To prepare for the expected birth of our second child next month, my wife and I are enrolled in one of those new-age birthing classes where the bulk of each two-hourlong session is devoted to language and connotation. (“Don’t say birthing canal. Say birthing stream, because streams are calming.”) I am bored out of my mind during them, but its main value is to make the childbirth process less stressful, and it has been helpful with that. The instructor speaks as if giving birth should be like passing a tiny bit of gas and her eerie calm about everything is contagious.
My wife and I have also devised a plan for when she goes into labor. We have a collection of birthing bags, a list of trusted and vetted emergency contacts and a day-of script with a level of detail that rivals a football coaches’ playbook. We are also privileged enough to have a house with enough space to be comfortable, two cars, multiple family members and friends within a 10-mile radius and generous health benefits. And we are both college educated. And we are both (*knocking on wood*) healthy. And we are both aware that we are both in possession of all of these things, and this knowledge is empowering. Neither of us is intimidated by doctors or nurses or hospitals or any other layer of medical authority. We will question, we will probe, we will cast doubt if things don’t seem right.
And yet, I am still scared to death.
There are limitations to this privilege we wield, this preparation we’re equipped with and this knowledge we possess. Neither of us is a medical professional, and when my wife goes into labor, we will have to place a measure of trust into a collective that, in regards to black women, has not earned it. From the moment she enters the hospital, the life of my wife—who happens to be a black woman in America—will be in danger.
We will hope that the nurses and doctors who see her will treat her with the utmost care and professionalism, and we will do everything within our power to ensure that. But our power is limited. And these limitations exist in concert with a profession that collectively and historically offers substandard and life-threatening service to black women. Black women are over three times more likely to die from being pregnant than white women. Black people are systematically undertreated for pain. And sometimes our pain is outright ignored.
We know how Serena Williams, one of the three or four most famous black women in the world, almost died after childbirth because a nurse didn’t take her pain seriously. We know now the story of Kira Johnson, who was just as healthy and privileged and empowered as my wife is. Who went to all of the prenatal appointments, like my wife does. Who had a husband beside her, like my wife will. And who delivered in a world-renowned hospital, like my wife will. And who still died after a treatable post-delivery complication because the doctors just took too long to act.
And although Kim Porter didn’t die from childbirth, a seemingly healthy 47-year-old black woman dying from pneumonia worries and angers and scares the shit out of me, too. If black women like her and Serena fucking Williams are still susceptible to death while in a doctor’s care, what about my wife? How susceptible is she? How vulnerable is she? How terrified should we be?
Our next birthing class is next Friday. I think there’s one more after that, and then we’re done. My wife is as bored with the classes as I am, but she tolerates them, because she wants to be as prepared for delivery as possible, and more preparation means less stress. We’re doing what we can to make this a safe and healthy process for her. I just hope it matters.