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How Martyr-Based Motherhood Harms Black Mamas And Our Communities

How Martyr-Based Motherhood Harms Black Mamas And Our Communities
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No one sat me down and said, “This is what a good mother looks like,” before I had kids. They didn’t need to. I watched the “make a way outta no way” example my mother, aunts, and grandmother provided and drew my own conclusions. As a child, I saw women who missed sleep and meals, working themselves to the bone and giving until nothing was left. I knew Black motherhood was less talk, more action, and often easier to show than tell. But when it was my turn to step into the role, I felt it.

I loved my children and wanted to raise them to feel a freedom of emotion and expression I rarely saw in Black kids. I believed that meant being their everything, placing their needs before mine—the images I saw affirmed this. I tried gentle parenting but couldn’t connect with the soft-spoken white mothers who dominated the space. Their superhuman patience felt like an impossible standard, asking me to be my children’s peace when I had none for myself. I went through the motions, responding to every concern and going above and beyond to pick the right strategies and media. But the high standards added guilt and left me cycling through frustration, yelling, and apologizing, believing a better mother wouldn’t struggle as I was. It seemed there was a quiet suggestion I suspend my needs to supply theirs.

Denise Brady, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Long Beach, Calif., says generational trauma and media perpetuate narratives of martyr-based Black motherhood. “If we aren’t struggling, then we are not worthy of anything more,” she says, noting many of us saw our mothers and grandmothers work themselves to death and therefore continue the pattern. “I often see my Black female clients putting their worth into their level of productivity. Productivity becomes how they value themselves.” 

There was pressure to prepare my children to be proud of who they were, often as the only Black kids in white spaces, and anticipate the traumas they might experience. But I didn’t know what to do with my traumas; like the unspoken anxiety for their safety that left me irritable and overreacting with “what ifs” during stressful circumstances. Or the suffocating pressure that I had only one opportunity to raise them perfectly, and if I failed, the world would make an example out of them. But my biggest trauma was the scarcity mindset that our journey could hold their freedom or mine, not both.  

Brady says this unaddressed trauma filters down to our families. “Our parenting styles grow out of the trauma we’ve seen mirrored from our parents, caregivers, and family members,” she says, noting this pressure to be everything to our children can present as a shield, preventing vulnerability with loved ones. And when we try to heal, many of us experience guilt, shame, and discomfort because this model is all we know. 

Things shifted when I realized I didn’t have to surrender all of myself to motherhood. I envied the light-hearted, joyful relationship my kids had with their father. Whereas I’d lost myself believing my kids needed me more than I did, I noticed my husband adapted to fatherhood and kept pieces of himself.

“Society doesn’t give us permission to take breaks, and when we do, it’s questioned,” says Ana’Neicia Williams, licensed clinical social worker. She notes that mothers feel a specific pressure as primary parents that impacts our bodies, social lives, and mental health. She says we wonder, Is it okay to mention that you’re struggling in parenting? “If people were honest and said, ‘Hey, I’m struggling’ are others going to be receptive? Even I have moments where I think, If I share that I’m struggling right now, then what? What will be offered to me? Will I be judged or told just to push through?” 

I decided that I wasn’t fine surrendering myself to motherhood. My journey to nurture myself started with reclaiming my love of reading. Each week, I’d take a child-free trip to the library. I hadn’t made time for it as a mother. I started with humorous fiction like Bunmi Laditan’s Confessions of a Domestic Failure and noticed a pattern. Mothers spoke of losing themselves and I needed to know how we could change it. When the opportunity to return to school free of charge came my way, I jumped at it, and knew I wanted to study Black motherhood.

First, I learned the official name for martyr-based motherhood—intensive mothering—and “the institution of motherhood” that pressures moms to compromise their career ambitions and deprioritize their wellness for their children. I also learned that structural racism and legal decisions like Partus Sequitur Ventrem, “the child status follows the mother,” tied enslavement and freedom to Black motherhood. The lessons showed me intensive/martyr-based motherhood added strain when I was already struggling. It was clear mainstream mothering models encourage Black moms toward “perfect motherhood” without considering our traumas and the immense structural pressure we face added to cycles of pain and family stress.

Williams says the never-ending demands of mothering and limited spaces for vulnerability mean Black moms have fewer opportunities to process trauma and systemic racism. We think we’re doing great but we are often depressed and undiagnosed.We’re more likely to experience sleep disturbances, self-criticism, irritability, struggle to experience pleasure (anhedonia), and fatigue when we’re depressed. Black maternal scholars taught me individualism, perfection, and affluence don’t make us good mothers. The process also taught me the power of intergenerational communication. I started asking my mom about her journey as a single mother of two. Unexpectedly, she told me she never aimed to be perfect and didn’t think my children should be the center of my life. For her, she did her best with what she had and aimed for self-awareness and reflection. She knew she couldn’t protect my brother and me from everything, but she encouraged us to think critically and speak up when something didn’t feel right. She taught us to look inside and shape life based on our needs, not general scripts; motherhood was no exception.   

Williams says doing inner work and exploring the narratives and examples of parenting and family are crucial in designing a motherhood that feels good. She encourages asking, “What do I want to keep, and what do I want to leave behind?”

I decided that my motherhood didn’t have to feel bad. I could refuse the weight of centuries of misrepresentation of Black motherhood. I didn’t have to hold it all. I can share that responsibility with my husband, extended family, and loved ones. I personalized my motherhood based on reflection, self-compassion, and healing. This new compass encouraged me to spend more time getting to know myself outside of motherhood. Ironically, it brought me right back to spending much of my time studying motherhood. I revisited the claim that “the child’s status follows the mother” and realized I couldn’t raise free Black children who felt their full humanity unless I modeled freedom for them. I named my model “FreeBlackmotherhood,” hoping to reframe the belief our children only follow our examples of trauma. It says mothers and mothering people must invest in themselves and heal before they can raise anyone effectively. It’s the work that must be done before quality parenting. During my thesis, I merged the academic and the every day, sharing the lessons I learned on the importance of self-reflection on social media. Now, thousands of Black mothers and others interact with the space and use the information to reframe motherhood on their terms and challenge the expectation that it be perfect. I don’t claim to be the only expert. I learn as much from them as they learn from me.

There are still days when motherhood feels hard, but it’s easier to breathe knowing that I don’t have to be a perfect mom to be a good one to my children. Sometimes, I reread my old journal entries, expressing my desire to be everything to my children. I feel much closer to who I want to be these days. I’m more patient and thoughtful than those early days. The journey inspired me to reflect on my early assumptions about my mother, aunts, and grandmother’s example. I realized my mom and grandmother hadn’t told me what good motherhood was because they left room for me to define it for myself, the way generations of Black mothers have before.

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