- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

They swap secrets, take trips to the spa and hold sleepovers to vent over chocolate ice cream until sunrise.

They baby-sit, bring each other meals when they’re sick and are heavily involved in community service and one another’s lives.

Are they a band of sorority girls? No. A sort of “sista” sisterhood of stay-at-home mothers? Yes.

They are Mocha Moms, a national support network primarily of black stay-at-home mothers — though members include women who work part- or flex-time, grandmothers, fathers and people of all races.

The Upper Marlboro-based group was created nearly a decade ago by four Prince George’s County women, and has grown to include more than 2,500 moms in more than 100 chapters across the country. There are about 13 D.C.-area chapters.

Organizers say stay-at-home moms of all races need support, but it’s especially important for those in the black community, where the decision to stay at home is virtually unheard of — and often is not supported by family or friends.

“Historically, we black women have not had the opportunity to stay at home with our children. We had to work for the survival of our families,” said Cheli English-Figaro, co-founder, national president and a member of the Northern Prince George’s County chapter. “African-American women who stay at home by choice … is sort of a revolutionary thing [because] you’re going against every cultural norm you grew up with. So you need Mocha Moms to have someone to go to who has made the same career sacrifices you have.”

Most members said they joined because they felt lonely and isolated, and new mothers living in new areas especially need to feel a connection to like-minded women.

From breastfeeding tips to teething babies to directions to the nearest hair salon, seasoned Mochas help the rookies.

Woodbridge Mocha Rhonda Thompson, 31, said the nationwide chapters are great for military families such as hers that move frequently. “I wanted to be exposed to some other women who had [similar] values in reference to family and children.”

The women in her chapter baby-sit for each other so “we have to have time to reconnect with ourselves, to reconnect with women, to breathe and have a good time because as mothers, sometimes you can forget who you are,” said Woodbridge President Sharee Johnson, 33.

While most of the women have put their careers on hold indefinitely, the group includes those taking a few months off and entrepreneurs managing businesses from home.

Shalaun Newton, a former senior American Express marketing executive, never fathomed that she would leave the hustle and bustle of New York’s corporate world for the rustle and rattle of diapers and baby toys and trips to the zoo.

“My whole self-identity was wrapped around what I did and my career path,” said Mrs. Newton, 37, of Bowie. “I never ever thought I would be a stay-at-home mom.”

But, Mocha Moms helped her transition after her move, offering a network of friends for her and her daughter Shaniya, now 3.

Today Mrs. Newton is president of the Northern Prince George’s County chapter. “A lot of the things I got [gratification] from in working, I was able to get [gratification] from in being a [group] officer,” she said.

Southern D.C. Mocha Juliet Harris, a stepmother of seven, said she loves the frequent phone calls from fellow members. “It’s really about the mothers supporting each other,” she said.

Group sessions often hit on race-sensitive issues not addressed in mainstream press, such as African-American hair-styling tips and educational achievement gaps between blacks and other ethnic groups. The group also seeks to “set the record straight” that black two-parent family homes do exist and a black stay-at-home mother is not necessarily “collecting a welfare check.”

Still, Daria Thomas, a Northern Prince George’s County Mocha, said the group is good for women with biracial children or who have adopted children of color.

Organizers say they do not advocate any particular parenting style, and encourage members whose children are over the age of 18 to continue to participate.

“We tell people it’s a season because the babies will grow up,” Ms. English-Figaro said. “Being at home is something you do for a while, but the friendships you establish, you establish for life. ”

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