America’s Shame: A Black Mother’s Fight for Life

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 


Sources:

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/07/568948782/black-mothers-keep-dying-after-giving-birth-shalon-irvings-story-explains-why

https://fusion.tv/video/390130/death-by-delivery/


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.

Our Quest for a Safer World: Taking Every Instance of Violence Seriously

On February 14, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and carried out a mass shooting that left 17 people dead and more than 14 hospitalized. Soon after, reports began to emerge by those who knew the murderer – Nikolas Cruz – stating that he had been stalking a girl at the school. Another student said that Cruz had been abusive to his girlfriend and was expelled from the high school after fighting with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. And another student said that he ended his friendship with Cruz more than a year ago, when the latter started “going after” and threatening one of his female friends.

But it’s not just Parkland—Cruz’s violence against women and his history of dating violence are not isolated incidents merely unique to him. According to Everytown for Gun Safety’s analysis of FBI data on mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, the majority of mass shootings in the United States—57% of them—involved the perpetrator shooting an intimate partner or family member, and in at least 16% of the cases, the perpetrator had a prior charge of domestic violence.

In the past three years since 2015, this trend has only continued, as exemplified in the following incidents, just to name a couple:

While the connection between intimate partner violence and mass shootings seems clear to many of us, responses to the issue have been troublesome. Similar to those who have been arguing that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers, some people claim that arming survivors of intimate partner violence will prevent them from being assaulted or killed. This train of thought, however, is problematic for a few reasons.

According to data found by Futures Without Violence, “access to firearms increases the risk of intimate partner homicide more than five times more than in instances where there are no weapons, according to a recent study.” In fact, according to data found from a July 2014 testimony before the US Senate, gun access was found to be the strongest risk factor for victims of domestic violence to be killed by an intimate partner. Regardless of who owns the weapon, adding firearms to situations of intimate partner violence only increases the likelihood of fatalities.

Instead of putting the responsibility of prevention in the wrong place by expecting victims to arm themselves – which additionally puts survivors of intimate partner violence at a high risk for being sentenced to long prison terms when they defend their lives using a firearm – it is important to focus on preventing perpetration and holding offenders accountable.

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Source: Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

As we think about those who lost their lives last month in Florida—and the dozens more who have suffered mass shootings in the two weeks since – it is important that we work to change unhealthy societal norms, end the belittlement of sexual and domestic violence survivors, and take every incident of violence seriously.

“…perhaps it’s time our society started to think of physical abuse, possessiveness and men’s entitlement to act in those ways toward women as terroristic, violent and radical,” wrote the Rolling Stone’s Soraya Chemaly, in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. “…so too should we consider domestic violence a form of daily terror. Three women a day are killed by intimate partners in the United States, and the majority of women murdered are murdered by men they know. There needs to be a dissolution between what we think of athes “domestic” violence, traditionally protected by patriarchal privacy norms and perpetrated by men against “their” women, and “public” violence, traditionally understood as male-on-male. Acts of public terrorism such as the one in Orlando would be less unpredictable if intimate partner violence were understood as a public health and safety issue, instead of as a private problem.”

“…Acts of public terrorism such as the one in Orlando would be less unpredictable if intimate partner violence were understood as a public health and safety issue, instead of as a private problem.”

In doing so, we will further our quest not only for a world free of sexual and domestic violence, but for a world where fewer families will grieve the losses of their loved ones to senseless killing.

Featured image: Candlelight vigil for the victims of the Parkland shooting. Gerald Herbert/AP: https://www.mysanantonio.com/news/education/article/The-Latest-Florida-school-shooting-suspect-12615831.php


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change. 

Recognizing Non-Verbal Consent: It’s Not That Hard

Let’s play a little game:

I’ve got some pictures here of nonverbal cues and actions. You look at them and categorize them under “Is open to having a conversation right now” or “Is closed to having a conversation right now.”

I think it’s fitting to say that none of these people want to have a conversation. The signs in the first image that they don’t want to talk include the furrowed brow, bitten lip, and the fact that they’re looking away from the person taking the photo. The second is someone whose arms are crossed with their head turned down. The third shows someone turned away and actually putting their hand out to push away or stop someone.

Let’s do this exercise again: categorize these images under “enjoys what they’re doing” or “doesn’t enjoy what they’re doing.”

Again, I think it’s safe to say that none of those people were enjoying what they were doing. The first image shows a person who disliked whatever they were drinking, made clear by their scrunched eyes and pursed lips. The second shows someone physically in pain, as indicated by being hunched over and grasping at their chest. The third shows people clearly disinterested and tired, as indicated by their hanging heads.

We’re expected to, and capable of, picking up on nonverbal indicators every day. A presenter is expected to survey a room to determine if the audience is engaged, and if they are not, the presenter is expected to modify their presentation. When our significant others come home and slump onto the couch with a haggard expression, we get the sense that they’ve had a long and hard day. We can usually identify physical signs of intoxication, like slurred speech and stumbling, without having seen someone consume alcohol.

Of course, we cannot be sure without asking. Someone may look angry and we might assume it is directed towards us for something we did but upon further conversation, we may come to understand that they were actually feeling frightened or defensive. Or they may be angry, but with somebody else. Or they may be angry with us, but for a reason we knew nothing about. There tends to be more than meets the eye, so asking questions and having an open dialogue with someone is critical to getting a complete picture of how they’re thinking and feeling.

Last month the world was briefly abuzz on the heels of Babe.net’s story about Aziz Ansari. I won’t be doing a full summary now, but here are some basics: Babe.net approached the anonymous Grace about a night she had with Aziz Ansari and Grace recounted their date and subsequent sexual interactions. Grace detailed the many times she expressed her lack of consent through non-verbal means; removing her hand from his groin after he repeatedly moved it there, pulling away, and ceasing movement altogether, including not moving her lips when being kissed. She also talked about the numerous ways she showed her lack of consent verbally: asking him to slow down and chill, responding with “next time” when asked repeatedly “how do you want me to f**k you”, and flat out saying “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.”

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Grace eventually left, feeling hurt and violated, and informed Ansari via text that he made her feel extremely uncomfortable and ignored her verbal and non-verbal indications. Ansari apologized via text, saying he “clearly misread things in the moment” and was “truly sorry”.

In a public statement, he said:

“In September of last year, I met a woman at a party. We exchanged numbers. We texted back and forth and eventually went on a date. We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.

The next day, I got a text from her saying that although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.

I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”

With this article came a flood of commentary, from news stories to op-ed pieces to Facebook posts. But I remember the first response I saw. It was an opinion piece from the New York Times titled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”

As the title alludes, the author believes that because Grace didn’t explicitly say “no”, Aziz could not have been expected to know that she didn’t want to engage in any sexual activities. The author goes on to say the simple fact that she was naked with him in his apartment was enough to assume that Ansari was going to try and have sex with her. It is arduous, problematic work, on par with mind-reading, for Ansari (or people in general) to figure out what these complex gestures and expressions mean. And a lot of people seemed to agree with the author’s assertion.

Let’s revisit our first three photos: viewing these images, I want you to contemplate a different question: Does it look like any of the people in these images want to engage in sexual activity?

How about this second set of photos: if the surroundings of these images had been changed to intimate settings, would it seem like any of these people were enjoying the sexual interactions they were having?

While these are stock Google images, the point remains: the same nonverbal cues we recognize in everyday situations are present in sexual situations.

If I go in to kiss someone and they physically respond like this:

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I know I shouldn’t continue trying to kiss them.

If I’m having sexual intercourse with someone and they make this face:

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I can safely assume they’re uncomfortable or hurting and I should stop.

The next step after recognizing these cues and ceasing activity is to ask your partner if they are okay. We need to take steps to determine what those nonverbal cues mean. Are they in pain? Are they uncomfortable? Do they feel pressured? Do they need to take a break? Do you need to stop altogether?

Equally important to asking is not demanding an answer that makes you happy. Just because you want to continue does not mean your partner wants to, and they should not feel pressured to put their feelings aside because you’re going to be upset if you stop.

Here’s the thing: I would love to live in a world where people express all their thoughts and feelings directly. I want to empower people to say when they’re comfortable and when they’re not, whether that’s in the workplace, at home, or in sexual situations. But it’s not a one-sided job. We need to ask our partners what they want and how they are. We need to recognize that there’s more than one way to say “no” and express discomfort.  We need to listen to our partners’ wants and needs and respect when they need things to change.

And to begin fostering a culture of affirmative consent and sexual pleasure, we need to stop thinking of sexual encounters as silent movies where things just work out without anyone talking about it. Ongoing, enthusiastic consent requires you to ask, listen, and respect.

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Laurel Winsor is the Events Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice at James Madison University in December, 2016.