Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Kirsten Gillibrand: The rules of the workplace are really stuck in the 1950s and '60s where there's this assumption that dad goes to work and mom stayed home. Well, that's just not true.
1950s Actress: I'm as good as he is. I've got a brain of my own and I intend to make the most of my life too.
Ana Kasparian: My mom is on me like, "When are you getting married? When are the kids coming? You're going to ruin your life if you don't have children."
Laura Lee: I lost my mom to COVID. I miss her so much you guys.
Children, singing: Happy Mothers Day to you! Mwah!
Liz Lian: It does indeed take a village for the sake of children and parents, we must build these modern villages.
President Biden: We also need to make a once in a generation investment in our families and our children.
Vice President Harris: When we talk about black maternal health, we're talking about reproductive healthcare. Let's be clear about that. In this White House, your voices will always be heard.
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright, and it's Mother's Day. Hey ma, you told me this very afternoon that every day ought to be mother's day. True, very true. I agree, but we are celebrating it in particular today. This year's celebration, I have to say is more fraught than in any year in memory, which is maybe a good thing because as we've lived through this pandemic, more people have begun thinking more meaningfully about motherhood, about the work involved, about who does that work and who does not, about how it's supported and valued literally.
For the first time in decades, the political conversation has begun to acknowledge that taking care of children is unpaid labor and labor that our economy can't function without. This week we too are going to think deeply about motherhood. For the first half of the show, I'm joined by a mother. One who has been prodding us all to reimagine our relationship to this role.
Anna Malaika Tubbs is the author of the book, Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and James Baldwin shaped a nation, which came out in February. She wrote an essay published in Time Magazine this weekend titled, The problem with celebrating the selflessness of mothers. Anna, thanks for coming on the show.
Anna Malaika Tubbs: Thank you for having me. I'm so happy to be here. Happy Mother's Day everyone.
Kai: Happy Mother's Day to you. Let's start with your time essay, which is to my eye, all about this weird, conflicted way our society treats moms, the way you're simultaneously essential and disposable. You offer an anecdote from the birth of your first child as an example of that. Tell us what happened in your delivery room that you described in the essay.
Anna: Yes, and it's something that's really common, and it's not necessarily something that's wrong. I'll say that my in-laws, as soon as I gave birth, they rushed into the room. They were so excited to meet my son. It's not to say that there's anything wrong with them wanting to meet their grandchild, et cetera, but for me, what I would have preferred was a little bit of time and privacy to be with my husband, be with my child, to even have a moment to think about everything that I had just done after 15 hours of labor.
I just felt so overwhelmed and I went to the bathroom to take a shower. It's an experience that no woman can really be prepared for unless you've done it before. So much is changing in your body. You're healing, you're bleeding, you have no idea why you feel so weak all of a sudden and you can't stand up on your own. I really felt I couldn't ask for help because everybody was so happy and they were so invested in my baby boy.
I just really actually needed somebody to be my crutch, so that I could get showered and get dressed. I think a lot of moms feel this way. It's this immediate notion of, "Okay, now the baby is the star." All of our attention goes towards the baby and their needs. We really don't focus on the woman who just did this most epic and beautiful thing, but in an incredibly difficult one that still requires a lot of care from people around her right after she delivers.
Kai: Yes. It becomes this almost metaphor for what goes on throughout motherhood then. Your child from that story is almost two years old now and you've got another baby on the way. Am I right?
Anna: Yes, second is due in August.
Kai: In August. Congratulations. I wonder, are you noticing anything different this time around in how people are engaging with you as an expecting mother? I just think in this intense moment, we're living through the pandemic, the political and economic uncertainty, and all of that, have you noticed anything different in the way that people are engaging with you?
Anna: I think the difference that I've experienced is more so that I am so vocal on the way mothers should be treated, and I've done this year preparing for the book tour and then writing op-eds about the importance of mothers and the power and the influence that we hold. I think now everybody is like, "Oh, okay. Anna sees motherhood really differently than a lot of us do."
Therefore we can't really say things to her like, "Yes. thank you for putting your needs behind everybody else's." I say, let's thank moms for their strength, let's thank them for their power, let's thank them for their willingness to be vulnerable with us, and the fact that we're human beings. That's really the difference this time and even when the article came out, I think I heard a lot of people say this resonated with them, but also even my in-laws said, "We're so sorry. How are you feeling? How are you in this pregnancy? Are you doing okay?"
I think it's helpful. As much as I was happy that it resonated with so many people, I think it's also very heartbreaking. So many women understood exactly what I was saying in that moment where they suddenly became the least important person in the room, quite honestly.
Kai: In that article and many other places, you've spoken and written about your own mom. Tell us about her and how she shaped your worldview because you grew up all over the world. Dubai, Mexico, Sweden, Estonia, I think. You and your mom had quite a unique journey together and that must have given her some perspective. Tell us about her.
Anna: Definitely. My family altogether, so we traveled because my parents were both international lawyers and they wanted us to have the privilege of seeing the world for ourselves through our own eyes. Yes, we grew up in all of these places and even before that, my mom had traveled quite a lot and I'm the youngest of three. Everywhere that we lived, she would always say that the way that mothers are treated is an indicator for how well that society will do on other health and wellness indicators, and even in their economy, et cetera.
She could find a way to relate everything back to the relationship of motherhood and the beginning of life and how we're treating our caretakers, not only biological mothers, non-biological mothers, community mothers, those who have taken it upon themselves to care for other people. She believed that if we didn't highlight those roles, we didn't uplift those roles, if there weren't protections or policies in place that saw those roles in the power that they deserve to be seen, that that community would suffer.
She always mentioned this. Even beyond that in her own motherhood, she was also clear that she was going to be appreciated and she was going to be respected as a human being. I laugh because when we were younger, we didn't fully understand it, but it's something that was a favor that she did to us. She would always say, "You have to thank me if I do something for you."
Similar to we all thank you if you do something for me. We're not obligated to do these things for each other. Just because I'm your mom, it doesn't mean I have to take you to ballet practice or that I have to cook you a meal, or I have to clean up after you. What I want you to say is thank you and acknowledge the effort and the energy that I've put in because I'm a human being as well.
I'm not a robot, I'm not a machine. As much as we would say, "Oh, mom. Roll our eyes." No one else's mom makes them say that, blah, blah, blah. It made a difference over the years. In our family, it's a constant. Thank you. Gratitude party. We see it as our way of just acknowledging that other person's effort. It's a very small thing that we can do for moms that can go a long way.
Kai: Thank you to my mother here in this moment on that note. Listeners, Anna and I would love to hear from you as we talk. I'm wondering about your own experiences over the past year with motherhood broadly defined here. I want to know whatever you've experienced over the past year through the pandemic, through the huge political awakenings that have come alongside that, how those experiences have shifted your thoughts about motherhood or your relationship to it?
You can reach us at 646-435-7280. Anna, let's talk about the book. What motivated you to write about these three mothers? The people who raised Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. Why those three in particular?
Anna: I had a lot of motivations in writing this book, but the primary one was correcting the erasure of Black women's stories. I wanted to be somebody who had found other hidden figures like Margot Lee Shetterly did in her book that became this famous film because so many of our stories are forgotten and they're erased. Then I thought of other roles in our society that are erased and unappreciated, unrecognized.
Of course, motherhood came to mind even before I was a mom because of my own mother, as we just mentioned, who continued to remind me, this is so important and people are not paying enough attention to it. I thought that will be really powerful. Then I wanted to address the fact that in our civil rights movement and how often we talk about the civil rights movement and policy and we will continue to do so moving forward, we speak about it from such a male perspective.
I wanted to turn that on its head and really explain. First of all, there wasn't just one leader or two, or three. There were people who were part of generations, who were human beings. They didn't just pop out of nowhere on their own with these fully formed ideas but instead, they were connected to something much larger that began much earlier and it also showcases our connection to them as well. It didn't end with them.
I looked it up and tried to see if anybody else had done a project like this and I was shocked that no one else had written about the mothers of civil rights leaders and everyone says it was so creative with me. I'm like, "This is not that creative." I was so surprised, every single year--
Kai: It's a low bar, right? How could that be?
Anna: It's a pretty low bar. Every year, we celebrate MLK Jr. Day, which is wonderful and we should continue to do so. It's around his birthday, right? January 15th and people haven't stopped to say who else was in the room when he was born, as if again, he just did this on his own or we're congratulating him on birthing himself or something. Yes, I knew I was onto something and I decided on these three because all of the mothers were born within six years of each other, Alberta, Bertus, and Louise, and their famous sons were all born within five years of each other.
Then I said, this will be a great way for me to talk about American history, through the eyes of Black mothers and I can shape each chapter around a decade of their lives and find the intersections through time between these three really beautifully rich, nuanced and diverse stories.
Kai: You mentioned that each of these three mothers made some decisions or behaviors in their lives that left imprints on their children and on these three men who would then confront the world in such remarkable ways. What are some examples of that? Again, we're talking about Berdis Baldwin, Luis Liddell and Alberta King. What's an example of the way one of them imprinted on their sons that would be legible to us?
Anna: It's so interesting because when I started this project, I wanted to just write about these women in their own right, I didn't set out to say, because Louise did this, Malcolm did this because I was thinking, "Okay, that's leading the sons still." What was the most shocking thing was, even without me trying to do that, it was so obvious the imprint that the mothers had on their sons.
For example, Bernice Baldwin, she was a writer, she believed that through her writing, she can help people through the darkness and through any pain that they experienced. She had this brilliant power over language and over words, so even the principals at James Baldwin's school, they would comment on the fact that he clearly inherited his writing talent from his mother.
This was simply based off of notes that she wrote to excuse his absences. That's how brilliant it was. I don't even know how you make that note, so beautiful. It's something that I aspire to as a writer in the future, but it's something that makes it very clear. Her son then becomes this famous writer who calls himself a witness to the power of light. We would have thought before, "Oh, what a powerful thing for him to say that's really beautiful."
He's actually just saying something and quoting his mother, a witness to the power of light and how you can help people find the light and confront the darkness so that they can find healing. It's the same in the case of Louise Liddell and Malcolm X. She was an activist, she was a Marcus Garvey follower. The Marcus Garvey movement has these direct connections to the Nation of Islam later, in terms of Black independence, Black pride, anti-white assimilation and she's constantly preaching you stand up for yourself, no matter the cost, even if it means you're risking your life, it's almost better to die in that fight than to bow down to your oppressor.
These are the same lessons that we learn from Malcolm X, it's why we revere and love him so much for his courage and his bravery. This is a direct example of a mother and father because Earl Little similarly was a Marcus Garvey follower, directly impacting their children and the way they saw their world. Then thirdly, with Alberta King, she was a religious leader. Her parents were the pastor and the first lady of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
They believe that you couldn't be a religious leader without focusing on social justice, without fighting for the oppressed, that these had to be intertwined. One could not operate without the other. If you were able to have certain privileges, like an education, that you needed to use that to advance a freedom cause forward that it didn't make you better than anybody else.
Alberto grows up attending marches with her family, they lead boycotts, they were some of the first members of the NAACP. The only difference really between what Alberta does and what MLK Jr. does is that he calls it non-violence.
Kai: We even hear about daddy King, but we do not hear about Alberta King's activism.
Anna: In all three cases, we hear about the fathers actually. If you're a fan of the men or you've read something about the men, you probably have more of an understanding of each of their fathers. I'm not someone who thinks that in order to highlight the moms, we have to replace the fathers. I'm not saying that in any way because they also had really incredible stories, but instead we just need to add a much fuller picture.
We even know with James Baldwin, he had this abusive stepfather, but we didn't know that he had this mother who was his best friend and they're buried next to each other. That's how close they were in their lives and we didn't know. We know MLK Jr. We knew about Reverend Martin Luther King senior and then we assume, "Oh, okay because his father was a Reverend, then he became Reverend."
Even his father couldn't have become a Reverend without his wife. That's a whole other story. She actually helps him get into college and tutors him through his career. He was well aware that he couldn't even be who he was without his wife. Then with Malcolm X, a lot of us have heard that Earl Little was an organizer that he was an activist that he was murdered, but we didn't know about Louise Little, who was again also an activist and somebody who was put away against her will for 25 years of her life because a white male doctor said that she was imagining being discriminated against and she saw it as an incarceration because of the activist who she was. She saw this as a direct, racist and sexist attack against her for standing up for herself.
Kai: I'm talking with Anna Malaika Tubbs about her book, The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, which came out in February, and about her essay published in Time this weekend titled, The problem with celebrating the selflessness of mothers. I'm Kai Wright, this is the United States of Anxiety. Stay with us.
Kai: Welcome back this is the United States of Anxiety, I'm Kai Wright and we are talking about motherhood, past, present and future. I'm joined by Anna Malaika Tubbs author of the book The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. She published an essay in Time Magazine this weekend titled The Problem With Celebrating The Selflessness of Mothers.
We are taking your calls, I'm curious about your own experiences over the past year with motherhood, broadly defined. How has whatever you've experienced over the past year through this pandemic and through all of the political awakenings and tumult that have come with it, how have those experiences shifted your thoughts about motherhood, we're at 646-435-7280. That's 646-435-7280. Let's start with Alisa in Harlem. Alisa, welcome to the show.
Alisa: Hi, thanks so much. I'm a single mother of a four-year-old, but he was three when COVID started. It has been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life when daycare disappeared, but I was actually calling because of the discussion about motherhood is unpaid labor. I've never had an employer kick me in the face. If that happened, I would quit. Obviously, there's a lot-- The unpaid labor discussion doesn't work as well for me, because there's not enough money in the world to pay for what we do.
What I really want to focus on is the cost of daycare and the cost of diapers and the cost, all of these costs are so extreme. I actually commute for three hours a day, to work from home, because it was the only affordable daycare I could find that gave its employees health insurance. The lack of daycare is just so extreme that I really want to focus on the tangible costs before I want to focus on the time because if I start to think of it as unpaid labor, I can get resentful. I love my kid more than anything ever, but there needs to be support.
Kai: It's more the unpaid resources, the unpaid costs, or the uncovered cost. When you said it's the hardest thing you've ever done in your life Alisa, can you give us example of what you've done to cope with it, to manage it?
Alisa: Well, I got incredibly depressed for six months until he went back to daycare and once he went back to daycare, I started to emerge. My job got harder when his daycare closed. I don't feel like I did a particularly good job at anything and got incredibly depressed.
Kai: Thank you for calling Alisa. Thank you for offering that testimony. What do you hear in that, Anna, is there something in there that you hear in what you write about?
Anna: Absolutely. It's this notion that moms are supposed to handle all of these things on their own. This is a very American thing, actually, especially having traveled to so many different places and seeing how motherhood operates in so many places. It's very different to say, in the United States and have this notion of everything falls on your shoulders, woman. It's all going to be you. You have to handle this.
We don't have affordable childcare in place for you, we don't have a universal income, we don't have universal healthcare even and so all of the points that she brought up is are exactly right and it does come down to so many different policy changes that I do hope, at least in the Biden-Harris administration, we're paying attention to a little bit more.
Maybe we will see some progress, but there definitely needs to be something like a guarantee of parental leave and then right after that, a universal childcare system, quality childcare system that is available to all of us.
Kai: Mothers, if you want to call in and add your story about how you've managed over the last year, or if anybody else who has had their thoughts shifted by what they've experienced over the past year about motherhood, give us a call, 646-435-7280. In your book, you've said that you don't want to think of it as just a celebration of biological motherhood, but of mother work, you call it. Can you explain what mother work is and what it looks like?
Anna: Yes, and I'm not the one who coined the term. It's actually Patricia Hill Collins, who said it first in sociology, that mother work is really appreciating, especially Black motherhood and the rules in which Black women are playing of taking care of others around us. This nourishing kind of work, anything that has to do with the feminine notions that we often call weaker of caring for groups instead of focusing on the individual.
In reality, when we focus on mother work, we see how powerful it is and how critical it is and so even in the pandemic, I think so many of our essential workers are doing mothering work, feeding our communities, our teachers, our nurses, our doctors. It's all about community rather than the individual and that's why they were essential and continue to be essential for all of us.
Therefore, focusing more on these feminine qualities and the strength that they, again deserve to be seen with, can help all of us really change our notions around what needs to change that these kinds of roles are better protected.
Kai: We have a caller who says she never planned to be a mother. Do you have Yevgenia in Montreal. I'm sorry if I'm mispronouncing your name. Yevgenia, did I get it right?
Yevgenia: No, but close enough it's Yevgenia.
Kai: Yevgenia, thank you. It is really lovely. Thank you for calling. What did you want to contribute?
Yevgenia: What I'm about to say may be triggering to some folks, but I just want to get it out there. My partner says that history is behind us and doesn't matter, so I think my story is proof that it isn't and it doesn't or rather than it does matter. I was abused by my mentally ill father for years and showing has been hard for me because of how my family treated me, I never wanted to be a mom.
I'm 32 now and last year I met a man who desperately wanted to have a family with me. I got pregnant in March, then miscarried in April. It hit me super hard. Way, way harder than I ever thought it would. I started picking increasingly intense fights with my partner until it culminated in what happened this past Thursday. All these feelings that I tried not to deal with, they boiled over.
I was literally bashing my head into a wall in public and did not know why. A traffic cop saw this, detained me and called for backup. I wasn't violent towards her in any way. There were four police officers now they surrounded me. I started to feel really, really uncomfortable and I got triggered and I started to leave. Suddenly, they grabbed me by the hair put their elbow around my neck and squeezed, and then threw me down on the ground.
They cuffed me and kept tightening as I screamed and I kept screaming, that I had a miscarriage recently, literally three weeks ago, but they didn't seem to care at all. My partner told them that I wasn't on drugs, that this has never happened before, but they really did not seem to care. They laughed, they joked around, they kept tightening, they threw me on the stretcher with very little regard.
I asked them why they were doing this and they said for my protection. I asked you're assaulting me for my protection. They said, yes. I've been living in Canada for a few years now and there's an idea that this country is more progressive, but based on my experience, I disagree. I think that we need to have a really tough conversation about postpartum symptoms in women who miscarried.
I think that there should be more support. I wasn't really able to find much help in that department, but it seems like what I experienced was a bit of psychosis and I wished that they had a little bit more empathy for me, or even body cams to prove that this even happened. Thanks.
Kai: Thank you so much for sharing that story. It sounds terrible and I'm glad that you have emerged at least better and well now and thanks for sharing it. That's two callers who have talked about serious mental health challenges around motherhood that we don't make a lot of space for it. I guess I just want to prompt you to respond to that.
Anna: That was a heartbreaking story and also so representative of so many conversations that we're having around policing right now. First of all, thankful that she was willing to share that with all of us. The thought that comes to mind for me is how even on Mother's Day today, I remember when I was pregnant with my first born and nobody wanted to wish me a happy mother's day when I was pregnant, which I found to be very strange. I thought, "Ha, I'm a mother. My life is already changing, I'm already doing all of these things."
Even one of my friends said to me, and this was a dear friend of mine, but he said I don't want to wish you a happy Mother's Day, because I don't want to jinx it. I thought that is a crazy statement that you even typed out and thought about saying and you still sent it to me. There's this problem that we also don't see how much is happening to a woman when she becomes pregnant and how much is changing in her body and how much she's already thinking about this other individual, even the sentence, your baby's on the way, this baby's right here with me right now.
We have a very strange understanding of that and I find that to be what leads then also to women who miscarry being forgotten and the stories of their motherhood and in their loss.
If you feel like you're not being recognized and it's not only a feeling, but you're not being recognized for the loss that you just experienced and you were never seen as the mother that you actually were, I find that to be extremely painful and extremely hurtful.
I'm somebody who is pro-choice 100%, so I'm not using this as a narrative of how early life begins, et cetera, but more so for a woman who has said, I want this child and she's conceived this child and then that child is lost, it's even difficult for me the term miscarriage, because it implies that that woman did something wrong and she did not. There's all these things that are operating in happening even in our language that, of course, for an individual that's really hard to process on your own when it seems from every angle, you're the one to blame for what happened to you.
Kai: Anna, we just have a couple minutes left, but just on this idea of the selfless mother, which all of this seems like it comes back to, that you're supposed to be selfless, how do you think mothers themselves or people who aspire to be mothers themselves can face that pressure in society and not take it on and see themselves as like-- That I will not allow myself to be erased.
Anna: It's really hard to do this because so much of what people will say to women and especially women of color when we say this is something that's happening to me and then others will say, "Well, you just need to be more empowered and you need to feel more empowered. You need to feel stronger and then everything will get better and you'll walk through life feeling powerful." Honestly, we're not imagining these things. We feel unsupported because we are unsupported.
Our first caller felt depressed because she did not have the supports that she needed, that's it and no matter how much I say to her, "Hey, just feel powerful." That's not going to change the situation that she needed to have quality childcare that was affordable for her and she still needs that. There's a balance to it. I would say that there are many of us who feel as moms that we are supposed to be completely selfless, but I would say also that it's time that we start to demand the policy change that we need that we are supported.
Kai: Anna Malaika Tubbs is author of the book, The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. Thanks for joining us, Anna and coming up someone who's a little more reluctant than Anna to step into this whole motherhood business. I'm Kai Wright. This is the United States of Anxiety. We'll be right back.
Kai: Hey everybody, I want to ask your help with something. A huge part of what we're doing with this show is building a community, a community of people who want to share the joy and the work of creating and living in a healthy plural society. That's why we've started taking calls on the live show and soliciting your tweets and your voicemails here.
Michael: Hey, this is Michael from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Ida: This is Ida in Austin, Texas.
Dorian: Hi Kai, my name is Dorian from Queens, New York.
Female Speaker: My wildest dreams and imaginations. It's going to be hard for me to get through this note to you guys without getting emotional.
Kai: It's all part of building a community and you can do two things to help build our community. First off, just invite somebody to join you in it. Maybe even start listening together on Sunday evenings, but however you do it, invite other people in. Second, you can leave a review on whatever app you're using to listen right now. You can give us a rating there, that's nice, but also leave a comment. Why do you listen? Why should others join you in listening?
Again, think of it as making an invitation. That's how community works. Thanks in advance for doing either or both of those things and even if you can't do either of them, thanks for being part of our community.
Kai: Welcome back to the United States of anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. After thinking about all the joys and the work or mother work as Anna Malaika Tubbs calls it, I wanted to talk to someone who's not so sure she wants to sign up for it. Particularly the birthing part. I'm joined by our executive producer, Veralyn Williams. Hey, Veralyn.
Veralyn: Hey, Kai.
Kai: Veralyn, for a while now you have been wrestling with your desire and I will say your fear of becoming a mom, right?
Veralyn: Yes, I mean, given the headlines I say as a Black woman, I am so much more likely to die or lose my baby [laughs] because of well, racism.
Kai: Yes, because racism, as we've talked about, on this show a few times, weather the body there's science that shows that it makes us physically sick and one of those ways is it increases the likelihood of maternal mortality.
Veralyn: Yes. In 2018, that asked what I and other Black women are supposed to do with that information, as we thought about pregnancy for ourselves.
Kai: Then you went and talked to one of your friends who had as she put it a woke pregnancy and made this lovely piece. For this Mother's Day, why don't we give a listen? Check it out.
Veralyn: I know having a baby is risky. The older you are, the more likely it is something can go wrong. I mean, once a pregnant person turns 35, they officially move into what's called a geriatric pregnancy. I'm 18 months away from turning 35, so yes, I'm thinking about it especially when I hang out with my friend Leanne. More than anyone else in my life, she wants me to have a baby.
Leanne: I do? Oh, yes. I kind of do.
Veralyn: We're the same age but Leanne has been a wife and mother since the day I met her.
Leanne: I don't mean to apply pressure, but I do think that you would make a good mother, you want a little Veralyn.
Veralyn: You do understand when you say that you're signing me up to everything you just went through. [laughs]
Leanne: What's wrong with that?
Veralyn: As I stay with Leanna in her living room, her smiling baby on her lap, I can feel the joy of motherhood, but honestly, it's always scared me. Creating a person and signing them up for everything that comes with being Black in America, I just don't know. Especially knowing that where I live in New York City, Black women are eight times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. This comes up anytime a friend tells me that they are pregnant. Leanne's announcement was no different.
Leanne: I was like, "Now that I have confirmed that I'm pregnant. I really want a woke pregnancy." This is what I labeled it. A woke pregnancy, which basically means any choices that I had to make around my pregnancy, I wanted to be fully involved.
Veralyn: Where did that come from?
Leanne: That came from ultimately my first birthing experience with my oldest child who's eight. I was on Medicaid. I was alone. Not alone, but I wasn't a wife at the time. I just felt like I was just another young black chick who was on display. I mean, there was residents in and out. I hated that because it was such an interruption and just not knowing who are you. You're in your most vulnerable state.
Veralyn: Up until this point, I've mostly thought of vulnerability as a choice that I could decide if I want to be vulnerable with someone or something. Literally, there is no other way to give birth. Leanne made it through her first pregnancy with a healthy child, but there were complications during labor. After she gave birth to her oldest son, nurses held him up so she could see his face. Then they took him away. Almost two hours passed before they let her hold him. Turns out his heart rate slowed down and he was in distress, but no one told her that
Leanne: It was just a lot and that essential bonding time that has been scientifically shown that helps the bonding of the mother and child, I did not have that. All of that was ripped away from me and I didn't have a clue. I didn't even know that I was missing something.
Veralyn: When she got pregnant the second time, Leanne made a plan. She spent four months looking for a midwife that was covered under her insurance. She took classes so she will qualify to have her baby in a birthing center. She hired a doula that reminded her that she can do it because her body was made for this. She knew she did not want an episiotomy again, and that she did want afro beats in her ear. Yet the day she went into labor, things did not go as planned, her blood pressure spiked and her midwife immediately told her she no longer qualified for the birthing center.
Leanne: Isn't it normal that someone in labor would have elevated blood pressure for a minute? Why is that so strange?
Veralyn: Her midwife was doing her job. High Blood Pressure is dangerous and could be a symptom of complications that can be fatal.
Leanne: She was like, "We just can't take chances. She's like, do you want to take a risk? The health of the baby and of the mother are of our primary concern, and we have to do." I'm just like, "Oh my God."
Veralyn: This time Leann knew the questions to ask and there was a conversation.
Leanne: Which is the other thing it's a life lesson that plans, even though we try to make it we're not the head planner. Things are going to change and you're going to have to roll with it but I still want to be included.
Veralyn: Ultimately, Leanne's pregnancy was woke.
Leanne: The doula turned the music, turned the music up girl, and then sold the labor and delivery nurse happens to be Black. She was like, "This is the best birth." She was like, "This is the best person that ever been to. I love this birth. The whole vibe in here." The one white lady in there, which is the midwife, she's like, "This is Black girl magic?" [laughs] Yes.
Veralyn: On so many levels, I want to hold on to Leanne's story. To a world where the medical system can keep a woman safe and does not totally define how she becomes a mother. Unfortunately, there's a lot of evidence that that is not the world we live in. Again, that was 2018. Now, I am actually 35 and when I asked myself, "What would it mean to have a child, a Black child in the world that we live in now?"
Zooming out and thinking about the maternal rates, the pandemic, police brutality, education disparities, it still feels impossible and overwhelming. When I zoom in, and I think about how much I love and learn from my niece, when I think about my parents and my relationship with my grandmother, that's when it feels a little less scary. I called a woman who once let me touch someone's placenta in her office.
Chanel Porchia-Albert: My name is Chanel Porchia-Albert and I'm the founder and CEO of Ancient doula services.
Veralyn: Chanel's organization is where Leanne found her doula. I've watched Chanel help and empower pregnant folks for years. A lot of that time she was pregnant herself.
Chanel: Having a child was the catalyst to bringing me into doula work because after you go through that, you're like, "Everything else is discussed is biscuits."
Veralyn: She's gone through pregnancy five times.
Chanel: Five times, six children.
Veralyn: Chanel spent some time with me zooming in.
Chanel: It's like when I first meet folks, and then I ask them, "What do you want for your birthing experience?" They give me a generic, "Oh, I'm going to go to the hospital and blah, blah, blah." I'm like, "Okay, that's great, but what do you want? How do you see it?" They're like, "What do you mean?" I think the problem is that we don't ask people enough what is that they want? How do they see themselves and how does that feed into their futures?
It's even in parenting, we have generic conversations because when you're dating somebody you have these generic conversations about like, "Yes, I don't want to be like my parents." But what does that mean? Because ideally, those are the people who raised you and so either way, a bit of that is going to sieve through, but you can be intentional on censoring what your family looks like, and how you want to see it.
I tell people that and I'll do it in a joking manner. I'm like, "Listen, if you want to have taco Tuesdays on Mondays, that's your business." If you want to have like a special week [laughs] family drumming if you want to make up your own holidays, why can't you do that? Getting people to think outside of the things that we've been conditioned to believe are the things that we're supposed to do and getting them to use their imaginations on like, "What does it mean for you to create the family that you want to see?"
I actually lost my mom when I was 14 years old. She passed away from an asthma attack. For me, as someone who was coming into becoming a mom with no mom to talk to and get that feedback from and then having a grandmother that's there, but who didn't necessarily agree with I was having a home birth. She was, on that day like, "You sure you don't want go to the hospital." I had to be like, "I'm going to call you back when I'm done." You being solid and what it is that what you want, but also understanding the perspective of a concerned family member.
Whereas they may not necessarily understand what it is that you're doing at the time, but I've learned that they honor it. They may not necessarily agree with the trajectory of what you were going to have for yourself because parents do that, but when they see that you're being successful and you're happy and you're passionate about it, they have a tendency to be like, "Oh." They may not even tell you, but they'd be telling their friends.
My grandmother would never tell me, "Oh, yes." I was try to get her to eat vegan food, she was like, "Oh, I want that da, da, da." But the next thing I know, she's telling all her friends, you know my granddaughter, she's a vegan and she does this and she drinks this and you all need to eat healthy and stuff. You'd be like, "Okay cool." You won't do it, but you'll tell your friends.
Veralyn: What I love about the way that you describe all the different options and agency that you are telling the mothers that you work with that they have, that sounds so positive as opposed to a lot of the conversations around Black maternal health and birth and all that stuff. I think I remember calling you in my report that I did in 2018, hearing all this stuff at the time all these elected officials were talking about when my gosh Black maternal rates.
I just remember thinking, like, "I've been hearing about this from Chanel forever and it didn't feel so It just felt almost like final destination." Like, "Oh my gosh, if I ever have a baby I'm going die." How has more awareness around Black maternal health and Black women's experiences in the medical system, has more awareness around that helped or has it made your work harder over the last couple of years?
Chanel: It's helped, but it also has hurt at the same time for the same reasons that you just mentioned. It's like yes, you want people to be aware, but you also don't want them to be scared because then it has the reverse effect of being able to educate folks. People will ask me to come and speak. They'd be like, "You talked about maternal mortality." I'm like, "Sure, but don't ask me to speak about it." Like I'm talking about Black death.
I'm willing to speak to you about solution-oriented stuff and how we consent hope and healing and move towards the liberation of Black bodies and families and parenting and all of those things, so that folks are not terrified and saying like, "Well, I'm not having no baby like… These outcomes is looking real grim. You're trying to tell me to go ahead and have a child. They're talking about some people are experiencing this, that and the other. No, I'm good. I'm not going there.”
It's like, "Yes and--" Because again, it's not a new conversation. There are organizations, especially Black organizations, Black midwives who have been talking about it for years prior to me, I'm in high school and before that having these conversations and talking about this stuff. Again, yes, this is happening and though there are solutions that are being done to be able to solve that problem on a community-based level and those same community based organizations are working tirelessly on a city, state and federal legislative works to be able to address it.
Veralyn: You know Leanne.
Chanel: Yes, I loved it.
Veralyn: She had a really bad experience, the first time she gave birth. The second time she wanted to make sure she had a plan to get through all the structural barriers she experienced the first time around. She wanted to find a midwife that will be covered under her insurance, she wanted to have a doula, which she did find through your organization. She said she wants to have a "woke pregnancy."
Chanel: [laughs] That sounds like her.
Veralyn: Yes. She's also the person in my life who talks to me about me having a baby more than anybody else in my life. She's just like, "Veralyn, when are you going to have a baby?" Yes, I would like-- The outcomes don't sound good, but for me it felt very powerful that she found her doula through you and I hadn't been talking to you, so you guys are showing me that it is possible, but it's also scary.
Chanel: It's interesting because I did this five times. I was nervous, I had anxiety in the beginning, the first child because you're nervous about having a child. You don't know what's going to happen to your body, but each time, it still didn't feel scary because I centered myself in knowing that I did my best as a parent to educate myself around what are the things that I can do? Not what's going to scare the bejesus out of me.
What are some of the things I can do? I could read certain books, I could talk to people, I could decide not to necessarily go to a hospital, to have home birth, I can decide to make sure I have a doula. I've had doulas from my own pregnancies even though I am a doula. I wasn't so concerned about pregnancy, I was more concerned about postpartum. Do I have the necessary supports in place? Do I have the things that I need, that stuff. Those were the things that impacted me most.
Veralyn: One of the things I wanted to ask you is for advice. I'm 35 [crosstalk] for someone like me who I genuinely don't know if I want to give birth. I'm in a place now where I think financially I could do it. I have a partner who is supportive and loving and all that stuff because what people describe about having children, is just almost like a love bubble.
You just love them and it's the most amazing love.
I'm scared to have that type of love for a person that I gave I created, but when I think about this moment with everything that was the last couple of years, it's just like a little Bobby in school that might say something microaggression to my child and they come home and tell me that. I literally would hurt somebody. I'm going to have to talk to Bobby and I'm going to have to talk to Bobby's mom and then I don't know what would happen.
Chanel: No. I tell people you don't have to necessarily birth a child to take care of a child. There's other things like there's adoption. There's a lot of black children who need to be adopted and being a wonderful home, there's aunties roles and all those different things. It's also thinking outside of that lens. I think when we take a community perspective where all children are children, if you have the capacity to be able to do that, then I think that you have the capacity to be a parent.
If you want to have a child, have a conversation with your partner about what does that look like? What parenting do you want to have? Then having people around you who are going to affirm you, healthy people and when I mean healthy, I mean emotionally healthy people who are going to affirm you in that because understanding how we want to move away from intergenerational trauma.
I think a lot of us know about trauma and those things in our lives. I've come up with this theory called intergenerational hope. What does it mean for us to understand our resiliency and that our resiliency comes in these familiar bonds and the foods that we make and the ways in which we love each other, how are we center joy? That is the catalyst for why we're even here presently. Thinking about how can you be a parent when all this stuff is going on, but people were parenting with all other stuff was going on.
When people were getting lynched, where there was segregation and they still found ways to love and affirm and center folks. I remember my first incident of discrimination. I was in high school going to the mall, being in Lord and Taylor's and shopping and this woman telling me, what are you looking at that for, you can't afford that? I was like, "Excuse you? Who, what?" And telling my grandmother being like, "Excuse me, I've card carrying member of this store since yada, yada, yada." Older people, how they do.
Understanding the microaggressions and things of that nature, but also understanding too, my life was more centered in joy and affirmations and family and laughter. Those are the things that continue to sustain me every single day. That is happening and guess what? I got a bunch of children who I love, who give me hugs and we smile and all of the things.
Veralyn: Thank you so much Chanel.
Chanel: Thankyou. [laughs]
Veralyn: Happy Mother's Day.
Chanel: I'm going to do a Leanne and say, happy future Mothers Day, but I'm not putting that much pressure on you.
Kai: That was our executive producer Veralyn Williams. No pressure Veralyn. United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios. Jared Paul mixed the podcast version. Kevin Bristow and Milton Ruiz were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Carl Boisrond, Emily Botein, Karen Frillmann and Christopher Werth. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band.
Veralyn Williams is our executive producer and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @Kai_Wright and of course, I hope that you will join us for the live version of the show next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WYNC. Until then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.