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Tatyana Ali’s ‘Birthright’: An Open Letter

Now that the Black maternal mortality rate has come to the attention of law makers and even some presidential candidates and made headline news, the public is increasingly aware that the rates for Black women are three and four times higher than they are for White women. Yet U.S. media have pathologized the story, as though Black women, Black families, and Black bodies are to blame. Some Black women I’ve spoken with are now scared to get pregnant as if there is something broken in us. Because our lives are so often framed in a “culture of poverty” narrative, I fear that we have internalized the problem and made ourselves the cause when the truth is we are being treated unfairly, disrespectfully, at worst criminally, or not treated at all. The recently published study, Giving Voice to Mothers, found that “mistreatment is experienced more frequently by women of color, when birth occurs in hospitals, and among those with social, economic or health challenges.”

In addition, patriarchy has shrouded birth in mystery. Start asking the mothers you know about their experiences. It’s stunning how little we share with one another. We are so used to questioning our intuition and the strength and beauty of our bodies, not just in appearance, but also in function. We internalize other peoples’ gestures and comments—even more so when those people are health care professionals. Now, I’m fairly used to being a Black woman in this world. I put on the necessary psychological armor when I leave my home. But who has time for all of that when they are in labor?

The birth of my first son, three years ago, went completely off script. For reasons that I have come to know are pretty much textbook, my low risk pregnancy resulted in extremely questionable actions on the part of those attending and an emergency c-section. My labor was harried, filled with people I didn’t know screaming at me. My doula, concerned with her status at the hospital, who knew I wanted a natural birth, persistently advised me to take an epidural. I agreed, and the epidural left me unable to move. One doctor slammed his forearm on top of my belly in order to force my son down as though I were a tube of toothpaste.

My delivery room had become a circus. There were people everywhere but no one to help me deliver. After the suction cup on my baby’s head failed repeatedly, I feared for his safety and finally asked for a c-section. By the time they rolled me into the OR, I had passed out completely from the trauma of the Zavanelli maneuver. My husband, advocating for our baby and me the entire time, was as traumatized as I was. Postpartum, I was told by someone in the hospital that I had a pelvis shaped like a man’s. I now know that comment was cruel and ridiculous. The worst part of our trial was that our son spent several days in the NICU as a result of his harrowing birth.

We spent our first year of parenthood loving our baby and each other as fiercely as we knew how, knowing that healing our physical and psychic wounds was essential for the health of our marriage and future of our new family. Somehow, we had to unravel the paradoxical feelings of blissed out love for our beautiful boy and anger and degradation of knowing that we put ourselves in the hands of people who had no inclination to honor our preferences. And there were intense feelings of guilt that I still wrestle with. I secretly wished for a natural birth in a birth center, but assuaging the fears of those closest to me won out over honoring my intuition. I believe that my choice to birth naturally in a hospital was misguided and led to the impatience and interventions that ultimately put my baby’s health in jeopardy. When we decided to grow our family, I began to search for a better way.

I had just found out that I was pregnant with our second child when I was asked to participate in the Black Mama’s Matter Alliance’s 2018 Black Maternal Health Week. BMMA is a coalition of Black women committed to reducing the United States’ Black maternal mortality and morbidity rates