The insightful expression, “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” continues to hold true in many ways. Yet it is often “Momma” herself who says she’s fine, when she really isn’t. It is an easy, often automatic, reply rooted in slavery and passed down from generation to generation through the caretakers of an oft broken people.
We cook, we clean, we go to work, we raise the babies and we suffer in silence. Generations of our women have been taught to show no shame; to hide the unspeakable emotional and unbearable mental pain that they themselves may have endured as a child or as an adolescent. From poverty, sexual abuse, violence, self-parenting, and a limited education, our young mothers unknowingly suffer in great number from mild to severe cases of depression. If left untreated, these symptoms – difficulty concentrating, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, irritability, overeating, persistent sadness, and/or thoughts of suicide – may worsen, lasting for years and causing untold family suffering.
What does this mean for our children? Today, nearly 70% of Black children are born to single mothers, a third of which live below the poverty line. This means that these mentally distressed women are raising our children, more often than not by themselves, and under very harsh circumstances.
Sadly, too many of our kids are having to process the pain of not having a father present. No one really speaks about this void because it is so common, but the kids process this by internalizing rejection, telling themselves, “Daddy did not love me” and, “Daddy did not want me.”
Children’s surroundings affect them immensely. Gang violence is ever-present in many neighborhoods. The stress faced in daily life makes it difficult for students to sit down and concentrate in the classroom and get along with their peers. According to health experts, the stress can lead to various health problems, with students complaining of lack of sleep or constant headaches.
It should come as no surprise that depressed mothers often lead to depressed children. Unfortunately, even those mothers who recognize that they themselves are depressed don’t recognize the signs in their own children. Many depressed and busy parents may also not be as attentive of their own children and not realize that their dysfunction is deeply affecting the rest of the family.
Children whose mothers suffer from depression may be more likely to exhibit the same symptoms. Moreover, the harmful consequences of poverty coupled with the mediating effects of maternal depression jeopardize the development of our young boys and girls. These children are slow to develop and their problems often only come to our attention when their pain becomes public manifested as violence and self-destruction at the hands of drug and alcohol abuse or additional behavioral disorders.
The most revolutionary thing we can do for them is let them know they are not alone. We should share our own vulnerabilities with them and teach them how to deal with their emotions. We should not pretend to be “the strong one” who wears the mask all the time and never sheds a tear. Most important, we should share coping mechanisms that work for us; from spiritual health to professional mental healthcare.
If doing it to help yourself isn’t enough, then do it for the well-being of our children.
Terrie M. Williams is the co-founder of the non-profit Stay Strong Foundation and author of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting www.healingstartswithus.net