When Mothers Don't Come Home
What happens to mothers when they give birth in the U.S. – whether they survive childbirth and postpartum – can depend on their race.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the maternal mortality rate in the United States in 2018 was 17.4 per 100,000 live births. But for non-Hispanic Black women, that number jumps to an astounding 37.1 deaths per 100,000 live births.
“In this country, it should be noted that we’re the only developed nation that consistently increases in maternal deaths annually,” doula Latham Thomas, author of “Own Your Glow: A Soulful Guide to Luminous Living and Crowning the Queen Within” and one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, said. Thomas, who also trains doulas and supports Black birth workers, is using her celebrity platform to speak out about maternal health and the crisis facing Black women. She recently took over actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram account for a day, reaching her more than seven million followers with stories on how this crisis is impacting families.
“With the amount of money we spend per capita on healthcare, this is not something we should see as an outcome,” Thomas said. “Currently, the CDC’s projections are that Black women and Native American women both are four to five times more likely white women to die in childbirth or due to childbirth-related causes.”
The reasons are deep and systemic, but not insurmountable.
“It means that the comorbidities that might be part of someone’s health history – like asthma, diabetes, hypertension, blood disorders, placental disorders, things that may show up – sometimes they get underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed,” she said. “Sometimes people get hurried care. Sometimes they get inconsistent care, shifting of providers. Care can also depend on insurance.”
Thomas said those comorbidities, as well as the weathering caused by the lived experience of racism and the daily stress it causes can impact the health of Black women.
“What that looks like inside of the medical system is that Black women may not be believed in their pain,” she said. “They are perceived as having a high pain tolerance or not even feeling pain. Sometimes they are not anesthetized properly or at all. They will experience of having shared their clinical needs and concerns with their provider and those concerns will be dismissed. All of these things can lead to poor maternal health outcomes.”
As a doula, Thomas wants to be there for the women she serves, but also be a champion for all women and a voice for reducing the chance that having a baby can mean death.
“Ultimately, I think the role of a doula is to understand this information and be able to serve clients wherever they are on the continuum, but primarily, you must be able to serve the most marginalized,” she said. “Even if you’re not Black, even if you’re not a woman, even if you’re not in childbearing years, this is still your issue because it’s a human rights issue. Everyone comes from a uterus – we all come from a maternal figure that gives life to us. We should all want to rally around this issue and protect women in birth. People should know it’s not just Black women who are dying. White women are dying, too. It’s at a lesser rate, but it's not an acceptable rate. These numbers because so normalized for people that we have to get out of the statistics and get into the storytelling. These stories have to be told.”