'Mocha Moms' draw support from one another

At a time when some new mothers, at least, win praise from families and friends for staying home with an infant, black women hear a contrary message: Keep working, no matter what.

Although new Census Bureau figures show that more mothers are staying home until their babies are at least a year old, those numbers have not increased for black women. Working remains an economic necessity for some. For others, it is a cultural imperative.

"Staying home is not something as accepted in black culture," says Jolene Ivey of Cheverly, Md. "When black people finally were able to advance educationally and pursue jobs that paid more, they weren't expected or encouraged to forgo that to stay home."

A white woman who puts her career on ice for the sake of time at home is likely to get at least some questions. That goes double within the African-American community.

"For blacks, people are incredulous that you would do something like that," says Mrs. Ivey.

Ivey and her husband have five sons, ranging from 12 years to 21 months. A former television producer and congressional press secretary, she has been at home since her first child was born.

Four years ago, feeling isolated and frustrated because her black friends were all returning to work, she founded a group called Mocha Moms, hoping to connect with other black women at home. Response to her newsletter was encouraging.

In addition to weekly playgroups with their children, held in a church hall, members of Ivey's chapter gather for "moms-only" nights to discuss weightier issues. They have invited financial planners to talk about how to save for college and how to cut costs to make staying home easier. Once a year, they hold a potluck dinner to discuss options in education - public schools, private schools, and home schooling. They also set aside one meeting to consider ways to make money at home.

There are now 33 Mocha Moms chapters across the country, with another five starting up.

When Cheli English-Figaro of Bowie, Md., was expecting her first child eight years ago, she intended to take a three-month maternity leave and then return to her career as an attorney.

"I had gone to school for a million years," she says. "Staying home was not part of my upbringing, not part of my education." Black women, she adds, "have always been Superwomen, not only taking care of our own children, but many times caring for other women's children, too. My grandmother had seven children, and she never missed a paycheck."

But when Mrs. English-Figaro's son was born, he was what she calls a "high need" baby. She decided not to return to work, although she and her husband had made no financial provisions for that.

"I tell young women, always plan your life so you have options," says English-Figaro, executive director of Mocha Moms. "I didn't anticipate that I'd even want to be home."

She now works part time at home as business manager for her husband, a physician. The couple also have an 18-month-old daughter.

Most members of Mocha Moms, Ivey says, are trying to stay home as long as possible. Noting that her oldest son has started middle school, she says, "I don't see him needing me less now than when he was a baby."

Ivey sums up the group's philosophy this way: "What you used to do is not important. What you do now is important. Our main issue is supporting each other, because we don't necessarily get it from our families or society at large. Raising children is not glamorous or powerful, but it's important."

She pauses, then adds, "But I guess we are powerful. We influence the next generation."

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