mutual support

Mocha Moms helps stay-at-home mothers learn to lean on each other

February 06, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | By Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

The day is snowy from the season's first storm, and yet the little room in the Union Bethel A.M.E. Church in Randallstown is full. A dozen women with young ones in tow have shown up to take part in what has become an essential part of their week: a meeting of Mocha Moms.

Dawn Roberts Mark, co-chairwoman of the West Baltimore County chapter's support group, sparks a discussion about parents: What do you wish that yours had said to you, but never did? How will the new mothers avoid repeating negative cycles with the children now playing happily at their feet?

Revelations pour out, along with a few tears. About mothers who never said "I love you," or "I'm proud of you," in contrast with the mother who sent cards for no reason but to say those very things. About a father or two who worked hard for their families but, at hard day's end, had little emotion left to give. About parents no longer alive, whose voices nonetheless reverberate, in ways helpful and not, in the heads of their grownup daughters.

And about living mothers and other relatives who, in the words of one member, think "I'm on crack for being at home."

Such is the confessional quality of Mocha Moms, a support and activity group for mothers of color who have scaled back work -- in most cases completely -- to spend time with their children. Founded eight years ago in Prince George's County, the group has spread nationwide, and now has 100 chapters and more than 2,000 members.

The growth hasn't surprised Cheli English-Figaro of Bowie, who founded the group with three other local stay-at-home mothers in 1997. At the time, the Columbia Law School graduate had a "high-need" baby, a husband who worked long hours, and not a family member to help within miles. She made it her business to network with other stay-at-home mothers, and soon found a little-talked-about but active community of African-American women put-ting careers on hold to spend time with children.

"I knew there were women of color at home," she said.

When English-Figaro teamed up with other women who had started a newsletter for African-American mothers, Mocha Moms was born.

Minority mothers who stay home may have a harder time finding each other because more of them work while raising children. The U.S. Census recently reported that about 12 percent of married African-American mothers of children under 15 stayed home for family reasons in 2003, compared with 24 percent of married white mothers.

Katrina Bell McDonald, an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who studies African-American women, says black women historically have felt the need to be independent even within marriage. Relatives of a stay-at-home mother, she said, may worry that she won't have her own money to rely on if circumstances change.

"Black women, as white women, want to spend time with their children," McDonald said. "But a larger portion of black women simply can't, or won't, because they don't want to put their families in unforeseen jeopardy."

Among educated black women, there also is pressure to advance, she said.

Allison Simmons, who founded the West Baltimore County chapter of Mocha Moms in 2001, has felt that pressure. She was headed for a career in academia when she got pregnant during graduate school.

Her mother was worried about her decision not to work. "She had this mentality like, 'Girl, you've got to take care of yourself,'" said Simmons, 36.

She says she replied: "Mom, I only have one chance to do this the best I can." For support, she drove more than 30 miles to Mocha Moms meetings in Greenbelt before starting the Baltimore-area group.

Finding fellowship

Now people travel to the Randalls-town meetings. President Cindy Baker, a lawyer who used the meetings to talk to other members about whether she should return from her maternity leave, makes the trip from Clarksville, in Howard County.

Karen Hardy, 36, found Mocha Moms the way several other members had -- through a relative who had joined in another state. "I needed women to talk to, women to fellowship with," said the Pikesville mother of two. She tried joining other mothers' groups, but "didn't feel as connected."

That's why Romica Brashear, 30, joined the Anne Arundel chapter that meets in Severn -- and became its president. "I had gone to other moms' groups and I've always been the only minority," said Brashear, who worked as a software engineer before having son Donovan, now 17 months. "They were very welcoming and warm, but you're kind of like a sore thumb that sticks out."

Mocha Moms primarily attracts African-American mothers, though other minority women and some men are members. Some white parents have joined, mostly because they have biracial children whom they want to have friends of diverse backgrounds. And while many members stay home with their children, some have full- or part-time jobs or home-based businesses.

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