No Zoom call could convey the overwhelming love and gratitude I feel for my mother. Not only did she alter her body to bring me into existence and ensure all of my basic needs were met, but she read books with me every night as a child, taught me how to ride a bike, nurtured my interests and talents, and encouraged me to learn and grow. As an adult, she continues to believe in me, invest in me, and love me unconditionally. I am tremendously grateful to have such an incredible woman, friend, and mentor in my life.
I realize this is not everyone’s experience with their biological mother. Some have fraught relationships with or are estranged from their mothers, several have momma’s who have already passed, others never knew their birth-moms. Yet, most of us understand the experience of being mothered or cared for by a loved one. Whether an auntie, grandmother, or family friend, someone—or many people—mothered us.
Black mothers, and women who mother, are the backbone of American society. Black women have been mothering in the U.S. since slavery, caring for their own children while being forced to care for the infants and families of their enslavers. Following emancipation, caregiving and domestic work were one of the few employment options available to Black women. In Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help, about Black domestic and care workers in the 1960s, Aibileen, a Black nanny, whispers to one of the white children who is ignored by her mother, “You is kind, You is smart, You is important.” This may be a (flawed) fiction story, but it provides a good example of the kind of mothering Black women do for other people’s children. And today, Black women continue to do the work of mothering as both familial and professional caregivers.
Caregiving has historically been deemed women’s work. Black women take on a disproportionate share of child care and domestic labor in their homes, support sick family members and make other caregiving arrangements, and contribute significantly to the economic security of their families. Too often, they are required to fulfill these roles alone. Systems of inequality leave Black people more susceptible to incarceration, employment discrimination, and lower life expectancies. In the midst of these unjust systems, Black women have always stepped up to fulfill necessary roles and protect their families and communities. Therefore, Black women are more likely to be single mothers and to be primary economic benefactors for their families. In fact, 81% of Black mothers, compared to 50% of white mothers, are the primary or sole breadwinners for their households. While Black women are expected to fulfill these dual roles as caregivers and financial providers for their families, the positions they are able to obtain are often undervalued and underpaid.
Women comprise 86% of the direct care workforce, which includes nursing assistants, home health aides, and personal care aides, and 93% of child care workers, with Black women assuming a disproportionate share of these positions. Caregiving was historically seen as Black women’s labor, meaning these positions are grossly undervalued and underpaid. Today, domestic and care workers continue to be left out of labor laws, and many lack job security or access to employer-based benefits like health care and paid sick leave. The median annual salary for direct care workers in 2019 was only about $24,000, and the median hourly wage for child care workers was only $11.65. Black and other women of color, in direct care roles, are more likely to live in poverty and rely on public assistance than white women and men in direct care work. As we’ve seen in the current pandemic, women of color are disproportionately working on the front lines in positions where they may be exposed to COVID-19 and may experience financial hardship. We ruthlessly demand that Black women caregivers serve our needs to the detriment of their own safety and the well-being of their families.
Caregiving can be emotionally, physically, and financially exhausting. While Black women are mothering others, who is caring for them? We need policies that strengthen economic security for Black mothers and caregivers, including universal paid family and medical leave, universal healthcare, living wages, and other economic and social supports. Without Black women caregivers, this country will not be able to return to work or rebound from this economic crisis. When we ensure Black women have what they need, we ensure everyone has what they need.
Make sure you spread love to all of the women who mothered you, today and every day.