Whether planned or unplanned motherhood is a journey full of unexpected challenges that take patience and grace to overcome. Advice for new moms has significantly increased in openness and vulnerability, however, there still needs to be increased research on the impact of this adventure on Black new moms and women of color.
While motherhood is a universal experience and there are things that overlap in all communities, our Blackness in an American society can increase the number of unique challenges we encounter, while emphasizing the urgency in addressing mental health in the Black community. Some of the primary difficulties about the postpartum experience for Black women in the present day include: the lack of culturally competent physicians and resources, stigmas around seeking help, the strong Black woman schema, and even criticism of our postpartum bodies.
1. Lack of culturally competent physicians
Women of color–especially Black women, have extremely high maternal mortality rates in relation to childbirth which is heavily related to a series of misconceptions that date back to slavery. For generations, the medical field has incorrectly educated its students under the perception that Black people and Black women have a higher threshold for pain and discomfort, which has led to our women being overlooked and unheard in the medical space. According to the National Library of Medicine, in 2016, Black OBGYN made up only 11% of the field; this is in comparison to over 65% of white physicians. This statistic illustrates that cultural competence in this field would help to reduce and alleviate these disparities, however, we know that ultimately representation has a greater impact.
As a new mom, how do you overcome this barrier when the numbers are skewed out of our favor in all professional fields? One way is to develop a birth plan that accounts for assessing what your level of access is and how you can change it. Ask yourself questions like: Is having a clinician that looks like me important to me? How far is the nearest Black OBGYN? Is traveling that distance logical or safe? Does this facility have the resources to care for me and my child? How can the cost of this impact my financial stability and safety? If the answer to any of these questions appears to be something that does not feel sufficient to you, then it is best to know your rights.
According to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Birthing People’s Bill of Rights all birthing persons have rights that they are entitled to and can enforce at any time. These rights include, but are not limited to, things such as:
- The right to bodily autonomy
- The right be treated with dignity and respect
- The right to have support during your laboring process
Lastly, feel free to assemble a team of medical professionals you believe will fight for the health of you and your family. This could include doulas and healthcare advocates.
2. Societal Stigmas Around Seeking Help
Post-delivery is one of the most challenging times for a new mother, because the reality of just how much your life has and is changing comes into view. This can include changes to your body, reduction of free time and solitude, as well as lack of sleep. A major barrier to Black women and women of color seeking support can be the stigmas around mental health issues in our communities. The research suggests disparities [in support] may be related to how African American women experience and cope with the daily stressors they encounter (Woods-Giscombe, 2010). For generations Black people have considered mental health issues to mean that someone is crazy or has “lost their mind”, and this has caused many to suffer in silence.
While there has been much more vulnerability and understanding in society via social media, we still have a long way to go in reconciling the human experience in the Black community. Accepting that mental health is something that has the ability to fluctuate and these changes do not make you weak or incapable of being a good parent. In addition, it is imperative to note that postpartum depression and baby blues are completely normal, and can be experienced by birthing persons of any race and ethnicity. These things are logical reactions to hormonal and life-related changes this person is facing.
One major way to combat this challenge is doing your research on postpartum experiences and developing a postpartum plan. This plan could include the use of mental health professionals of color from websites like Therapy for Black Girls and Psychology Today.
3. Lack of Culturally Competent / Diverse Resources for Black New Moms
The American medical field is notorious for lacking diverse resources that adequately represent all communities. This disproportionately affects Black women because we are less likely to know how certain conditions affect us which also impacts our mental health; in fact, African American women have disproportionately high rates of adverse health outcome including birth outcomes and untreated or misdiagnosed mental health conditions (Hamilton et al., 2009). For new moms on their postpartum journey, this can be overwhelming because it can make navigating postpartum depression even more difficult.
4. Strong Black Woman Schema
Black women are introduced to the Strong Black Woman schema in childhood. We are made to believe that while we should be present and helpful towards everyone else’s problems, ours are to be swept under the rug never to be seen again. When we think of how our moms and grandmother’s survived child rearing, we stand in awe and admiration of how it seems as though they were so strong and never had any problems. It is not until we come of age that we realize that they genuinely struggled because of their lack of autonomy towards whether or not they leaned into this idea of being “strong” and “independent”.
This stereotype can have a significant impact on the postpartum experience, because it can make you feel as though something is wrong with you if you are not able to handle all of the things and be all of the places, while caring for your newborn and the changes in your body. But ask yourself, is this realistic?
We know the answer is “no”. Black women are human, just like everyone else. We need help, love, kindness, and tenderness just like everyone else–and even more so during our postpartum journey.
5. Criticism of Your New Body
When we discuss the female body–especially the mom body, we develop a greater understanding of the impact of intersectionality. As a woman and a Black person, the Black postpartum mom is exposed to the potential to experience scrutiny about their body. Women have always been criticized for their bodies–being too big or small, too tall or short, too curvy—you name it, we’ve heard it! The African American female body has been a topic of discussion in the public sphere since slavery, as our bodies were seen as public domain. From discussion of our features, to the contrast of our bodies to American beauty standards, our bodies have acted as one the most trivialized aspects of our American experience.
How does this impact us in our postpartum journey and potentially contribute to encountering postpartum depression? Socially ingrained beauty standards in unison with the male gaze and the growing use of social media, women are made to believe that they should be experiencing a snapback immediately after giving birth. Unfortunately, no matter how unrealistic we know these standards to be, as humans, it can be difficult to not be impacted by all of these outside forces and opinions drawing attention towards the ways your body has changed. It is also important to state that as the person living in your body, it also makes sense that you have desires for your body to look however you prefer and feel safe–and this is not always the case after giving birth.
So what can you do to combat these feelings towards your postpartum body?
- Give your body grace: It just did a very powerful thing by bringing life into this world. Giving birth is a life altering and life threatening experience, and to have come out on the other side is a major cause to give your body thanks.
- Develop a postpartum plan: One of the reasons you can feel overwhelmed by changes in your body is because you do not have an accountability plan. Consulting with your physician and other professionals to determine how and when it is appropriate for you to begin moving your body can ease your mind and any concerns you may have around the changes in your body.
- Practice Mindfulness: As a new mom, you have probably heard “it goes so fast” a million times, and it is so true! Taking time to be present in the moment and enjoy all of the joy and woes that come with this new period in life is essential to not having any regrets once it is gone.
Resources for new moms on their postpartum journey:
Resources courtesy of Dr. Kimberly Lee-Okonya of Life Begins Here Therapeutic & Counseling Services
Black Women’s Health Imperative – www.bwhi.org
Postpartum Support International – www.postpartum.net
National Association of Black Doulas – www.blackdoulas.org
Therapy for Black Girls – www.therapyforblackgirls.com
Atlanta Doula Collective – www.atlantadoulacollective.org
Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia – www.hmhbga.org
The Melanated Mommy Tribe – www.themelanatedmommytribe.com
Black Mamas Matter Alliance – www.blackmamasmatter.org
Postpartum Support International (GA Chapter) – www.psichapters.com/ga/
National Birth Equity Collaborative – www.birthequity.org
The Birth App (App to find Black maternal health providers)
- Birthing Persons Bill of Rights. https://sph.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/112/2020/03/CGBI-Birth-Justice-COVID19-Bill-of-Rights-Final.pdf
- Rayburn, W. F., Xierali, I. M., Castillo-Page, L., & Nivet, M. A. (2016). Racial and Ethnic Differences Between Obstetrician-Gynecologists and Other Adult Medical Specialists. Obstetrics and gynecology, 127(1), 148–152. https://doi.org/10.1097/AOG.0000000000001184
Vanbuskirk, Sarah. (2022). What is the Male Gaze? Very Well Mind. Web accessed August 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-male-gaze-5118422