On April 19, 2017, Serena Williams, arguably the best tennis player of all time and goddess supreme, confirmed that she was 20 weeks pregnant after debuting her baby bump in a cryptic Snapchat story. The internet was delighted, with tennis fans immediately tweeting at Williams to congratulate her and her fiancee, the Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian.
Many were amazed that Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open on Jan. 28, when she was likely two months pregnant. Some people, however, questioned whether Williams' career would ever be the same following her pregnancy, with CNN running a story with the skeptical headline, "Can Serena Williams return to the top of tennis after giving birth?"
Of course, the answer to that question is yes, and no one should be particularly surprised that Williams was able to win the Grand Slam singles title while she was pregnant, just as no one should've been surprised to see Beyoncé flawlessly perform “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” from her album Lemonade while she was very much pregnant with twins at the Grammys last February. After all, Williams and Beyoncé have proven to the world for years that woman can do and have it all, and motherhood should be no exception. Yet for some reason, the idea that women can deftly balance pregnancy with a thriving career is somehow still a novel concept — for everyone, that is, except black women.
As a black woman, I grew up with the understanding that it is expected for black women to work while pregnant, or to work outside the home after having a baby. It is simply what we do. Williams and Beyoncé are merely following the path most black mothers take, albeit on a larger stage.
In our culture, there's much discussion devoted to the so-called "mommy wars," or mothers' decision to stay at home or join the workforce. Black women have largely been absent from this discussion, because according to a 2010 study from the United States Census Bureau, Black women are half as likely to stay at home and parent as white women.
For black mothers, not working has never been an option.
Historically speaking, for black mothers, not working has never been an option. From the moment black women were brought to this country as slaves, our primary duties have been to work and bear children, our value and worth predicated on our ability to do both. We were expected to constantly birth children to increase our masters' wealth. We were then expected to also care for the master’s children, using our milk-swollen breasts to feed their babies. And we were expected to return to the fields or farm postpartum, relying on older women to watch our babies as we worked and worked and worked. Throughout American history, black women did not have the luxury of being able to focus solely on rearing our own children, even after slavery was abolished and we continued to grow as a community economically, politically and socially.
Growing up, I did not see many examples of women of color who were also stay-at-home moms. Every woman in my family continued to work while pregnant and after having children. It wasn’t always easy for them, and watching my mother struggle to provide for our family taught me that it takes hard work to maintain a family.
When my husband and I first decided to have children, we talked about our childcare options, but the prospect of me working as a stay-at-home mother never came up. My automatic mindset was: "I am a black woman. I cannot be a stay-at-home mother." This decision is not one I consciously made. It came from something deeply ingrained, a general understanding among black women and within the black community that mothers simply do not stay at home to parent.
There will likely still be people who question whether Williams and Beyoncé will be able to achieve the same level of excellence they maintained throughout their pre-baby careers. These people must not know the resilience of black women, and of black mothers in particular, to transcend all obstacles and accomplish the seemingly impossible.
This feeling can be attributed in part to the cultural role models black women had at the time. Like many black women of my generation, I grew up idolizing Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show. To me, she epitomized the ideal of the black Superwoman: she was a know-all, see-all, educated black woman who proved it was possible to be be a high-powered attorney, raise five children and still be sexy and cultured.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, there was the Welfare Queen, the stereotype created by Ronald Reagan of the unemployed black woman scamming the government by collecting undeserved amounts of welfare money, popping out babies like rabbits and draining hardworking white Americans of their tax dollars. For many black women of my era, the Welfare Queen was the only image of the “stay-at-home” mother we had. So the choice between who I'd rather be when I grew up was an easy one.
Recently, I’ve noticed that more black women are choosing to work in the home and not pursue professional careers. I have friends who work in the home, some who have also chosen to homeschool their kids. (In fact, African-Americans are the fastest-growing minority in the homeschooling movement, according to a 2007 NPR report.) In an interview with BuzzFeed, Kuae Mattox, the president of Mocha Moms, an organization for black mothers, pointed out that "this is the first real generation of women of color who have been able to make the choice to stay at home."
Still, for most black women, the option to stay at home just does not exist. According to a 2017 survey, black people in general have the highest unemployment rate in this country, even though black women are the most educated demographic in the United States. Given these economic circumstances, it makes sense that many black women would feel the need to have a steady source of income outside the home, even for families where both parents are present.
Today, our primary examples of black motherhood are still working women: Michelle Obama, Shonda Rhimes, Zadie Smith, and now Williams, whose PR rep has confirmed that she will be taking a break from tennis for the rest of year, but will resume play in 2018. It's also doubtful that Beyoncé's work ethic will change after her twins are born. Although she recently cancelled her Coachella performance, she has continued to maintain a public profile throughout her pregnancy, taking photos with her family and going to basketball games.
That said, there will likely still be people who question whether Williams and Beyoncé will be able to achieve the same level of excellence they maintained throughout their pre-baby careers. These people must not know the resilience of black women, and of black mothers in particular, to transcend all obstacles and accomplish the seemingly impossible.