Young Mama. Single Mama. Poor Mama. Depressed Mama. Married Mama. Anxiety-filled Mama. Divorced Mama. Happy Mama. Free Black Mama. 

At some point in my life I have been all of these mamas, and I am still some of them today. They each represent parts of me I am continuously working on, pieces of my identity that are growing, changing and healing.

Getting to ‘free’ wasn’t an easy process for me. Recently, I read through some of my old journals and I realized how just much pain I’ve experienced over the course of my motherhood journey. I became pregnant for the first time at the age of 16. I didn’t know whether I wanted to carry the pregnancy to term or have an abortion. I wasn’t scared of much back then, but I was afraid of what people would think; what my mom would think and how my family would react. I was shamed profusely and my family made sure I knew that I had fallen short of their expectations.

“I never thought you would’ve gotten pregnant so young! You were a straight A student and always so quiet!”

Although I still managed to graduate high school and complete a semester of college, I was constantly reminded of how bad I’d fucked up by becoming pregnant at such a young age. No one assured me that I would be okay or that they would support me no matter what. My mother supported me as best as she could, both financially and physically, but I wanted to hear that I was loved. That my baby wasn’t a mistake.

I never did.

By the time I was 23, I was the proud parent of three beautiful and healthy little girls. Since I couldn’t afford a place on my own, we split a two-bedroom apartment with my sister and her daughter. I worked two, sometimes three, jobs to provide for them. Being away from my girls so much was hard yet necessary if they were to have to a place to lay to their heads. I couldn’t afford to stop and enjoy their laughter, wipe their tears, and soothe any discomfort they were feeling.

At the same time, I enjoyed the parenting break while at work. Raising children requires a lot of energy and most days I simply didn’t have it. I was suffering from depression and spent my early 20’s denying and ignoring it. I was tired all the time, irritable and sad. I would cry all night and curse the rising sun. I yearned for a full-time job paying more than minimum wage. I wanted to take my children on vacation or to the ice cream shop, but it was never in the budget.

Alas, I had no other choice but to push through and make things happen for my girls. Our schedules and my depression meant that I barely slept or ate healthy meals. I collapsed on the bed from exhaustion after making sure my daughters had dinner, bathed and finished their homework. Looking back, I’m not sure how I made it. I only knew I owed it to my children to keeping going despite feeling like giving up everyday.

It wasn’t until I was sexually assaulted a few years later that I sought help for depression and anxiety. An anxiety attack at work meant I couldn’t deny my mental health issues any longer. I barely found the energy and courage to go to work, then crawled in bed as soon I got home begging the girls, Don’t bother Mommy for a while. I hadn’t realized how untreated mental illness was impacting my stamina and will to exist.

When my children’s father rejoined the picture, the girls were cared for and fed, but some days my depression paralyzed me. My family couldn’t understand why I was often tired and extremely cranky. I assured them my mental health was not their fault, reminding them daily that I loved them. As they grew older, I talked to them about my depression and anxiety. I wanted to chaperone their class trips and throw them elaborate birthday parties, but that my energy was drained from being sad all the time. I explained anxiety was to blame when I always assumed the worst case scenarios when they asked to go places without me. They still think I’m just being an overprotective mom who’s always tripping about something. That will probably never change.

My now-four daughters were my bridesmaids at our intimate home wedding in 2014. I finally married their father and was his wife. No longer society’s derided single Black mother of four, I wore a wedding band to let the world know that when they look at me and my daughters, we were the exception. I was the exception. I may have been a young mama, a poor mama, a depressed mama, but I was Married Mama now! My children had a “proper” two-parent household like most of their friends. We even got a dog.

I was everything except happy.

I married for the same reasons many people get married: for the children, for the convenience of shared parenting responsibilities in our home, for the stereotype defying status, for what we thought was love. Deep down  Being married and having a two-income household didn’t solve our financial problems, as many conservative politicians claim. Even with both of us employed full time,we were still struggling financially. This only fueled our arguments about past due bills and disconnection notices. We were still poor and marriage created more stressors. My soul died a little everyday. I wasn’t happy and it showed.

My eldest daughters soon became old enough to question why I stayed in an on-and-off toxic relationship for nearly 17 years. They deserved to have a mama who was honest with them and with herself. My depression made me feel like a horrible parent who was worthless and incapable of being loved. I no longer believed that my relationship with their father was all I deserved. We separated last August and divorced in February. While this journey of single mamahood isn’t my first go round, I love and trust myself more than I ever have before.

I know my struggles of mamahood are shared by so many other mamas. We make due with what we have and it often goes unrecognized. When society talks about motherhood, mamas like me are often forgotten. The single mamas whose worth seems to only be attached to her non-existent husband. The young mamas who are shamed for raising a family simply because of their age. The poor mama labeled a ‘welfare queen who turns to the state for a helping hand. The depressed mama who needs to snap out of it but can’t. The Black mama who is to blame for everything single thing that goes wrong ever. I want for every mama to be honored for who she is, not what society tells her she should be. I had to tune out the noise and learn to trust myself as a mama. This is a practice I work towards everyday.

I’ve never hidden my struggles as a Black mama from my daughters. It’s never an easy conversation, but it’s necessary. I want them, and every Black mama, to know that although we feel isolated, we are not alone. We can be young mamas, single mamas, poor mamas and still thrive. We are enough and always have been. We can be the free Black mamas of our ancestors’ dreams. That’s what we should be celebrating this Mamas Day.

Brittany Mostiller is the Executive Director of the Chicago Abortion Fund and an Abortion Storyteller with We Testify, a leadership program of the National Network of Abortion Funds.