It wasn’t a positive pregnancy test, or food cravings or morning sickness that alerted me to my long-awaited second pregnancy. It was the round face of a curly-haired baby boy I gazed blissfully into one dinner at the table next to mine, barely repressing the expansive urge to walk over, scoop the tiny child in my arms and rock him.
So that was how it started: Me seeing the reflection of the child I was growing smiling back at me, feeling golden and blessed (and yes, nauseous) in the heart-knowledge that I was pregnant with the baby brother my 5-year-old daughter had been asking me for.
And the following week I miscarried.
Pregnancy loss is an unacknowledged risk of being a reproductive female; at least 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, often an invisible trauma. It’s a particular risk for a black woman trying to have a child. It certainly was for me, having grieved not one — but four — miscarriages.
So I wondered, how did the fact that I, a black woman, was carrying children in a climate of increasing violence against young black boys and girls contribute to my pregnancy losses? When I read about black children killed in churches and arrested at pools this summer, how did it affect my hormones? Did the fact I was increasingly worried about my ability to keep my daughter and future son safe have any effect on my ability to carry to term?
Rates of every kind of pregnancy loss — miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth and infant death — are significantly higher for black women than for any other racial group. The National Institutes of Health finds black women are twice as likely as white women to suffer late pregnancy loss and stillbirth.
No genetic factors have been isolated to explain this discrepancy, and rates of loss do not vary significantly by socio-economic status. Affluent, highly educated black women and working-class black women are just as likely to suffer pregnancy loss. This leads pregnancy loss expert Elizabeth Czukas to speculate, “the continuous, low-grade stress of racism may be the factor that unifies all African-Americans, and may contribute to the increased risk of pregnancy loss.”
When I suffered miscarriages, my doctor told me I needed no time off. She never screened me for depression or offered information on pregnancy loss support groups. Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised by medical professionals’ indifference.
What saddened me was the lack of support from other black women in my life. As I was searching to make sense of my loss and find healing through sharing experiences, I continually butted up against myths about black women that made my search increasingly difficult.
The first myth: It’s easy for black women to get pregnant and have babies, “there’s nothing in the world more natural” for us. This is a story that makes the rounds in my own family, where many women get pregnant easily. Nobody in our family ever lost babies, I was told.
That’s until I found out … “Well, but that one cousin with a stillborn girl… And didn’t so-and-so’s wife?… And then…” It wasn’t that pregnancy loss didn’t happen to women in our family, I finally figured out. We’d so internalized the myths of black women’s easy fertility that the stories of pregnancy loss — the stories I needed to hear — had been swept into dusty corners where no one remembered them.
The second myth: Black women are survivors, strong enough to take a loss and keep going.
In a time where too many Black women are burying children, the loss of a fetus seemed too intangible to merit real grief. I wasn’t far along, and at least I hadn’t birthed a child who died after I’d gotten to know him or her, people told me to make me feel better. Of course, that only made me feel guilty for grieving my unborn child. So the current climate of violence against Black children impacted my lost pregnancies before and after the miscarriages: First it made me worry about the child I was carrying, then made me feel I had no right to grieve the child I’d lost.
As the nation observes SIDS, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, let’s remember that we, Black mothers, are not breeders. We’re not superwomen. We’re as fragile and resilient as anyone else, and we deserve to both bear and lose children in communities of support. Black mothers who have survived pregnancy loss, whether your child is beside you today or not, must be saluted in reverence and solidarity. Your stories of love and loss are meaningful enough to be shared.
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, a Public Voices Fellow, is an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.