By Kimya P. Barden, PhD
To all mothers, but Black mothers in particular –
I hope this letter finds you well and in good health. Truly, I do. Because as a Chicago-based mother of four beautiful Black children, I often feel stressed (Brown et al., 2020). The convergence of both COVID-19 and the state-sanctioned murders of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement has left me weary. I have three young children under age five, two of whom happily attended full-day preschool before our nation began to “shelter-in” this past March with the hopes of collectively reducing the spread of the coronavirus. My other young child happily bounced between being at home with me and going two to three times a week to “Grammie and Grandpa’s,” my husband’s parents. The arrangement was quite nice. I got to spend time away from my children at work as a college professor or even engage in much-needed self-care treating myself to an occasional workout or lunch with friends or my beloved husband.
Fast-forward six months and as of September 8, 2020, the first day of school for Chicago Public Schools, my modest three-bedroom apartment is now a hodgepodge epicenter of all things early childhood. My oldest son, age five, had been in preschool for over two years. An early and voracious reader, he thrived at both a cooperative school and a Montessori school, each decorated with puzzles, games, books, and most importantly the opportunity to forge human connections with his peers and teachers. As a recently minted kindergartner, his first “school-age” experience is now in our cramped living room two to three times a week in front of a Google Chrome book with my husband and me volleying the role of tech facilitator (him) and emotional coach (me). From 7:45 am until 2:45 pm (with a few breaks in between), my son stares into a computer screen peppered with up to eight moving squares populated by his teachers and classmates, people he will probably never see in-person this year, maybe indefinitely. Though his teachers do a great job of pacing the class to ensure he and his peers have a balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning, he is expected to log-in and stay logged-in as “this is how the district monitors attendance.”
My four-year-old daughter, who had been home with me for most of the first three years of her life, finally bought into the concept of school, even resisting my authority at times with the refrain of “well, my teacher told me.” Unlike my son’s public school, her school is independent and thus offered parents the option of returning to school for in-person instruction or engaging in virtual learning. However, I didn’t want to risk exposing my daughter or the rest of my family to the coronavirus. Nor did I believe that virtual learning was developmentally appropriate for preschool-aged children. Now that she is back home in full-day “Mommy school” she is learning phonics and sight words by manipulating colorful refrigerator letter magnets, developing her social/emotional intelligence by practicing patience and forgiveness with her younger brother (who often sabotages her sight words with a quick hand swipe), fine-tuning her fine motor skills by helping me write the weekly grocery list, and engaging in artistic expression on our kitchen table with watercolor paint and my 8 x 10 printer paper as her canvas.
My two-year-old son, smack dab in the middle of being a “terrific two,” seems to have a phone or tablet in his hand much more than I desire. I have never been the parent to crucify screen time for toddlers. Sometimes, fifteen minutes of Baby Shark or Storybots can save the day as I try to prepare a home-cooked meal or finish up a work-related e-mail. However, I have noticed his level of comfort and the phone seems to be an appendage as he seamlessly scrolls and taps with the ease of a tech-savvy teenager. I am concerned about his preparedness for preschool next year as he is missing out on much needed social engagement that playgroups and toddler classes can offer. Although many daycares are enrolling two-year-olds to provide working families with much-needed child care, I am not comfortable sending him to daycare as my son is still learning how to social distance and wear a mask.
Still, my 18-year-old daughter is caught within the intersections of both navigating college on-line and being a Black young adult living in an urban context. Despite an unconventional senior year of high school (her senior class may have inaugurated the first of many drive-through, “red-carpet” graduations), feeling disappointed that her college decided only two weeks before the first day of the semester to go fully online, she appears to be enjoying college classes at Howard University from her bedroom. The college dorm and campus “yard” experiences that I remember vividly from my own college experience twenty years ago have been replaced by her and her friends going to restaurant drive-throughs or visiting a friend’s house. These behaviors are developmentally appropriate and before the pandemic would have been approved, even encouraged by me. Since the pandemic, these behaviors are now risky, each having the potential to compromise our family’s health and often include the following reminders upon her departure: “do you have your mask?” or “where is your hand sanitizer” or “remember to stay outdoors as much as possible.” Still, as my daughter and all of her friends are Black, the risks extend beyond those of contracting a microscopic virus which has taken the souls of more than 235,000 Americans (mostly people of color and the elderly) at the time of this writing.
Though the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Abery are the most recent high profile killings by both police and/or narcissistic vigilantes, young Black bodies have been subjected to state-sanctioned violence since this country’s founding, particularly in Chicago. This includes Chicago-reared teenagers and young adults like 17-year-old Eugene Williams stoned to death during the “race riots” of 1919, 14-year-old Emmet Till mutilated and shot to death while visiting Mississippi relatives in 1955, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd fatally shot by a police officer in 2012, and 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald shot 16 times by a police officer in 2014. Each was prematurely murdered during a critical stage of human psychosocial development characterized by increasing independence and responsibility. I can only imagine how their mothers, grandmothers, and mother-figures wept.
As a Black mother of a college student, I have to frequently have “the Talk”— the desperate soliloquy delivered by Black parents to their pre-adolescent and adolescent children about adopting placating body language and intonation as a tool against the dangers of racism (Whitaker & Snell, 2016). “The Talk” is delivered to prolong both Black children’s freedom and their actual lives in the presence of police officers or others who can use their power and positions of authority to alter the course of Black life. “The Talk” is not novel. My mother anxiously shared similar words with me in the 1990’s; my grandmother discussed with her how to stay “safe” in the 1960’s; and my grandmother, a second-wave migrant of the Great Migration from Arkansas, received a similar conversation from her parents, my great-grandparents, in the 1950’s. “The Talk” reinforces how powerless many Black parents feel at being ill-equipped to fully protect their children from the fatal impacts of white supremacy (Whitaker & Snell, 2016; Thomas, 2013). Thus, at times, I believe Black motherhood in particular can be simultaneously risky and rewarding. Despite all of my planning, care, thought, and especially prayer, I know my children’s bodies may be rendered by others as invisible, a threat, and inconsequential.
In the year 2020, my Black motherhood feels like a particularly arduous marathon as I laboriously protect my four children from both an invisible, yet deadly virus and the harm that may come from race-based discrimination. Psychologists and other mental health providers have coined a term that sums up this disjointed feeling I often have: race-related stress (APA, 2018; Utsey et. al, 2008). It is psychosocial distress and harm caused by racial discrimination perpetrated against people of color in the form of the following forms of racism: individual (an individual’s conscious and unconscious bias directed at a person of color), cultural (false messages from cultural groups deemed superior about the inferiority of people of color), and institutional (policies and practices embedded within institutions like education which are often weaponized against people of color).
For example, as Black women are disproportionately confined to the “service” sector, employed as teachers, health care specialists, delivery drivers, retail staff, fast-food cashiers, and other “essential” workers, they may experience individual race-related stress by both the broader public and their colleagues. Social scientists often label this form of race-related stress as micro-aggressions or everyday racism (Pierce, 1970; Sue, 2017). Still, cultural racism can impact Black mothers’ stress levels as they consume news outlets —both social media and broadcast media— which feed the voyeuristic appetites of media consumers who routinely use news outlets to show both the murders of Black people and the polarizing “debate” around the importance of protecting our children’s lives. Black life and death are often subjected to the realm of the public spectacle.
Still, Black mothers are often subjected to institutional race-related stress via the intersection of occupational segregation and segregated housing policy which disproportionately distributes us to both low-paying jobs and hypersegregated communities void of a robust tax-base to fund highly resourced schools. This is important as Black mothers (and fathers) with pre-primary and school-aged children in both the public and private sector bear the burden of simultaneously working and home-schooling, or risk sending their children to independent schools and daycare centers knowing that essential family like grandparents may opt-out of caring for their grandchildren to ensure their own health and safety.
As a university professor at a public university on Chicago’s South Side I work with many mothers, most of whom identify as Black or Latina. In both on-line class discussions and virtual office hour conversations, the theme of race-related stress dominates their narratives. Specifically, feelings of anxiety about the uncertainty of parenting, schooling, and work seem to plague these women. The work-family balance is in need of alignment. Accordingly, I offer you personal and professional tips to get through this moment. I implore you to recite this declaration aloud: MAMA First. MAMA is an acronym where the letter M stands for meditation, A for awareness, M for movement and the final A stands for access.
M: Meditation is an exercise of the mind. For many African Americans, meditation is often likened to prayer or devotion (Woods-Giscombe & Gaylord, 2017). Since March of this year, I have returned to my meditation practice to calm my nerves and spirit. Since the school year began, I have been meditating daily. I wake up 20 minutes before my children, get in a seated position on my yoga mat, close my eyes, and then breathe. I identify an object of attention, something I want to cultivate more of in my life like joy, gratitude, peace, patience, health, and wellness. I focus on that object and breathe, breathe, breathe. Lately, I have been integrating yoga and positive affirmations into my meditation for additional clarity and balance.
A: My meditation practice often brings awareness to a unique realization or sensation, particularly my feelings. Black women and mothers are often discouraged from both feeling and verbalizing anger, frustration, and melancholy as it may reinforce cultural stereotypes about our temperament and ultimately our worth (Perry, 2011). However, acknowledging a full range of emotions is critical as it provides essential information about what is needed to get better. I have become aware that parenting four children, monitoring virtual and “Mommy” school, and working from home often leaves me feeling emotionally exhausted. Acknowledging feelings of defeat and overwhelm can signal that additional supports, breaks, and even time-off from work may be long overdue.
M: Meditation and awareness breed movement. It is recommended that adults engage in physical movement for at least 30 minutes daily to impact their weight, mood, and overall health. Given the current demands of motherhood, carving out 30 minutes can seem impossible. However, I implore you to take at least 10 minutes a day and just move. Brisk walking, taking the stairs, and even housework are excellent ways to get your body moving. Movement with your children is even an option. Exercise with my children includes dancing in my living room to old-school music videos, jumping rope, and even playing family tag.
A: As a social work practitioner, I affirm that access to mental health therapy services is critical for many Black women and mothers. More than 60% of African Americans believe that mental illness is stigmatized and a sign of weakness (Ward et. al, 2013). However, “talk” therapy with a culturally responsive mental health professional can improve feelings of distress, demystify feelings of worry, cultivate greater communication skills, and improve overall quality of life. These gains can be particularly beneficial for Black mothers parenting in the midst of a public health crisis. If you are in need of someone to talk to, Black-women owned and operated mental health supports like Loveland Foundation, Therapy for Black Girls, and The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation offer free and discounted therapy for Black women and mothers.
Hang in there Mama,
American Psychological Association. (2018). Physiological & Psychological Impact of Racism for African Americans. https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/racism-stress
Brown, S.M., Doom, J.R., Lechuga-Pena, S., Watamaru, S.E., & Koppels, T. (2020). Stress and parenting during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Child Abuse and Neglect, August, doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104699
RAPID-EC (September 8, 2020). Something’s Gotta Give. https://medium.com/rapid-ec-project/somethings-gotta-give-6766c5a88d18
Utsey, S.O., Giesbrecht, N., Hook, J., & Standard, P.M. (2008). Cultural, familial, and psychological resources that inhabit psychological distress in African Americans exposed to stressful life events and race-related stress. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(1), 49-62.
Ward, E.C., Wiltshire, J.C., Detry, M.A., & Brown, R.L. (2013). African American men and women’s attitudes toward mental health illness, perceptions of stigma, and preferred coping behaviors. Nursing Research, 62 (3), 185-194.
Woods-Giscombe, C.L & Gaylord, S.A. (2017). The cultural relevance of mindfulness meditation as a health intervention for African Americans. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 32(3), 147-160.
Whitaker, T. R., & Snell, C. L. (2016). Parenting while powerless: Consequences of “the talk”. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 26(3-4), 303-309. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911359.2015.1127736
Perry, M. H. (2011). Sister citizen: shame, stereotypes, and Black women in America. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Pierce, C. (1970). Offensive mechanisms. In F. B. Barbour (Ed.), The Black seventies (pp.265–282). Boston, MA: Porter Sargent.
About: Kimya P. Barden is an Associate Professor of Urban Community Studies at Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University. A Chicago native and mother of four, her research interests include African American young adult identity development, perceptions of historical trauma by African American youth, and neoliberalism’s impact on African American student identity. She recently contributed to the Journal of Mother Studies exploring the impact of tenure on Black mothers in academia and has presented at multiple MOM Conferences in New York City over the years.
Abstract: Recent data suggests that parental stress is at an all-time high (WHO, 2020). The combination of both the COVID-19 induced pandemic and collective unrest brought on by police murder and brutality has caused many parents to experience signs of anxiety, depression, and distress. According to a recent poll, 68% of caregivers of young children report a significant increase in stress since the beginning of the pandemic (RAPID-EC, 2020). In addition, as most US school districts have opted this Fall for virtual learning, parents have become even more stressed as they try to manage work and schooling from home. Even more, as the rate of fatalities from both COVID-19 and systemic racism in the form of police violence has disproportionately impacted people of color, race-related stress is particularly pronounced, especially for Black mothers (APA, 2018).
Original publication is online at JourMS: Journal of Mother Studies – LINK: Black Motherhood in 2020