I knew I was running on empty when my inflammatory bowel disease kicked up. I had given everything to be a good black mother to my mentally ill son, my only child, after his arrest last July: accompanying him to psych evals, interviews, meetings, court. By December, I needed anti-inflammation meds to keep going.
Giving my all to be a good black mother didn’t drop out of the sky. Sarah Knott, historian and author of the recently published Mother Is a Verb, found in plantation documents she’d researched that some white women felt reassured when they and their black maids were pregnant at the same time. It meant the maid would not only keep working, but breastfeed and rear both children. That culture pushed black women toward self-sacrificial mothering.
I also had the examples of my mother and great-grandmother, who’d done everything possible to help their sons when they hit trouble.
Mothering may push any woman to her limits — consider a mother of any race who witnesses her mentally ill son living in a park — but because of inequalities, many black mothers live with a never-ending fear of losing their sons.
Besides the weight of history, any half-conscious black mother shudders at today’s conditions. African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, with most of that number being men. Continued mothering isn’t a choice, noted Robert Carter, 66, MSW, codirector of the Men’s Center for Growth and Change and part-time lecturer in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “Black mothers are drawn into that position because of outside threats to their sons,” he said.
Victoria Greene, 70, whose son Emir was shot and killed at age 20 in a drug deal gone wrong, put it this way: “As black women, we mother our sons longer because it’s a racist society,” said Greene, founder and executive director of the nonprofit EMIR (Every Murder Is Real) Healing Center for families affected by murder and violence. “We know they’re in danger.”
My son’s mental illness deepened his vulnerability, made me work hard. I put my heart into turning his arrest into a chance for change, into having a good outcome. I tried to imagine his effort to get through each day with the wild tilt his illness must give life. He once told me that the cough syrup he uses daily smooths things out, calms him. But it also leaves him more fragile, his thinking and voice muddled.
By last December, I was exhausted after five months of ups and downs, but be damned if I would let go.
Where does a good black mother draw the line with troubled grown sons? “It’s one of the most multifaceted and deeply rooted questions in the black family,” Robert Carter said. “The moment comes when mothers need a respite. They’re going to experience guilt, fatigue, oppression. They need an ally, an impartial person, to say: ‘You’ve done your best. You might want to back off a little.’ ”
Setting boundaries is tricky, pointed out Edie Mannion, 60, director of the Training and Education Center at Mental Health Partners in Center City. “When you set boundaries, people often get angry whether they have a mental illness or not,” she said. “You want to act with a cool head, not in anger, so that later you can say, ‘I made the best choice I could.’ ”
That may mean compromise. “One woman, a social service provider, no longer lets her mentally ill son live with her, but she pays his rent and makes sure he has services,” said Nashid Ali, 68, a musician, storyteller, and community-police liaison in Upper Darby.
My son drew the line for me. Within days of entering an inpatient facility in January for patients with mental illness and addictions, he walked out. It was his bid for freedom, but I felt crushed. He’d pissed all over my months of work. That outcome gave me a big lesson: being a traditional good black mother can fall short.
Depleted, I had to find a new path. I rested, got counseling, prayed, cried, cussed, began to heal my inflammatory bowel disease.
The court, for its part, had no recourse when my son didn’t follow through with required outpatient treatment. He landed in jail.
I’ve since begun fashioning a different motherhood. I have come to want more time, energy, and health to enjoy my retirement years, to pursue its possibilities. I’ve dipped into the thrill and terror of a comedy improv workshop, taken a poetry class, begun doing exercises daily again.
I also ache to see my son have a satisfying life, while reminding myself that I don’t have control over his future.
Still, I’ve got to ‘fess up. Against my better judgment, I called the jail when I didn’t hear from my son. His social worker told me he’d done something that led to his placement in solitary. I didn’t compound my mistake by requesting details. I wiped my eyes, put on sneakers, and went on with my new mile-a-day walking routine.