Tucked somewhere in the cluttered corner of a stranger’s iPhone is evidence of my joy. It’s a 30-second video of me Milly Rocking, two-stepping in three-inch heels and a black spandex dress chosen specifically for this moment.
“I’ve gotta get this,” I heard the woman next to me whisper as she turned her phone my way and I kept on dancing like nobody was watching. At the time, I was five months pregnant and having a time, child.
Make that we. We were having a time. All 400 of us, an intentional tribe of black moms electric sliding to “Before I Let Go” in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington. Yes, people stared. Who were these women? So unafraid of their own happiness. Who were these women? So unapologetic about their womanhood, their motherhood, their blackness. The answer: regular degular schmegular girls, as Cardi B would say, who wanted one day — a few hours really — just to be themselves without shrinking, without being the subject of the latest, often tragic news story about the dangers of becoming a black mother.
We’d just spent our Saturday at the “Momference,” a gathering of millennial mothers of color in its second year that feels as intimate as a family reunion, as celebratory as a 21st birthday and as necessary as a therapy session.
It was a bottle-popping escape from the onslaught of bad news about black women and pregnancy that has permeated the headlines for the past two years — a timeline that unfortunately matches up perfectly with my own maternal health cycle, making my first birth feel like a trial by fire, and my second pregnancy at 38 — well, I’m still trying to figure this one out. According to the media and a raft of dire stats, I should be preparing for battle, not bopping to Queen Bey. But it was impossible not to dance that spring night. Not to feel giddy, significant, and finally willing to “let go” like the song said.
Since 2017, black women and their wombs have been trending. In her 2019 documentary, “Homecoming,” Beyoncé, arguably one of the most visible yet private black women on Planet Earth, disclosed details of her “extremely difficult” second pregnancy with twins. “I had high blood pressure. I developed toxemia, preeclampsia.” The year before, another one of our patron saints, tennis great Serena Williams, revealed her mortality and recounted her harrowing birth story, which included an emergency C-section, and doctors who she said ignored her as she pressed to get the CT scan that ultimately saved her life. This summer Williams announced she’s investing in an app, Mahmee, with the aim of combating maternal mortality. This past June, while making the case for reparations at a congressional hearing, author Ta-Nehisi Coates repeated the devastating statistic — “black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women” — as one example in a long line of proof of the continued legacy of slavery.
The bad news is everywhere, as inescapable this summer as an “Old Town Road” remix but not nearly as fun.
Forget putting your feet up or sticking your head in the sand. That isn’t an option for black women staring down a plus sign. These days your pregnancy must be “woke,” 10 months filled with research and study and planning. As a black woman, it’s not enough to “stay hydrated,” make your prenatal appointments and curate the perfect nursery on Pinterest. There are studies to digest, articles forwarded by your best friend on C-section rates to read, summits to attend on combating implicit bias, and doctors to screen for implicit bias. It is exhausting work.
And I need a break.
I needed to read an article about black motherhood that wasn’t a horror story. So this piece won’t blow up a scary statistic, an alarming anecdote or a gut-clenching quote. Because we’ve had so much (and some would say too much) of that recently. The floodgates first opened in 2017 when NPR/ProPublica published “Lost Mothers,” their joint series on America’s maternal health crisis, including black maternal mortality. These are the facts I can’t help but know: 700 to 900 women die every year because of pregnancy-related complications (the worst statistics in the developed world). Women of color have the highest rates of maternal death. Black mothers are among the most at risk no matter their socioeconomic or educational status.
I am eternally grateful for the series, but I’m also tired of letting “the numbers” replay in my head in a warning loop like the negative side effects of a prescription drug (pregnancy while black may cause irritability, constipation, diarrhea, oh, and death, don’t forget death!), of strategizing with my husband on how to fight — er, advocate — on my behalf as the weeks tick by on my second pregnancy and the countdown to my daughter’s birth begins in earnest. Honestly, I’m just tired period.
See, I, like so many black mothers attempting to square all the research and reporting with everyday living, am juggling enough as it is. We have to have a respite, a collective detox, a way to digest the numbers without letting them eat us alive.
I had to read an article about black motherhood that wasn’t a horror story. So this piece won’t blow up a scary statistic … we’ve had so much of that recently.
I had questions: How were pregnant black women navigating the dreaded numbers? How were they experiencing joy? How were they scrolling past the scary headlines and instead sharing stories of uplift? So, over the course of the last five months of my pregnancy, I asked more than two dozen black women how they were dealing, and the answers were surprisingly simple.
Young black mothers, would-be mothers, birth workers, politicians and presidential candidates are using our present reality as fuel for something like a social time machine, taking us back to the days where community, sister circles and tight bonds were responsible for knitting wounds. Basically, they’ve folded in on themselves, creating an origami-tight safe space.
They used the stats as both bulldozers and bricks, knocking down the idea of one system (opting for home births, adding doulas to their teams and interviewing their doctors) while building up safe spaces for themselves.
The women I interviewed were woke, but never woeful.
“Hey, Mama,” called a Momference volunteer decked out in purple (the royal and official color of District Motherhued, the Washington-based events organization that created the conference in 2017). She’d clocked me wobbling five months pregnant to the ballroom packed with moms. I gave her a look. Did we know each other?
“I’m just shouting out every beautiful black woman I see,” she told me.
We were — all of us — there to be seen. Everyone, and I mean everyone, looked good. Hair was laid, locked and lifted. The heels were as high as the “hashtag mood.”
“Your decision to be here today is a radical act of self-love,” said one speaker, emphasizing that all of us, just by showing up, were “no longer going to accept the negative stereotypes about black motherhood.”
We were creating space for ourselves, centering our own positive stories that had less to do with surviving childbirth and more to do with how to handle nagging mothers-in-law or your daughter’s newly independent head of hair.
At one point the morning’s keynote speaker instructed the crowd in the main ballroom to look left, look right and behind them and say, “Hey girl, hey,” an old Sunday service ritual of acknowledgment remixed for the social media set. Throughout the day, references were made to creating your “mom tribe,” another callback to the security of kinfolk that could neatly fit into a hashtag.
What’s funny, or surprising really, is that the Momference’s co-founders, publicists Nikki Osei-Barrett, 34, and Simona Noce Wright, 29, didn’t plan on starting a movement of black millennial moms — at first they were just trying to be cute.
“I didn’t realize this was needed,” Noce Wright, a mother of two boys younger than 5 and stepmom to a 10-year-old daughter, told me over lunch a few weeks after the conference. “These women are really building relationships,” she said, still in awe of the two-year-old conference’s impact and the growth of District Motherhued. They’ve since hosted many events, including Mommy en Blanc, a sold-out gathering of black moms dressed in white on D.C.’s waterfront.
Noce Wright met Osei-Barrett, a fellow Ghanaian American, on Instagram three years ago, and the two moms decided to throw a night of pampering for moms of color because they hadn’t experienced anything like it.
One event turned into many, and in less than a year the whole thing quickly went from “this is fun” to “this is fundamental.” Osei-Barrett’s third child, a daughter, was born a few months before this year’s May conference, and the journey from hospital bed to glammed out in front of hundreds on the main stage wasn’t easy.
“I could have absolutely been a statistic,” Osei-Barrett recalled over lunch after settling into the seat next to Noce Wright about 15 minutes late. A fashion publicist by trade, she rocked a bold red lip and oversized sunglasses — all the better to conceal her exhaustion.
“I feel like I’m losing my mind, basically,” Osei-Barrett said bluntly, snatching the wig off any illusion that she and Noce Wright are just doing this for the ’gram . She’d been through two traumatic C-sections before this third high-risk pregnancy. She’d shown up at the doctor’s office nearly twice a week to track her daughter’s growth, but once she went into labor Osei-Barrett was told she had placenta previa, a potentially dangerous condition in which the placenta grows too close to, or completely over, the cervix. It can cause hemorrhaging in a vaginal birth and lead to death. I know all that without the aid of Google because I was diagnosed with marginal previa the month before I sat across from Osei-Barrett.
“Wait, you were going in twice a week, and they didn’t know?” I asked incredulously. “Girl.”
“Thank you,” Osei-Barrett said, exasperated. “I knew I had to be informed. I asked all the questions.” She’d even chosen her obstetrician based on the physician’s low C-section rates. “So, I’m thinking, I’m good.” But she was far from it. Baby Faye was delivered through Osei-Barrett’s placenta via emergency C-section. Both mom and baby lost a dangerous amount of blood in the operating room. The newborn spent her first 24 hours in the NICU. Osei-Barrett woke up from surgery not knowing exactly what happened to her. She didn’t see her carefully selected obstetrician again for nearly 10 days. “I was so hurt,” she continued, her voice determined but with a hint of something fragile underneath.
As she continued to recount the tale — the mistrust, the trauma, the feelings of betrayal — Faye, known as “shesfayemous” on Instagram, pipes up from her mother’s lap. “Okay, okay,” soothed Osei-Barrett.
She said her experience “shifted my perspective altogether” and strengthened her faith in the value of the community of mothers she had been helping to build.
“I don’t think that I would have been able to survive the first couple of months or even now, the present, today, without this network of women, and I don’t even know some of these women,” she said.
You know that feeling you get immediately after clumsily tripping over something but right before actually falling? The throat catching, the stomach diving, the arms airplane-ing. That’s how it feels waiting for the medical system to fail you in the way so many articles and anecdotes tell black women it inevitably will.
I grew up with a hippie mother who favored “healing white light” over Tylenol. Holding hands in a circle and chanting the “sound of the universe” were a part of our Sunday service. When I gave birth for the first time, my OB, my doula — heck, even my chiropractor — were all black women. I created a sister circle without really realizing it, and my first daughter was born without complications on a Sunday morning in April.
But this time around, my placenta just kissing the edge of my cervix but not covering it could potentially complicate my best-laid plans of pushing out my baby as Lizzo tunes play in the background. I felt vulnerable, in the hands of a shifty medical system — hoping it wouldn’t let me and my baby fall through the cracks.
During the summer of 2016, when she was in her third trimester, author Dani McClain, 41, had a similar experience. She’d spent months reporting on the black maternal health crisis for a story that landed on the cover of the Nation — “What It’s Like to Be Black and Pregnant When You Know How Dangerous That Can Be.” That article became the foundation of the first chapter of her book, “We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood.”
During that long summer as her pregnancy progressed, McClain delved deep into the health system’s fissures, reading a ton of research about the physiological impact of white supremacy, about black women’s bodies bearing the burden of racism, about those very same bodies aging at a more rapid rate than their white counterparts’ and directly affecting their birth outcomes. Rather than cripple her, the data made her a vigilante.
“I couldn’t trust that anyone could keep me safe,” she said.
When McClain went in for her C-section, a necessary surgery because of a grapefruit-size fibroid — one she only believed she had after getting a second opinion from a black OB — knowing everything she knew about implicit bias in the medical system and racist myths about black women’s supposedly high threshold for pain, McClain looked her doctor in the eye and said: “Promise me that I won’t feel anything.” She’d just read a university study that said medical residents held at least one false belief about black people, including that their nerve endings are not as sensitive.
“I had a bunch of Ivy League degrees. I was completely equipped to advocate for myself,” said McClain, who recognizes her privilege as an educated woman seemingly able to arm herself against becoming a statistic. Her C-section went fine, and she and her baby were healthy in those postpartum weeks, but her anxiety did not end with the birth of her daughter. Once you learn how broken the system is, McClain said, it makes “our charge as black parents that much more important.”
But there must be a counterbalance, she said. Black women can’t be expected to be on high alert 24/7. “There have to be spaces where we can relax, where we can let down our guards,” McClain said. “It’s important that we hold this thing very delicately because we can’t just be focused on the challenges and the anxiety and fear. We’re black women, but we’re also just people living our lives.”
What are black women doing to mentally and emotionally protect themselves? I asked Linda Villarosa, a veteran journalist whose landmark piece in the New York Times Magazine, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis,” was crucial in growing the awareness of the systemic issues facing black moms.
For one, keep in mind that the numbers are abysmal, but they aren’t all-consuming, said Villarosa, a former health editor for Essence magazine. “It’s hard for people to understand statistics when they are packaged in this way that makes it seem scary.” While the maternal mortality disparity between black and white women is stark and unacceptable, the number of mothers who die in childbirth is significantly smaller than the number who have healthy babies, and who survive.
But you don’t just want to survive birth — you survive war, famine, zombie attacks, alien invasions.
Joy? Check. Fear? Double check. Healing space? That's what I had to find. I needed to heal or at the very least get out of my own head long enough to enjoy the final months of what is probably my last pregnancy. I needed to flush the negative mainstream news, my own personal negative news out of my system. And that's how I found myself seven months pregnant on a train to New York.
I was headed to celebrated doula and birth advocate Latham Thomas’s doula training center, Mama Glow. Thomas and I had met at Columbia University nearly 20 years before, probably at a bad spoken-word event in a basement near campus. When I emailed her decades later in search of a curative, she didn’t hesitate. Come, Thomas told me, I got you.
It was a soft summer night in Brooklyn and Thomas, in skinny jeans and sporting a cowboy hat over a cantaloupe-size chignon brimming with locks, spritzed what smelled like rose water in my face. Through my wet eyelashes I clocked her gliding around the room tapping a metal gong and crooning a string of affirmations to the women she’s pulled into her orbit.
For nearly two hours I sat cross-legged in a “sister circle” of strangers who have given birth, almost given birth, are about to give birth or are coming to terms with never giving birth as the eight of us unwrapped the stories we had been itching to tell and handed them to the woman next to us, hoping she’d make good use of them.
Directly to my right sat Nadia Mbonde, 10 weeks pregnant, who’s studying anthropology at New York University while completing doula training prompted by the loss of her first pregnancy last year.
“I’m just focused on affirming future happiness,” said Mbonde, 25. “I’m focused on black maternal health and wealth and abundance versus black maternal death.”
That last line sends a visible ripple through the circle, poking the bubble to near bursting. “Yeah, yeahs” and “Mmhmms”and “Yassses.” It is the reason we were all there on the ground floor of a Williamsburg brownstone bathed in millennial pink and mindfulness, “to share stories, challenges, triumphs and hopes.”
“I see your vision,” Thomas told Mbonde in such a way that we all saw it.
“I think we’ve swung the pendulum really far in one direction. Everybody knows the stats. I don’t really want to sit in that,” Thomas said in an interview after the circle. “It’s good to know, but there’s a point when you know too much and it cripples you.”
For black women, looking after their mental and emotional well-being is just as or more important than taking your prenatal vitamin every morning. The existential stress can take a toll. “Part of the solution,” said Thomas, “is sharing the amazing stories along with the terrifying ones.”
For most of the night Thomas simply allowed everyone to release all the things they were feeling, good or bad, like a big sister and soothsayer rolled in one. There was the lawyer who hoped to have a baby one day; the doctor who’d survived cancer but had few options left to become a mom; the young woman who wasn’t pregnant yet but freaked out by the idea of pain. Thomas jumped in occasionally to smooth over the edges with her calming baritone. There is ancestral wisdom in each of us, she said. You’re not just one, you’re many, she told us.
“Black women,” she’d tell me later, “birthed an entire nation.”
We were hours into the conversation when I told these women, these former strangers, that I felt like a failure, as if my body wasn’t equipped to do something fundamental. “My placenta is being so whack,” I’d tell my best friend weeks later when the previa still hadn’t resolved as we all had hoped — and it was becoming clearer that having a C-section would be medically necessary. But there was still this constant drumming in the back of my mind, reminding me that the medical system wasn’t built for women who look like me and that I’d have to watch my back.
At one point, Hillary Lopes, 33, who was sitting across from me and had had an emergency C-section at 33 weeks pregnant with triplets, addressed me directly: “I’m not sitting here saying my C-section was bomb. However, I am sitting here, and my kids are home and hopefully asleep right now. I wanted to offer you a space that if that does happen in some weeks, know that you can also meet that with the same amount of love and care I already feel from you. I guess I’m here just to offer you here’s my number, text me, call me. It’s possible for you to have a great experience with that, too. It is all so right on time and okay. That’s all.”
Ding ding ding. Another black woman telling me that I was enough and that I was all right? I couldn’t thank her enough.
“There’s so much power in our storytelling.”
Latham Thomas, 39, celebrity doula and founder of Mama Glow
“I was just so shocked” at the maternal mortality rate.
Darlene Charles, 30, singer from the U.K., where giving birth is safer than in the U.S.
“I’m getting a midwife because the knowledge is here.”
Nadia Mbonde, 25, anthropology PhD student at NYU who is 10 weeks pregnant
“No matter … how your baby got here — it is all right on time.”
Hillary Lopes, 33, mother, yoga instructor and doula trainee
“I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be a mother.”
Monique James, 38, psychiatrist
“I started hearing all the stories about … black women [and] childbirth” and decided to become a doula.
Caitlin Sutherland, 21, student at Smith College and doula trainee
“Parenthood is just something I take really seriously.”
Gigi Parris, 38, lawyer
Photos by Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post
There is something to be said about the passed-down wisdom among black matriarchs that we should get back to, said Regina Davis Moss, executive director of public health policy and practice at the American Public Health Association. It was much more than mere superstition when Big Mama (or Auntie or Nana or Madea) would guard the mental health of the pregnant women in her family. “There was some real truth to when they used to say, ‘Don’t stress her out. She’s pregnant. She needs to relax.’ They were getting that right back then.”
Villarosa agreed. “We created ‘take care of each other,’ ” she said. “That’s our jam.”
What really excites her is the legislation, specifically new bills drafted by African Americans in Congress seeking to attack the issue head-on. “These are black people who care. I think we have to give ourselves credit for taking care of each other.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), two black women serving in Congress, have drafted bills addressing black maternal health.
“I was just born into a conversation that was about the disparities, not only around research and treatment but how women of color are treated in the health-care system,” explains Harris, whose mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a cancer researcher. From a very young age, Harris said, she knew that the issue of health-care inequality wasn’t just about the disparities, it was about dignity. That’s how she frames it.
Before we get started, Harris asks me how I pronounce my name. When I tell her, Huh-LAY-nuh, the senator kicks off our rapid-fire 10 minutes on the phone with a story about her goddaughter, whose name is also Helena and who pronounces it like I do. Harris took her on a trip to Helena, Mont., “to see all the things that pronounced her name correctly,” from the fire department to the library and the local coffee shop. The senator is basically telling me a story about being seen, about being recognized and acknowledged — and it’s one of the most important things I can remember from our conversation. I can’t recall whether my own doctor has asked how to pronounce my name.
Racism is a huge, snarling, near-insatiable beast. How can we slay it? I ask her. Most of the pregnant women I spoke to would rather opt out of a system that is so clearly not designed for them.
“Let’s keep speaking our truth because we cannot let people get away with failures of systems. It’s not just about ‘We’re being failed.’ This is about system failure — not just who is being failed but the system,” Harris says, shifting the burden from the mothers to the institutions.
In May, Harris reintroduced the Maternal CARE Act, a bill she first put forth in 2018, which seeks to address racial bias in the health-care system head on with $25 million allocated to support bias training in medical schools. The bill also sets aside $125 million to identify high-risk pregnancies and provide mothers with culturally competent care.
“I don’t invite a debate about the facts. The facts are the facts,” Harris says. “Knowing the facts, what are we going to do about it?”
Other presidential candidates have also addressed the issue. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) plans to expand Medicaid coverage and access to doulas. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg would tackle implicit bias and expand access to health care for moms in rural areas. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has said she would reward hospitals that show marked improvement in their mortality rates.
When I get Underwood on the phone, the congresswoman is fresh from a vote. For the former nurse and health-care policy adviser, the issue of black women’s maternal health is personal.
“I think we have to give ourselves credit for taking care of each other.”
Linda Villarosa, veteran journalist and former health editor for Essence magazine
Like so many women who are amplifying the issue, Underwood has a connection. The congresswoman was close friends with Shalon Irving, the 36-year-old mother whose tragic death just weeks after her daughter was born was documented in the ProPublica report “Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth.” The pair went to graduate school together at Johns Hopkins. Underwood recalled being delighted when she found out Irving was expecting and devastated when she died.
A few months after taking office, she and Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) announced the formation of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, a sort of legislative central nervous system to house all the data, best practices and support laser-focused on this one issue.
“I thought we were going to launch on Twitter, and it’d be the two of us,” she said. On the first day they got 50 Democrats to join, and not long after, Democratic presidential candidates were making black maternal health a campaign talking point.
Before we go any further into our conversation about the caucus’s plans — including a day-long summit on the Hill featuring hearings, panels and testimonies — Underwood wants to “push back” on something I said.
I’d told her I was pregnant and too often frightened because the message playing on a loop in my head is that being black and pregnant is dangerous. I thought I heard her suck her teeth when I said it. She has a point of clarification.
“There is something about being a black woman in America,” she said, drawing out those last two words. It’s not us, she emphasizes. “There’s nothing wrong with us.”
Before we hop off the phone, the congresswoman wishes me a safe and positive delivery “and a super healthy and strong baby.”
By the time my 36-week appointment came around I was full to bursting, and that’s not counting the six-pound baby girl doing a keg stand on my bladder. I was filled to the brim with stories: My chiropractor shedding tears when she recalled her “amazing” home birth with family cheering her on. The powerful magazine editor who called her mama after a tough prenatal appointment with three words: “Please get here.” The friend who showed up at the ER less than a week postpartum with ankles the size of hamhocks and told the staff to get her a bed, stat. I carried all of them with me, preparing myself for the best and worst and knowing I’d thrive either way.
At that nine-month appointment we’d learn once and for all whether my marginal previa had resolved or, if it hadn’t, whether I’d have to deliver via major surgery.
The news wasn’t great. My placenta had moved less than .2 centimeters, bringing the grand total of distance between it and my cervix to .6 centimeters — not even half the length of a pea. A C-section was necessary.
I was still skeptical, still scared and scarred by everything I knew about how black women are failed by the medical system. But this wasn’t a failure, my doctor reminded me. This was a fix, the result of being closely monitored for months.
“I stared at your sono for a good while before I came in here,” said my OB, a woman with henna-colored skin and a slight Caribbean lilt, before explaining our next steps.
I would be monitored with more sonograms — just in case something changed — but we had to put my C-section on the books now.
She saw my hesitation and let my husband and me sit with it. Then she looked me in the eyes as I looked in hers. “If you were my sister . . .” she began, leaving the rest unsaid. And I felt safe.