“During the midst of my training to become a doula and a lactation educator, I started learning about birth work in general, how it wasn’t this field of work that upper-middle-class white women use to bring their babies into the world. I learned that it was something that we have been doing since we came from the continent. Knowing that lineage that’s been passed down from birth worker to birth worker, it started to feel like a cultural responsibility.”
These words from William Moore, CPE, a doula and race and health equity administrator, kicked off a recent symposium by the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI). Moore, William Rowe, MS, a lactation educator with BWHI, and Mohamed Kamara, MBA, CEO of InovCares.com, were the three speakers on the topic of Black men’s role in the movement for reproductive justice and birth equity. Together, the speakers shared their experiences as professionals and as family members participating in the process of childbirth.
Rowe’s story of becoming part of the movement to end the Black maternal mortality gap began with taking a college course in maternal and infant nutrition, leading him to notice the glaring disparities in the data surrounding maternal and infant health and mortality. “I only saw that, even in the imagery and the context and the studies, everything was around white women,” Rowe said. “The little knowledge that was available on Black birthing women and birthing people, it was all around how they are ‘missing the mark.’” Not only was the problem given precious little attention in the form of research and investigations, but it was also naturally framed in a racist context as a failure on the part of the Black birthing people rather than the limited education about pregnancy and birth that was accessible for them. Despite the field of maternal and infant health being laden with red tape for men, and especially Black men, Rowe decided to focus his efforts on addressing the issues he had noticed.
For Kamara, it was a dear family matter. “My sister was delivering her fourth child in Sierra Leone when she suddenly passed on. It was a hemorrhage. Rushed to the hospital, bleeding profusely. They couldn’t stop the bleeding. That led to her death.” Later, the same tragedy struck another of his family. “In Columbus, Ohio, my aunt died of preeclampsia. It was her second delivery.” The sorrows did not end upon entering a country with a larger economy and more developed health care infrastructure. Driven to prevent as many future tragedies as possible, Kamara became invested in reproductive justice and maternal health.
All three men broke through innumerable invisible barriers to be active advocates for Black maternal and infant health regardless. Viewed as solely the realm of women, men are judged harshly for trying to be involved in the pregnancy process, often justified with claims that only the birthing person is undergoing any hardship. “Science does show that a lot of times men go through these hormonal changes as well while their partners are in the midst of the birth process. They also experience postpartum depression,” Moore said. The lack of widespread knowledge about postpartum depression in a birthing person’s partner also presents a major mental health issue for parents, bereft of the knowledge they need to understand the mental health changes they are experiencing and therefore less likely to seek help. Very few men are aware that they are liable to experience postpartum depression at all.
As a result of the lack of information and artificial boundaries surrounding pregnancy and birth, especially for Black men, very few pursue careers or activism in the field of maternal health. “If I say, ‘It takes a village to do what?’ Everybody knows how to finish that phrase off. ‘Raise a child.’ But my question to that is, if we all know that it takes a village to raise a child, why are we constantly only equipping half the village to do so?” Moore said. When well-equipped with information and a sense of belonging, partners of birthing people can fill the same sort of supportive advocacy role that doulas often fill, easing the stress and burden on the birthing person and improving health outcomes.
When Black men feel comfortable pursuing careers in maternal health-related fields, the number of Black professionals involved in the birthing process also increases. With more Black health professionals comes greater cultural responsiveness in the care Black birthing people receive. In addition, seeing that the doctor or the doula assisting their birthing partner is a Black man may help break the invisible barriers warding men off from taking a more active role in helping their birthing partners. “I think community is one of the biggest wins as well. There is a sense of community that’s being built among Black men because when we’re talking about the birthing process, there’s other men going through these same feelings. There’s other men trying to figure out, ‘How can I better support my partner, my spouse?’ So we’re building community right there. We’re having them have dialogue together,” Rowe said.
As more Black men are invited and made to feel comfortable stepping into more active and involved roles in pregnancy and the birth process, these positive changes accumulate and snowball, resulting not just in better health outcomes for Black birthing people, but also for their partners. “We are coming into this space as advocates, but it’s also our responsibility,” Moore said. “I don’t want people to miss that point. It’s our responsibility.
Why are we constantly leaving our brothers out of part of this, or leaving our women out of some parts of it, just because we think certain responsibilities have to stick with particular gender norms? It’s not the case at all. This is our responsibility.”
To learn more about how Black men are stepping up and getting involved in reproductive justice and maternal health, watch the webinar here.