Aging and Systems: The Development of a Black Single Mother
SWG 502: Macro Human Behavior in a Social Environment
“Depression is a complexity of symptoms such as feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, loss of appetite, psychomotor retardation, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and sleep disturbances” (Atkins, 2015). Depression is a serious problem that does not discriminate and is especially common among black single mothers like Ms. Adkins. Although depression is high among single mothers, it is particularly prevalent among African American single mothers where 47% to 70% report mild to severe depression (Atkins, 2015). This paper will explore the history of depression in the developing life of Ms. Adkins, a 70yr old African-American woman who I met through a colleague of mine and was open to discussing her honest life experience through the lenses of a black single mother who suffers from depression. This paper will also discuss the barriers she faced to quality mental health and Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development.
According to the 2011 US Census Bureau, 72% of black mothers are unmarried. Historically, Black women have a long history of being associated with single motherhood (Gray, 2015). Ms. Adkins talked a bit about her family history and threw in how much colonization and slavery can be connected to the deconstruction of the Black family unit where Black men were dehumanized while black women were separated with their family. The black women in Ms. Adkins’ family were mostly unmarried so she did not see too many father figures present. “While it is important to note that some Black mothers are single by choice for a variety of reasons, Black families are impacted by disparities in education, mass incarceration, and lack of jobs for black men” (Ruggles, 1994). This put Ms. Adkins in the position of a matriarch of the family and act as both man and woman while her efforts and femininity were devalued which affected her relationship with self, her children, and those around her. She grew up knowing that as a black single mother, no matter how hard she worked to build and keep her family together, her efforts would still go unnoticed and underappreciated.
There are a number of stressors that single mothers face that contribute to their depression. However, most of the research done specific to African American single mothers mostly talk about poverty and the absence of the Black man in the home and neglect to discuss other hardships they experience that contribute to depression. A sample of 50 single mothers were selected to explore social, emotional, and economic issues they face (Katwol &Prabhakar, 2005). Although, finances was the number one cause of stress, 72 % of the women were affected by their lack of confidence, 46 % by their lack of identity, and 80% by their monotonous routine, lack of social life and loneliness (Katwol &Prabhakar, 2005). Ms. Adkins had learned over time, that with all that she has gone through in life, it has shaped who she is today and how she “moves through the world”.
Social support or lack thereof is also a contributor of depression in single Black mothers. A sample of 188 single Black employed and unemployed mothers of pre school children in New York City were studied to determined the effects of social support in parenting (Jackson, 1998). 70% of the mothers had education beyond high school, 4% had bachelor degrees (Jackson, 1998). Ms. Adkins “at least had a Bachelors degree because I always told myself I would obtain my degree, even as a single mother without much support”. Research found that there is significant association between employment status and educational attainment. As expected, unemployed mothers are more depressed than employed mothers (Jackson, 1998). However, It was also found that instrumental support and the presence of the grandmother in the home lead to more child behavior problems which caused the mom significant parental stress (Jackson, 1998).
A study of 208 Black single mothers showed that “anger had the most powerful direct effect on depression and perceived racism had the most powerful direct relationship on anger (Atkins, 2015).” With 47% to 70% of Black single mothers feeling depressed. Accessing mental health services could decrease these symptoms and other impairments in functioning. Although Blacks are more likely to report symptoms of depression, they are less likely than whites to be offered support (Atkins, 2015). Like medical treatment, this shows disparities in access to mental health to communities of color (Atkins, 2015). Ms. Adkins always battled through her depression on her own and unfortunately in the black community, typically, they will not seek help due to the stigma behind it. Lack of professional mental health treatment could also be due to the idea of the “Strong Black Woman” who is rarely given opportunity to be vulnerable. The women in the study report that they are advised and expected to rely on religious and social support to manage depressive symptoms (Atkins, 2015).
On a macro level, race, stereotypes, and class have burdened the Black woman socially and personally. Black women are seen in a lot of different ways with the most common being the “strong black woman” and the “welfare queen” (Dow, 2014). The “strong black woman” characterizes a woman with an unlimited and an uncommon amount of strength. This woman is not vulnerable, independent, and bears the weight of the world on her shoulders with grace. The “welfare queen” was used by Regan to describe an unwed, lazy black woman who did nothing but receive benefits to support herself and her children (Dow, 2014). This image mobilized oppression for black women receiving aid and influenced policies such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Act of 1996 or welfare to work (Dow, 2014).
These “controlling images have influenced mainstream perceptions of African American women and the formulation of government policies directly affecting the lives of poor and working-class African American women” (Dow, 2014). These images also affect black women who have internalized these beliefs and struggle everyday to find a medium. Strong black women, like Ms. Adkins, aren’t allowed to be vulnerable or depressed, therefore keeping feelings of grief to themselves. While women receiving aid are shamed and feel guilty, embarrassed and unworthy. Battling these forced but unwanted identities causes conflict within Black women.
Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development from infancy to adulthood, explains how crisis at each stage could affect an individual’s personality development (Hutchison, 2015). He puts much emphasis on how culture and society impacts an individual’s sense of self and how those experiences cause conflict within the ego (Hutchison, 2015). The eight stages are Trust vs. Mistrust (infancy), Autonomy vs. Shame (early childhood), Initiative vs. Guilt (preschool), Industry vs. Inferiority (school age), Identity vs. Role Confusion (adolescence), Intimacy vs. Isolation (early adulthood), Generativity vs. Stagnation (adulthood) , and Ego vs. Despair (maturity) (Hutchison, 2015). Most of the studies that focus on Black women mostly focus on women between the ages of 18-45. This age range covers Identity vs. Role Confusion, Guilt Intimacy vs. Isolation, and Generativity vs. Stagnation.
During the stage of Identity vs Role Confusion, the individual is exploring themselves through identity, values, goals and beliefs as they have gotten older. This is the stage when Ms. Adkins is becoming more independent and has some insight into who she is and what she has accomplished as a black single mother. She is exploring different roles, wants to be accepted and is trying establish stronger relationships with family and friends. Failure to establish a sense of identity during this stage may lead to an identity crisis, which may cause depression. This woman in particular, has found that “being older can be lonely at times” but she has plenty of visits from her grandkids which she states “sometimes helps to have company even though I enjoy my alone time”.
The two identities Black women seem to struggle with most are that of the “Welfare Queen” and the “Strong Black Woman”. Ms. Adkins explained her grief with trying to overcome these identities that they are poor, lazy women who live off of welfare at the same time of battling the image of being so resilient and independent that they do not need support. Black single mothers experience guilt and shame when they do receive welfare and are vigilant to not look poor or “ghetto” (Dow, 2015). Ms. Adkins also experienced a lot of stress when she invested in being the strong black woman and often felt guilt when asking for help. Black single mothers also feel a “sense of exclusion from white middle-class communities (Dow, 2015)”.
During the stage of intimacy vs. isolation, the individual explores intimacy, relationships and long-term commitments. If the individual succeeds during this stage, they can experience happiness, satisfaction and commitment. Some conflict in this stage may cause fear of rejection, isolation, pain, loneliness, and depression.
One of the leading causes of depression in Black women is lack of social support from family and friends. Often times, Black women feel rejected and do not think that they will experience commitment and love due to the stigma that they are unstable, or too strong and independent for companionship (Hitchens & Payne, 2017). This is a belief that Ms. Adkins internalized and felt as if something is wrong with her or that it is something about her that prevents meaningful, long-term relationships. Now, in her old age, she often contemplates “what it would have been like to really experience love and support from the children’s father and also from family”.
Research investigations have shown that Black women reside at the root of race, class, and gender intersection and are more likely to have poor health outcomes, specifically depression (Copeland & Snyder, 2011). Disparities in access to mental health care, as well as the quality of treatment continue to disproportionately affect people of color (Atkins, 2016). Observable barriers to quality treatment may include lack of community resources, transportation, childcare, convenient hours, and financial resources. Intangible barriers may include perceptions of mental health treatment and service due to experiences, lack of knowledge of services, and inadequate support (Atkins, 2016).
The Ecological System Analysis and Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development need to be considered to address depression in Black single mothers. Social Workers should be culturally aware when working with older black women to address the many layers that cause depression. There should also be more support groups catered to black women. As stated above, black mothers lack emotional and social support and having a support group could provide a healthy outlet and meaningful relationships (Broussard at el, 2012). Advocates could educate employers and welfare social workers about how they create systems of oppression for black women by lack of flexibility. They could educate them on the barriers many black women face when it comes to inflexible work and school schedules, inconsistent child care, inadequate health care, and transportation (Broussard at el, 2012). On a macro level, advocates could reduce stigmatization by educating and urging media outlets to debunk the myths of single Black mothers by using correct and positive images of these mothers (Broussard at el, 2012).
Anderson, P., & Levine, P. (2000). Childcare and mothers’ employment decisions. In D. Card & Blank (Eds.), Finding jobs: Work and welfare reform (pp. 420–462). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Atkins, R. (2015). Depression in black single mothers. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 37(6), 812-830. doi:10.1177/0193945914528289
Atkins, R. (2016). Coping with depression in single black mothers. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 37(3), 172-181. doi:10.3109/01612840.2015.1098760
Broussard, C. A., Joseph, A. L., & Thompson, M. (2012). Stressors and coping strategies used by single mothers living in poverty. Affilia, 27(2), 190-204. dos 10.1177/0886109912443884
Coiro, M. (2001). Depressive symptoms among women receiving welfare. Women & Health, 32, 1–23
Copeland, V. C., & Snyder, K. (2010). Barriers to mental health treatment services for low-income african american women whose children receive behavioral health services: an ethnographic investigation. Social Work in Public Health, 26(1), 78-95.doi:10.1080/10911350903341036
Dow, D. M. (2015). Negotiating “The Welfare Queen” and “The Strong Black Woman”. Sociological Perspectives, 58(1), 36-55. doi:10.1177/0731121414556546
Gray, A. (n.d.). A Thesis on Black Single Motherhood...From Slavery and Beyond. Retrieved February 10, 2017, from https://www.academia.edu/5595066/ A_Thesis_On_Black_Single_Motherhood_From_Slavery_and_Beyond
Hitchens, B. K., & Payne, Y. A. (2017). “Brenda’s Got a Baby”. Journal of Black Psychology, 43(1), 50-76. doi:10.1177/0095798415619260
Hutchison, E. D. (2015). Dimensions of Human Behavior: The changing life course (5th
ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.
Kotwal, N., & Prabhakar, B. (2009). Problems faced by single mothers. Social Science, 21(3), 197-204. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9b8d
Lee, S. (2004). Women’s work supports, job retention, and job mobility. Research in Brief (B244). Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research
Matthews, H. (2006). Child care assistance helps families work: A review of the effects of subsidy receipt on employment. Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy.
Ruggles, S. (1994). The origins of african-american family structure. American Sociological Review, 59(1), 136. doi:10.2307/2096137