Serena Williams’ traumatic birth experience isn’t rare for black women—and that needs to change

The U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate of all developed countries. And it’s worst of all for black women.

Serena Williams’ traumatic birth experience isn’t rare for black women—and that needs to change

She is arguably one of the best tennis players of all time. She is widely popular, even among non-sports fans and is married to the multi-millionaire co-founder of Reddit. Yet, after the birth of her first child, Serena Williams tells Vogue she had to convince health care professionals to take her seriously when she noticed signs of a pulmonary embolism.

As recounted in Vogue:

“The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused. But Serena insisted, and soon enough a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. ‘I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,’ she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later she was on the drip. ‘I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!’”

That this could happen to Williams paints a bleak picture of maternity care in the United States, where more women die of pregnancy-related complications than in any other developed country. The statistics are even worse for black women, who die at three to four times the rate of white women from childbirth, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


What’s even more heartbreaking is that two leading causes of maternal death—preeclampsia and hemorrhage—are preventable. So what is going on?

The challenge facing African-American mothers is a complex one, with a deadly interplay of genetic and sociocultural factors at work. Black women are more susceptible to chronic illnesses such as anemia, obesity, hypertension and diabetes, which can complicate an otherwise normal pregnancy.

For the estimated 45% of women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, there is often a delay in managing pre-existing conditions such as these—and that’s if they have access to prenatal care at all, given that black women are less likely to be insured than white women.

Once African-American women make it into care facilities, their concerns are often dismissed by professionals, just as Williams experienced.

“We know there are instances where [African-American mothers] are not given the proper level of attention and care because of assumptions that doctors and hospitals are making about them,” Shawn Theirry, a Texas House of Representatives member who recently introduced legislation that would investigate this discrepancy, tells the Los Angeles Times.

When a “violent reaction” to an epidural threatened her own life during childbirth, Thierry says it was only because of her “excellent insurance” that she got the care she needed.

But, for many more, that is not the case—as a recent investigation from ProPublica and NPR reveals. As the report recounts:

“In the more than 200 stories of African-American mothers that ProPublica and NPR have collected over the past year, the feeling of being devalued and disrespected by medical providers was a constant theme. The young Florida mother-to-be whose breathing problems were blamed on obesity when in fact her lungs were filling with fluid and her heart was failing. The Arizona mother whose anesthesiologist assumed she smoked marijuana because of the way she did her hair. The Chicago-area businesswoman with a high-risk pregnancy who was so upset at her doctor’s attitude that she changed OB-GYNs in her seventh month, only to suffer a fatal postpartum stroke.”

Another threat of implicit bias is that physicians often fail to appreciate the complexities within the label of “black” that is assigned to persons of color—which can blind them to diagnoses they don’t believe are common for black people.

That was the case for Shalon Irving, a lieutenant commander of the US Public Health Corps and an epidemiologist at the CDC, who died three weeks after her daughter’s birth from a blood clot disorder most common among those of European descent.

As a dark-skinned woman, she had never been tested for the illness—even though multiple members of her family had died from symptoms that clearly implicated it. The illness, apparently, didn’t know that they were black. Nor did it realize that Irving was educated, middle class and insured.

There’s a final major factor at play here, and it’s the United States’ attitude towards pregnancy itself.

This country often focuses on fetal and infant care to the detriment of the mother. Pregnancy is treated as pathology, with C-sections, epidurals, inductions and other interventions at an all-time high.

Compare that to the United Kingdom, where every maternal death is painstakingly evaluated to hold caretakers culpable and promote the sharing of data that could prevent future tragedies. In the United States, this maternal mortality review process is left to the discretion of states—of which 24 have procedures in place, according to a 2017 report in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Without these processes, there is no way to learn from mistakes. And the price we pay for that is women’s lives.

More must be done by our government and caregivers to empower the medical community to listen and look carefully at its patients as people—not statistics, presumptions or stereotypes.

Williams helped drive that conversation when she was so open about her experience, which has already led to an outpouring from women with similar stories. In a Facebook post this week, Williams said she is humbled, grateful and optimistic because of these responses.

“I want to thank all of you who have opened up through online comments and other platforms to tell your story,” she says. “I encourage you to continue to tell those stories. This helps. We can help others. Our voices are our power.”

By its very nature, motherhood requires some lifestyle adjustments: Instead of staying up late with friends, you get up early for snuggles with your baby. Instead of spontaneous date nights with your honey, you take afternoon family strolls with your little love. Instead of running out of the house with just your keys and phone, you only leave with a fully loaded diaper bag.

For breastfeeding or pumping mamas, there is an additional layer of consideration around when, how and how much your baby will eat. Thankfully, when it comes to effective solutions for nursing or bottle-feeding your baby, Dr. Brown's puts the considerations of mamas and their babies first with products that help with every step of the process—from comfortably adjusting to nursing your newborn to introducing a bottle to efficiently pumping.

With countless hours spent breastfeeding, pumping and bottle-feeding, the editors at Motherly know the secret to success is having dependable supplies that can help you feed your baby in a way that matches lifestyle.

Here are 9 breastfeeding and pumping products to help you no matter what the day holds.

Customflow™ Double Electric Breast Pump

Dr. Brown's electric pump

For efficient, productive pumping sessions, a double electric breast pump will help you get the job done as quickly as possible. Quiet for nighttime pumping sessions and compact for bringing along to work, this double pump puts you in control with fully adjustable settings.


Hands-Free Pumping Bra

Dr. Brown''s hands free pumping bra

Especially in the early days, feeding your baby can feel like a pretty consuming task. A hands-free pumping bra will help you reclaim some of your precious time while pumping—and all mamas will know just how valuable more time can be!


Manual Breast Pump with SoftShape™ Silicone Shield

Dr. Brown's manual breast pump

If you live a life that sometimes takes you away from electrical outlets (that's most of us!), then you'll absolutely want a manual breast pump in your arsenal. With two pumping modes to promote efficient milk expression and a comfort-fitted shield, a manual pump is simply the most convenient pump to take along and use. Although it may not get as much glory as an electric pump, we really appreciate how quick and easy this manual pump is to use—and how liberating it is not to stress about finding a power supply.


Nipple Shields and Sterilization Case

Dr. Brown's nipple shields

There is a bit of a learning curve to breastfeeding—for both mamas and babies. Thankfully, even if there are some physical challenges (like inverted nipples or a baby's tongue tie) or nursing doesn't click right away, silicone nipple shields can be a huge help. With a convenient carry case that can be sterilized in the microwave, you don't have to worry about germs or bacteria either. 🙌


Silicone One-Piece Breast Pump

Dr. Brown's silicone pump

When you are feeding your baby on one breast, the other can still experience milk letdown—which means it's a golden opportunity to save some additional milk. With a silent, hands-free silicone pump, you can easily collect milk while nursing.


Breast to Bottle Pump & Store Feeding Set

After a lifetime of nursing from the breast, introducing a bottle can be a bit of a strange experience for babies. Dr. Brown's Options+™ and slow flow bottle nipples were designed with this in mind to make the introduction to bottles smooth and pleasant for parents and babies. As a set that seamlessly works together from pumping to storing milk to bottle feeding, you don't have to stress about having everything you need to keep your baby fed and happy either.


Washable Breast Pads

washable breast pads

Mamas' bodies are amazingly made to help breast milk flow when it's in demand—but occasionally also at other times. Especially as your supply is establishing or your breasts are fuller as the length between feeding sessions increase, it's helpful to use washable nursing pads to prevent breast milk from leaking through your bra.


Breast Milk Storage Bags

Dr. Brown's milk storage bags

The essential for mamas who do any pumping, breast milk storage bags allow you to easily and safely seal expressed milk in the refrigerator or freezer. Dr. Brown's™ Breast Milk Storage Bags take it even further with extra thick walls that block out scents from other food items and feature an ultra secure lock to prevent leaking.


Watch one mama's review of the new Dr. Brown's breastfeeding line here:

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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There is rightfully a lot of emphasis on preparing for the arrival of a new baby. The clothes! The nursery furniture! The gear! But, the thing about a baby registry is, well, your kids will keep on growing. Before you know it, they'll have new needs—and you'll probably have to foot the bill for the products yourself.

Thankfully, you don't have to break the bank when shopping for toddler products. Here are our favorite high-quality, budget-friendly finds to help with everything from meal time to bath time for the toddler set.

Comforts Fruit Crisps Variety Pack

Comforts fruit snacks

If there is one thing to know about toddlers, it is this: They love snacks. Keeping a variety on hand is easy when the pack already comes that way! Plus, we sure do appreciate that freeze-dried fruit is a healthier alternative to fruit snacks.

Comforts Electrolyte Drink

Comforts electrolyte drink

Between running (or toddling!) around all day and potentially developing a pickier palate, many toddlers can use a bit of extra help with replenishing their electrolytes—especially after they've experienced a tummy bug. We suggest keeping an electrolyte drink on hand.

Comforts Training Pants

Comforts training pants

When the time comes to start potty training, it sure helps to have some training pants on hand. If they didn't make it to the potty in time, these can help them learn their body's cues.

Comforts Nite Pants

comforts nite pants

Even when your toddler gets the hang of using the toilet during the day, nighttime training typically takes several months longer than day-time training. In the meantime, nite pants will still help them feel like the growing, big kid they are.

Comforts Baby Lotion

comforts baby lotion

Running, jumping, playing in sand, splashing in water—the daily life of a toddler can definitely irritate their skin! Help put a protective barrier between their delicate skin and the things they come into contact with every day with nourishing lotion.

Another great tip? Shopping the Comforts line on to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices—and follow along on social media to see product releases and news at @comfortsforbaby.

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

Becoming a mother has been life-changing. It's been hard, tiring, gratifying, beautiful, challenging, scary and a thousand other things that only a parent would ever understand.

It is these life-changing experiences that have inspired me to draw my everyday life as a stay at home mom. Whether it's the mundane tasks like doing laundry or the exciting moments of James', my baby boy's, first steps, I want to put it down on paper so that I can better cherish these fleeting moments that are often overlooked.

Being a stay-at-home-mom can be incredibly lonely. I like to think that by drawing life's simple moments, I can connect with other mothers and help them feel less alone. By doing this, I feel less alone, too. It's a win-win situation and I have been able to connect with many lovely parents and fellow parent-illustrators through my Instagram account.

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