The insufferable weight carried by black mothers in America

I am not a black mother. I am white. I am a mother. I am also a pediatrician. Every day I work with mothers and their babies—black, brown, and white, as a newborn hospitalist on a busy, urban maternity unit. I know firsthand that the postpartum period is challenging and overwhelming for mothers. Are we making enough breastmilk? Is the baby starving? Will we ever sleep again? How does anybody do this? The physical recovery from birth alone, plus the responsibility of caring for a new life is stressful enough. Not to mention the abysmal state of parental leave and postpartum support. I simply cannot fathom the additional, unbearable burden and trauma requisite to mothering a black child in today’s America.

Since my daughter was born 18 months ago, I have been part of an online community for breastfeeding physicians. It has been an invaluable resource for my own breastfeeding journey, as well as allowed me to better care for my patients. Scrolling through the posts, a full-lipped, chunky baby catches my eye. How content he seems, naked body snuggled close to a near life-sized giraffe, eyes fixed on the person behind the camera: his creator and protector, his mama. He is peaceful and calm, too young to be consumed with the worry that one day the world will see his skin color first, not the sweet innocence in his eyes. I look to the text to see what the mother of this delicious being is writing about. These are her words:

Good day all. My LO [little one] is 15 weeks old and exclusively breastfed. Amidst the recent traumatic murders of black men at the hands of law enforcement being aired and replayed on multiple social media outlets, I’ve noticed that my breast milk supply has decreased. As I prepare to go back to work in a week, do you have any suggestions on how to reestablish an adequate supply of breast milk while experiencing and re-experiencing the constant trauma of dehumanization of black people?

At the time of this writing, her post had received 78 comments and 291 likes. At the end of the comment thread, she addressed the group again:

I truly hope that members of this group find it within themselves to have the much needed, painful conversations regarding the social injustices that continue to plague this country. We cannot continue like this, and people of color cannot be the only Americans willing to speak up. Where is the humanity?

I message her immediately, because how can I not, right here, right now, sprawled on my couch, peering at the baby monitor, making sure my own child is safely asleep in her crib? I am a white woman, a mother, a pediatrician. If I do not speak up now, at this moment, on behalf of this grieving mother, I am part of the problem. I write to her, admiring her adorable boy and apologizing for atrocities where an apology does not suffice. Then I ask if I can share her story. She agrees. She is right. Where is the humanity?

This morning my husband and I took our daughter for a walk around the neighborhood. It is a hot day in Boston, summer taking hold before we’ve had a chance for spring. I kneel down to assess my daughter; she is playing with her faithful companion, a stuffed animal affectionately known as Round Dog, muffin crumbs stuffed deep in the crevices of her stroller. I am enveloped in her blonde ringlets, blue eyes, and porcelain skin. She smells like sunscreen and all that is good in the world. She looks up at me and smiles. Her world is still one in which kisses fix boo-boos, and she is not yet aware of the privilege her skin affords. My mind shifts to our brown and black neighbors and friends. The discomfort I feel is distracting, cloth mask against my nose and mouth, oppressive, and at times difficult to breathe. I long to sink deeper into this discomfort. Knowing that the color of my skin makes it unlikely I will lose my precious child to police brutality, I want to feel my own breath taken away, an impossibly tiny taste of the collective breathlessness of black mothers.

Systemic racism is a public health emergency. Make no mistake: Police brutality is but one symptom of this deadly disease. Systemic racism, along with social determinants of health and structural inequality, is at the root of many public health crises, such as the alarming rate of coronavirus infections amongst blacks and the disproportionate number of black mothers that die during childbirth.

The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics put out a statement calling for pediatricians to advocate for policies that promote equality, collaborate with frontline law enforcement to help them better understand adolescent development, and guide our patients to help alleviate the burden of being black in America. This is an admirable first step. We need to do more. We must, starting from birth, hold space for black mothers. We need to facilitate an environment that acknowledges the unique experience of the black mother, starting right in the delivery room.

To the woman who wrote the post, you are not alone in this fight. I am speaking up. I do not speak for you. I speak with you. I stand with black mothers.

I see you.

I scream with you.

I cry with you.

I am outraged with you.

I will use my privilege to fight for you and your children.

And yet. I know I cannot fathom the unbearable grief on your shoulders. I do not get a chill every time my child walks out of the front door. I am not afraid to turn on the news, ever waiting and watching for yet another tragedy to unfold.

To my fellow white mothers: We can do better. We must do better.

To my fellow pediatricians: We know better. We must do better.

Ariana Witkin is a pediatrician.

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