get home, employment had drained most of her energy. Like generations of hard-working black mothers before her, she was forced to seek work outside of the home at the cost of interacting with her own children. Now, just like back then, too many black mothers face the dichotomous choice between active motherhood and providing.
In the past decade, though, more black women have embraced the option of stay-at-home motherhood. Research shows that there was a larger increase in black stay-at-home motherhood from 2000 to 2012, from 18 to 27 percent, than in years before. Despite that growth, for many black moms who are sole breadwinners, staying at home isn’t feasible. Another option, though, is flexible work, or telecommuting. Moms who choose this route increasingly understand that while you can’t have it all, you can get close.
Among millennials especially, flexible work options and maternity or paternity packages are good enough reasons to change jobs. Millennial mothers of color understand that home-based work can help them cut down on expenses and fulfill their career aspirations while still prioritizing family. It can be challenging to find work-from-home jobs that match your interest, as many are customer-service related and require phone use, which is a problem when you have a young child at home. In response, many mothers of color find themselves building on the skills they already have, such as graphic design, public speaking and content creation, and unintentionally find themselves on the path to freelancing or owning their own business. Others have found work through the gig economy and choose short-term contract assignments as they please.
Jessica Rodriguez Falcon, co-founder of LLERO, found that freelancing altered the way she assesses her workload. She prioritizes assignments and takes only work that fits into her schedule, which has freed up additional time to parent.
“I look at projects from a ‘bottom line’ perspective now,” she says. “I pose some of the following questions: Is the time I put in going to be equal to the compensation? Will it help my reputation and increase my network? Will it help me bring in more income for the month? When I was a full-time freelancer in the past, I just took whatever work I could get that helped me pay the bills in that moment. I have a long-term view on this now.”
Tonya Abari has learned a lot about owning a small business. “I handle bookkeeping and accounting, a personal website, social media presence, applications, building rapport with existing and potential clients, and not to mention executing the actual services that I offer,” she says. “Freelancing can be feast or famine, so being aggressive and focusing on brand management has forced me to think more like a business owner than an employee.”
Many women cite time management as the most crucial skill for successfully juggling work and family. Mastering that often requires being selective in accepting assignments, or working fluctuating hours.
Abari, for example, works around her daughter’s schedule and is careful in choosing assignments. “I have narrowed down a list of clients that are family-friendly and don’t have unrealistic deadlines,” she says. “During the day, I give my daughter my undivided attention. I’m pretty diligent about not crossing work over with family time. I usually work between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. or I wake up at 3 a.m. to work until 9 a.m.”
Like Abari, I discovered that being willing to accommodate an unpredictable schedule was worth the independence and creative freedom I gained working from home. Being able to play an active role in my son’s education and development means a lot to me, especially since research shows black children are often doubted in the public education system. In 2016, the Yale Child Study Center found that implicit bias in teachers led to differences in discipline as early as preschool for black boys and girls. Similarly, the lack of diversity in teachers can lead to curriculums that lack cultural relevance and the reinforcement of cultural stereotypes. Fear of these things happening to my kids have led me to keep my son out of the public education system as long as possible in hopes that I can provide him a solid foundation and sense of self-efficacy. My work schedule made room for this.
However, it didn’t take long for me to discover that if you don’t establish effective boundaries, working full time and parenting full time can be doubly exhausting. I’ve found my work is often undervalued by friends and family because it’s assumed that I can do it while also providing child care. I also find myself working to the point of exhaustion and not taking enough breaks.
Rodriguez Falcon experienced something similar and decided it was necessary to switch jobs to add more balance. “I still spent too much time working. I was home with my daughter but spending most of my time working. It defeated the point of being home,” she says.
Another important consideration is that contract-based work often doesn’t provide the benefits that accompany traditional employment, such as health insurance and retirement plans. I’m covered by my husband’s plan, but single parents or one-income households might not be able to look past this obstacle. People of color already face systemic barriers that reduce access to jobs with benefits, and access to quality health coverage can be nonnegotiable if you have children.
The ebbs and flows of freelance work can be particularly stressful if you are the sole or main earner in the family. A recent report by the Center for American Progress found black women are significantly more likely than white women to be their family’s breadwinner, both because they are more likely to be single parents and because when they are married, their salaries often are equal to or more than their husbands’. Latina women were also more likely to be the breadwinners than white women, but at lower rates. For mothers doing double shifts at work and home, dealing with the demands that come with single parenthood add a layer of stress. All of these concerns make it important for work-from-home mothers to practice self-care, set guidelines for work and find a community of like-minded mothers.
Despite the challenges, I understand I am privileged to be able to work from home and have a career that adapts somewhat easily to the demands of motherhood. But there is nothing wrong with seeing it as a part of the journey instead of a destination. Many moms, such as Nancy Redd, author of “Pregnancy, OMG!”, see it as a temporary experience that provides a ton of benefits in the interim.
“While I can’t say I’ll stay a work-from-home mom forever, as I love my career in broadcast journalism, I’m certain the strong foundation that has been laid during my time at home will carry on, as will my insight into being a calm, present parent as much as possible,” she says.
It isn’t an option for everyone, but remote work is giving mothers of color the agency to take on leadership responsibilities while remaining involved with their children, something that hasn’t always been possible. Many of us are using this work to blend parenting with earning a living. I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.