June 21, 2024


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Becoming A Black Mother Means Fighting For Survival

Having a baby for the first time can be one of life’s great joys. Watching life grow inside you for nine months, all while planning your offspring’s future is something everyone who wants to be a parent looks forward to. But not everyone has a joyous experience. A new report has found that Black women are still four times more likely than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth in the UK. Women from Asian ethnic backgrounds face twice the risk of that of a white woman. This new data shows a slight narrowing of the divide — last year’s report found Black women were five times more likely to die — but experts are quick to point out that this is hardly a sign of progress.A report published in December by the joint committee on human rights highlighted the lack of an NHS target to end the disparity and urged the government to introduce one. Almost all of those who died during or after pregnancy had multiple issues such as mental or physical health problems, were survivors of domestic abuse, or were living in a deprived area. More than half of those who died were overweight or obese. Cardiac disease represents the largest single cause of indirect maternal deaths.Nicole Thea, a London-based social media influencer, died on 11th July 2020 along with her unborn child while eight months pregnant. While the autopsy report is still pending, Thea’s uncle told the Daily Mail the family thinks she died from “a massive heart attack.””Nicole was saying that she was struggling to breathe. She was struggling with her chest — she had a pain in her chest,” Charles Murray told the Mail. “It was so surreal as she was so young. It is such a shock. It has really, really shaken us all up.”Black celebrities have also spoken out about their difficult pregnancy and childbirth experiences. Beyonce’s preeclampsia, a complication involving high blood pressure and protein in the urine, put her on bed rest for more than a month prior to an emergency C-section. Serena Williams also had an emergency C-section, followed by a pulmonary embolism that almost killed her, as she wrote for CNN. Both women have emphasised that not many Black women, especially those in poorer countries, are lucky enough to receive the kind of life-saving treatment they did. “Every mother, everywhere, regardless of race or background deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and birth,” Williams wrote. Ahead, we speak to young Black women in the UK about their experience of pregnancy and childbirth.Leanne Aseidu, 25I found out I was pregnant a few months after completing my first year at Bournemouth University in July 2016, aged 20. I decided to take a year out of my studies and my son was born on 6th March 2017 at the University College London Hospital.My first experience with a healthcare professional was at the GP. I made an appointment because I assumed that’s what you did when you find out you’re pregnant, or that’s at least what I had seen on TV. I had a male GP and my experience with him was not what I thought it would be. I told him I had a positive pregnancy test and wasn’t sure what the next steps would be and asked what to do. He was really unbothered, barely looked at me and pretty much just told me that if I was in the situation where I would be “living in a bedroom with my boyfriend and a baby,” then maybe I should consider all options. At first I didn’t know what he was talking about but then he gave me a referral for an abortion, said I could think about it, then go to a clinic where they would “sort everything”. I felt judged and patronised. Now whenever I book GP appointments, I always ask not to have him.The experience of pregnancy was very different than what I imagined but overall still very positive. The staff at the clinic and hospital who did my scans were all nice enough but there was no emotional support. I imagine this was due to lack of staff and hundreds of pregnant women needing to be seen every day, so I am very understanding of this.During my pregnancy, I was lucky to not have any serious complications. However, there was a period when I was about seven or eight months pregnant when I would become hot, severely lightheaded and lose my vision for a few minutes. I was actually on my way to work once when it happened and I ended up fainting in the middle of Oxford Street. I went straight to see my midwife and she said it was probably anaemia which is apparently quite common in pregnancy and that was that. When I was pregnant with my son, I actually had no idea Black mothers were more at risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth which part of me is quite thankful for. Had I known at the time I would have been full of anxiety and stress which would not have been good for my physical or mental health. If I did know about the statistics when I gave birth, I think I would’ve taken extra care of myself and maybe not have brushed off any worries I had so easily. I don’t think it would make me reconsider having more children, but it has definitely made me want to think about better healthcare options and making sure I am comfortable with the people who are taking care of me and my child. Black women are high risk because of the care they receive (or lack thereof). It’s almost as though Black women’s health issues are not taken as seriously as women of other races and are considered not as urgent, which might be to do with the way Black women are perceived in society. I have a white friend who was pregnant not long after me and every time she had a small worry (minor cramps, etc.) she would be taken in and given full health checks. Thankfully, nothing serious was found. I compare that with my experience when I had fainted on more than one occasion and only had my blood pressure taken and told to take paracetamol. My biggest fear whilst I was pregnant was that there would be complications with the baby, and I wouldn’t realise until it was too late. I didn’t get as much information from my midwife or any healthcare professional as I thought I would have, so I relied a lot on Google to know what to look for (baby not moving often, bleeding etc.).If I do decide to have more children in the future, I will definitely have one of my friends, who is now a midwife, deliver them. Or I will have a doula, although I know they are not as common in the UK. Photo Courtesy of Leanne Aseidu.Deborah Ajaja, 34I had my first child in September 2017. The journey to motherhood was enjoyable and mostly incident free. It was so exciting watching my bump grow. I gave birth to my second child, my daughter, in January 2020. The journey was a lot more tiresome with a toddler and demanding day job in tow. I made sure to do things that would make me happy second time round, having learnt lessons from the first time; I wore what I liked, treated myself when I could and pulled out the stops to take gorgeous pictures throughout that I would look back on in years to come.For the most part, my experience with healthcare professionals was fine. I didn’t enjoy being passed from midwife to midwife at each appointment, though. That part was stressful. But in my first pregnancy, I was blessed to find an amazing midwife (who was Nigerian!) who took me in like a niece. She ensured I was monitored closely and when my baby decided not to show up, she booked me in f
or an induction on a day and time that would give me the best chance of care and attention.I wasn’t aware of the statistics before I became pregnant, so it bore no impact on my decision to have children. Had I been aware however, I don’t think it would have affected me. Though I would have gone into it with a lot more knowledge and conducted more research to ensure my care was optimal. Sadly, I don’t think Black women are given the care and attention they deserve. They’re seen to be ‘strong’ and able to cope with anything, often meaning that their pleas for help or requests for assistance are overlooked or ignored altogether. I think it will take some time, but ultimately the healthcare professionals, who have taken oaths to respect and care for patients, have to go back to basics and strip themselves of biases and unconscious intolerances that have previously caused them to ignore or mistreat Black women. It needs to be addressed from a grassroots level; recruitment, training and talent development of these healthcare professionals all need to be laced with a clear demand for equality and respect for all mothers being treated, especially Black mothers. I would advise any Black woman wanting to start a family to be bold and surround themselves with love and people who will lift them up. The journey to motherhood can be boring, it can feel overwhelming, it can be scary and it can be hard, but we have proven that it is not a journey that you have to go down alone. Family, friends and even online communities can provide the much needed support and encouragement during this time and I honestly think this can make all the difference. The Colourful Motherhood campaign aims to highlight the experiences of Black mothers in all their glory, illustrating authentic stories, hopes and wishes for the beautiful Black and mixed race babies being born. For a mother going through pregnancy, hearing the statistics can be scary, so I’d encourage them to reach out, find a community, binge on the Colourful Motherhood content and surround themselves with people who will love on them and lift their spirits up. There is no need to be scared. We have knowledge, we have power and we have the gift of advocacy. Photo Courtesy of Deborah Ajaja.Courtney Gibson, 34My pregnancy was beautiful. I found out at seven weeks and so I started getting myself together immediately. I stopped smoking, drinking and started taking a lot of sugar out of my diet. My healthy baby boy got here on 6th December 2019. During pregnancy, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. That was the only problem I had carrying the baby. The delivery was a different story. During pregnancy, I was just hoping my child was born with all his limbs and senses. I was even preparing myself to care for a child with special needs, because I just didn’t know. I gave birth at 34 years old, had abortions in the past, had been a smoker since 15. I didn’t know what kind of environment I had created for my little guy in there. One of the implications of gestational diabetes is stillbirth. That was something I thought about often. I went for a regular checkup on Thursday 5th December 2019. My stomach was smaller than it should be. I got shuffled to another floor for a closer look. “You have no fluid,” I was told. My uterus was dry. During the pregnancy, the doctor kept asking if I was leaking fluid, I assumed just as a precaution. She kept saying, “you’ll know the difference between leakage and regular discharge.” Apparently I didn’t. I was scheduled for an induction that day. After 30 hours of labour, I hadn’t dilated more than 7cm and I had to have an emergency C-section, which was the worst experience of my life. I do not want to experience that procedure or the aftermath of it ever again.When I left the hospital three days later, my legs and ankles were still swollen to the point I could barely walk. They said it was normal for a C-section and sent me home. I was 12 pounds heavier leaving the hospital than I was before I delivered. Fast forward 11 days and I was back in the hospital with eclampsia. My blood pressure was at 199/140. There was water in my lungs and around my heart. I was about to have a stroke and didn’t even know it. I went back because I literally thought I was going to die. I have never felt so bad for so long.I am reconsidering having more children since I experienced the risks of childbirth firsthand. With my first child, I don’t think I knew how severely these problems impacted Black women. I thought maybe preexisting health problems contributed, but here I was, healthy, and having the same problems, if not worse. There is just a lot we need to learn about healthcare overall. But at the same time, I want the professionals to be more proactive instead of reactive with us. I felt like I had to wait to experience certain issues before the doctors were like, “oh yeah, try this instead.” For instance, when I got diabetes, that’s when they gave me the healthy eating course and all the stuff to avoid. Here I was thinking I was doing something good by eating fruit and granola for breakfast. They basically said, “Fruit has too much sugar to eat first thing in the morning.” My advice to anyone wishing to have a child is make sure you have a support system. If I didn’t have an awesome partner with a supportive family of his own, my experience would have been worse. My family was just as supportive and took care of the baby while I was back in the hospital. That was one less thing to worry about. Use people for advice and take help that’s offered. Photo Courtesy of Courtney Gibson.Jendella Benson, 31Both of my pregnancies were fine and pretty non-eventful. I was healthy and active for both of them, I wasn’t high-risk in any sense. All my test results were fine and there were no foreseen complications to consider. My first son was born in 2015 and my second was born in 2019.On the advice of family, and due to general hearsay, I didn’t choose the hospital and NHS Health Trust closest to me for my first pregnancy. I went with the one that people generally said was ‘better’ and was further away. Being my first pregnancy, I didn’t have anything to gauge what was normal and just took everything as ‘standard’. When it came to my delivery however, I did not have a great experience at all. The midwife who attended to me during labour was patronising and dismissed mine and my family’s concerns, which eventually led to both mine and my son’s heart rate rapidly dropping and a crash team having to be called. I was rushed into theatre and my son was delivered by forceps. We were both physically fine afterwards but I found the whole experience distressing and traumatic. My second pregnancy was markedly different. Due to circumstances, it made the most sense to go with the hospital most local to me for convenience, and despite rumours of it being substandard, I honestly thought it couldn’t be much worse than my experience at the other hospital. From start to finish the care was on another level. I saw the same midwives for my appointments meaning that I actually felt seen and cared for. I didn’t realise that continuity of care was actually a thing because at my last hospital it felt like being in a revolving door; the midwives just going through a checklist and rushing you out to see to the next patient. At my local hospital they even enquired after my mental health when they realised that I had previously suffered from depression and anxiety, scheduling extra appointments just to monitor my mental state. When it came to my labour, I had the most caring set of midwives and I wasn’t discharged mere hours after experiencing a traumatic delivery like at the previous hospital. I think medical racism and general personal bias means that Black women are not listened to when it comes to our bodies. From speaking with other Black mothers it’s clear that so often our pain and concerns are dismissed. From the Black Ballad survey we know of women who were left to deliver in hospital corridors due to healthcare professionals not believing that they were actually in labour. Given the precarious
nature of even the most successful labour, that can be the difference between life and death. While I was traumatised by my first labour, my main thoughts and concerns were around motherhood after giving birth and what it would be like to raise Black children in the current climate. I started the Black Ballad podcast, The Survival Guide, to share stories that enlighten and encourage Black mothers on their parenting journey. I advise people to get tapped into communities with other Black mums as the camaraderie, support and advice is invaluable. It’s not all doom and gloom, but because there are inequalities in everything from healthcare through to education outcomes for Black children, you do have to be conscientious about the choices you make and how you navigate the world. But because there are so many of us on this journey, don’t feel like you have to do this alone.Photo Courtesy of Jendella Benson.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Chloe Bailey Deserves Better — All Black Women DoI’m A Black Woman & I Have Been Sectioned, TwiceI Tried 5 Hair Loss Techniques & Here’s What Works