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An interview with Jennifer James

Founder of Mommy Too! magazine

Jennifer James is the founder and publisher of Mommy Too! magazine (www.mommytoo.com), the first and only full web magazine for mothers of color, and the founder and director of the National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance (NAAHA). She created both the homeschooling organization and magazine in response to “the dearth of information on the Net that addresses black homeschoolers and mothers of color, among many, many other things.” She adds that “undertaking these projects has really been on the fly; things that I wanted to see on the Net, but no one was creating.”

James is a 29-year-old, second-generation, at-home mother of two girls, age five and three, and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In this interview with the MMO, she talks about how the media depicts mothers of color, the challenges of being an African American at-home mom, and why the new mothers movement must actively seek diversity.

MMO: Tell us a little bit about your background and your current projects.

JJ: I’ve been an at-home mother for five years and am immensely happy to have made the decision for myself and for my family to be at-home with our girls. Being at home has really allowed me the greatest room to grow and cultivate my talents and interests.

Since my mother stayed at home with my three brothers and me, it was a relatively easy decision for me to make to stay at home, even though there are tremendous pressures, especially in the black community, to be a member of the paid workforce.

I have a lot going on right now. I have a full plate and have been really busy for the last year and a half, but I’m tremendously enjoying myself everyday. Both NAAHA and Mommy Too! Magazines are growing rapidly and I am happy to be a part of a growing community of famiIies and mothers who are looking at life a little differently.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill I was an East Asian Studies Major and was intent on parlaying my interests into an international law career, but I thought otherwise of that after I got married and had my first daughter. I recently became a consultant to the Monthly Magazine World Report, a South Korean magazine, after they interviewed me about NAAHA and homeschooling in the black community. I assist their overseas reporter on issues affecting the United States. So, as luck would have it, I am able to keep one foot involved in issues affecting East Asia as well as working on projects that affect me as an at-home, homeschooling mother of color.

MMO: Recent research indicates that mothers of color are significantly under-represented in popular parenting magazines. Was that one of the reasons you were inspired to start up Mommy Too! Magazine?

JJ: Indeed. The lack of mothers of color seen in parenting magazines and elsewhere in media and advertising was really the sole reason for starting Mommy Too! Magazine. I had to really ask myself some honest questions about how mothers of color, especially black mothers, are depicted in America. We’re really not seen as mothers at all, or if we are viewed as mothers we aren’t afforded the same treatment as other mothers. Overwhelmingly we are shown as the savvy, or not-so-savvy, career woman. But where is our maternal side? Or, we’re shown to have some problem with mothering or motherhood in general. We either can’t mother properly or we don’t care about being mothers. That’s why I started Mommy Too! Magazine. I wanted mothers of color to be able to log onto the site and read the collective voices of other mothers of color because despite what magazines, other media and ads tell us, we do exist and we have stories to tell and advice to share.

MMO: Early issues of Mommy Too! cover topics that might be of interest to most at-home moms—books, personal essays, lifestyle features, working from home, lifetime learning and personal growth. How do you see the content of Mommy Too! developing over time? What distinguishes your magazine from other resources for at-home moms that don’t focus so specifically on the needs and interests of mothers of color?

JJ: That’s an excellent question because Mommy Too! Magazine, although only six months old, has already shifted focus a bit. Originally designed for at-home mothers of color, Mommy Too! Magazine is now tailored to all mothers of color, whether working or not. This is all because of our readers. We have a large number of working mothers who read each issue of Mommy Too! Magazine and wrote in to let me know. They wanted some place to be included as well and I am extremely happy about the change in focus.

The primary editorial areas will largely remain the same, but there will now be a balance of material that speaks to both at-home and working mothers of color. I will be focusing in particular on publishing personal essays from mothers of color as well as poetry and artwork.

Incidentally, the majority of our readers are black moms, but we do have a few Latina moms who read Mommy Too! In the future, I hope to better reach out to the Latina community about mothering issues.

To date, there is no other web magazine like Mommy Too! on the Net, at least based on my research which has been extensive. Mommy Too! is published each month on a regular basis and is the only web portal that provides timely, up-to-date information for mothers of color.

There are plenty of websites out there that speak to black women, but they don’t speak to us as mothers. I am thrilled to be a pioneer in this effort.

MMO: Cultural stereotypes represent most mothers of color as “working mothers,” and current census figures show that married African American mothers with children under 18 have higher rates of workforce participation than other married mothers– 82 percent compared to 71 percent of white moms, 66 percent of Asian moms and 62 percent of Latina moms. Do you see these trends changing?

JJ: I do see these trends changing. When my mother stayed at home with us, it was definitely not the “in thing” to do if you were a black mother. As I look back, my mother really had no true friends in our neighborhood because all of the other mothers worked. I mean ALL of the other mothers worked and their children came to our house after school because my mom was at home.

There was a distinct divide there between my mother and the other moms in the neighborhood. She was never included in the things that the other moms in the neighborhood were involved in. She was an afterthought and that hurt for me to see. She and other black mothers like her, though, paved the way for younger mothers like me who opt to stay home without compromise.

I talk to black mothers all of the time, no matter what their socioeconomic status is, who are staying at home with the children or working at night or on the weekends on a part-time basis. Certainly over time, the numbers of black at-home mothers will grow, although it will be a gradual rise in numbers because for all intents and purposes, staying at home is still not the “in thing” to do for black moms.

Organizations such as Mocha Moms (www.mochamoms.org) and BEAMoms – Black Educated At-Home Moms (www.beamoms.com), though, have made staying at home an easier decision to make for black mothers because they see that if they do stay at home with their children, they aren’t letting their families and communities down.

MMO: Do you feel white mothers and mothers of color encounter different social and cultural pressures when they decide to leave the paid workforce to care for their families? Do you also see similarities?

JJ: No matter what color we are, we all have pressures as women to work in the paid workforce, especially if we have degrees and advanced degrees. Our culture tells us that if we don’t work, then it’s doomsday in the end for us. Our children will be grown and we’re all washed up.

I think, with the feminist movement more white mothers were busting out of the home because they were, for so long, expected to be care-giving goddesses to their children, while also keeping the house and tending to their husbands. I also think, for white women, there is the pressure to stay in the paid workforce because there is a fear there that everything the feminist movement created can be slowly eroded if more mothers reject the notion of work over home. This fear, in my opinion—and I’m not white, so I really don’t know for sure—is both individual and collective. Individually, mothers fear loosing ground in their careers, but as a whole white mothers feel the pressure of loosing gained ground forged by the feminist movement when they opt out.

Traditionally, though, black women have always worked. There was really no other alternative for us, or our families wouldn’t eat. We didn’t have the luxury of staying at home with our own children day after day. The oppression for black women, to say the least, was an entirely different beast.

Today women of all colors have so many more choices than we once did and I give full credit to the feminist movement for this. As aforementioned, black mothers have always worked and we are expected in our communities to always work because that is what we have always done.

Cultural legacies really don’t fall away easily and there are some definite family repercussions from slavery that are present even today. For example, we have fewer numbers of two-parent households in the black community. That is a direct result of slavery where blacks were not allowed familial relationships. We have a larger percentage of single black mothers, which means more black mothers are working and absolutely cannot opt out. As slaves we were single mothers and motherhood was often stripped from us as our children were sold away. That said, as black mothers, we are really not that far removed from our slave ancestors because you still see the legacy of what the slave institution engrained in us and in society even over a hundred and fifty years later.

So, to really get to the point, black women have more pressures to work based on trends in the black community as well as based on the inherent judgment in the black community that we work, no matter what. It’s totally culturally and historically based. As more black mothers and black families, however, break out of that narrow mold of thinking you get a rise in black at-home mothers like you see today. Most often, for black mothers, the decision to stay at home is met with great resistance, both overt and subtle.

MMO: How do you think the new mothers movement can respond effectively to the needs of at-home mothers of color? To the needs of all mothers of color?

JJ: I think that in this fast-paced, visual culture of ours it is imperative for mothers organizations that are intimately involved in the mothers movement to really embrace diversity and that can be something as simple as having mothers of all shades represented on printed materials and on websites. Black mothers regularly seek out mothering information online and elsewhere, but if they don’t see moms who look like them, they move on. I know that’s generally what I do because I don’t want to feel like the only one, or like a token or like my voice really won’t be heard.

Additionally, mothers groups and organizations must have a diverse leadership on every level because every demographic of mothers must be approached in varying ways. Mothers of color who are leaders in the movement can then help bring in other mothers of color and thus an all-inclusive mother’s movement ensues.

mmo : april 2003

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