I waited a long time to be pregnant. When I found out in early 2020 that my husband and I were expecting our first child, I was ecstatic. Then the fear and anxiety of wondering whether we’d be good parents crept in beyond that. I was terrified that I would end up a statistic and leave my son motherless.
Dr. Shalon Irving. Kira Dixen Johnson. Yolanda Kadima. Amber Rose Issac. Those are a sliver of the countless Black women who died in childbirth who weigh heavy on my heart. Black women in the U.S. are more than three times as likely to die in childbirth. Also, Black babies are twice as likely to die before their first birthday. Those facts are disturbing. Despite the odds against me, and my baby, I’m grateful to be alive writing this with a healthy baby boy. Here’s what I learned navigating my pregnancy and birth as a Black woman in America.
1. Find a medical team that makes you feel comfortable (as much as possible)
Finding a doctor that puts you at ease during pregnancy is essential. But it becomes even more critical when you’re up against racial disparities in healthcare. I was overwhelmed about where to start but narrowed my list through referrals. I asked candidates questions as a pregnant woman but also as a Black pregnant woman. I then paid attention to how they responded. As in, were they annoyed? Did they brush me off or downplay my concerns? Here are some of the questions I asked to find a provider that showed me that my baby and me were in good hands.
- How many Black patients do you currently see?
- Are you aware of the racial biases that exist against Black patients? Do you think that Black people have a higher pain tolerance?
- How often will you be monitoring me while in the hospital?
- What is the hospital procedure if you’re unavailable? What’s the process of getting a second opinion or switching doctors while in the hospital?
- How familiar are you with the life-threatening complications in Black maternity (such as pulmonary embolisms, hypertension, postpartum hemorrhaging, preterm labor, preeclampsia, eclampsia, or HELLP syndrome)? What preventive methods would you take against such complications?
- Alternatively, do you exclude a diagnosis solely based on race?
2. Trust your gut and speak up
Around the 16-week mark of my pregnancy, I started experiencing intense pressure accompanied by spotting. As I sat in the bathroom, I panicked that my little miracle was in danger. I was repeatedly told by medical staff to “wait and see.” But my gut kept telling me that something wasn’t right. It turned out I had a weak cervix and more treatment was necessary.
Everyone’s situation is different. Some pregnant women can experience the exact same symptoms and be fine. I prefer to listen to my gut and always have a doctor examine me when appropriate.
3. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor questions
Your pregnancy is the perfect time to remember that there are no stupid questions. An old manager of mine always said, “you know what you know and what you don’t know, you don’t.” I began weekly appointments with my perinatologist; a doctor specializing in high-risk pregnancies.
One day I saw a different perinatologist. He seemed annoyed and impatient with my questions while discussing our options. His overwhelming list of instructions conflicted with previous information I’d received from my regular perinatologist. I left feeling dismissed and felt he just viewed me as patient 35 out of 100. But this baby was one of one to me. With my husband’s encouragement, I called the doctor’s office and asked every question I felt I couldn’t. It was a reminder that I could take up space and the time to ask questions without hesitation.
4. Follow up whenever necessary
When I was 18 weeks pregnant, a specialist gave me instructions on how I should give birth. At 36 weeks pregnant, it was clear that the medical team had not reviewed the note. A group of anesthesiologists was pulled together in a rush to brainstorm how to proceed. I spent the last few weeks of my pregnancy worrying and waiting to learn the outcome.
It wasn’t until I was 38 weeks pregnant that the medical team came up with options. Had I not followed up, my delivery could have been dangerous. Decisions would have been made on the spot that did not acknowledge or consider all the risks. Following up to make sure I didn’t fall through the cracks ensured everyone was on the same page.
5. Advocate for your family
While in the hospital, my son’s eyes and skin had a yellowish tint. When I asked about it, the staff first told me it was “because he’s biracial.” I felt dismissed and insulted, but my “mom gut” disagreed, and so I persisted. My son was later diagnosed with jaundice. Jaundice occurs because the baby’s blood contains an excess of bilirubin, a yellow pigment of red blood cells.
I learned I no longer have to advocate for only myself. I also have to advocate for my child and push against assumptions to ensure he gets the care he needs and deserves. There may be times when you are unable to advocate for yourself. Having a family, a friend or a doula present to speak for you can help.
6. Keep Advocating for Yourself
After I gave birth, I consistently experienced unbearable pain from my cesarean incision. The nurses insisted that it was “normal.” I kept pushing back and would later discover that I had an allergic reaction to the incision glue. No one could have predicted the allergic reaction. But the pain I experienced for weeks was preventable. It was a reminder that my self-advocating wasn’t over.
My pregnancy and delivery were not easy, but being alive and with a healthy son made it all worthwhile. Black women deserve more than unnecessary pain, complications, and death. I hope the health care system changes, and until then, my advice to others is not to lose hope. Find a team that makes you comfortable. Issues may arise, but a good team will be willing and able to pivot to give you the care you need. Take up space and ask questions because you deserve to understand what’s happening. If something concerns you or hasn’t happened as discussed, please don’t hesitate to discuss it with your doctor. Continue to advocate for yourself and your little one who can’t advocate for themselves. Whenever possible, have a family member, friend, or a doula present to advocate on your behalf.