It’s that time of year again when we honour our mothers and celebrate their innumerable contributions to society and the world. And while the mantle of motherhood could be a big burden for some, women have been taught to embrace the role of mother wholeheartedly and to be content with raising good, well-mannered children.
And we have – just as our mothers and grandmothers did before us.
Nothing quite compares to that overwhelming feeling of love and devotion that wells inside every woman the very first time they see and hold their baby. And for Black mothers, this love and desire to provide for and protect their child from the rest of the world is a lifelong commitment.
Motherhood – the Black experience
The bond between Black mothers and children is often unbreakable. Possibly because there are definite challenges and fears many Black mothers face that are uncommon in other cultures, like the need to fight to ensure their children get the best education and opportunities possible, to protect their sons from an alarmingly high rate of police brutality, and prepare their girls for media known for devaluing their beauty and intelligence and sexualizing them more than any other race of females. Even affluent Black families are not safe from the negative stereotypes that continue to hound the majority of the Black community.
Yet Black women from different cultures – whether African, Caribbean or American – have various approaches to raising their sons and daughters. These are often a blend of their heritage and that of their new homeland.
For example, leaving the nest at 18 can be optional or encouraged for Black families. Many Black moms wouldn't object to their child earning a living and finding their own place, yet some would secretly be relieved if their child tells them it's more practical to keep living at home while working.
How have women's roles in society changed?
In general, women’s roles in their household and community have always been tied to their gender and reproductive function. However, Black women’s value to society and their prospects in life are also eclipsed by race – that all-encompassing term that lumps people into categories based solely on their physical attributes, such as the hair texture and skin colour.
In a way, a Black mother’s struggles are unique and doubly difficult.
In some African countries, there are variations in gender roles, but the more common practice is male headship. Women play subordinate roles at home and in the larger community. They are primary food producers, cultivating the land and caring for livestock, and yet very few own animals and land.
Aside from being stewards of the land, African women bear children, carry out household work and are the primary caregivers of children and the elderly. These multifaceted, unpaid tasks prevent young girls and women from completing their education and fulfilling their potential.
Black women outside of Africa face different challenges in the course of their lives. Even with access to education and less tradition-bound gender roles, poverty remains a glaring problem in Black communities in North & South America, especially in female-headed households where the mother is either separated, divorced or widowed.
Still, changing social requirements and conventions have paved the way for the transformation of traditional gender roles, including those in Black families. Among the key drivers of change include:
The recognition that people are equal regardless of colour and gender
Sharing of financial and domestic responsibilities between spouses
Women's higher level of employability and more women joining the workforce
The phenomenon of the househusband
The gradual recognition of same gender families
Still, remnants of convention remain even as Black mothers and their daughters acquire university degrees and become successful career women. The needs of the family come first, and it's usually the mother who is expected to give up her personal career ambitions should the need arise.
Affluent Black families also face discrimination. Whether it’s in Africa, North America, South America, Europe or Asia, we see Black mothers struggling to secure the future of their children due to the political and racist systems at play.
Aware of their child’s true worth, inherent dignity and potential, a Black mother knows that the choices she makes have an impact. Such choices contribute to creating a society where everyone, including her child, has a chance to succeed in a fair, equitable competition in life.
Celebrations of motherhood
Motherhood is celebrated in Africa, the Caribbean and South American countries just like in other countries.
To commemorate Mother’s Day in South Africa, for example, people wear red or pink carnations to honour living mothers. Those who wear white carnations do so to honour their deceased mother.
In most Black cultures, Mother’s Day is an occasion to thank not only moms but also grandmothers and other women who have been like a mother to others. One African tradition is making breakfast for their mothers just so they can sleep in for a change. Children are also taught to make homemade gifts for their mothers.
Meanwhile, Mother’s Day is observed in Ethiopia in a unique way. Families will come for the Antrosht festival after the rainy season is through. There will be dancing, singing, and plenty of food throughout the course of three days. Daughters usually provide the vegetables and cheese, while sons bring the meat.
Why is being a mother a strength?
However difficult, being a mother is both a gift and a strength. It's an opportunity to influence and mould the character of a human being who could someday make a huge difference in the world.
Prominent Black leaders like Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman, Barack Obama, Shirley Chisholm and Martin Luther King Jr. are examples of the loving and difficult work of Black mothers from different eras. All of these figures had mothers (and grandmothers) who were integral to the formation of their character and person. Mothers provide the foundation upon which the child’s own perspective of life is formed.
No doubt, the fathers of these remarkable leaders - and all Black folks for that matter - are also important and significantly influence their development.
But, with Black culture and gender roles being what they were back then, it was their mothers who had the greatest opportunity to instill values and principles that shape them and their future.
As we reflect on our Mother’s Day celebrations this week, let's think beyond the flowers, cards and gifts, and continue honouring our mothers by fighting the good fight they started for the Black community. We can start by calling out shady politics trying to usurp women's bodily freedom – whether procreation or enforced medication – and recognizing the only way to protect our human race is to respect and protect the women that bear it with all our might.