Mama Knew Love

Jeremiah Pennebaker
May 12, 2018

It’s a cool Easter Sunday in Louisville, Kentucky and family and friends have filled up this tiny house wearing everything from church clothes to sweatpants. It may be a cool 68 outside, but it is no less than 85 degrees in the house from the combination of body heat and the oven stuffed with fried chicken, baked beans, and my personal favorite: my granny’s mac and cheese. Granny calls me from upstairs to come and give her a kiss. She proceeds to do this every 30 minutes, and each time I hustle up the stairs and give her a hug and a kiss, she brags about me to the other grownfolks. It is a great day with great food and great fellowship.

A few weeks later on April 12th, 2011, my father’s 40th birthday, my granny died. It was all pretty blurry, but from what I remember she was over worked and had a stress related seizure. Granny was working several jobs and had recently taken in some of my younger cousins as a foster parent. She was taking care of her mother, my Nana, and still was saving up and storing things in layaway for me and my siblings. I knew this because she was already asking me what I wanted for Christmas during the Easter cookout. My Granny was doing a lot and when she died it shifted everything for my family.  It especially impacted my father to lose his mother in such a tragic fashion. He always remarks that she was the bedrock of the family and it shows as going back to Louisville has never been the same.

Fast-forward to 2018 and it’s a week from Mother’s Day, and I’m trying to figure out what gift I can get my mother, the new bedrock of the family. What gift can I give to the woman that of course deserves everything? What gift can I give the woman who got pregnant with me her senior year in college and decided to put her wants on pause to make sure that I had what I need? What do I get the woman who spent every dime she had to make sure that Xavier wasn’t pushing me out of the door after my freshman year? If I had enough money, I’d buy her a house and tell her to quit her job like all the newly drafted athletes do. But all I can afford to give her is a nice Facebook post, and maybe a coupon for a spa day. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this predicament with Mother’s Day less than a week away as I write this essay. But I’m also sure that no matter what I get my mother, or whatever anyone else gets their mother, that they will love it unconditionally like they do every year. What I wish I could give my mother above all though, is simply some rest.

The shockwaves of my granny’s death continue to reverberate within my life, and I constantly worry about both my parents as many do, but specifically my mother because of all of the things that she is holding up. I can’t fathom all of the things that she is carrying on her shoulders, and I wish in some way that I could give her some rest so that she doesn’t burn herself out and I lose my mother too soon as well.

In my experience, Black women have been the foundation of many families regardless of the presence of fathers and father figures. This quasi-matriarchal type of culture is the result of the systemic separation and destruction of Black families through slavery and the justice system alike. While the longstanding impacts and results of these things are under constant debate, what I’m focused on is the impact this has on the psyche and the mental well-being of the Black woman.

It is widely know that stress can have many adverse effects on the body and overall health outcomes. Stress greatly increases the chances of heart disease and stroke, and can lead to heart palpitations, and depression in extreme cases. Being a woman in and of itself brings about stress. According to the World Health Organization, “Depression, anxiety, somatic symptoms and high rates of comorbidity are significantly related to interconnected and co-occurrent risk factors such as gender based roles, stressors and negative life experiences and events.” The stress of sexism, social pressures, and misogynist culture have dire effects on the mental health of women by simply existing within this patriarchal world. To continue to pile on race-based stress can kill Black and brown people almost as effectively as the criminal justice system. Situations involving racial microaggressions and/or violence can leave many with PTSD-like symptoms. Even the anticipation of a potential racial interaction can have physical reactions: “Just the anticipation of experiencing racial discrimination can be enough to cause a significant spike in stress responses. A study showed that Latina students who interacted with a person with presumably racist ideas showed an increased ‘fight or flight’ response with higher blood pressure and faster heart rates.” On top of the physical ramifications of this country’s capitalist, sexist, and racist culture and institutions, there are many more consequences for the mental wellbeing of its citizens.

May is largely about Mother’s Day, and rightfully so, but it is also mental health awareness month. Stress impacts people in poverty, women, and people of color, so imagine the impacts of those at the intersections. I can’t imagine the weight carried by people like my mother and my grandmother who hold onto all of these identities and history. I recognize my mommy as one of the strongest people I know, but for how long must she be strong? Why is it that she’s been put in a position that she needs to be this strong? Hopefully one day soon I too can tell my mother she won’t ever have to worry again. Because I don’t always need my mother to be strong, but I need her to be here.