We Need To Rethink What We Tell Black Mothers About Coping With Stress

Surveying 300 Black mothers about their experiences with parenting, financial strain, discrimination and psychological health, these doctors identified three things moms should consider in managing stress.

In just the past few months alone, at least two Black A-list celebrities have publicly faced racist slurs and questions about their legitimacy as mothers.

Last week, a lawsuit came to light that alleged the owners of a luxury shoe company considered Serena Williams “disgusting” and unworthy of a discount (This was just weeks after a former tennis player called Williams’ unborn child “chocolate with milk” at a press conference.). Around the same time, The Mirror called best-selling, multi-platinum artist  Janet Jackson a “raunchy pop star” turned “Muslim single mom” in their coverage of her recent separation.
 
Both Williams and Jackson appear to take these types of comments in stride (or respond thoughtfully on Twitter). For the average Black mother, however, discriminatory treatment is both pervasive and harmful. 
 
When you combine these stressors with the challenges of caring for a child, it can have a huge impact on a mother’s emotional health. Research shows that racial discrimination, financial strain, and parenting stress can increase Black parents’ depressive symptoms and anxiety. 
 
Black mothers are also often stereotyped as deficient and pathological, leading many to feel like they are not only parenting under a microscope, but they are also falling short as parents. Tensions with law enforcement also exacerbate these feelings of helplessness.  For example, after she was arrested for calling the police to help her son, Fort Worth mother Jacqueline Craig said at a press conference that, “it made me feel less of a parent that I couldn't protect him when he needed it." 
 
Greater economic opportunities and real progress on fighting discrimination would change the landscape considerably.  But until that happens, Black mothers still have to parent while coping with these stressors, and they do so often without additional support or relief. 
 
As a postdoctoral fellow at New York University Counseling and Wellness Center and an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin respectively, we study how Black mothers cope with stress. We conducted an online national survey of 300 Black mothers about their experiences with parenting, financial strain, discrimination, prayer and meditation, and psychological health. Our results identified three things Black mothers should consider in managing stress, and how they differ from other communities.

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Experiment With Mindfulness

The research found that when faced with stress over discrimination or parenting woes, Black mothers who reported greater mindfulness, or greater control over their thoughts, had less anxiety and fewer depressive symptoms than other mothers.  Mindfulness didn’t, however,  help reduce anxiety and depression around financial strain. This could mean that it’s easier for some individuals to refocus their thoughts when they’re facing emotional or passing stress. You can work through feeling inadequate a lot more easily than you can work through not having enough money to pay for diapers. 
 
Embrace The Power of Prayer

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Health practitioners have often recommend meditation to help people cope with stress, focus their attention, and redirect troubling thoughts. While meditation has been shown to be effective for many different populations, our research suggests that for Black women, prayer might be more effective against mental distress. We found that only 40 percent of the Black mothers who participated in our study meditated at least once per week—but 94 percent of them said they prayed once a week. Survey respondents reported that the more they prayed , the more they felt they had control over their thoughts. 
 
Pray With Gratitude

Though the study suggests that the ritual of prayer, already deeply embedded in many Black mothers’ lives, was a helpful coping mechanism, some types were far more effective than others. Survey respondents found that prayers that focused on their mistakes and shortcomings made it much harder to focus and block out negative thoughts. While confession is a cornerstone of the Christian faith as well as some other religious traditions, it is possible that for Black mothers in distress, emphasizing prayers of confession may be detrimental to their psychological health. For many in the Black community, the church is a primary source of support, especially considering that many African Americans are underserved in traditional mental health settings. So if clergy are the first ones mothers turn to in times of trouble, they should consider helping women focus their prayers in a positive direction.
 
As we work toward becoming a more fair and inclusive society, we should consider how we address the special challenges Black mothers face in starting a new life with their children. Increasing their ability to focus their thoughts in new ways could be a powerful first step. 
 
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Aisha Collins, Ph.D., is postdoctoral fellow at the New York University Counseling and Wellness Center. Fatima Varner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project. 

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