In more than 20 years as a researcher in the field of mental health disparities (the study of how and why people experience disparate outcomes in health and health care), I have learned a lot about why mental health matters so much for Black women, women of color and especially Black moms.
I myself have been blessed to be mom to multiple biological children—and I recognize this as a gift, given the many challenges facing Black mothers in pregnancy-related deaths and systemic health disparities. Like many women, I am also a mother figure to a number of non-biological children, including the teens and young adults I have encountered through my mental health research and outreach nonprofit the AAKOMA Project.
In this moment (and always), it’s important to say Black moms’ mental health matters—because as I tell my patients, “as mama goes, so goes the family.”
This phrase simply means that our children are always watching us (a fact you already know quite well) and that we set the stage for how our children develop and mature. For me, this means that as our children are watching, they see how we prioritize, or fail to prioritize, self-care and they replicate our behavior accordingly.
So, moms, if we do not put ourselves and our mental health first, we risk teaching our children that self-sacrifice comes before self-care, which is absolutely not the message we want to send.
Instead, I hope that you will take this moment to learn and practice new ways of caring for yourself. Here are some steps to get started:
1. Prioritize your mental health.
Name your emotions and feelings as valid, and center your mental health in your daily activities.
2. Focus on active coping.
Take time to do things you enjoy and that uplift you.
3. Remember you are loved and needed.
For expectant moms and moms with young children, remember that your health is directly tied to those precious little lives growing inside you or bonded to you, and draw strength from that knowledge.
4. Use your words.
Say what you mean and mean what you say.
5. Remove and discard negative influences.
You know that term ‘gaslighting’? Where people try to invalidate your feelings? I want you to resist that (see steps 1-4 above).
6. Experience and embrace your full range of emotions.
Do not allow people to limit your emotional expression by invoking the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype against you. Women are entitled to our full range of emotions. And if you cannot get angry about racism, unjust attacks, discrimination and the murders and attacks on innocent people like Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and trans sister Iyonna Dior, then when in the world can you get angry? Remember as well that bottled up anger literally withers us from the inside as described by the terms allostatic load and weathering.
Though we cannot stop people from harboring racist attitudes, we can absolutely teach our children, and in the process ourselves, how to protect our spirits and psyches against racist attacks.
As parents, we have a loving responsibility to our children—and as Black moms, an added duty to prepare our children for living in a world that may not always value their humanity. My scientific colleagues suggest that this requires developmentally appropriate tools like books, media and activities designed expressly for this purpose.
We must also do this by having honest and age appropriate conversations about race and racism with our babies and teens and our young adult children. We want to help them understand our history and present lived realities (e.g. the “talk” that Black moms must have with our sons to protect them before they experience danger in police encounters).
We can tailor this conversation with our children in developmentally appropriate ways. For example, little ones may be too young to fully understand our justified anger or deep sadness about world injustice, so we must make time to sit them down and speak gently with them about why we feel what we feel, reassuring them that feelings are okay and should be expressed.
This teaches our babies about the full range of emotions and that you do not have to physically present for an event to feel the associated emotions. For our teens and young adult children, we want to always have open lines of communication so that our children know the safety that rests with mama’s open ear and heart.
We can and should raise our voices, with regard for our own mental health.
Feeling strongly about going out to protest injustice? Allow me to share some food for thought. As moms, we may have to negotiate allowing our older children to go out and protest, or attending (or organizing) a protest with our families. Remember that you know intuitively what your children can handle and what stresses them and I encourage you to use this intuition as a guide.
Consider your child’s needs: Is she bold and assertive, is he shy and anxious, or are they some combination of both? Allow this knowledge of your child to be your guide for the emotional weight of joining large public protests. I would be remiss to not state that there are obvious physical health hazards for participating in public protests so we should definitely weigh those risks as well.
Finally, my wish for you is that you always remember to put yourself first. This means creating, finding and maintaining the tools and support you need to stay physically and emotionally healthy. Always remember that when you fly, you are asked to secure your mask before helping anyone needing assistance. I hope that you will treat your life with the same level of care during this time of COVID-19 and protests for racial justice.
Be safe out there, Black mama. We love you and your mental health matters.