Black Women Plant Seeds Columns

Fighting for Black Wombs: Struggling to be Seen

Kristina Button

According to the National Institute of Health, severe maternal morbidity (SMM) rates have nearly doubled over the past decade. The incidence of SMM was 166% higher for Black women than white women from 2012 to 2015. To be clear, it is racism—not race—that impacts prenatal care and maternal outcomes. 

This post is part of a series called Fighting for Black Wombs. Read the introduction to this seres.

During my fourth pregnancy, I had the overwhelming experience of changing healthcare providers. My family had relocated to Northern Virginia, which meant that I could no longer see the Black woman OB/GYN that I had come to love and trust.

Searching for a new provider was frustrating and exhausting. It felt like I had called every doctor in the area, but none of them would take me because I was almost seven months pregnant. Or at least that was what I was told. 

When I finally found a list of potential doctors, I had to bring my other children with me. Being new to the area and not knowing a soul, I also did not have childcare. I had to find my way around an unfamiliar metropolitan area with three children under five years old while also seeking prenatal care. It was a mess. 

I ended up visiting several doctor’s offices in an attempt to find which one would a good fit for my delivery. At one of the clinics, the doctor walked into the exam room and immediately started stereotyping me. Her coded, racist language showed that she had pegged me as a Black single mother who was incompetent and overwhelmed with another child as if Black single mothers can’t be competent and joy-filled bout having another baby.

The first question she asked me was about who would take care of my kids. I told her that I was married and that my husband and I would be caring for our children together. It was obvious that she had either missed (or completely ignored) the wedding ring on my left hand. 

Ignoring my response, she continued to badger me. Her questions were filled with the assumption that I was ill-prepared to bring another child into the world and that this was not a joyous occasion for my family. None of her assumptions were even remotely true. 

As the doctor continued to mother and scold me, I had my three kids squeezed into a corner of the room, and I tried to make sure we weren’t taking up too much space. 

It is out of the ordinary for people in the DC area to have more than two kids, and so some of her responses might have been related to those cultural norms, but her assumptions were also rooted in racist stereotypes. 

The visit left me buckled over with anxiety. Devastated, I strapped my kids into their car seats and cranked up the A/C. Shielding my distress from my children, I stood in the parking lot crying and sweating as the hot June sun beat down on me. I called my husband and vented about my experience, seeking any solace I could get from the experience of being chided and ridiculed for having the audacity to bring new life into the world. 

After working through this devastating experience, I eventually found a practice suitable for me to deliver my first and only son. He was delivered by the Black midwife, who happened to be on call at that time. Although I didn’t have a longstanding relationship with her, I felt secure with the unspoken acknowledgment that she cared about my health and for my son’s health during his delivery.

I am happy that I could bring my son into the world, but I also feel that racism robbed me of the birth experience that I desired. Yes, there are times that circumstances can prevent anyone from having the birth that they wanted regardless of race, but I cannot overlook the role that racism played in my story. Being denied care because of how far along I was and the stress and heartache that I experienced while trying to find a doctor meant that I did not get the birthing experience that I wanted. 

When I found out that I was pregnant with my fifth child, I thought that I was prepared, but nothing could prepare me for the incompetence of my care providers…

This post is part of a series called Fighting for Black Wombs. Read the next part.