I grew up surrounded by women: an army of moms, some single, all occupied by the bulk of the child-rearing. Even as a small child, I saw how exhausting it was to be a mom, witnessed the lack of support for moms, and noted the way they were able to lean into each other to provide encouragement that didn’t come from anywhere else. Then, I didn’t want any part of it. Now, I celebrate those powerful women who triumphed over such challenges and adversity.
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For Black women, being a mom is a special struggle, and becoming a mom is very often filled with medical trauma. Providers are neglectful and dismissive; examinations can be violent; structural and personal racism is revealed at every turn. I have a friend who lost as many as eight babies, and her doctors never gave her any explanation, much less support. At one point, she had an ectopic pregnancy and lost her ovary. And there was nowhere for her to put her grief. Her experience isn’t uncommon: You hear about it all the time in Black communities. Women talk about loss like it’s grocery shopping.
I was very young when I had my first child, and while there were many challenges, I was nourished by the company of those other moms. Just as I had watched my mothers do, we leaned into each other, shared our pains and joys, and raised our children together. At the time, I worked in a spa where I was surrounded by women, many of them sharing the hard work of raising children. Before my son’s birth, I had an outsider’s interest in reproductive health, and so I was there to listen to the other moms in the spa: to hear about the baffling doctors’ appointments, the loneliness, the struggles with money and so much more. So often women, especially Black women, don’t have a space to be heard as they go through the ugly parts of motherhood. It’s supposed to be such a polished, joyful time, but it really isn’t: There’s pain and hardship and isolation in mothering.
The racial discrepancies in women’s experiences of birth and motherhood became glaring to me when I moved from a spa in the city to one in the suburbs. The suburban women were mostly white, and they seemed to have a very different experience of mothering from my sisters in the city.
Both groups had the same questions about sleeping and breastfeeding, bonding and crying, but the white moms very obviously had more supports in place and their experiences of medical care were largely positive. No one was gently explaining to Black women what our bodies were doing.
We had learned to dread obstetric care since our first gynecological check-ups as teenagers. Then, doctors’ aggressively probing fingers were accompanied by their voiced biases about what it meant to be a Black teenage girl. Later, many of my friends had intense, negative experiences giving birth in hospital, some losing their reproductive organs, losing their babies — and nobody ever took the time to explain what had happened. They just had to keep living as if nothing was the matter, as if all that pain and loss wasn’t something anybody should talk about.
On top of the inequities in medical care, the Black women I met in the urban spa were under huge burdens to figure out how to work and have children. Who was going to take care of their kids while they work, and how were they going to make enough money? The white women in the suburban spa were wealthy or had partners able to support their families. They never seemed to struggle day-to-day with necessities.
Nevertheless, those Black women who were suffering with such pain and loss were united in struggle and triumph. We were always there to watch one another’s children, share meals, help out in times of need and listen to one another’s grief. The unity of moms deserves to be honored, and it is historical. Black women’s support for one another fills a gap created by slavery and perpetuated by the structural racism that infects our institutions.
After my third child, I was in the depths of postpartum depression when a friend encouraged me to join a breastfeeding group at The Midwife Center. It was difficult to leave the house, but I went. What I found was wonderful: a circle of Black women with babies discussing their challenging, private experiences. I was introduced to a Black doula, and it blew my mind that someone could have a job supporting moms through childbirth.
Then and there, my path was laid. Shortly after, I embarked on doula training and, soon after, was hired by The Birth Circle. There, I found other doulas who shared my experiences and had a passion to help. I was surrounded by mentors. From there, I moved to MAYA, a nonprofit serving pregnant, postpartum and incarcerated people. I put to work all of the experience that I had gained in the spa, as a mother, and as a Black woman sharing in the struggles of my sisters — but there was more experience to come.
At that time I was married to a man who did not support my work, and our relationship deteriorated as I found my feet professionally. Defending myself landed me in jail. There, I met women who were pregnant, detoxing from drugs, unjustly incarcerated, each one with a story — all including trauma and separation from their children. Those women were like my spa women: bonding together, sharing their joys and sorrows. Even so, I couldn’t escape the most painful aspect of incarceration: being away from my children. But I still had breath in my body. I had the power to use my experiences.
When I came out of jail, my life was in shambles, so I started working even more, at the spa, with the Birth Circle and at MAYA. At the same time, I finished my drug and alcohol counseling certification, using my fresh experience as a resource for understanding and meeting struggling people where they were. I became established at MAYA, and began working with individuals touched by the criminal justice system. I could tell them, truthfully, that I know how awful it is, but that they can do it — their stories have other, future chapters.
Now, I am director of civic engagement at MAYA, and I work with women incarcerated in Allegheny County Jail, with new moms and birthing people as a childbirth educator and a doula, and with our many partners on initiatives to improve maternal-infant care and outcomes for Black women. My outsider’s interest in reproductive health has blossomed into an insider’s expertise, and my experiences, though painful, have left me with a special connection to our clients and to other Black birthworkers. I celebrate those women and birthing people, and bear witness to their — our — struggles.
Amber Edmunds is a mother of three and director of civic engagement at MAYA, an organization that has given her one of those vital spaces where women find healing and power by leaning in to one another. She is also involved in several initiatives for racial equity in birthing spaces, including curriculum design and teaching, the creation of standards of practice for hospitals, and work to create opportunities and protect the rights and wellbeing of Black birthworkers. If you want to send a message to Amber, email email@example.com.
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