As Black Lives Matter protests swept across the nation, photographs of beautiful Black women flooded my social media timelines. There were visibly pregnant Black women hoisting signs that called for actionable change; Black mothers accompanied by children who marched alongside them, rallying for those who have been unheard for far too long. All of them standing in their power to promote an equitable future and change the world.
Black mothers have always turned up and spoken out in defense of Black lives, championing causes we believe will nurture both current and future generations. As my own mom would tell me, “I am the first to show up and the last to leave, 'cause, baby, your fight is my fight.” And yet in this unwavering battle to survive in a country so determined to smother us, countless mothers, myself included, have lost ourselves in our maternal roles.
Would I give it up? Never. But this past year, our struggles have become more pronounced, from trying to protect our families from COVID-19 to fearing that our Black children might be killed by police and white supremacists. Many of us are reportedly unemployed with no job prospects in sight. Rent is still due, though, and food, clothing, and other basic needs must still be met. Our children must be schooled, must be looked after, must be cared for...so who will care for us?
Keeping it together has become a basic reflex. Compartmentalizing worry, suppressing anxieties, playing pretend — we keep on keeping on in hopes of dodging the very real fears plaguing us. Then again, considering everything we’ve witnessed over the last year, it's getting harder to maintain this facade. I’ve had many sleepless nights during the pandemic, months when I cried everyday. I've experienced night sweats and struggled through days when suffocating anxiety killed my appetite. I stood on the precipice of an emotional breakdown, ready to submit, and I know I’m not the only one.
Trauma has grave repercussions on the body. Nearly 70% of all mothers say that worry and stress from the pandemic have damaged their health, according to a 2020 study from Kaiser Family Foundation. I can only imagine that the percentage would be higher for us, especially those in vulnerable communities who lack accessibility to health services and other critical resources.
However, even with the emotional, physical, and mental turmoil we disproportionately experience, self-care in our community and in our households often takes a back seat. Even in a deadly pandemic, Black mothers are selfless, fighting for our children, our family, our community members, but not ourselves. But no more: it's time to take off our armor and rest, whether we feel we've earned it or not.
Eager for expert insight, I spoke with Precious Avorkliyah-Evans, a psychotherapist and chief executive officer of Modern Therapy Now, who explained that in these unprecedented times, mothers are experiencing "a different kind of exhaustion" that requires more creative remedies.
"Think of small opportunities for decompression and seize them," said Avorkliyah-Evans. "Even if you only have 10 minutes, take the opportunity to just be still, play in makeup, or step outside for fresh air." She also advised against obsessing over to-do lists and encouraged more low-stakes stress relieving activities, like playing with your children. "Call it your 10 minute refresher and start to create a routine out of it," she said. "Those 10 minutes can add up to a more balanced mental ecosystem.”
As for our children, they don’t need perfect mothers, but they do need healthy ones. "The best way to raise emotionally healthy children is to be an emotionally healthy parent," said Avorkilyah-Evans. That means not fronting like we're always okay. "Allow your children to see the emotions happen, so they don’t learn to fear emotions and can always rest assured that, no matter how great the hurt or hardship, they will be able to triumph."
When interrogating our approach to childcare and our own mental wellbeing, it's imperative that we also reconsider conventional, capitalist concepts of self-care. In recent times, society has positioned self-care as beauty-centric practices when it encompasses so much more than a double face cleanse and a cup of matcha. And there is no shame in wanting or requiring deeper kinds of care.
Here's what my self-care looks like:
Setting boundaries with friends and family.
Scheduling an appointment with your primary care doctor to run preventative tests.
Finding a therapist to work through the trauma and emotions you’ve been suppressing.
Disconnecting from social media for a day.
Giving yourself permission to emote.
Applying creative coping mechanisms, like journaling, affirmations, meditation and exercise.
To all the Black mothers reading this, I see you because I am you. I know it’s hard. I know you’re scared. Just know that we will make it through this. Remember that doing your best doesn’t mean pushing yourself to the point of breaking down. We can’t pour from an empty cup and we can’t work through burnout.
Let's break this generational belief that subtle, slow martyrdom must be a part of motherhood. Let's stop living to survive and embrace the many imperfect parts of ourselves. Let's care about us for once.
Chelsie DeSouza is a freelance writer and creator of Matchstick Moms. She’s forever a New Yorker, but she’s currently living in Philadelphia. She’s been published in HuffPost, Blavity, and HelloGiggles. She’s a mother to a three-year-old girl, which is by far her favorite title.