America’s Backbone: Why Black mothers deserve our best

Opinion: Dr. Shamard Charles says we have an increased responsibility to look out for our mother’s needs as she ages, if for no other reason than to repay our debts of gratitude

A affectionate mother and daughter sitting on sofa

If you’re reading this, stop, and give your mother a hug. 

There’s no doubt that Black mothers are the backbone of Black America, and this has never been more evident than during the pandemic. Changes to work, school, and life, in general, have forced Black mothers to adapt quickly, as they have had to bear the brunt of adjustments forced on the household. The daily grind has become normal, but I sometimes wonder at what cost. 

I have two biological siblings and three adopted siblings, but I never felt as if I had one-sixth of my mother’s attention. The sacrifices she made to ensure that we were whole were never beyond me. My fondest memories growing up were sneaking out of my room to overhear the conversations between my mother and her friends. They would discuss work, home life, and the different stressors in their lives.

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It wasn’t uncommon for my mother to share how she’s had to skip meals, miss workouts, and lose sleep to tend to our needs. She never complained, matter of factly stating her sacrifices as if they were a part of the job description, while my defacto-aunts nodded in agreement. I knew there was simply no way I could ever repay her, and she never asked me to, but as our relationship has evolved I’d like to believe that I now have a better understanding of Black motherhood. 

Black mothers are working professionals, teachers, caretakers, and advisors to our next generation. Fulfilling one of these roles is stressful, but Black mothers are asked to be all four in one. Raising Black children is especially stressful, because Black life is vanishingly short.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, Black Americans have the lowest life expectancy, with police fatalities serving as one of the fastest-rising culprits. A recent study conducted by the National Academy of Science found that Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by the police than white men; and estimates show one in every 1,000 Black men in the United States will be killed by a police officer if this rate continues.

Minneapolis Police Deputy Chief Art Knight speaks with people gathered near a crime scene on June 16, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Even worse are the possibilities of falling victim to substance abuse, hate crimes, and gang violence. My mother’s worrisome stare as she tracked my steps from the front porch to the bus stop or the scolding I’d receive for not returning her call after my football practice went late were painful reminders of how vulnerable our lives were when we were out of her sight. 

This chronic state of hyperawareness not only deteriorates your mental health, but it can lead to unhealthy habits like late-night eating, drug abuse, and sleep deprivation. Rising depression rates have become a problem, especially for single mothers who play the role of mother and father.

Increased social isolation, weight gain, memory problems, and mood changes can be signs of mental and emotional wear and tear from years of playing the roles of standard-bearer and provider. Awareness of the signs and symptoms of depression and early intervention can limit the damage, but the key to preventing the deterioration of mom’s mental and emotional health is to create a stress-free life for mom as soon as we can.  

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Public health officials have encouraged mothers to take care of their minds and bodies, but placing the burden of self-care on those who are suffering doesn’t make sense or lead to a long-term fix. Increasing paid time off, maternity leave, and having more than one cursory day of recognition for mothers is just a start. We must tackle waning maternal health just like we do any other health issue, first unpacking the root causes then implementing new social strategies that prevent or mitigate its impact. We can all help to drive this change by creating healthier environments for our mothers.

Black mom and daughter embracing.
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Replace sugary gifts with physical activities that the family can bond over. Lessen the burden on your mother by taking over a few chores around the house, giving her a night on the town, or sending her on vacation; and when you’re done commit to making that a normal part of your routine moving forward. Research has shown that the keys to establishing healthy behaviors are consistency, ease, and repetition. The more fun mom has, the better her health will be. Think of your mom as living in a chronic mental and emotional health deficit and your help as a means to make up for lost time.

There’s no better way to show your love than to look out for mom’s long-term health. While no one can be in control of another person’s physical or mental health, we do have an increased responsibility to look out for our mother’s needs as she ages, if for no other reason than to repay our debts of gratitude. Pouring love into a child comes at a cost, so let Mother’s Day be a reminder to pour back into the women who sacrificed themselves so we could become our best selves. 

The pandemic has led healthcare professionals to ask the question, ‘who takes care of the caretaker?’ The answers are complex and often inconclusive. Let that not be the case on this Mother’s Day. The answer is simple, you.

Dr. Shamard Charles is an assistant professor of public health and health promotion at St. Francis College and sits on the anti-bias review board of Dot Dash/VeryWell Health. He is also host of the health podcast, Heart Over Hype. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC. 

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