Improving Health Outcomes for Black Mothers: We Deserve Better
Patrece Hairston Peetz, PsyD
The Authentic Mamas Project
It’s the summer of 2020 and I’m pregnant with my second child. I’ve been spending my days hunkered down at home with my oldest since the COVID-19 pandemic began. My oldest baby is 4 years old and he’s energetic, lively, and curious. To look upon his face is to be enamored with his toffee brown skin, curly dark hair, and the most inquisitive dark brown eyes. As he runs excitedly through our backyard, sun shining on his face, a million toys in hand; my eyes are diverted to an alert on my phone. All I can see are the words “I can’t breathe” with an accompanying photo of a Black man, kneeling before several armed police officers. The first of many such images that would be plastered on social media platforms, television screens, and in newsreels. On repeat. For months. And I would literally lose my breath in vicarious solidarity, “I can’t breathe” playing over and over in my mind.
My heart is pounding out of my chest as my hand rests on my pregnant belly and I continue to watch as my precious boy clutches his dinosaurs to his little chest. My baby. A little Black boy. Innocent. Beautiful. Intelligent. Strong. How would I protect him? I was overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, and despair. And unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time those thoughts and feelings would flood my mind. And I’m not alone.
Black mothers have been grieving the losses of sons and daughters to acts of racism for generations. We bear witness to acts of violence perpetuated onto our children and we grieve for every single one; the secondary trauma is real. We move through each day fearing that our babies could be next. The myth of the “Strong Black Woman” compelling us to keep going. To keep working, keep parenting, keep supporting our families and to keep advocating for ourselves and our communities. The Strong Black Woman represents an intersection between race and gender that outlines culturally specific expectations for Black women, including “unyielding strength, assumption of multiple roles, and caring for others.” (e.g., Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2007; Settles, Pratt-Hyatt, & Buchanan, 2008). Although this is rooted in Black Women’s strength and resilience, it is a heavy burden to carry. And one that negatively affects our lifelong health, emotional well-being, and ability to respond to ongoing stress and trauma.
And I spent that long, pandemic summer of 2020 glued to my iPhone, social media, and the television screen. The images of Black mothers, their families, communities, and protesters never far from my mind as I awaited the birth of my second child. The angst. The fear. The tears. The devastation plaguing my thoughts as I moved through each isolated day. Watching with bated breath as our community cried out for justice. Watching with sorrow, confusion and outrage as the deniers viciously attacked these Black mothers and their communities. In America. In my community. Their racial hatred piercing my tired heart. How could I “take care of myself” through such tiresome, perilous times? And yet…I had too. What choice did I have?
It’s October 1st 2020, I’m 38 weeks pregnant and visiting my OBGYN’s office. A routine visit to check on my little one and discuss my options for my upcoming delivery. I had nearly made it to the end and was utterly exhausted. The blood pressure cuff gripped my swollen arm as I contemplated all that I needed to do in these final days; the weight (both literally and figuratively) of being 38 weeks pregnant racing through my mind. And in the background, I heard the number 155/120 and it shook me from my daze. What? My blood pressure had moved into the danger zone and was significantly higher than what was typical for me – both within and outside of pregnancy. After two more blood pressure readings, urine analysis, and a calm, but fraught conversation with my OBGYN, it was decided that I would deliver my baby girl the next day. Nearly two weeks early. I had developed preeclampsia and waiting to deliver my baby could be risky for both of us.
On the morning of October 2nd, 2020, I gave birth to the most spectacular baby girl. She was absolutely incredible in every way. As I laid in the hospital bed that cloudy Denver morning, snuggling my baby girl, I couldn’t help but feel some measure of luck. Beginning in the perinatal period, Black Mothers are in a fight to protect the health of our babies and ourselves. In the United States, pregnancy-related mortality occurs at an average rate of 17.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. However, that number jumps to 41.7/100,000 for Black women, while it decreases to 13.4/100,000 for White women (PMSS, Centers for Disease Control). Pregnancy-related mortality is defined as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 1 year of the end of pregnancy. I had survived delivery and have a healthy, happy 8 month old baby girl. I’m also still here to write this story nearly a year later. And I feel lucky.
It seems preposterous to think that the increased levels of stress and trauma that Black mothers face during the perinatal period is unrelated to the experience of racism in our larger society. Absorbing the levels of rage, anger, hate, and denial takes its toll – both physically and emotionally. Feeling like we have to “protect” our babies in every interaction – whether it’s at school, daycare, work, and even in our homes is absolutely exhausting. The larger movements (such as the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020) are only one snapshot in a single point in time. Black mothers have carried these burdens for generations and we carry them with us every day.
So what can we do? Work on solutions together. There is no singular solution or one organization that can do this work alone. WE deserve better and so do our babies. So do our families. So do our communities.
Here are some places to start:
- The stress, trauma and emotional burden can have a sizable impact on our overall health and feeling of well-being. CARE FOR YOURSELF. This can take the form of healthy eating, exercise, meditation/prayer, therapy or it can take other forms. This could mean less exposure to the racial violence in the media or it could mean eliminating people from your life that deny your experiences and voice. It could also just mean REST. Finding places to rest your body and your mind. You get to decide. Here are a few resources that may help: The Shine App; Minds of the Culture; Therapy for Black Girls and Dani Authentic.
- Advocate in whatever way feels authentic and impactful. Advocacy comes in many forms and there are many ways to participate in improving access to equitable and responsive systems in our society. Advocacy could mean marching and protesting, it could mean conversations with family and friends, it could mean posting information on social media, it could mean engaging in self-care activities so that you can be more present for your family and community. There are some incredible Black-led organizations that do this work. Black Mamas Matter Alliance and National Birth Equity Collaborative are a few favorites of mine.
- Finding affinity spaces that center the voices and experiences of Black mothers can be healing and powerful. There can NEVER be enough of these spaces. And we are launching another here in Colorado. Black Women for Birth Equity will be a community of Black Women and birthing people who want to join in the fight for safe and respectful birth in Colorado. Please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in hearing more. It only takes a few to impact a movement.
- Know your rights as a birthing person and a human being. You get to decide what you want for your birth experience; and it’s all okay. If you want an OBGYN, that’s wonderful. If you want a doula or midwife, that’s beautiful. The most important aspect of picking a provider is choosing an individual who values your perspective and personhood and will keep your health needs during pregnancy and postpartum at the center. Choose wisely and intentionally. The Black Birthing Bill of Rights is a great place to start. Health in Her HUE is a great resource when looking for healthcare providers. And for those local here in Colorado, The Sacred Seeds Black Doula Collective is an amazing place to inquire about access to a Doula.
- Just follow along. Sometimes just working, living, caring for our babies and ourselves is what we can do. And that’s not just enough, it’s incredible. You are participating in this movement by prioritizing your family and your health.
Patrece Hairston Peetz, PsyD
The Authentic Mamas Project