Serena Williams' Comments on Mommy Guilt Resonate Deeply With Black Mothers

Even tennis superstar Serena Williams is burdened by mom guilt. Black mothers feel the pressure to "be strong" and "do it all," but Dr. Angel Montfort, PsyD, says there's a way to shift that guilt.

Serena Williams walks the runway with her daughter Olympia during S by Serena Williams Runway Show
Photo: Thomas Concordia/Getty Images

Motherhood comes with a mountain of unrealistic expectations. When paired with the pressure Black women face to "be strong," Black mothers can find themselves crushed under the demands of the outside world. This is not only overwhelming. It's a barrier to pursuing their dreams and taking care of themselves. Multi-hyphenate superstar Serena Williams shed light on the pressure Black mothers can face to "do it all" in a recent interview with Insider.

Her comments on feeling mommy guilt resonate with Black mothers in an important way.

"Mom guilt is real. I always feel so guilty when I'm doing something on my own," Williams told Insider. "I don't know if I'm a good mom, and I don't know if my method works, but I'm very hands-on with my daughter, and it was the same with our parents. So I've set really good boundaries but then after work, I'm going right to my daughter. And that's amazing and good, but now it's like, 'Okay, what happens to Serena?'"

Williams isn't alone in her concerns. Many Black mothers found the pandemic intensified old struggles and had limited access to community support. Rae Wright Ingram, 37, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, says guilt is part of her motherhood journey, and access to a supportive community has been more challenging during the pandemic. She wishes she would've built a mom community with Black women before giving birth.

"I feel guilty for not reading a new book every day or holding my child's hand to go to another room every time she asks," she says. "I do my best and have come to a place where I know perfection is not possible, but by being gentle yet firm and kind and consistent, I'll be better at managing my guilt."

Mom guilt is more common than we realize. And Black mothers can face compounded pressures.

Dr. Angel Montfort, PsyD, PMH-C, a licensed psychologist whose clinical practice is the Center for Maternal Mental Health, says that not all Black mothers' experiences around mom guilt will be the same. Still, mom guilt can be recognized as "pervasive and easily applies to any situation, whether you are involved or not, and it is tied to the assumption that if we get something wrong, we will screw our child up for life," says Dr. Montfort. She says the fear is that our children's future hinges on every decision we make.

Black mothers can face mom guilt from multiple directions. Motherhood comes with unrealistic pressure that can come from anywhere, even loved ones and mental health providers. "Black people are often socialized to believe that our behavior is a representation of our race, and we may have been taught to look, speak, and behave to very high standards in order to be a positive representation, because as we know, representation matters," says Dr. Montfort.

She says these pressures impact the way Black mothers think about their mothering responsibilities, too. Black mothers are also vulnerable to mom guilt around making sure their children have a positive self-image—especially around skin color and hair texture—and are prepared for future experiences with racism. "There is an inherent pressure that if we don't teach our children the 'right' things or give them the 'right' experiences, they will be ill equipped to go into the world as a Black person [or] to survive, thrive, and to represent," she says.

But Dr. Montfort says there is hope. Guilt isn't always bad and Black mothers can make small shifts to reduce and, occasionally, avoid mom guilt altogether.

Figure Out What the Guilt Means

Dr. Montfort says sometimes guilt can guide us towards accountability and correction. She encourages mothers to ask themselves questions about their feelings: "Have I done something wrong and was it intentional?" "What would I tell a friend?"and "Am I confusing something that is possible with something that is probable? After reflecting on these questions, it's time for compassion. This can be difficult for Black mothers whose families didn't model grace and compassion.

She says books like Self Compassion by Kristin Neff or The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, can help in this journey. "Remember that this happens a lot , and you are not alone. Use self-compassionate language to talk to yourself when you're noticing mom's guilt," says Dr. Montfort. She also says self-expression, especially journaling, is helpful for Black mothers who want to identify patterns in their mom guilt. Connecting with a therapist or trusted friend helps this process.

Limit Comparisons and Follow Your Own Path

Dr. Montfort says avoid comparing yourself to other mothers, even if it means limiting or changing how you interact with social media or shifting your intimate relationships. "Set boundaries with those who trigger mom guilt and get your clapbacks ready for the times when you must engage with them," she says. "Certain topics may be frequent causes of mom guilt, so you can say, 'I'd prefer it if we didn't discuss that.' If you have a partner, talk to them to get on the same page about these boundaries."

Black mothers need to connect with their values, rather than others' values or what they believe they "should" value. "Identify what is meaningful to you and then prioritize showing up in alignment with those values," says Dr. Montfort. "This helps to combat mom guilt because it allows us to be intentional about our time and energy, keeping in mind that no one is able to honor all of the values in the world, all of the time."

Redefine Strength

Dr. Montfort says the word strong is often misused. "Strong does not mean that you never experience weakness or vulnerability," she says. "It does not mean you are strong all of the time."

Many Black mothers come from families with a history of struggle or adversity. She says this adds pressure and leaves many Black mothers saying, "If momma, granny, or auntie could handle worse, I can handle this."

Our loved ones can be motivation for persistence. But saying we shouldn't feel pain because they didn't seem to is unhealthy.

"It's important to use the strong Black woman archetype to help you to ask more intentional questions to the Black mothers in your life," she says. "If we know that this stereotype is inaccurate, we can challenge it by encouraging one another to seek and receive help, and by extending compassion to ourselves when mom guilt creeps in."

Dr. Montfort says Black mothers should give themselves grace and do the things that matter to them. And after reflection and tuning into their inner wisdom, they'll be able to shift their life to abandon mom guilt.

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