New docuseries tells stories of black births in America
“She had the baby, it’s a girl ... I don't know all the details, but it sounds like there were some complications.”
This was the text I received from my mother earlier this summer. My childhood best friend was pregnant with her first child, but the math simply wasn’t adding up. You see, I am a compulsive planner and had been brainstorming perfect gifts for the baby shower, scheduled for the Fourth of July weekend. The baby was due in August. So as I wiped my eyes and sat up in bed to read the text again, I knew that something had to be wrong. The baby was eight weeks early.
Later that day, I contacted my friend and rushed over to her house, where her mother and partner were. Walking through the front door felt different this time. So much had transpired in a matter of days, and that transformation lived on their faces and in the space itself. As we got settled on the couch, I realized the only person missing was her baby girl, who would remain in the NICU until her original due date.
Over the next eight hours, my friend would open up about how a routine prenatal visit to her private Catholic hospital in Southern California almost turned deadly. Her blood pressure was abnormally high and she had developed preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication that causes hypertension, swelling in the feet and legs, and can lead to early delivery of the infant and potentially death. According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, preeclampsia affects at least 5 to 8% of all pregnancies. In 2014, seven out of 100 black birthing women had preeclampsia or eclampsia, and black women continue to remain more susceptible to the condition than their white counterparts.
After hours of listening, asking questions, and rapid Google searches, I still could not make sense of this. How did this happen? Why didn’t my friend know about preeclampsia before she was rushed into emergency delivery? Why hadn’t her medical care support team discussed potential complications earlier? The thing is, my friend had been speaking up and advocating for herself throughout her pregnancy. She told nurses about her swelling, rapid weight gain, and something simply not feeling right for weeks. They brushed it off, told her that all of this was normal, and that she had nothing to worry about. Why didn’t they listen to her?
In the midst of my confusion, heartache and gratitude that my friend and her baby girl made it through this harrowing experience alive, I took to Twitter:
The virality of the tweet confirmed that black pregnant and birthing parents have long been suffering in silence. So many people could identify with Beyoncé (who also suffered from preeclampsia during her 2017 pregnancy) and Serena Williams’ recent birthing experiences, which shed light on the gross disparities afflicting black moms. But where could non-celebrity black parents and loved ones go to share, to mourn, to listen, to celebrate, to feel seen, to feel safe?
Before I left my friend's home that night, she said, “Gabie, you really need to do something about this. What happened to me is happening to other parents. We aren’t talking about it and it’s really, really scary. It’s not right.” She was right. And as a full-time media producer, I knew that I had the capacity to help more people talk about the full range of black parents’ birthing experiences — to bring these stories to dinner tables, to hospital waiting rooms, to doula centers, to the halls of Congress. I also knew that I wanted to develop this series in partnership with an organization that was committed to the art of black narrative storytelling. As soon as Martina Abrahams Ilunga, founder and CEO of You Had Me at Black, sent me a direct message, I knew that we were onto something very special.
The NATAL docuseries
The statistics are staggering: In the United States, mothers die at a rate four to five times higher than their developed, Western peers. Black women face bleeker numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are 243% more likely to die from pregnancy or child-birth related issues than white women. Right here in my native California, home to more than 1 million black women and girls — half of whom are of reproductive age — black birthing parents are experiencing disproportionately higher rates of anxiety, depression, and pregnancy complications. And while there’s less clinical research about trans and non-binary parents, individual anecdotes detail the dangers they face due to a general lack of preparedness and training for non-cis births.
But not only do success stories exist, they are fundamental to how our team is approaching this series, which is supported by a Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund grant. We have been privileged to talk to parents in Northern California, who have had healthy births in local centers and in their homes, alongside attentive midwives and doulas. We have fostered connections with organizations like Los Angeles’ Kindred Space and LOOM, and Dr. Sayida Peprah of the Perinatal Equity Initiative (San Bernardino and Riverside County). Administrators at Los Angeles County’s departments of public and mental health have also helped our team better understand local strategic initiatives, such as the new pilot program that provides free doula services to black women in Los Angeles County.
As we work to tell the full story of black births in California, and across the country, it is important that we do not solely dwell in the trauma or ignore the tireless work of community birth workers. Our goal is to truly explore the range of answers to our series’ guiding question: What does care look like for black pregnant and birthing parents? The story of black birthing in this country is political, nuanced, complex, and deeply personal; and thus NATAL must be, too. And in true You Had Me at Black fashion, we are positioning parents as the experts of their own stories, providing them the space to have the final say on their birthing experiences.
NATAL, a docuseries about what it means to be a black person having a baby in the United States today, is grateful to count Black Mamas Matter Alliance as an official partner for season one. "We know the statistics around black maternal health, but it's important that we don't lose sight of the faces, the voices of women — their families, their communities — who are living and, in many cases, dying by these numbers. This docuseries will give us the opportunity to do just that,” said Angela Aina, interim executive director of Black Mamas Matter Alliance.
Together, our goals are to support existing advocacy and activism by facilitating digital and in-person conversations to:
Empower black pregnant and birthing parents with information and resources to navigate their parenthood journeys both physically and mentally;
Press medical systems to drastically reduce the black maternal mortality rate and black birthing parents’ high rate of medical complications;
Create space for black parents to share the lessons learned from becoming parents within a supportive community; and,
Provide our audience with the tools and language to amplify the national conversation about black perinatal health care.
The NATAL podcast launches Wednesday, April 22, 2020. To stay connected, sign up for updates, or find our live tour schedule, visit www.natalstories.com, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter at @natalstories.