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Christy Turlington Burns on how crucial it is to improve maternal health in the U.S. and abroad

Many people remember Christy as the supermodel who dominated the fashion world in the 80s and 90s. But these days, Christy is becoming better known for her work on improving maternal health around the world. Her nonprofit, Every Mother Counts, which she founded in 2010, has been a leader in raising awareness of the issues with maternal health both in the U.S. and abroad. By partnering with grassroots organizations, providing grants and medical training, and pushing critical policies and legislation in the U.S., Every Mother Counts has had a profound impact on the lives of millions of women and their babies.

In this episode, Christy talks with Liz about the story behind starting her organization, the state of maternal health both in the U.S. and abroad, and her own personal motherhood experience.


Liz: Hi Christy. Welcome to the Motherly podcast. Christy Turlington Burns: Hi. Thank you.

Liz: So I'm always curious with our guests, what was your view of motherhood before you became a mom yourself?

Christy: It's so hard to answer that which seems funny but I feel like you know my oldest is 15 and a half and it feels like such a long time ago that I became a mother. But I think I appreciated motherhood I would say. I was the last of my sisters to become a mom so I had kind of a very close, involved, experiences as an aunt watching them and supporting them through their journey and so I guess I would say before I became a mom myself I was already you know starting to become ready for that transition and that new stage of my life. Before that I really don't know. I guess in some respects when you're young anyway you kind of take it for granted right like you know you have a mom; most of us do, and you assume that mom will always be there until you are a teenager and you try to get as far away from her as you can. So I think I just kind of you know like the sun or the moon or the stars. It was like my mom is here and I am me because of her and it really took me to becoming one myself to start to think about and appreciate it in so many other ways.

Liz: You said that so well. My oldest is seven and it is such a mindset shift that it can almost be hard to remember what it's like to not be a mother. Like your brain literally changes through this experience.

Christy: I think your brain and pretty much every cell in your being changes and you know I often hear and I try to talk about the experience of becoming a mom as this you know enormously transformative experience and it's sort of hard and too profound to be able to really explain what that means or you know to be mindful about those who either struggle in becoming moms or who decide they don't want to be moms. But that transformation I think is the most exciting or was the most exciting thing as I was on that track and that journey. So I couldn't wait for all those changes not knowing what they were, but the unknown even was very compelling and very mysterious to me. It didn't disappoint on the other side.

Liz: Absolutely. So let's talk about the birth of your first child, your daughter Grace. You did experience something during the birth that was unexpected and that experience ultimately led you down the path of public health and advocacy. Can you tell us about Grace's birth and what happened afterwards?

Christy: Sure. Sure. So I became pregnant at a time in my life when I was really ready for it. I had incredible access to healthcare and support and birth options which was amazing. I really had the most positive experience from start really through the delivery of her. My husband and I chose a midwife and a doula and a birthing center within a hospital which was where the midwife was affiliated and I really did feel like I had everything that I wanted. And I sort of really went in it feeling so prepared. So the unexpected event that happened really happened in the fourth stage of labor, you know after I had delivered her and I was really in this moment of euphoria. I felt so proud of myself. I felt so strong. I felt so grateful. I didn't know my daughter's sex until she was born and so I was just like beside myself that I had a daughter and she was latching on and she; like everything was like perfect, perfect. And really in the next I guess within sort of 45 minutes or an hour after she was out is when things sort of turned and changed. And that was the part that I just was not prepared for. I did not deliver my placenta. I had a retained placenta but I didn't even know really what that meant at the time. I had witnessed my sisters giving birth and I sort of seen the placenta come out as an afterthought, not a big deal. And so everybody in the room started to get a little bit nervous because all the little tricks and maneuvers to try to make it happen weren't working. I was tired and dehydrated and all of those things. Ultimately the obstetrician who backed my midwives came in and he sort of stepped into extract the placenta. And he did that in a; I mean it's the way it had to be done I guess, but it suddenly felt from I was in this euphoric empowered place and suddenly I'm on my back and I don't really know what's happening and it was an excruciatingly painful extraction experience. And that's the part that was like oh my God. What's happening. Even with that experience I still look back at that birth as being the most beautiful experience I'd ever had before that time. But I would then learn because of it that that's a very common thing to happen. I of course you know went home a day or so later and I had a postpartum doula thankfully who really worked with me to get my blood back because I lost a few liters of blood. I had to catheterize. I wasn't able to take antibiotics which I was only really exposed to germs because of the extraction itself. So I just suddenly you know more intervention and more prodding and probing than I was expecting with the choice that I had made. So really in the weeks or so that once I was postpartum and at home you know I started asking those questions and wondering like how did that happen or how was I not prepared or you know what did I do. Of course nothing and the retained placenta; I'd never heard anybody explain it, any reason for why it happens and there's no way to know that that is going on in your body until you've delivered your child. And so it remained kind of a mystery and still does now to some extent. But that experience is what opened my eyes to this global tragedy. You know I did not know that women and girls were still dying in pregnancy-related complications all over the world. I had no idea. I'm sure I would have thought that if that happened it was an incredibly rare event. And I think that's what most people assume. And I learned that the U.S. at that time; my daughter was born in 2003, that more than half a million girls and women were estimated to be dying yearly around the world and that number hadn't come down in decades. And I was completely shocked. That number has come down significantly now; it's I think 303,000 are the estimation. But even that is a shocking number. So it just really opened my eyes to something and then once I knew a little bit I needed to know more and more and more. And I asked myself what could I do and it turns out quite a lot. So that led me to make a movie and to pursue a master's in public health and to start an organization and it's become my life's work.

Liz: For a lot of people they might have this traumatic experience and feel empathy for others who have gone through it. But it might end there. What happened within you that drove you to a decade long mission to advance maternal health?

Christy: I think you know for years before I became a mom I was already kind of on a path, a spiritual path if you like where I started practicing yoga at 18 years old and even before that. I would say I was a person who was asking you know how could I live a life of purpose, what would I do, how could I contribute and that's something that was always there. And it's interesting I feel like when I had this experience with Grace it almost all became clear that oh this is that thing. This is where you're going to make a big difference. Again, that decision didn't happen overnight. You know it took me a while before I really delved in. After my experience with delivering Grace I thought okay I want to advocate for natural childbirth. I want to advocate for every woman having access to options and you know having information and being able to make those choices and how everybody deserves this you know empowering transformative birth experience. But I didn't know how that would sort of play itself out and it really wasn't until a few years later after I had my second child that it started to become more clear. And then you know being lucky that I was in a position in my life and career where I had some time. I had the resources. I had relationships. I had connections. I had all of the things that would make being able to do something maybe bigger than I probably would have otherwise, out at the gate. And I just put all those pieces together. I was so energized by what I was learning and by being in this place of you know new motherhood. I felt so fired up really with what I could do.

Liz: So you've been working on this issue of maternal health around the world for about ten years. In the U.S. it seems like this issue about the crisis that we're facing has only come to the fore of public consciousness in the last year or two really. Why now?

Christy: Right. Well, so the first; as I made this documentary No Women No Cry and it came out in 2010. And it took me about two years to make. And we traveled around the world looking at some of the challenges and really the solutions 'cause I think that's a lot more empowering right. And I knew at that time that the U.S. was ranked very poorly. So the U.S. has been on my radar really since the very beginning. I think about the issue global and then I sometimes extract the U.S. information 'cause it's slightly. I mean there's a lot of common themes, common causes but it's the U.S. is sort of it's own animal for a variety of reasons. So really from the start I've thought about the U.S. I've been committed. I forced the U.S. to be in that first film and a lot of people advised me against it. I mean it's really hard to put the U.S. next to sub-Saharan Africa and you know next to Southeast Asia in terms of poverty or marginalized people or vulnerable populations. I was like I don't know. I see plenty of vulnerabilities across the country all the time and I happen to live in New York which is one of the states in America that is performing poorly and has had you know terrible ration of maternal mortality and morbidity for some time. So I felt that I had to get in there, and so I have an incredible woman who is one of our grantee partners at this time for Every Mother Counts and her name's Jenny Joseph. She's an extraordinary British trained midwife who's working in Florida. She's in the film and she's able to start to talk about some of the things that have been emerging more in the last year and a half as a bigger dialogue which are you know the fact that women of color are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complication than a Caucasian woman. And actually, in New York, it's much worse. New York City I think it's up to twelve times as likely to die from a complication. And she because she's non-American but living here for the last thirty years, she's black and she does provide care and services for women of color and being a sort of insider-outsider, she was really able to put I think the right perspective or to kind of raise the question and the bar about why is this happening and why are we allowing women to die when we know how t save them. And so between her and some of my professors that were at Columbia where I studied public health like those questions were being asked. They just weren't baking it on the headlines right. They weren't important enough or they weren't enough deaths I guess for people to say oh this is a tragedy. This is an urgent situation. But when you look at the fact that in really more than 20 years these numbers have been getting worse while the rest of the world is actually making some improvements. It sort of begs the question even if the number of live birth per hundred thousand isn't as extreme as sub-Saharan Africa, it's still 50% of the deaths that happen in the United States are preventable. And that's really the crux of the matter right. If we can prevent these deaths we should be doing everything we can to. When you do look at the very important piece around racism and implicit bias and all of those things that have become more of a conversation in the last year, that really requires a different kind of attention and you see the socio-economic. You can't sort of say oh right well that's happening to that woman because. No. This is a crisis that affects any women who is of childbearing years regardless of class or color because I've met many families who have lost women who are white and educated and affluent. It discriminates and yet it doesn't discriminate. And so what's happening now and the attention that it's finally getting is really important and really critical, especially as more women's health care is being cut and facilities are closing and hospitals are merging. More and more women will have less access and so this is the time to be looking at this and to be raising the red flags and screaming from the hilltops and saying we have to do something and now is the time.

Liz: So you have been so intimately involved in raising the consciousness and developing policies both globally and in the U.S. You mentioned some terms. You talked about racism and implicit bias. And in the documentary, there's also this sort of looming question about the role that sexism plays in how we treat women in general. What have you learned about these issues globally that we have to be able to talk about in an honest way, and what have you learned from the last say year of public conversation in the U.S. about the specific and acute biases against women of color and women in general?

Christy: Wow. That's a big question. I would say like the gender piece of it, the sort of equality piece and equity right remain things that are issues or challenges that are so pervasive really all over the world and that's where it can get really overwhelming. That's the part where you go how are we ever going to change anything. And so I think focusing a little bit with the gender lens is helpful because if you look at who has the most power in almost any system right it tends to be patriarchal and it tends to be white. Even in a country where everyone is of color there is still a sort of classism or racism that exists. It just exists; I've never been to a place where it doesn't. And so that all is to say we can't think about all the ways that we can't change that we have to think about how do we work from within. And so some of the focus we've had is in educating not only the public who in the U.S. anyway has a voice and access to information. Not everybody but to some extent there is some opportunity to seek answers or to ask those questions. But at the same time it's really pushing to like put the spotlight on the fact that if there were more women in leadership positions at the government level also at the institutional level that that changes the experience for all of the things that happen to women right. Everything and it creates a more open mind. It creates a more, I mean particularly women's health right. The discourse right now around taking rights away when it's happening when you look at the group of people making that decision they're all men. Like how is that possible; or mostly men. The vast majority. So just seeing that representation also when you think about young people growing up in a society or a community or a home where there's that equity right where there's like you know men and women have the same opportunities, make the same amount of money, have the same you know options or choices. Like that's really where the systemic change can also happen. So you have to sort of do it at multiple levels. Raising my kids, I just keep thinking that you know I have a boy and a girl. My husband and I, we are pretty balanced in the way that we care for them and what we do with them. I think if we didn't do anything else that alone would sort of set them on a certain kind of path of expectation right of this is what's normal. This is what is possible because this is how it should be and then you; but you have to see it in society and you have to see it around yourself. I see physicians that are women or people of color that are saying, "Hey like we still need more of us to be there to be able to make the change that we need to see." I see people in all kinds of other corporations. Same thing right. We're at this crux in history and time where there is progress. We're seeing it and seeing it I guess happens before you can start to make those changes. But that definitely is the root cause of a lot of our social problems.

Liz: Your work with Every Mother Counts has taken you literally around the world. You've worked with mothers in Bangladesh, Tanzania, Haiti, India, Guatemala. What have you learned in meeting mothers around the world about what unites us in this experience of motherhood?

Christy: Well we all want our kids to thrive. We all want our kids to have opportunities to access education, to have food and shelter and those are basic human rights and needs met. That every woman that I've ever met, everyone has that feeling and without even a shared language. We can sit side by side and connect on those just simple facts, which is a beautiful thing. And it's an inspiring thing. I think it really helps us stay on course with the work because that's what we ultimately want right is for a mom to be able to do what she can to thrive not only for herself but for her family and her community. So yeah when you see a woman who's really challenged and who doesn't have a partner or a support system or the means or resources to be able to provide those things for her family or her child. I mean it's a devastating experience for her. So it makes me that much more emphatic for so many women just to be able to spend time and see who much they struggle and how much ; you know how much every day, how many obstacles there really are just to be able to do those basic things that so many of us do and enjoy actually. You know it's hard.

Liz: So your kids now are in their early to mid-teens and that is certainly a different phase in motherhood. How has motherhood transformed for you personally over the last decade?

Christy: Well you know it's true. You know to say I have two teenagers even if one's just a teenager, it's a totally different area and time. I love it in so many ways. I love that they are able to communicate so freely and openly and I love their ideas. I love their sense of humor. I love their curiosity. I'm able to; I mean I've always shared my work with them. My daughter, of course, feels completely responsible for this organization. This is her house basically. She has also become an advocate herself so in last year as an eighth grader, she had a social justice project on maternal and child health, which made me so proud. Like I could never have asked her to choose that but of all things that was the thing that she felt naturally you know passionate about and excited about and of course she had me as a great resource down the road. Both children have traveled a lot. I believe that the more that we can experience cultures and practices and ways of living that are outside of the norm of our own lives I think that provides a lot of perspective and a lot of built empathy. So you know I grew up traveling quite a lot you know before my first career even because my mother is from Central America. I feel like spending time as a young person as I was becoming a teenager and a young adult, that made such a huge impact on my life and made me start asking those questions of what will I be and how will I be purposeful. And so that's something that I believe strongly that I wanted to pass onto my children but I'm actually getting to see the fruits of that already manifesting.

Liz: That's so exciting. My oldest is seven so hearing that in just a few short years I might start to see some of the rewards is definitely encouraging.

Christy: Yeah for sure. By ten you'll really get it.

Liz: So at Motherly we talk about how motherhood really helps to bring out superpowers, so those are strengths and forces and passions within us that we didn't even know were there until we became a mom. What's your superpower?

Christy: Hmm. I mean gosh. I all that I explained and described, that's exactly my experience and I guess my; if I had a superpower and it's not really a superpower but one thing that has definitely like really been turned on is that ability to positively influence the lives of others, whether it's my peers or my family members or people I don't even know. That I am able to sort of help to inspire a sense of you know what is possible and what I can do and why my story might touch or impact or connect me to somebody else or change something for someone else for the better. That's incredibly powerful and I don't think I've ever imagined that I would be doing what I'm doing. But when I think about my sort of daily thing that I do here at Every Mother Counts, I really get to make that connection in a deep way with women all day long, every day. That's pretty powerful. I guess it could be a superpower.

Liz: It is a superpower. Thank you for sharing that. Christy Turlington Burns, thank you so much for joining us on the Motherly podcast.

Christy: Thank you so much.

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