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Leaning Inward: Struggling Mothers Find Hope, Support in Faith

05/20/2014 12:18 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2014
  • David Briggs Writer, Association of Religion Data Archives

The woman in prison who prays to God, knowing she will soon be separated from her newborn child: "You know, I put this situation in your hands. I know everything gonna be alright."

The woman living in poverty who wants her children to be active in church so "the gates of heaven" will be open to them, but she is fearful of attending herself out of a sense of guilt and shame.

The mother with HIV/AIDs who was aware "many people could not stand my presence, but believing in God gave me confidence and self-reliance."

These are the women who do not appear on commercials selling greeting cards, flower arrangements, jewelry or any of the other material goods associated with maternal love.

Nor are they likely to be lifted up in services or on the cover of church brochures.

Yet their faith is no longer as invisible.

In large studies and in-depth interviews, researchers are finding many mothers on the margins of society -- whether they are suffering with AIDS in Uganda or living in poverty in the Northeast or in a maximum-security prison in the Midwest -- rely on religion and spirituality for a pathway beyond despair to having a sense of hope for the future.

Their stories reveal a powerful faith that provides a vision of a better life for them and their children.

In search of hope

White, middle-class women remain the dominant image of motherhood in American culture.

Yet research is finding the benefits and experiences of faith and parenting are not so exclusive. Mothers who face hardships appear to place a special value on the need for a transcendent power in their lives.

Consider these study findings:

• More than two-thirds of mothers of urban children increased their religious participation after the birth of a child, according to one study of 2,356 families. And the more active faith life appeared to help both mother and child, researcher Richard Petts of Ball State University reported. On average, mothers who attended services weekly reported lower levels of parenting stress and have children who are less likely to get in fights or bully others and have fewer signs of being withdrawn or depressed.

Homeless mothers who felt forgiven by God and were able to forgive themselves and others were significantly more likely to have better mental health, a separate study found. The study, which followed 222 mothers enrolled in an emergency shelter program over 15 months, also found mothers who believed their lives unfolded according to a divine plan were more likely over time to have fewer mental health problems.

The "results clarify some of the pathways that may help mothers exit homelessness or avoid it entirely" said researchers David Hodge, Stephanie Moser and Michael Shafer of Arizona State University.

• About seven in eight mothers attending an AIDS clinic in Entebbe, Uganda, reported spirituality helped them with their circumstances, according to a study of 162 sub-Saharan Africans. More than 40 percent said spirituality was the most important factor keeping them going.

"Even if friends and family rejected them, women could still find acceptance in the present -- and even hope for the future -- through their relationship with God," researchers Hodge and Jini Roby of Brigham Young University reported.

Prayer was a special source of strength for incarcerated mothers, one study of 15 black women in a maximum-security prison found. The ability to put concerns about their children in the hands of God gave many of the women a sense that they are cooperating with the divine in the care of their offspring. Talking to God in prayer also gave mothers, even one woman suffering from cancer who may never leave prison alive, a sense of hope for the future, researcher Ebonie Cunningham Stringer of Wingate University reported.

"Women can negotiate mothering roles by creating, sharing, and interacting upon a foundation of faith," she wrote in the Journal of African-American Studies.

One mother in Stringer's study found solace and meaning writing letters urging her children to continue praying and to keep their heads in the Bible.

"I let them all know that I love them. I'm sorry but this, this will pass," she said. "I just keep on telling them, "Just keep going"... You may be a couple years older but I'ma get [home]. Keep having the faith."

It is not always easy, however.

Gain and pain

The experience of struggling mothers with religion is often mixed.

In a study of 44 low-income urban mothers, more than two-thirds of participants wanted their children to be involved in churches. Their reasons included reinforcing positive values, protecting children from negative environments and providing a sense of hope and meaning among difficult circumstances, reported researcher Susan Crawford Sullivan of College of the Holy Cross.

However, few of the mothers were themselves regular churchgoers. Their reasons ranged from logistical problems such as transportation to feeling stigmatized or unwelcome, found Sullivan, author of "Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty."

The study of homeless mothers in the Southwest also found religion was not always helpful. Women who wondered whether God had abandoned them or believed God may be punishing them were more likely to have higher levels of depression and anxiety. In addition, conflict with their congregations was associated with significantly worse mental health over their time at the shelter.

In interviews, leading researchers such as Stringer, Hodge and Sullivan said the findings should encourage everyone from mental health caregivers to congregational leaders to family members and neighbors to consider the spiritual lives of mothers.

Welcoming and integrating mothers at the margins into communities that affirm positive aspects of their faith can dramatically improve the health and future of the women and their families.

Negative, critical attitudes, however, can have a devastating impact on mothers who may already be burdened with feelings of shame, guilt and worthlessness, researchers said.

"If we wish to help these resilient women live productive lives, we must build on their strengths," Hodge and Roby concluded in their African study. "To identity their strengths, we must listen to their voices."

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.