The Mental Load of the Black Mother
It was only after the death of George Floyd that I realized just how much racial injustice affects the way I parent my two Black sons and how it's taken its toll on my mental health.
It was my 38th birthday and I was overweight, dealing with a bronchial infection. I was also depressed. The feeling was new. Not only had I never acknowledged feelings of depression, I was now acutely aware that these feelings could also be coupled with physical pain. I sought professional help. The experience taught me how to process my emotions and thoughts, develop healthy habits and routines, and identify my triggers. And then the video of George Floyd being killed by cops was released and my overwhelming feelings returned.
As a mom of two Black boys, 16 and 11 years old, I'm scared every single day. I constantly deal with thoughts of having my 5-foot-10 baby being viewed as a threat. All mothers have to consider all that needs to be done every second of the day. An additional layer is added for the Black mom. We think of survival. Speaking with fellow Black mom Tanesha Ingram, founder of the non-profit Just Write Project based in New York City, I heard similar fears. As she candidly put it, "On top of what's for dinner, scheduling doctor appointments, and chasing children around to do homework is the question of, 'Will we survive the day?'"
That's why I didn't watch the video of Floyd's death. It was a conscious decision. In fact, I haven't watched any videos of alleged police brutality since the death of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot during a traffic stop in 2016. I do care and am as outraged as every other Black person, but I have to safeguard my mental health. Floyd's death was too much for me.
But I did watch the coverage of his death in the days following and it put me in a funk for more than a week. I was surprised, consumed with a ton of emotions. I again felt depressed, immense heaviness, and a sense of resignation. I was taking care of myself, so I really didn't expect the recent revolution and subsequent social unrest to trigger me like this.
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I needed professional help again and agreed to participate in a livestream therapy session with Frame, a Los Angeles-based mental wellness network connecting people to a form of therapy and a therapist that may work for them. The intention was to help me process and work through the emotions of the recent revolution and also the emotional impact racial injustice has on my family. The experience was enlightening. As Nia Ridgle, LCSW, based in San Jose, California explained, "Floyd's death was culturally traumatizing. It awakened unhealed generational wounds that many African Americans were harboring for generations."
This period of social unrest and racial awakening helped me examine more closely how much racial injustice affects how I parent. Safety is always a concern. As a Black mom, you consciously think even more than average about what your kids wear, where they go, what they do, and who they hang with. I tell my teenager not to wear his hood over his head, which is ridiculous when temperatures drop in the fall and winter. He's forced to walk the line between being a regular, trendy teenager and staying safe. I constantly ask myself: how much do I allow him to experiment as he finds himself? How far down the rabbit hole of self-discovery do I allow him to go before it jeopardizes his safety?
And that's not all. Raising a Black boy in a big city like New York while trying to access educational advantage for him is no joke. Recently I have been wondering how much as Black people we even help to perpetuate the system by shuffling ourselves around trying to fit in. Trying to get the best advantages for our kids. Signing them up for programs that are traditionally white and in many instances paying rent we can't even afford, just so that our babies can have a chance.
These emotions really bubbled to the surface. I've lived with them so long as the norm, that I didn't realize how stressful it was and the emotional impact. I didn't realize that it wasn't normal to subconsciously pray every day that your child won't be targeted and killed just for being Black.
For the longest time, I also didn't know that you don't always have to excel at motherhood; that it's OK to not be OK. As a Black mom, that wasn't always communicated to me. The reason? "The idea of the 'strong Black woman' is something that plagues Black mothers so much," says Shevon Jones, MSW, an Atlanta-based social worker with the Mental Wellness Collective, an online community designed to help women prioritize their mental health. "You see this portrayed on TV and throughout movies: Black moms are tough; they are strong; and they never fall apart. That narrative can have such negative outcomes for Black moms."
This all stems from how Black women have long been viewed in this country. "Research and history tell us that three basic images exist—the Strong Black Woman, the Angry Black Woman, and the Jezebel/Video Vixen," writes Angela Neal-Barnett, Ph.D. in her article "To Be Female, Anxious and Black" for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Strong Black women are renowned for their persistence and perseverance. It is this very narrative that has caused me and many other Black moms to suffer in silence under our immense mental load.
I haven't found a solution. I'm still scared. It still bothers me that my 16-year-old Black son doesn't think it's safe to run past the local police precinct during his daily solo training. And even though I had confronted my mental health challenges and was proactively dealing with them, I learned I will never be immune to big feelings. But I know now I am allowed feelings of depression and sadness and that doesn't make me any less of a mother. I have learned that I have to put on my metaphorical mask first. I have to be mentally well and emotionally ready to parent and help provide context of the times for my sons.
Parents.com dives into the mental load—the unseen burdens of parenthood—and how the labor imbalance is impacting families. Read more here.