Recent headlines covering the traumatic postpartum experiences of Black celeb moms have helped to illuminate the growing epidemic of Black maternal mortality and morbidity gripping our communities. When it comes to the complications and neglect Black women are confronted with after giving birth, socio-economic status and resources do not guarantee healthy outcomes for new Black mothers. With Black women dying in childbirth at three times the rate of our white counterparts, maternal mortality in Black America has reached crisis level.
For Patrisse Cullors, a storied activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, the reality of obstetric violence and neglect became her own nightmare when she gave birth via C-section in 2016. Cullors described that before her emergency C-section, her doctor did not walk her through pre and post-op surgery expectations.
“When the nurses asked me if I was prepared for the C-section and [asked] if the doctor told me what the procedure was, I said no, I have no idea. So that was the first neglectful moment that I didn’t understand the gravity of until after I gave birth. After I had the C-section, it was clear that the nurses were less interested in my health and well being and more interested in getting the baby healthy and out the hospital. That was their primary goal–getting us out the hospital.”
Post-op, Cullors explained she was told to use a breathing machine, but no medical professional emphasized that it was a daily requirement to keep her body healthy after a major surgery.
“They brought the little machine and said to breathe through it three times a day, but didn’t say why or why it was necessary. So I didn’t do it, because I just had a baby, and I was in a lot of pain, and I was trying to breastfeed. And so, when I got home, my mother actually noticed I was wheezing, and she said ‘I’m really concerned that you’re wheezing. Did the doctor tell you anything about that?’ And I was so tired and didn’t want to go back to the hospital, but she actually convinced me to go back, and I did. I went to the hospital, and the doctor told me I had pneumonia.”
Cullors’ pneumonia kept her a part from her child for 21 days during crucial bonding moments in early motherhood. On top of her illness, the new mother also had abnormal blood tests results indicating she might have a blood clot which could lead to a stroke or death.
“It was so unnecessarily frightening. I could’ve easily been given [the] proper education in the hospital that I could contract pneumonia if I wasn’t using the breathing machine regularly. I [learned] in the harshest way, that hospitals in particular care very little about women who are having children, let alone black women having children.”
Cullors links this life-threatening oversight to a culture of anti-blackness that permeates throughout every structural institution in this country.
“I was devastated to learn that my postpartum experience is also so many women’s post partum experience. We don’t have to be lonely in those first years of our motherhood, and yet we have developed a culture that is completely anti-black family. This is a world built for wealthy, White families, really focused on men and their needs and not focused on black families and their needs.”
From the darkness of Cullors’ trauma sprung the inspiration to act, with the 34-year-old deciding to partner with the MomsRising organization as a fellow.
“I spent the first year doing a lot of research working with the “Black Mamas Matter” alliance, and this year im working on a project called “C-section Chronicles” where I’m having women and people tell me their stories around C-sections and the impact C-sections have had on them.”
Cullors reveals she has read over 100 tales of women across the country who felt forced into C-sections or who were uninformed about the post-op care required to keep them and their children healthy. She plans to develop a digital video series and a theater performance based on their experiences. It is clear one of the key components of saving Black women’s lives postpartum will be breaking the culture of silence surrounding our medical neglect.
“We need more data,” Cullors explains.
“We have very little data on maternal health outcomes for Black women and for people who have babies– I say that because transmen also have babies. When someone dies during pregnancy or postpartum, it’s not stated that its because of birth. Let’s take Erica Garner for example, Erica died three months after having her baby. That is called maternal morbidity and we have to name it as such. When we are clear about what’s happening, then we have clear ways to understand how we solve the problem.”
In the gap between postpartum neglect and a progressive health care solution for Black moms, Cullors advises Black women to educate and rely on one another.
“I had not a clue the impact it had. And after [giving birth] I went to all my Black girlfriends and said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ We do have to rely on each other and take care of each other. We do have to make sure we understand the health impact. I think this is also a conversation around what it means to have Black doulas and Black midwives. It was my two black midwives who saved my life I believe. Not just in the birthing and the postpartum but during my pregnancy, I was miserable. I did not have a good pregnancy and they just took care of me every step of the way.”