Cheli English-Figaro and her husband Michael moved from New York to Maryland just before she gave birth to their first son, Brandon. Like many other career women, she expected to return to work a few months later. With no relatives or friends nearby to call on for help, she started looking for childcare. "I just didn't find anything that I was satisfied with," she says. "I was very nervous about leaving my child with a stranger, a complete stranger."
So English-Figaro decided to stay home and take care of Brandon herself. She was the first lawyer in her family, and she says it wasn't easy for her parents to accept her decision to give up her career. "My mother and father were initially a little surprised," she says. "My father, especially, was stunned. He couldn't believe I'd quit working even for a small period of time. But my mother understood and my father has come around. A lot of the other relatives said 'Anybody can take care of a baby, you need to be a lawyer.' And that was the reaction, initially. It was really my husband who encouraged it."
African American mothers have worked outside the home for generations, usually because their families needed the income. So, when English-Figaro decided to stay home, she didn't have a role model. She says the transition from lawyer to stay-at-home mother was also challenging because a woman's career is a huge part of her identity. Gradually, though, she met other women who'd made the same choice she had, and started to feel less alone. "I'd done some preliminary research and found that the numbers of the stay at home moms were going up for the first time since the 1950s," she says. "So that was really encouraging."
In 1997, Cheli English-Figaro and three of her friends started a group to provide other stay-at-home mothers with emotional, educational and social support. They called it Mocha Moms. "Mocha actually is coffee and milk," she says. "So, it refers to women of color. Initially we decided it would be a group of African American mothers who are at home. Then, in 1998, we broadened it and we said all mothers of color. We welcome women and men of all races and all nationalities."
Thanks to women like Kuae Mattox, who quit her job as a TV producer to care for her three children, Mocha Moms has grown. "I joined the Mocha Moms organization in 2001," she says. "And then decided I wanted to start a chapter in my area. So I started the Essex County, New Jersey, Chapter."
Mocha Moms includes more than 2,500 members in more than 100 chapters across the country. Mattox says Mocha Moms serves as an extended family for its members.
"I'll give you a classic example," she says. "In our chapter, when a mom has a baby, there is someone from our chapter who shows up at her home every single day for the first two weeks that she's home from hospital to bring her and her family a hot meal. So our moms are making meals for other moms. They are staying in their homes, allowing moms to take a shower, helping them clean. They are supporting each other in any way they can."
Mattox says her Mocha Moms Chapter started with only 10 members. Now, they number more than 60 and are engaged in a wide variety of activities. "We meet on a weekly basis for what we call Mother Support Group meetings," she says. "We bring our kids with us. We bring snacks, and we just chat. Sometimes we pick a topic to discuss, other times we have a guest speaker to come in and talk with us on a variety of things. We also have monthly Moms Only get-togethers, no children allowed. It's a chance for us to get together and kind of let our hair down and spend some time with each other."
Mocha Moms also support their communities. "That's probably one of the most important components because it's important for us to give back to the communities in which we live," she says. "So we're doing everything from holding canned food drives for food pantries, to gathering gifts for foster kids, gifts for children of incarcerated parents. We're volunteering in the schools in our various communities. We're working on a grass roots level with lots of local organizations. We're doing as much as we can to give back to the community."
Kuae Mattox is still enjoying her job as mother of three. Joining Mocha Moms, she says, helped her feel supported and confident enough to make other choices. She recently decided not to go back to her 9 to 5 job, and started working from home as a freelance writer.
Mocha Moms has taken its mission on-line, to help more mothers find support, share experiences and be proud of their parenting choices.