“When I woke up, they were handing me my little girl and all I could see were these big pretty eyes. At this point, I’m thinking the worst is over; we’re going to go home, be a family, join her brother. Everything is going to be ok!”
Like many new mothers, my mom thought that the worst was over after the delivery, but she soon found out that her journey was just beginning.
With a 5-year-old son at home, my mother and grandmother packed their things and headed to the hospital as labor pains began to strike on New Year’s Day, 1995. The plan was to have birth by cesarean delivery, not that she had much choice.
Despite the fact that she had already one healthy child through vaginal delivery, her new obstetrician insisted that was not an option this time around. Due to a condition he described as being untreatable and not conducive to vaginal delivery, she would need to undergo surgery.
She would have to trust that surgery to a new doctor, in a hospital she was unfamiliar with. Despite having a college education and five years as a federal employee under her belt, her medical insurance gave her few options for a doctor, so she made a random selection; a selection she would soon regret.
Every year about 700 mothers in the US die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes and while maternal death rates decline in every other industrialized country, they continue to increase in the US, especially amongst Black mothers (who die at 3-4 times the rate of white mothers). That year, while giving birth to me, my mom almost became one of those 700 mothers.
Though I knew of her experience from the stories my grandmother occasionally told while tears formed in her eyes, for the first time I was able to hear every detail as my mom remembered living them 23 years ago.
As my mom recalled the experience to me, she, like many Black women, remembered feeling like she was devalued by the doctors that she put so much trust in.
“I’m in the room and I can actually feel them cutting into my stomach for the C-section,” she hesitantly started. “I yelled out in pain. I remember the murmuring that was going on in the room as if it was just yesterday. Someone asked ‘oh my gosh, is anyone here with her?’ and someone responded ‘her mom’s in the waiting room.’ All I remember after that is them [sedating] me some more.
After all of that, when I later talked to my mom I found out that even though they did acknowledge that someone was in the waiting room, waiting on me, no one ever went to talk to her about what happened. She had no idea about what had gone on in the delivery room… I feel that the hospital staff was murmuring amongst themselves and asking who was there with me as if ‘if no one was here then it wouldn’t matter.’”
Despite this traumatizing surgery, my mom was just glad to have me in her arms and was eager to return home to my brother. As the weeks went by, my mom anticipated the moment she could get back to life as a mother, wife, and career woman, but she never expected to have those plans delayed.
More than half of maternal deaths occur in the postpartum period – within one year of giving birth. For American women in general, postpartum care is often dangerously inadequate. Being so overwhelmed in the health and care of the newest addition to their family, many new mothers attend no more than a single appointment four to six weeks after going home.
“Normally we were allowed up to six weeks [of maternity leave]. And that’s exactly what I had done, I was prepared to go back to work. But the week before I was scheduled to go back to work, I had pain in my body.
I was rushed back to the Emergency Room at the hospital that I had the baby and they determined that I acquired an infection from the C-section… As a result of that, they had to remove my appendix and my right ovary, which caused me to be in the hospital for at least a week.
When I arrived at the hospital, I requested to see my obstetrician. I never saw him again, he never visited me at the hospital. They sent me home again and I thought I would be fine.
Again, I’m preparing to return to work. The week before I was supposed to return, I had pain all on the right side of my body; to the point that I couldn’t stand up. We called the ambulance again and I remember them asking my mom, ‘where do you want us to take her this time?’
This time my mom made a decision to go a different hospital. Before I left, I’ll never forget it, I looked at my now six-year-old son as if it would be the last time that I would see him because I wasn’t sure if I would make it back home.”
This situation led to over three months of my mom being in and out of the hospital and having three surgeries, the last one making a difference between life and death. The cycle finally ended when my grandmother made the decision to take my mom to a different hospital, where they not only assisted in her full recovery but also confirmed that the “untreatable condition” that she was previously diagnosed with, was actually a misdiagnosis and that she could have given birth naturally – which is exactly what she did ten years later when we were blessed with my little sister, Kayla.
Every year, hundreds of mothers’ lives are cut short and hundreds of children are deprived of a relationship with their mothers due to circumstances that are often preventable. While many of these mothers are Black, have low incomes, and/or live in rural areas, a 2016 report of five years of data found that Black, college-educated mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were still more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school.
Malpractice, possible prejudices, and limited access to resources have often been cited as the causes for so many Black and low-income mothers’ deaths, but they may not be the only culprits. A recent article from Vox on the postpartum death of Erica Gardner names chronic stress as a possible reason why maternal mortality disproportionately affects Black women, despite their income or education level.
The article notes how day-to-day stressors such as poverty, limited or infrequent access to health care, harsher discipline in schools, and lower pay can contribute to a lifetime of high stress among Black women. And while that chronic stress, driven by racism and discrimination plays a large role, particularly stressful incidents such as the trauma of police violence could be having an even more dangerous effect on Black mothers.
Christen Smith, an associate professor of Africa and African diaspora studies and anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, was quoted in the article stating, “when we think of police lethality, we typically consider the immediate body count: the people that die from bullets and baton blows. The death toll gives the impression that black men are the disproportionate victims of police killings. But these numbers do not reveal the slow death that Black women experience.”
Despite the fact that we experience chronic stress and are more likely to report having serious psychological distress, mental health is still a taboo subject in the Black community and we are often told that it is just a state of mind. I spoke with Shatara Monet, the founder of Virginia-based nonprofit Queens Uniting to Empower Every Nation (QUEEN), who shared just how detrimental these cultural perceptions of mental health can be on Black mothers.
“Most Black women have a stigma placed on them that they have to be strong no matter what they go through… As a community we have created a culture where mental health is not important and where we must keep pushing and do what we’ve got to do. When mental health issues are suppressed or not treated, the reactions that may occur could be destructive to Black families. It is okay to not be okay and to seek the help needed to overcome.”
QUEEN encourages women of color to discuss mental health and their sisterhood of advocates encourages healing through self-love and care.
Many other organizations, both nationally and locally, have come together to address maternal mortality such as the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA), which was co-founded by SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective and the Center for Reproductive Rights in June 2015 to advance the human right to safe and respectful maternal health care.
These organizations are leading a new wave of the reproductive justice movement that is putting Black women and their families at the forefront. To help others understand the importance of this movement and how easy it is to get involved and make a change, the BMMA offers a toolkit that can be accessed through their website.
Ki’ara Montgomery is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a Bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. She is currently working with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance as Member and Donor Liaison.