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Commentary: Michelle Obama is reinventing the stay-at-home mom

  • Story Highlights
  • Jolene Ivey: Michelle Obama is giving image of stay-at-home moms a makeover
  • African-American moms usually worked outside the home, Ivey says
  • She says Michelle Obama can support her family and take on causes
  • Ivey: Obama is using her education to raise her children and our consciousness
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By Jolene Ivey
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Jolene Ivey, co-founder of the nonprofit Mocha Moms, Inc., is a Maryland state delegate and mother of five boys. She's married to Glenn Ivey, the state's attorney for Prince George's County, Maryland. She's also a regular contributor to "Tell Me More," hosted by Michel Martin on NPR.

Jolene Ivey says Michelle Obama is bucking tradition of African-American women working outside the home.

CHEVERLY, Maryland (CNN) -- America's vision of the stereotypical June Cleaver at-home mom is about to get a shake-up.

Michelle Obama is joining the ranks of the Mocha Moms! And she'll be doing it at the most prestigious address on earth -- 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

From the time when Africans were dragged to these shores as slaves, one of the jobs that fell to these women who weren't working in the fields was caring for the children of their owners.

From breast-feeding to bathing to rocking them, the women tended their owners' children, while not being allowed to lavish such attention on their own. Long after slavery was over, little changed in this dynamic.

It was common for black women to leave their own children at home to fend for themselves and go to work for low wages as domestics in the homes of well-off white families. As African-Americans have gotten more opportunities, a college degree has been a ticket to the career ladder. Period. Devoting full time to motherhood is considered a waste of education by many in the black community.

Middle-class white women, on the other hand, were expected to stay home with their children. They fought their way into the workforce in large numbers relatively recently. The feminist and civil rights movements opened the working world to all women, but culturally, black women still were discouraged from being the primary caretakers of their own children.

Michelle Obama is bucking that mind-set in deciding to take time off from her career to focus on getting her children acclimated to life in the White House. Her own mom stayed home with her children, but this was unusual enough that few African-Americans have such a family memory.

Mrs. Robinson can claim credit for having raised two highly successful offspring -- one now a coach of the Oregon State basketball team, and one about to become first lady of the United States of America. What a proud legacy!

Michelle will be following in her mother's footsteps, being available for her children and her husband while forgoing a paycheck of her own. It's not a lifestyle that's right for all families, but it's a template that should get more attention -- and respect -- now that our incoming first lady will model it on the world stage.

When my first son was born 19 years ago, I quit my job as Rep. (now Sen.) Ben Cardin's press secretary. Family and friends disapproved, in a range of volumes.

The new mom friends I made were mostly white, and I'm grateful to them even today for helping me get through those early, confusing, frustrating, thrilling years. But I was lonely for friends who understood my jokes, and what it was like to walk a path unlike any family member before me.

A friend told me to stop my whining and start a newsletter. Call it Mocha Moms, she said, and use it to find other women like me. Another black at-home mom friend helped me launch it nearly 12 years ago! Two more women found us, and we built the framework for the organization that today has more than 100 chapters around the country.

I can't think of a better ambassador for Mocha Moms than Michelle Obama. For all the 16 years I was home with my kids, no one cared what my views were on anything more exciting than toilet training. She'll be in the position to bring light to issues and organizations that are currently working in obscurity, and energize their efforts.

Two issues she's chosen so far are on the work-home life balance and the needs of military families. I hope she'll also take on eliminating domestic violence as an issue. It crosses class and race, and has such long-lasting negative effects on families. We can use some star power on that one.

Programs that teach parenting skills and those that support strengthening marriages would welcome some help. The homeless could certainly use a champion, and it's hard to think of a better one than Michelle Obama. This is her chance to be a trailblazer and a traditional first lady at the same time!

We've got a Mocha Mom heading for the White House -- one who's using her Princeton and Harvard degrees to raise her children and our consciousness. Our attitudes about the choices women -- especially African-American women -- make may never be the same. At least, I hope not.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jolene Ivey.

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