My parents have been married for 40 years, and what they modeled for my brothers and me has shaped so much of who I am. My mom, Nicole, is one of the smartest people I know. She’s also very funny. It is only now, in my thirties, that I’ve been able to fully appreciate her choices as a woman, wife, and mother and what her choices have made possible for me. When I read articles like the recent piece in New York Times Magazine on the Opt Out generation wanting to return to the workplace, I think of my mother. We were a middle class family, so her choice to stay home was certainly a privilege unavailable to far too many women, but the choice isn’t only about economics. I wanted to learn more about the complexities of motherhood and ambition and marriage from her perspective.
Let’s go back to 1972 when you married Dad. Was it a conscious decision to stay at home or did you work when you get married?
I worked at an insurance company as an adjuster. I went to college before I got married. After you were born I went back to school full time. I quit my job because I wanted to go to school.
Why didn’t you go into the workforce after that?
It became complicated. We were in an area where I had no social support and your father’s work was taking 200 percent of him, so there was no way I could have balanced children and career. We could make it on one salary. It was also a financial decision.
How did you handle money in the marriage?
I managed the money.
Did you ever worry about your financial future?
I never did. I didn’t think about divorce. I was too young and too dumb possibly.
How did you balance domestic responsibilities when dad came home from work?
When you were a baby, your dad took care of you at night so I could study. Later, he did the dishes and I cooked except on weekends. He did laundry on weekends. He did the vacuuming.
So he understood you needed help.
Yes, even though I didn’t work outside the home, he realized it was a lot.
Did you ever regret your decision to stay home?
No. As they say, for women, the choices are often cruel—but in truth, I’ve never felt I sacrificed.
Because the result is good. I did what I wanted to do.
Did you feel independent?
Absolutely. I was. I felt it.
What did you call yourself? Did you want to give yourself a title like domestic engineer?
I called it a homemaker. I wasn’t interested in the beautifying of it.
Did you feel like you couldn’t follow your dreams?
Once I made the decision, I was clear, I was done.
If you hadn’t stayed at home, what would you have done?
I wanted to become a doctor, a general practitioner.
How did you keep yourself mentally engaged?
Trying to steal time to read, like getting up very early Sunday mornings.
You had to sneak time to read?
Yes, because Joel was waiting for me in the morning to get downstairs. “Mommy, is breakfast ready?”
Children are hell.
They are selfish when they are little. They don’t understand about your needs, that’s not their concern. It’s difficult to create that time for yourself and at night you are too tired.
Did you ever think about going back to school?
I did. I’m only 12 credits from graduation but at a certain age, I started thinking, what is the purpose of an education besides knowledge? It’s to make a living. As a woman, there was more of an age barrier. To enter the professional workforce after a certain age is quasi-impossible. After 50 years old, for a woman, you can work but professional work is much harder to come by.
There was this article in this week’s New York Times Magazine about highly educated women who “opted out” many years ago.
Yes, I remember. It is a high-risk decision to not pursue a career. I understood the risk much later in life.
I met someone who went from the country club to welfare.
How old were you when that happened?
I was 35. Most women plunge into poverty when they divorce. It’s hard to get back into a career. Two things I noticed in the decisions made by the women in that article. I think for most of them, the husband made the final decision. I never had a husband who told me not to go to work. Your dad had no need to exert power at home. He did that at his job. He knew to leave his “boss hat” down the hill, before he entered the house. He was somebody important elsewhere. Number two, every single one of those women defined themselves by what they do. When you do that, if you no longer have the career, you have nothing.
Do you ever feel judged for not entering the workplace?
Who judges you?
Only women, because men know better. Men are not going to do what you are doing. Even though your dad used to tell me he would switch anytime I wonder how long that would last. But he felt he missed out, especially now, when he sees my relationship with you guys.
Did he opt out of something too by pursuing his career?
Yes, that’s what most men do.
What did the judgment look like?
Like, what you are doing is nothing, like you are a glorified maid, but whatever. Everything is secondary to raising children. It is the most important job in the world.
Yes. Absolutely. You have once chance. You can go back to school, reinvent yourself, do a lot of things. You can’t start over with a child.
Sometimes when people talk about women and the workforce, they say a woman cannot truly be equal to a man unless she has her own income. What do you think?
Well. Equality. What a word. When we choose go outside in the world, when we come home, we’re still mommy. The second shift starts. Equality doesn’t exist, period, even when you share the chores. Some days it can be 70/30 and other days it is 30/70. I don’t think that’s what we should be fighting for.
What should we be fighting for?
Men participating more in the home, but it’s petty to say 50/50, because life doesn’t allow that.
What does participation look like?
If the husband wants to cook, let them. If they want to take care of the children, let them. Let them do what they want to do and you do the rest. Most men are not going to dust, but it is great that they will vacuum and mop. The babies—men don’t take care of them the way we do, but they can take care of them. Men build bridges. They can handle children. You don’t have to interfere.
Did you have to micromanage dad when he took care of us?
Not really, because he had experience with children. When you were born, he put you by his side of the bed because he felt he knew more than I did. When you guys played soccer, he went to one tournament, I went to another. He’ll go to one school conference, and I’ll go to another. Your dad did a lot of school projects.
You and dad seemed pretty equal. Did you make a conscious decision to model that?
We never talked about it. He was determined to make it work, even though his job absorbed most of him. The fact that he lived with his mother before we married was the training for him. And he was a boy scout. Being Haitian, too, you have to know the culture. Haitian women are equal.
Did you ever feel a sense of class guilt that you had these options?
No. Never. I’ve paid my dues in life.
Does that come from growing up in Haiti?
Absolutely. Poverty is all I knew until I came to the U.S.
Very few people talk about the choices available to working class women. Why is that?
We need to hear from them or we cannot know.
Were you ever bored?
When I would have been bored, that’s when I started taking care of myself, after the baby went to kindergarten. My baby went to school, there was no more excuse. I started walking.
Did you find it hard to be a full time mother and take care of yourself?
The most important thing is not to forget about yourself. I did, through no fault of anyone. I didn’t understand I could have also taken care of me while I was taking care of all of you.
If a woman today said she would choose to stay at home, what would you say to her?
Think very hard. It is a changed world. It’s not the [same world as it was] when I got married 40 years ago. The risks are greater for women now. Divorce is what it is and it’s not going to decrease. As women grow more independent, divorce is going to climb because it is easier to make the decision, “I’m done.” Also think about your partner, the person you’re choosing.
The decision starts well before you have children.
Absolutely. People change but I don’t think values change. Common values keep people together, not differences. Opposites attract? No. You marry your mirror in general.
Did you and dad talk about common values? How did you know he was the right one?
I knew the moment I met him. I saw his relationship with his mother and siblings. He explained to me where he thought he was going to go in his company and he did. I never doubted him for a moment. And he loves his children. He always told me, “yo pas trop pou mwen” (they’re not too much for me).
What was the best part of staying home?
I never missed anything my children did.
What was the worst part?
Isolation. Your world is only about children. Not for everybody but for me, there was a cultural thing that made it worse. I was not as organized as the American women. They had groups, meetings, me, I didn’t do it. I did only children. They had babysitters, child exchange. I tried it with Michael Jr. and he wasn’t going to have it. I left him once with a friend. The place I left him is the place I found him when I came back. He never moved. The lady felt so bad. He’s a pest. There was also an exclusion. The Americans would do all sorts of things, and I was never invited. You would see people who moved into the neighborhood long after me, become part of the group. I can’t blame it on just that. I’ve never been a joiner. I’ve only had two good friends my entire life and that was plenty for me.
What do you notice about how parents are raising children now?
Everything is by the book. I read all the books too, but at times you should use your common sense. What’s important when raising children is that they become what you tell them they are. If you tell them they are dumb every single day, you will have a dumb child on your hands. It’s how you feel about the child that makes them confident.
Did you make a conscious effort to raise us with confidence?
Yes. This is something you have to do.
By taking pride in what they do. Success breeds success. When a child takes a first step, everyone claps, what does the child do? They take a second and that’s how it starts. If nobody pays attention, soon they will stop and they won’t pursue.
Did you ever worry about your children becoming too confident?
No. The confidence has to be based on something. It’s not a word. If they have things to back it up, it’s okay. It’s not empty or shallow.
Did you ever feel you had to do something extra raising black children in white places?
A whole lot. It’s very hard to raise black children, especially black sons, because that’s the target. You have to constantly undo the negative, when they come home with stories from school. When Michael Jr. went to school, they were touching his hair. He was the only non-white child in the class and he came home and told me about it. I called the principal and asked them to allow me to come to give a talk on Haiti. The principal was very open. It went very well. I made plantain chips. The kids ate the entire bowl and asked when I was going to bring more. I explained that the way they feel Michael’s hair is different, he feels the same way about them. They never touched his hair again. They could point to where Haiti was, because I brought my globe. I explained Haiti was the first black republic in the world. From time to time you have to counter-attack, because they can destroy that child before he even has a chance.
Did you have similar concerns about raising a girl?
As long as women are not taken seriously, they will find their way, quietly, and become whatever they want to become. With black men, there is a pronounced opposition. When society starts taking women seriously, black women will have the same problems as black men.
You didn’t encourage me to cook or clean or do anything feminine.
You were not interested at all. That was fine by me. Joel was interested in cooking so he learned how to cook. It was open for me. I didn’t have any rule. Every human being should learn to be independent.
Why were you so intense about education when we were growing up?
In my country, education is primordial, that’s the only way out. It was even more important for black children. If you don’t go to school, I don’t see what you are going to do. And you need to be not just educated, but also well-educated.
You never told us stories about 50-hour labors or made us feel guilty. Why?
It’s irrelevant. What is the sense of telling children about labor? They don’t care. Having children is a choice and women use that too much. Get over it. It’s true! If you want to see sacrifice, you go to Haiti.
Did you ever struggle with being middle class here, culture shock?
Coming to the States was a culture shock in every way. It took me years to recover but I had no difficulty living the life I lead because I know how hard it was for my mother. It’s always easier to adjust to better. Nothing was handed to us. We worked harder, longer, to achieve whatever we achieved. This is why also, when the time came, we went back to Haiti to help.
Why did you decide to go back to Haiti?
The more you receive, the more you can and should give. Whatever I have become here, I became because of who I was in my country. The strength, the courage to fight, to know I was a free person, I didn’t know there was a ceiling, because I am Haitian. The nuns did a great job.
As you were raising your children, what did you consider success?
I wanted them to be good people. I wanted them to be self-supporting because I was not going to be around all the time. I wanted them to have a good life and a good life takes a good education. I didn’t want to see them struggling. That’s what I considered success.
Roxane Gay is very much her mother’s daughter.