Audience Offers Parenting Thoughts, Questions

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This week's Mocha Moms dig into the Tell Me More mail bag to respond to listener questions and comments about parenting. Moms Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Asra Nomani shed more light on past topics discussed in the segment.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few mocha moms. We visit with members of this mother support group each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice.

Today, it's all about you, our listeners. We hear you. You've been calling and writing in, and we decided to take a peek into the mocha mom's mail bag and talk over some of the things that you've had on your minds. I'm joined by Jolene Ivey and Cheli English-Figaro, who are, of course, the Mocha Mom's co-founders, and two of our regulars, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Asra Nomani. Welcome ladies, moms.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Mocha Mom): Hi, Michel.

Ms. CHELI ENGLISH-FIGARO (Mocha Mom): Hey, Michel.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Mocha Mom): Great to be here.

MARTIN: OK. First, here's an email that asks, are the mochas promoting separatism and racial division? Nothing heavy, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: This is a listener who hears us in WAMU, which is our member station in Washington D.C. This is what he writes. I wonder if a segment titled Marshmallow Moms would get the same press our Mocha Moms seems to be enjoying. I find the program to be elitist in the worst way, and I would not tolerate a white show with similar overtones to come through my radio. It's 2008. You're fostering the same old stereotypes of a bygone era. Please eliminate the racial focus.

And I want you to know that I contacted this listener, and I invited him to join us here at the table. But he preferred not to come on, in part because he says he doesn't speak very well. But I do think it was fair to raise this question. And I did ask him if he was reacting to anything specifically, and he didn't say that he was. I mean, I have my own suspicion about what he might have been reacting to. But Jolene, you know, I wanted to ask you and Cheli first. I mean, you - when I raised it with you, you said, you know what, I've been hearing this when we first founded the group. So what's your reaction?

Ms. IVEY: First of all, obviously, he's wrong. He said he would be upset if white shows came through his airwaves. Well, you know what? White shows are coming through his airwaves everyday, all day. I don't know what planet he's living on that he thinks that this isn't a normal part of our society. What Mocha Moms does is try to address is the people who are left out of the normal discourse in America. So he's wrong. And that's all I've got to say about that.

MARTIN: You're saying that even if these shows aren't labeled that way...

Ms. IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: The effect is they are that way because they don't include things that are of interest and importance to you.

Ms. IVEY: Exactly. And when we first started Mocha Moms, it was just a little lonely newsletter that I brought along to show you today. And you know, there's a certain perspective that you have when you are African American or any other minority that is going to be a little different than what the majority culture is. And we just look at things from a different perspective, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. We include anyone who wants to join Mocha Moms. We always have.

MARTIN: And Cheli, what do you think? I want to hear from you. All the moms who're in this too because we do have a diverse panel. So I want to hear from everybody, Cheli.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: The thing about why can't we all just get along, that's fine, but we have to also realize that we are different. Just because we're getting along doesn't mean we all have to be the same. It's hard for us to realize that people still don't understand that there really is a cultural difference, and people do need support when they are making choices outside of the cultural norm.

And the fact of the matter is that this whole society has a cultural norm, and it is not our norm. And so here's a really good example that just happened last week. My husband and I were out. We met a very nice white older gentleman. He was about 65-years-old, and we're talking about the economy, and he is talking about his kids and his grand kids. And he says to us, he said, well, you know, my son-in-law is not making enough money. He's just not making, either, barely making. And I've got two young grandchildren, and they're just not making. I have to teach my daughter how to balance her checkbook better and this that and the other.

And then he says, the next sentence he says, now, of course, my daughter doesn't work, and, of course, we don't want her to work. And I have no idea what he said after that because my listening just dropped off because that's in stark contrast with what my father said to me when I said to him I wanted to stay home with my child. He said to me, you are not white. You are not white. Now, you all can't see me on the radio, but I'm a deep dark milk chocolate. So when you make that choice, you're going outside of your norm.

MARTIN: Leslie, how are you reacting to this?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: What I've learned through my life, but I particularly learned in writing my book, "Mommy Wars," from the black contributors, that motherhood is different for each mom depending on a lot of factors, but largely depending on her culture. And I think it's worth acknowledging, as Cheli and Jolene have said, that being a black mom in America is really different from being a white mom and being an Asian mom and being a Latina mom.

And I don't see why there's anything exclusionary about having a show that says it's going to address issues of particular interest to black moms, you know. The Washington Post has a sports section. The New York Times has a business section. The L.A. Times has a travel section. And you don't have to be an athlete or a business person or a world traveler to find these sections worth reading. And I don't think you have to be black or a mom to find the issues talked about by the Mocha Moms really, really interesting. I think it would be exclusionary if you said that you had to be a black mom to listen to this show. But clearly, that's not what's going on here.

MARTIN: What about this argument, that talking about race promotes division and separatism? I mean, that seems to be part of his concern is that, when you highlight these issues, you're sort of promoting a sense of separateness.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: I think that that is not true. I think that you are trying to cover up the fact that there are really quite real cultural and racial differences in this country by saying motherhood is color blind; everybody's experiences are the same because it's just not true. And I think that, for me, as a white mom, there are times where, for reasons of great guilt, I understand that I'm very privileged just because of the fact that I was born white. I would like to pretend that everything is equal. But I think, if I pretend that it's equal, I'm doing everybody else a big disservice.

MARTIN: Asra, what do you think about this?

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Mocha Mom): Well, I landed on one of these shores when I was four from India in 1969, but long before multiculturalism was part of the school nomenclature. I grew up not celebrating Christmas but always bringing a present and not knowing what to bring when they had the Christmas gift exchange. And I always thought that, by fitting in, I would not have that sense of being separate and different.

You know, we were in the newsroom together for many years, the Wall Street Journal, and I never wrote about issues of being Muslim or being an immigrant. I was covering the airline industry. My entire life was basically lived according to the ethos of what this man is writing about because I felt like I needed to assimilate.

But, you know, when I first arrived here to start speaking on Mocha Moms, I honestly didn't know what the heck the show was about, no offense intended here. I didn't know if I was going to be handed a cup of coffee, and we were talking about mom issues. What you've done is you've allowed me to get in touch with my inner mocha.

Basically, I have always, you know, tried to fit in so much that I haven't recognized my own differences. And here, I noticed that I speak about the values that I've learned in an immigrant family, being from an Asian family, that are very much different often times from our popular culture here. And it has been really exciting. It's allowed me actually to accept more of my identity than I ever have before and also, respect and honor the parenting that I came from because it so influenced me and has also made me feel quite different from a lot of what you might see in a parent magazine and other conversations about parenting.

MARTIN: I do want to point out that we get many letters of support from women who say I'm a white suburban mom, but I love hearing the program because I learn a lot, and it makes me feel less alone in a sense. So I don't want to say that this is the only point of view we're getting, but I did feel it was worthy to raise it just because I think that there are also people who have this point of view. And I just want to be sure that everybody else has just different points of view out there, and I think that we want to say that we respect different points of view about this, and we're not afraid of them. Right?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Even if they're wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NOMANI: Got to have that last word.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're taking a peek inside the Mocha Moms mail bag. We're answering listener questions. Another listener reacted to a Mocha Moms conversation this past April about girls and STDs. At that time, our special guest, Dr. Marilyn Corder, had this to say.

Dr. MARILYN CORDER (Pediatrician): Many of our parents didn't talk to us. Now, we can't keep our heads in the sand, and we can't say, well, they're not ready. They're ready before you think they're ready. And they're going to hear it sometimes 4th or 5th grade, more than when you heard it in 11th grade. So you have to.

MARTIN: The conversation prompted this comment. Your piece about girls and STDs was informative. We recently had a case in Dillon, South Carolina where two sisters aged four and five were found to have an STD. Yes, they were four and five. The parents were arrested. It was immediately determined that a young male friend, a teenager, had sexually assaulted the girls. Unfortunately, all of the parties are African American.

As a parent, I can't understand this case. How can parents leave their children unattended? What is happening to our community? I found this interesting, of course, heartbreaking, and my heart goes out to this family, obviously. But one of this - I find it interesting was that, in response to the earlier question, this was near felt very keenly that there was something in the community that needed to be addressed.

Jolene, I wanted to ask you about that. What do you think about that? And I'm asking you in part because you're a legislator who deals with these issues. Your husband is a prosecutor who deals with these issues. Do you think that there's a black problem here?

Ms. IVEY: Well, there's a black problem. To me, the bigger black problem is, you know, black on black crime as far as violence, people killing each other. That seems to be what I know of statistically to be a real issue. I'm not sure that there's really any more of a black than a white problem when it comes to any kind of assault, domestic violence kind of assault or sexual assaults. As far as I know, those numbers are horrible but even.

MARTIN: A lack of supervision issue?

Ms. IVEY: I'm not sure. I'd have to really know that story because I can't say that they weren't being supervised. Maybe the person who assaulted them was the person who was supervising them. And also, the person who wrote said something about - seemed to make it worse, said everybody involved was black. I don't think that that's got anything to do with anything, personally.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you? What are you hearing? Are you hearing people expressing concern about the kind of lack of supervision over all that kids today have. I mean, I hear different things. On the one hand, I think people feel the kids have almost too much, that they're kind of in lock down. Nobody can ever just go out and play anymore.

On the other hand, I hear, you know, you hear stories like these, and people go, what is on these people's minds? Why would you leave a teenager in charge of kids who's not a relative, things of that sort?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: You know, what I hear is that parents are overly protective and overly concerned but not about terribly realistic problems. And as a survivor of domestic violence myself, I can attest to at least that part of the family violence. And that is that, you know, people who are preying on someone who is vulnerable, like four and five-year-old kids, is probably very good at what they're doing. And there's no fault in the family for that.

So I think that violence and sexual abuse are both really hard to prevent, and that you have to have your eyes wide open in a way that a lot of us just don't, no matter what the color of our skin. And what I really found heartwarming from the person's comment was the really strong sense of community that, you know, we all have to look out for each other. And I think it's just a big parenting issue that you have to be very, very careful, particularly of small kids, who have a really hard time taking care of themselves and speaking up for themselves.

MARTIN: I just want to clarify, in this particular case, the parents were charged with neglect, but again, complicated issue. Cheli, what did you want to add?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I think that parents are just stressed and overwhelmed, and so a lot of times, you talk about these latchkey children, you're talking about parents in horrible situations because they need to go to work to keep their jobs, yet they have no one to watch the little ones at home. I think the reality is that many children slip between the cracks because there's no reliable safe child care many times for children, and that's what's happening.

MARTIN: I want to go on to another listener who's touching on some of the things we've already talked a little bit about. The listener writes from Massachusetts and says, I wonder if you have information and resources for young single mothers who are facing many challenges, absent fathers, non-support, limited education of resources. My daughter and granddaughter, who's eight, have had to move many times because of financial struggles they face.

Asra, do you want to start as - I just think that - we've got a lot of letters like this from people who are saying, you know, I've kind of helped, you know, I'm kind of throwing up my hands here. I feel like I'm at sea here without, again, we know, without a compass.

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah, I mean, I joined this last election. I have felt actually involved in by the fact that single mothers were finally a voting bloc that people cared about because for so long, you know, my son is now going to be turning six, and I've really felt like we're - you've got to figure it out on your own.

When I was at first pregnant, I went to a website that sort of liberated me from a lot of the issues of guilt and isolation called single mothers by choice, which is, you know, basically a way that moms are now trying to at least shake-off the stigma that's typically been associated with being a single mom without a wedding ring. But I have to say that I haven't found the Bible yet, you know, of the book that has been so helpful on resources, and so I feel like we're writing history, honestly, on this point.

MARTIN: Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: I think the government needs to do more too about enforcement of child support. So many men, sorry guys, don't pay, don't pay on time, you know, avoid it, try to do something with the courts to decrease the amount that they owe. It's really horrible. It's so difficult for women who constantly have to be going back to court to try to get their child support enforced. And it's, you know, it's just too much. It should just be a done deal.

MARTIN: Any other thoughts on this about ways that single mom as Leslie can...

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Yeah, this is Leslie. You know, at my kid's school, there is a really wonderful single dad, and I tell you, the women, we come out of the wood work to help this guy. And I just wish so much that we - that women universally helped other moms and that our society helped single moms as much as we seemed to sometimes help this single dad.

MARTIN: Do you think that was at double standard that both women are sort of a...

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: I do. I think their sort of judgment is that well, she got into this herself, and so she's got to take care of herself. And I think we tend to look at this, that a single dad is always so wonderful. We see it more as a choice, and that he's sort of a hero.

And the first time that my husband took our son on a trip by himself, we saw this. I said, just you wait til you're in the train station, and he's screaming. And my husband came back from the trip and said, you know, three different women came over to help me. One changed his diaper. One fed him, and I, when I traveled with my kids, people get out of the way.

And I think that we, we just as a culture, we need to be a little less judgmental and a little more helpful and help parents no matter what their challenges are, whether they're a single mom or facing other issues, help them with child care. I think the government should play a role in that, and I think that we also should do what we can to help other people out.

Ms. IVEY: Leslie is absolutely right that women are much nicer to men who were going through this. I know when my parents separated and divorced, that my dad was raising us. The women will come over with casseroles, like you wouldn't believe it to help my dad out.

MARTIN: Mmhmm.

Ms. IVEY: And if it had been my mom there, there wouldn't have been any casseroles. But one funny thing is, my husband was at the grocery store one time with one of our babies, and he was crying, and the lady in the next line offer to breast feed him for her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: So I'll just nurse him for you. He'll calm right down. He was like, oh, that's OK.

MARTIN: I don't even know what to do with that, Jolene. I mean, I don't know what to say about that.

Ms. IVEY: I was glad he didn't pass it on, pass the baby on but...

MARTIN: But it was generous.

Ms. IVEY: It was very generous.

MARTIN: It was very generous. The Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro, both of them co-founders of the Mocha Moms, also with us are Mocha's regulars Leslie Morgan Steiner and Asra Nomani. They were all here in our Washington Studio. Thank so much to each of you.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. MORGAN-STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. NOMANI: Thanks, Michel.

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