I am a Black Mother! Words that for many years came with an element of discomfort. Words that for most of my adult life filled me with imposter syndrome and sounded like they were someone else’s familiar truth. The Motherhood group are facilitating another year of Black Maternal Mental Health Week (BMMHW) from the 26th of September to the 2nd of October, and I cannot begin to express the importance of this week for Black mothers.
As a Black mother, and Project Manager at The Motherhood Group, this is an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways we should be, but unfortunately rarely are. We are highlighting the inequities and sharing knowledge and fact-based information to really make a change without negating individual experiences. This blog is a personal account of my experience to highlight the importance of BMMHW and why organisations, public health and care services and private corporations need to get involved, reflect and listen to Black mothers as we share and validate our experiences.
This year The Motherhood Group is focusing on equity in black maternal mental health. Black mothers are often overlooked, misrepresented, and misunderstood. We will be highlighting various areas including: The inequalities black mothers face during the perinatal period and the negative implications associated. We will be exploring stigma and how culture and generational practices impact us internally and externally.
Over recent years many organisations have been working tirelessly to address the trauma and loss black mothers suffer disproportionately due to such terrible morbidity and mortality rates in mothers and infants, both first-hand and through the experiences of our sisters and peers. We will be exploring how this affects Black Maternal Mental Health, as well as overcoming barriers Black mothers face when it comes to making healthy choices for their own and their child’s wellbeing: due to lack of knowledge, support, available representative resources — and how racism plays such a large role in affecting all these areas.
As a Black mother, successful businesswoman, loving wife, confident speaker and educator, I had an image of myself as the oh-so-familiar “Strong Black Women”. Show no weakness, hold your head up, nurture all and step with confidence.
My trauma-riddled inner child had long been abused and neglected in a way you would never dream of treating your own child. Yet somehow, on the rare occasion I returned to her, it was a familiar interaction, and the treatment was somewhat… normal. My mother was stern and my only example. The hand that abused was my sole reference in parenting yet somehow my main reason for change. My aunties were “Strong Black Women”, and they carried their strength in their tongues and wooden spoons as their weapons of choice.
As a little girl I used to live in my imagination as the mother I dreamed I’d be, returning home to tend to my dollies who had been at Teddy day-care whilst I was at school (Work). My only aspiration was to fulfil that fantasy that I had romanticised in my mind. At 17 I was told I would never have children.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), Endometriosis and my first miscarriage only filled me with shame and misery — something I tucked in a corner when I stepped out as the “Strong Black Woman” day in and day out.
I hid it well. Kept that child and the trauma nicely tucked away: Misinformation, 4 more miscarriages, 4 surgeries, 3 children, 16 prescription drugs a day and then a final word from my consultant, “…we’ve scheduled your hysterectomy, Leah you understand this means you won’t be having any more children?!” I twisted and turned those words every which way in my mind for two months, to help wrap my mind around them. I had carried two babies and had one born of another’s womb (my husband’s first son). I was lucky! I should be grateful! Don’t be greedy! At least you can have children! These ohh-so-familiar words tore through me until they exposed that poor neglected little girl.
I began vomiting uncontrollably. Just as I thought I had got my head around the words that my consultant burnt into my brain…. I’m pregnant. I couldn’t get my mind to undo all the work it had done, my inner child couldn’t take anymore and as she took centre stage, I fell into a severe antenatal depression which encompassed every ounce of my being. It was raw, it was gruesome, painful, burdensome, dark, lonely, and overdue! It came with an overwhelming force that took hold of everything and everyone around me as it consumed us deeply for 6 months relentlessly until my husband was able to reach his hand out of the tornado that had drawn us all in.
The doctors prescribed the usual, barely blinking. Not one said, “are you ok?”
I was referred to IAPT, to a psychotherapist and an independent counsellor. No one looked like me.
No one understood that having fertility treatment made me feel like I failed to conceive repeatedly, that my miscarriages were “unviable pregnancies”, (the same triggering terminology used when I went into early labour with my now 7-year-old son) and I failed to carry my babies, that my failure to progress meant I had an emergency c section and that when I expressed milk on day nine with my firstborn, I failed to nourish my baby naturally. Something that inner child was all too familiar with. Failure.
The language used around me in my care was constantly triggering. My mother was 1 of 11, my dad and my husband are both 1 of 7, yet I failed at every step and needed assistance. My mind spiralled as they told me how different it was for my parents and not to compare, but they didn’t understand. My grandmother, aunties, mother-in-law, and mother all did this! In the yard! Took care of all the babies, kept house whilst breastfeeding, carried all these babies and even had time to practice self-care whilst yoni steaming before supporting the community as a Strong Black Woman.
“They didn’t really do that did they?” My therapist asked in disbelief, a simple statement that made me pivot during the depths of my antenatal depression.
Could they really do it all?
Was I just a Weak Black Woman?
Was I just making it up?
I realised that, as a White woman, she had no idea about what it was like, what I was going through.
How can she help me? Why did they not know? There are whole stereotypes about it; I’ve literally been trying to live up to them.
She continued to inform me that yoni steaming is not a safe practice. I focused on this longer than necessary frustrated that an ancient practice that had been passed down through generations was disregarded without thought. She referred to Gwyneth Paltrow being sued, and I wanted to scream.
Why was she talking about a White woman’s perfumed pseudo products when I was talking about an ancient, herbal practice, we used natural herbs grown on our land steeped in water to extract the healing properties of the plants, ancient medicine that paved the way long before pharmaceutical science…… I was so tired. This is not to say that this is best practice for everyone, more research is required to determine safe and consistent commercial practice. But I just agreed and faced my own guilt for not speaking up later.
I never returned. I didn’t feel seen, and these comments were thought-provoking in a detrimental way. I struggled with paranoia and felt I was judged and misunderstood so I began educating myself and this became my therapy. The more I studied and researched maternal mental health, generational trauma, trauma-informed care and conscious and unconscious bias, I identified more and more flaws in the care I had briefly received. From the frequent microaggressions to the inherent ignorance for my culture.
I started to implement boundaries to protect my peace, I leaned into my spirituality and finally spoke out about my experience. Not all of my family “believe” in depression. I gave myself permission to experience and understand what was happening regardless of judgement and I no longer had to wear the “Strong Black Women” façade. Instead, I experienced vulnerability and softness. I spoke to other women of all races and was intensely drawn to the black women’s story as they recounted their trauma almost as if it was mine. We heard each other and understood the unique challenges we were facing. We bonded through the unburdening of a collective experience and the knowledge that what we experienced with our care providers was not all in our heads but the subtle mocking of culture, misunderstanding of our stories, and the lack of compassion for our generational trauma were real.
My antenatal depression changed my life, dramatic as that may seem, I now only do the work I am led to do. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel, see, reference or reflect on my experience, as it shaped not only my business but also my parenting style and how I allow myself grace and time to rest and heal without guilt. Why I will always strive to support Black Maternal Mental Health and speak on the importance of trauma-informed, unbiased, representational and equitable support that Black mothers require. Why we must be seen, heard and understood and why Black Maternal Mental Health Week is so important to me and so many other Black Mothers. This is my personal account, but also a collective experience. It’s time for us to relinquish the burden of the Strong Black Woman!
For more information and to get involved, follow @themotherhoodgroup and subscribe to our newsletter as we share further details of the focus points for each day.
Header image: Photo of Leah Lewin – The Perinatal Specialist by Simon Langham