While Black History Month is a time to discuss, learn about, and appreciate the historic contributions and hard-fought wins of Black people in this country, it also serves as a jumping off point to continue conversations about the ongoing disparities that harm Black Americans. On Feb. 11, HeyMama, in partnership with H&M, hosted the virtual event The Joys & Crisis of Black Motherhood with that very purpose: to bring HeyMama members and the public together to start a conversation that would continue long after Black History Month ended.
Featuring Hannah Bronfman, Christian Maxwell, and Bree Clarke, the event discussed how it felt to watch Vice President Kamala Harris become the first woman, Black person, and Southeast Asian woman to hold that office, how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black women, and how everyone can work to lower the US maternal mortality rate that has left Black women three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy- and birth-related complications — all while celebrating the singular joy and optimism that comes with being a Black mom.
“I think this conversation looks exciting for the future to come,” Bronfman, an activist, entrepreneur, and founder of HBFIT, a unique destination to explore all things health, beauty, and fitness, said during the event. “And I think it’s rooted in our past. I think celebrating and showing the triumphs and the tears is really, really important.”
If you missed out on the event, or simply want to revisit the action items laid out by the speakers, here are some key takeaways from HeyMama and H&M’s The Joys & Crisis of Black Motherhood virtual event.
The event kicked off with a discussion on how watching Kamala Harris become vice president of the United States impacted the speakers. “Representation matters,” Clarke, an award winning TEDx speaker and founder and creative director of The Iman Project, a lifestyle brand that builds a diverse community through design and style, said. “Immediately, when I saw that, just as a Black woman and just as a woman, period, I felt like wow: it really can happen. It really did happen.”
There was another feeling that lingered among all the speakers as well, though: frustration. Because while it was an exciting milestone, it didn’t happen until 2021. “We’re still having these firsts,” Clarke said. “We’re still having these conversations.”
Maternal Mortality Disproportionately Impacts Black Women
The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, and that rate is worse for Black women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy- and birth-related complications that white women.
“I was not aware of the horrifying statistics about the mortality rate among Black women in birthing until I was a Black mom being pregnant and I started to hear stories and started to follow accounts that were really eye opening in terms of what was going on in these communities and how Black women are being treated in hospitals, the lack of education and access that women have,” Bronfman said. “And it was really disheartening.”
There are a number of reasons why maternal mortality is higher among Black women, from a lack of access to education and affordable health care to pervasive racism. One 2016 study found that 40% of first- and second-year medical students believe “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s,” and medical school trainees who believed Black people are not as sensitive to pain as white people were less likely to treat Black people’s pain. In fact, 20 years of studies found that Black patients are 22% less likely to receive pain medication than white patients.
“It’s not just the lack of education and access, it’s also the way the doctors treat Black women,” Bronfman said. “It’s the way the hospitals treat them. It’s the way the insurance [companies] treat them.”
There Are Alternatives To Traditional Hospital Births
Maxwell, a content marketing expert and co-founder of Studio Maxwell, an all-in-one, faith-rooted, data-driven, Dallas-based content marketing and advertising agency, shared that while her first two children were born in a traditional hospital setting, her third was not. Instead, Maxwell chose to give birth at a birthing center, a decision that terrified her mother-in-law.
“She was totally confused and had no idea why I would want to do that,” Maxwell shared. So she went about educating her mother-in-law in why she decided on an alternative. “I wanted to make sure that I was supported and that my needs were heard. And that was a learning experience not just for me and my husband but for her as well,” she explained. “So those moments, when we look at the disparities and we also figure out how we are going to address this disparity and not allow it to be our story, it’s not just a learning experience for us but for the people immediately around us.”
In 2004, 35,578 births in the U.S. happened outside a hospital. In 2017, that number increased to 62,228. In the same time frame, home births increased by 77% and births at birthing centers more than doubled. This, along with the rise of Black-led doulas and midwifery practices, are working to create a safer environment for Black women to give birth.
Conversations With Kids About Race Don’t Have To Be Hard
“Having those uncomfortable conversations in talking about race, diversity, equality — we make it hard,” Clarke said. “We make it hard as adults, and sometimes our kids take on our own anxiety, our own feelings about something. Kids don’t know what feelings they have, what feelings are ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ so I feel like we make those conversations hard as ‘big kids,’ which makes it difficult for our babies.”
If you’re looking for ways to talk about race, racism, and anti-racism with your children, there are a number of children’s books about race, television specials about racism, and online guides to help you start, and continue, the conversation.
There Are Ways You Can Help To Build A More Equitable Future
It is not up to Black women to build a future that works for them, nor is it up to them to “save” everyone else. Everyone has a part to play in building a more equitable and inclusive society, and there are ways, both big and small, you can do that. Whether it’s running for office, volunteering with grassroots organizations, or donating funds to those who have been doing this work for decades, there’s no shortage of ways you can increase the joys and eradicate the crises of Black motherhood.
Saving Mothers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating preventable maternal deaths and birth-related complications, is a great start. HeyMama and H&M are proud to have partnered with Saving Mothers for this event, and encourage everyone to give what they can to this vital organization.