Vulnerability and Strength: Black Mothers Raising Free Black Girls

by Seanna Leath

A mother kissing her daughter
Photo by 5540867 from Pixabay

This piece is part of our Spark series: Celebrating Black Women and Girls — 50 Years of Black Women’s Studies

“I hate you!” I look down at my daughter — so much red-faced anger bottled up (and now released) in her 40 pound, five-year old self — and I feel the tension drain from my body. I look up at the ceiling and take a deep breath…look back down at her…and open my arms. She runs into them and starts crying — her anger from a moment ago, dissipating into the underlying reason for this outburst. “Mommy, you hurt my feelings.” My response? “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. Mommy was feeling stressed out from so many things in my head at one time, but I should have listened to you. What were you trying to tell me?”

This scene isn’t from one particular moment, but instead, highlights the ongoing cycle of emotional recognition and reconciliation that my daughter and I have been cultivating since her birth. On the surface, this moment may not seem radical. I can remember being a young Black girl, hurling angry words at my own mother. Yet, in responding to my daughter’s anger with understanding and an explanation of my own limitations (i.e., Mommy was feeling stressed), I allow her to bear witness to my humanity. In apologizing to her and being accountable (i.e., I should have listened to you — what were you trying to tell me?), I demonstrate that her feelings matter…her words matter…she matters. This is one of my birthrights to my Black daughter — a commitment to our emotional wholeness and her free expression.

Author and her daughter hugging
Photo by author Seanna Leath

As a Black woman scholar who examines positive identity development among Black girls and women, I return to these questions often, “What does it mean to be a healthy Black girl? How do we raise whole Black girls — free Black girls?” Bringing my daughter home from the hospital brought a new sense of urgency to my queries. I could not go to work every day to advocate for the holistic development of other Black girls and women, and neglect my own little girl at home. Unexpectedly, a lot of this work has involved me unlearning emotional habits that portray emotional repression as “strength” — I had to learn to be more vulnerable.

Black mothers are often the earliest, and arguably, one of the most important role models of emotional well being for their daughters. Yet, research suggests that many Black girls “have never seen their mothers cry” — one potential manifestation of the Strong Black Woman schema, a cultural trope of Black womanhood that praises Black women’s “unrelenting grace under pressure” and “ability to withstand significant adversity.” Studies are beginning to highlight how internalization of the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype has negative implications for Black women’s mental and emotional health, which may extend to Black girls’ beliefs about how to express strength and resilience. This stereotype of invincibility is one way that Black mothers may try to prepare their daughters to survive within the racist, sexist, and heteronormative cultural norms of U.S. society, but it may unintentionally hinder Black mothers’ ability to model emotional vulnerability and wellness for their girls.

In writing this piece, I spoke with Black mothers who were willing to share their journeys with emotional socialization from Black girlhood into Black motherhood. I asked them — “How did your mother model emotional wellness? How do you model it for your daughter(s)? What concerns do you have about your Black girls’ emotional wellbeing in our society?” Their responses were telling — both in their simplicity and the profundity of what they shared.

Pattie, a 29-year old mother of two girls (7 and 5 years old), reflected:

“My mom showed a range of emotions — happiness, worry, fear, sadness, and anger. She didn’t stay angry long, and she is a good listener and empathetic. But there were only a few instances when my mother cried in front of us. So when it happened, we knew it was a big deal. In my earliest memory, we had just pulled into the driveway. I was impatiently waiting to get out the car — I was like 3 or 4 — and I noticed she was crying silent tears. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that she missed her mommy. My grandmother died in a car accident in December 1990. I was a year old, my sister was 9 years old, and my mother was a 29-year old single parent. Besides that time, she didn’t cry much. As for me, I don’t fall apart (publicly at least). I am a silent crier. I hold stuff in and try to process and “out think” my emotions — which is challenging and may not be the best way. But I also really fight against the “Superwoman” stereotype. In the words of Cardi B, I’m just a regular, degular, smegular woman — feelings, insecurities and all. I want my girls to understand that it is okay to be frustrated, mad, and upset. So when I am thinking through emotions, and my daughter asks, “What’s wrong, Mommy?” I try to tell her that I’m <insert emotion here> because of “xyz.” I want my daughters to express their feelings to me — even when my mom or an auntie might find these feelings “disrespectful.” I don’t want them to feel censored and think that certain emotions are inappropriate. I think all emotions — if you have them — are appropriate. But how you handle them is important.”

Shontay, a 30-year old mother of a 9-year old girl, shared:

“My mom had an extremely odd way of modeling emotional wellness. She hid her emotional trials and tribulations from us and encouraged us to put up a front when things weren’t the best to keep up an image of perfection. I feel like I am the picture of a strong, Black woman to most people around me, and that’s all I ever hear — mostly as a compliment. I cry in privacy, mainly in the shower. It’s hard to be vulnerable in today’s society (thanks, Ma). But I let my daughter express herself as openly as possible to me — even the bad things she may not think I approve of. I don’t make her mute herself, and we talk it out after she’s done going through the emotional part. I want her to know it is okay to feel — feelings are normal. We’ve talked about the expectations and stereotypes that society has for her and will try to force on her. I’ve given examples of times where my emotions were taken out of context and mishandled. She’s very strong-willed and passionate, so I’m certain that she will face the “angry, Black woman stereotype.” My biggest wish for her is that she remembers that other people’s projections onto her are a reflection on them, rather than her. I tell her that as long as she is Black, beautiful, and brilliant — others will try their hardest to find fault in her. I tell her — make no apologies for who you are.”

Sherrie, a 42-year old mother of two Black girls (13 and 8 years old), asserted:

“My mother didn’t model emotional wellness. She embodied the “Super Women Syndrome.” She was everything to everybody, and often neglected her own needs and wants. I grew up seeing how she reacted to stressful and challenging situations. Oftentimes, it was negative communication (e.g., yelling) and based on that, I knew to give her space. Over time, I am unlearning that and taking care of my needs. I make sure that I am okay so I can be the best me — not only for myself, but for my daughters. When I experience hardship, I push through because of them. However, this can be a double-edged sword because there are times that “pushing through” causes significant stress that impacts my relationships with others. I recognize that I have to be vulnerable. Asking for help when I need it has been a life saver for me. Knowing that I can’t be everything to everybody has been healing. I am modeling (and this is a work in progress) that it is important to express yourself in healthy ways and to make time for yourself. Owning vulnerable moments is important. I am teaching them the airplane saying, “You have to secure your own oxygen mask before you help secure others.” I want them to be able to own their feelings — whether good, bad, or indifferent. My goal is to raise healthy Black girls and it is important for me to do the work because they are watching. If I set the foundation for them in understanding who they are and loving themselves, I push back against racist and sexist messaging in society about Black girls and who they can be. I often get the question, “What do you want your girls to be when they grow up?” My response is always — to love who they are and to be happy.”

Finally, Yaya, a 53-year old mother of a 26-year old woman, expressed:

“I had to get in contact with my emotions. I didn’t allow my children to see me get upset because I had to handle everything. It was just me and them. When I turned about 40-something, I said to hell with it — I am not superwoman. I do not have to go in my room and wait until they are asleep to cry. When I fell in love with myself, that’s when I stopped caring about how everyone else felt and what everybody else thought. With my mom, we were not allowed to talk about emotions — it was just “shut the f*** up.” I believe she was like that because her great grandmother died when she was 10. My grandmother didn’t get to go to school — no one ever told her that they loved her. No one ever kissed her — so she didn’t know how to show emotions when she had my mom. I wanted to do something different. I’ve always told my children that I loved them. If there was a problem, we tried to talk it out. I allowed them to voice their opinions. With my daughter, she knows our bond is strong and we can talk about anything. I can’t talk to my mom, but my daughter and I talk about any and everything. We don’t hide from each other. I think it’s good because if she has a little girl, she can show her daughter things that I didn’t show her. She can try to improve on the emotional stuff that I didn’t do.”

Woman wearing a white lace shirt
Photo by nappy from Pexels

Their responses highlight the intergenerational transmission of strength and emotional wellness from Black mothers to their daughters. As Sherrie says — our girls are watching us. While few in number, their stories are consistent with broader conversations on the power of Black mothering (e.g., “We Live for the We,” “Revolutionary Mothering,” “Rise up Singing,” “Mothering while Black,” and “Motherhood so White,” to name but a few). As we move forward into the next 50 years of studying Black girlhood and womanhood, we must continue to challenge harmful stereotypes about Black mothering and resilience that can undermine the development of healthy vulnerability and expressiveness in Black girls. For Black moms, this may involve freeing ourselves from unrealistic expectations of strength and emotional fortitude. As these narratives demonstrate, we are uniquely positioned to support our girls in denouncing harmful expectations of excessive care-taking, emotional repression, and an invulnerable strength that epitomizes racist and sexist expectations for Black women in U.S. society. Contemporary social media communities (e.g., Parenting Decolonized, Conscious Parenting for the Culture, and Moms of Black Daughters) highlight how Black mothers are advocating for change — both in how they think about their emotional accountability to their daughters and in how they encourage their girls to take up space in the world. In academia, this involves conscientiousness in how we depict Black women and their mothering practices, which should include being critical of the questions we ask and how we frame our results and conclusions. To what extent are we complicating, nuancing, and rendering Black mothers as fully human — both in their strengths and limitations?

For instance, in her book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, Dr. Stacey Patton challenges us to acknowledge and address how some Black mothers inflict emotional and physical harm on their children by using corporal punishment as a form of discipline. However, rather than characterizing Black mothers as deviant and “less than,” she situates corporal punishment within a broader understanding of how Black mothers may be trying to protect their children from the violence of racism in U.S. society. As she writes, “We put Black mothers on a pedestal and hesitate to call them out because they’re holding up our families, often by themselves. We live in a society where a [Black] girl can be yanked out of her seat by her neck and tossed across a classroom by a school resource officer. But that doesn’t make it okay for her to beat the Black off us.” (p. 2–3) Most academic scholarship would stop short at — “Black mothers beat their children”— but fail to: (1) recognize the concerns that Black mothers have for their children in light of the physical violence inflicted against Black bodies in our country, (2) acknowledge that physical discipline is not inherently a Black cultural practice, and (3) overlook the myriad of other parenting practices that Black mothers employ to help raise healthy and whole Black children. We see a few examples of critical and affirming forms of scholarship on Black motherhood in the work of Drs. Marie Dow and Camille Wilson Cooper.

After apologizing to my daughter, I talk with her about the power of her words and how “hating Mommy,” may have seemed like what she meant, but that she was actually trying to tell me was something else — something even more important — that I hurt her. Equipping our Black girls with the ability to name and claim their emotions is a radical way to prepare them to thrive in U.S. society, and in many ways, it begins with our ability to name and claim our own. I have had to learn to honor my emotional growth (e.g., practicing self-compassion and allowing myself to receive support). I give myself permission to take a break when I am overwhelmed. I let myself “feel my feelings,” and not just the ones that are convenient for others. I allow my daughter to see my sadness and joy…my anger and delight. In modeling emotional vulnerability in this way, I pray that I am giving her the freedom to embrace her own.

Dr. Seanna Leath is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia. Dr. Leath’s research uses interdisciplinary approaches to understand and address issues related to the holistic development of Black girls and women in the context of families, schools, and communities. Using a resilience framework, she considers the role of social identity development on the academic and psychosocial growth and well-being of African American young adults.

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