Guest Post from Kimberly Seals Allers:
Lately, I’ve had a growing concern for moms. Not in the how-can-we-manage-our-over scheduled-kids kind of way. But I’ve been deeply worried about us as women. As beings. As people with feelings and breaking points. The headlines tell it all: Mother Kills Her 3 Children;8-Year-Old Boy Gets Mom Arrested for Drunk Driving; Mother Driving Under the Influence crashed her minivan into a fire hydrant with her kids ages 9, 7, two and nine months in the car; Man, Toddler Die in Crash and Mom Arrested for DUI; …. You get the idea. Something disturbing is only going on with moms across the nation and I can’t help but wonder if it’s a cry for help.
Though the problem easily crosses race lines, I’m particularly concerned with two recent cases, one in Washington, D.C. and another closer to my home on Long Island, New York. Both headline-grabbing incidents involved African American moms who killed their young children. I’m compelled to ask, did anyone hear their cries for help? Did anyone see the warning signs? There’s a strong perception in the world that black women have a strong “sisterhood,” and on some levels this is very true. I think the bond that exists between black women is deep and rich and wide. But that closeness is often overshadowed by two other cultural taboos: One is the strong black woman syndrome and the other is the shame surrounding clinical depression.
The strong black woman syndrome is a real phenomenon that has been studied and documented. The legacy of black women in this world is so deeply rooted in hardship that is has become a defining element of the black female experience. This is who we are expected to be. After all our foremothers are repeatedly portrayed as strong and emotionless creatures who took care of white women, their children and then their own family. During slavery, black women were expected to work just as hard as men. And when enslaved children and their parents were split up and moved to other plantations, it was the slave women who took care of the extended families who remained. I could go on and on…
But the fact remains that the mentality that black women are tough, indefatigable, unshakable and tireless is very real. The image makes her someone to be feared (think Omarosa) rather than someone to be loved and nurtured and supported. In one recent survey, 67 percent agreed with the statement, “Everyone expects me to be strong for them,” and 47 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I am taking care of everyone else but no one is taking care of me.” In my book, The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy (Amistad/HarperCollins) I talk about how dangerous this common mindset can be during pregnancy.
It’s equally toxic later in motherhood. What makes matters worse is that there is a strong taboo in the black community about depression. Black women are supposed to rely on God and faith not therapist couches or prescription medications. “God doesn’t put more on you than you can bear,” is a commonly quoted scripture. And while there is a casual acceptance of anti-depressants in the white community, (being on Prozac is almost trendy!) that kind of thinking hasn’t reached all levels of the black community. We tell our girlfriends to “just pray” or dismiss the signs of depression as a “funk” and tell each other to “work it out,” or that “God will get you through.” I know, I’ve said those words myself. The truth is that sometimes black women need medical intervention. Indeed, in both instances of the black moms I mentioned above, both women exhibited signs of psychological problems, according to published reports.
Across the board, black, white or otherwise, there is a strong need for moms to be strong enough to ask for help. For us to be courageous enough to create safe spaces to admit we are hurting, wounded, troubled, confused, dangerously overwhelmed, or in need of medical attention. To break free of our cultural taboos. And while I think it’s great that moms are bonding more, sharing more and connecting more. I’m forced to ask, how deep are those connections? Is the mommy bond merely superficial? Are we talking about potty training, mommy angst, and the elusive search for “me time” but not having richer conversations like,—my marriage is failing, I’m drinking myself to sleep every night, I’m crying myself to sleep every night, I’ve had violent thoughts toward my myself and/or my children…
So I am now a mama on a mission. My mission for all the black moms out there is that we recognize that its okay to be need help, its okay to get help—and that we redefine what a strong black woman means. Sure, we draw strength from the remarkable legacy of the black women who blazed trails before us, but we use that power to rewrite our belief systems. We can find another way to deal with trials instead of just internalizing them, convincing ourselves that we can handle it while we inch closer to a tipping point.
And for all of todays mamas, I implore us to go beyond the trendiness of mommy bonding to create a deeper level of concern, a deeper level of conversation, a deeper level of support.
We are all our sisters’ keeper.