April 15, usually known as tax day, launches a new awareness this year of 2018: the first Black Maternal Health Week. To have a week dedicated to explore black mothers’ health means that their health has historically been ignored, which is nothing “new” in America. To have a week dedicated to explore this topic means that the data exists for us to figure out how we can help improve black mothers’ health before pregnancy, during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. One week out of the year may be just enough to get the dialogue going and is definitely not enough to establish corrective measures to address the systemic issues that confront expectant black mothers, namely societal racism that affects black mothers and their babies. In the spirit of Black Maternal Health Week, let us explore some of the health disparities that exist for black mothers in America today.
According to a recent New York Times article, the United States has collected data on infant mortality since 1850, when many families often restrained themselves from naming their children before their first birthdays in case these children did not live that long. At that time, the black infant mortality rate was 340 per 1000; the white infant mortality rate was 217 per 1000. That is about a 3:2 ratio; for every 3 black infant deaths, there were 2 white infant deaths. These days, despite advances in medicine that reduced the number of babies dying per year, the ratio has become more drastic: 11.3 per 1000 black babies die every year, compared to 4.9 per 1000 white babies dying. In essence, black babies are more than twice as likely to die as their white counterparts. Black mothers, even with advanced degrees and higher pay, still experience higher infant mortality rates than their poorer and less educated white counterparts.
Research and anecdotal reports examining the prenatal and postpartum treatment of African American mothers point to these factors that impact their health:
- Societal and systemic racism produce physiological stress hormones that result in high risk pregnancies, which include hypertension and pre-eclampsia
- Prejudice and preconceived notions about black mothers (e.g., nerve endings being tougher and their blood more able to coagulate) can lead to disregarded concerns, dismissed symptoms, and deaths or near-deaths of mother and/or baby
- Childbirth education, birth doula and postpartum doula services, and lactation support provided by racially diverse professional companions that reflect the experience of these black mothers significantly reduce the death rates of mother and baby
Of the three factors listed above, the most significant one is the support given from one black mother to another to help turn the tide of black infant mortality. Nothing replaces the lived wisdom and experience of being black and female in America. Who else but our sisters can we turn to when no one takes our concerns seriously? Who else but our mothers can we turn to with lady problems we have not experienced before? Who else but our daughters-to-be can we dream for and strive for?
Black mothers deserve to be seen and heard. They deserve to be treated with honor and respect. They deserve a compassionate ear, an understanding heart, an expansive space to let go of the stress and sink into their own inner knowing that every mother instinctually possesses. Black mothers deserve to feel safe, happy, and hopeful for the future--our collective future. Black Mothers Matter.
Contributing author Gloria Ng is a homebirth mom of three who edited and anthologized works in New Moms, New Families: Priceless Gifts of Wisdom and Practical Advice from Mama Experts for the Fourth Trimester and First Year Postpartum. If not squeezing words into haiku these days, she can be found scratching her head piecing together "transferrable skills" to step into new industries. Follow her adventures here.