Around this time last year, my husband and I found out we were pregnant.
I remember my body being overcome with a rush of emotions ranging from excitement to fear. An entire human being for whom we’d be responsible — for a really long time. Forever!
A million thoughts ran through my mind. Will they have my husband’s nose? My freckles and lips? Kids are so expensive — could we afford to have one? What will we be like as parents?
Those emotions quickly turned into worry and dread as the statistic I’d seen over and over in headlines the last few years flashed through my mind: Black women in the United States are three to four times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts.
Different kinds of thoughts ran through my mind. Would I survive this pregnancy? Would my baby survive childbirth? Would I find a care team that listened to me and took my concerns seriously?
Looking back, I am saddened that my initial feelings of wonderment at the miracle of conceiving, carrying and bringing a child into the world were eviscerated by the very harsh and unforgiving subject of my own mortality.
At 34-years-old, despite bouts of high blood pressure in the last few years, and lifelong chronic asthma and allergies—I was generally healthy. But so were other women who looked like me who had lost their lives while giving birth. Women like Amber Isaac, whose haunting prediction that she wouldn’t survive the birth of her son came true due to the criminally negligent medical care she received that was made worse by the pandemic. Women like Kira Johnson who died after she was left to suffer through internal hemorrhage bleeding for more than 10 hours before any intervention. Even rich, famous and healthy Black women like Allyson Felix and Serena Williams could not escape the systemic racism that makes our births so risky.
I wondered what my chances were of developing a life-threatening complication during pregnancy and so I googled the words “black women + pregnancy.” I sat for what seemed like hours reading story after story of child-bearing Black women whose literal cries for help while dying on the operating table were ignored, their complaints of pain outright dismissed, their advocacy and assertiveness treated with callous indifference. As if the twisted irony of losing one’s life while giving one isn’t dreadful enough, many medical experts agree that most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable.
I learned that while stroke and heart disease are the leading causes of all maternal deaths, Black women are at a higher risk for developing preeclampsia, a disorder chiefly characterized by high blood pressure during pregnancy. I also learned that Black women display symptoms of preeclampsia earlier in pregnancy than white women.
When I discovered that I met several of the risk factors for preeclampsia, I became consumed with the belief that I would develop the disorder at some point. My anxieties only worsened with both consistent high blood pressure readings and bouts of chest pain lasting through my second trimester.
My feelings of worry and overwhelm were compounded by the isolating effects of the pandemic. I knew that it would be important for me to build and nurture a community for my child’s entrance into the world. Not just for her sake, but for mine as well.
We worked with a doula who flat out told me one day to stop speaking about preeclampsia as if I had been officially diagnosed — because I hadn’t. She made a point to show me positive birth stories of Black women in an effort to reframe my thoughts and re-claim ownership over my pregnancy and childbirth experience. We found a childbirth educator who empowered me to bring my full self to class, encouraged thoughtful conversations around the existing racial disparities in maternal health outcomes and provided me with the tools to exercise bodily autonomy during appointments and eventually in the delivery room.
But as empowered and prepared as I felt before giving birth to my daughter, I knew that the cards were still stacked against me from the jump. So while a doula is an important resource that should be made affordable to all mothers, we also need to address the structural racism and implicit bias in our healthcare system.
Countless reports out there cite things like poor quality of care, prevalent underlying chronic conditions and poor continuity of care as the main reasons for the disparate health outcomes between black and white women.
My education level, economic and social statuses, the clothes I wore, the way I consciously ‘code-switched’ when talking with medical professionals — none of those things would protect me against the implicit biases rampant in the healthcare system. For example, I could have encountered a nurse who equates being Black with being uneducated and poor, or a doctor who doesn’t monitor me as closely as their white patients. One report notes, “the maternal health crisis cannot adequately be addressed without taking account of how racism and bias manifest in the healthcare system and in turn contribute to the high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity among Black women.”
The bottom line is, we have to listen to and believe Black women. Always. We must hold the health care system accountable to this demand and continue calling them out when they fail.
As community organizers, this is where we come in. We need to expand and strengthen the Black maternal health movement and reproductive justice. We must share our own stories and center the stories of other impacted women and their families. Then, we can use them to advocate for improvements in public policies and institutional practices that address racial reproductive bias and racism and aim to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women.
I survived childbirth and my child did too. Still, as a Black woman, I am more than three times more likely to die in postpartum than my white counterparts. Not to mention the burden of caring for, nurturing and fiercely protecting young Black children in this country has brought on a whole new set of anxieties I find myself agonizing over in bed at night.
What new parent needs sleep anyway, right?