Our lives are at stake.
At the very beginning of my pre-pregnancy journey, I made it my mission to seek out as much information as I could about pregnancy. I devoured my favorite baby book, highlighting studies that peaked my interest so that I could look them up later. The part of me that worried over the smallest detail was soothed by the data I found.
Yet nothing in my research told me that, as a black woman, I was at higher risk to lose not only my baby, but my own life.
I'm a professional woman with two degrees and a salaried job, with access to some of the best medical care in the country, and yet my risks were higher than they should be—although I didn't understand just how high until after my daughter was born. The statistics are dire when it comes to mother and infant mortality for black women.
According to the CDC, I was up to four times more likely to lose my life during or after my pregnancy, compared to my white friends who were pregnant at the same time. That frightening stat is among a series highlighted in a recent New York Times Magazine report that has brought much-needed attention to the issue.
"Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants … a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850," journalist Linda Villarosa wrote.
Despite my upper middle-class lifestyle and advanced degree, statistically I was at greater risk of losing my daughter compared to a white woman with a poorer, less educated background. Indeed, this issue impacts even incredibly wealthy black women, as tennis star Serena Williams' birth story illustrates. Even with all the resources she has at her disposal, Williams says she was initially not taken seriously by medical providers when, shortly after giving birth, she voiced concerns about signs of a pulmonary embolism.
Williams' story of being ignored is all too common among black mothers. Black women like me have higher risks for preeclampsia and eclampsia, but as a series of stories collected by ProPublica and NPR demonstrate, black mothers often report being ignored by medical providers when symptoms arise.
When a mother's concern is not taken seriously, complications can develop and are too often fatal.
So why aren't we being heard? We're often treated by health care professionals who, as the Washington Post reported, believe in inaccurate stereotypes of black patients, like our skin is thicker or we feel less pain compared to other races. It all comes together to form a perfect storm, one that black mothers and black babies are paying for with their lives.
I was lucky. Even before I knew the true scope of these statistics, I preferred an approach to health care that some say reduces risks for black mothers: I opted for a midwife service instead of a traditional OB. My pregnancy was relatively easy, only plagued by heartburn that grew progressively worse as my baby grew. I also hired a doula, because I wanted extra support in the delivery room, since my mother (who lives out of state) would most likely not be at my daughter's birth. This is something New York State is now promoting in an effort to save the lives of Black mothers.
Continuity of care and having someone to advocate on your behalf can make a big difference for a mother facing birth complications. I often reminded my husband that he had my permission to do whatever he needed to do to advocate for me if was unable to advocate for myself during labor & delivery.
My labor started out as pretty typical, until I stalled and refused to dilate further. After laboring for 36 hours, my husband and I advocated for a C-section, and my medical team agreed. Our daughter was born perfectly healthy, though she spent her first night in the critical care unit. I spent three days in the hospital before discharge, and even had a home nurse visit to check both me and the baby.
When I later learned the harrowing birth statistics for black women, my first reaction was shock. How could it be that so many other women, women exactly like me, were now gone? How can I protect myself and my future child from a dire outcome?
I don't have the questions to those answers yet. But I am encouraged that there are teams of people – from doctors and researchers to doulas and community health organizations – who are all looking at this problem and trying to solve it. I've shared the information I've learned with my networks in an effort to bring more attention and arm other mothers with information that could save their lives.
I'm encouraged to learn about doula networks across the country, and even in the Twin Cities where I make my home, that are committed to providing black women the support they need during and after pregnancy.
When we know these horrible statistics we can change them, and that will save mothers and their babies.