Abstract: The Complexities of Mothering: Clusters of Behavioral Health Risks Experienced By African-American Mothers (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

The Complexities of Mothering: Clusters of Behavioral Health Risks Experienced By African-American Mothers

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR H, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
D. Crystal Coles, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, University of Kansas, KS
Quenette Walton, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Tracey Barnett, PhD, LMSW, Assistant Professor, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR
Tyreasa Washington, PhD, Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC

Research indicates that over 50 percent of African American children are raised in single parent households, and the majority of these households are headed by mothers. Given the challenges of racial and economic oppression that African American women experience, the weight of parenting responsibilities can lead to one’s inability to maintain their emotional, mental, and physical health.  These barriers are unique to women of color and contribute to parental stressors and impact maternal psychosocial functioning. Nevertheless, the underlying reasons for differing parenting strategies and the added stress of implementing these strategies may place African American mothers at risk for experiencing behavioral health problems. The primary aim of this study is to examine the experiences that African American mothers are having with psychosocial risks factors (i.e. smoking, substance use, and depression) either individually or concomitantly, and its implications for maternal well-being.


This study employed a secondary data analysis using the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study (Year 15; N=1,589), using a sample that includes biological mothers who identified as African-American. Data was collected in four waves and was inclusive of information in areas of family life and parenting, household structure, and family relationships.  Bivariate and multivariate comparisons were conducted by examining the associations among individual behavioral health risks experienced by women individually and concomitantly.  


A two-step cluster analysis was conducted to organize behavioral health risks experienced by women (i.e. depression, substance use, and smoking) into mutually exclusive groups.  The two-step cluster analysis produced three clusters of functioning. The largest of the obtained clusters (28.7%) was characterized by positive functioning in three domains. Women in this cluster were at risk for depression (87%), smoked regularly (52%), and drank alcohol 1 to three days per month (40%).  The second cluster (24%) was characterized by smoking usage for all members (100%) and alcohol usage by almost half of the members (49%). The third and smallest cluster (21.1%), was characterized by alcohol usage for all members, but no experiences of depression, smoking, or substance usage. Cluster differences were significant (F=3.38, p<.05).

These results suggest that among women experiencing two or more risk factors (N=456, 28.7%), depression consistently emerged as a significant correlate for smoking (𝛘2=36.62, p<.0005) and substance usage (𝛘2=37.28, p<.0005).  When examining these behavioral health risk factors as potential predictors of depression, the regression model including alcohol usage, smoking, and substance usage were significant at the p=.05 level


African-American mothers who experience elevated psychosocial risk factors face challenges related to their mental, physical, and emotional health; however, they are also challenged with ensuring the safety and well-being of their children. It is clear that the well-being of African American mothers is a multifaceted concept that not only includes racial and economic equality, but also inclusive of health areas related to physical, mental, and emotional health. Thus psychosocial risk factors must be addressed concomitantly to ensure overall health of the mother and the family environment.