Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author of five books (you can read her latest here), and advocate for maternal and infant health. She is also a world renowned commentator on birth, breastfeeding and motherhood at the intersection of race, policy, and culture. The mother of two has an insta-bio says it all: :Motherhood changed my life. Now I work to change motherhood for all."
I gave birth many, many years ago, but I remember it like yesterday. My first pregnancy was certainly unplanned and unexpected. I had a boyfriend in London, had spent the summer there, and came back with more than my checked luggage.
I was just about to start a very rigorous master's program at Columbia. So, I was pregnant and doing my master’s degree at the same time, which I do not recommend to anybody. It was a very challenging time because it was a bit of a disappointment to my family. Like many first-generation college graduates, your family pins a lot of hopes and dreams and expectations on you. Even though I was 28 and living on my own, my father cried when I told him I was pregnant. It was certainly something that my family, given their values and expectations, were not prepared for. It was a difficult time and, looking back, there was a lot of pressure.
Another part of the pressure that I don't talk much about was felt because I had been the only Black woman accepted to this fellowship, and, I believe, at the time, I was the youngest person to ever be awarded the fellowship. I carried a lot of shame being an unwed Black woman. I did not want to tell anybody.
At that point, my boyfriend cracked under the pressure and we were not even speaking. I was pretty much abandoned during the pregnancy, which I also don't recommend. I remember, as a Black woman, that feeling of not only the burden of "Oh my God, I'm an unwed Black woman in this program, pregnant.” But also, the burden of not wanting to say that the Black man who fathered my child was, at the time, nowhere to be found.
People asked and I was not prepared to let these white people think that a Black man had abandoned a Black woman. I made up stories about him and was the best PR person I could be. That was obviously very difficult. When I did finally share the truth with the people I was closest to, they were incredibly supportive. I say that to let people know that whatever your circumstances are around pregnancy, they don't necessarily define you. You will be surprised by the support that will come to you when you are honest and let go of the burdens that society places on us.
I went through most of pregnancy burdened and feeling like I needed to resolve this issue with my family. There was certainly a lot of shame there and that was not the environment I wanted to cook my baby in. It was a very important time for me emotionally and personally to redefine many of things I had never had to deal with before. I had never disappointed my family. I had never felt that I was a disappointment to “my people." This was all very new territory. I had spent most of my life being the exact opposite--someone that people held up as a success story.
That was my unique entry into my motherhood journey. It definitely shaped me in terms of the ways that I approached my pregnancy and my mothering work. I had to go through a very intense process of redefining myself at a time when you're already trying to redefine yourself as a mother. I had this whole other piece of work going on. My first pregnancy was very much a turning point in my life.
The physical part of pregnancy was a joy and I didn't have much morning sickness. Most of my issues at the beginning were emotional. I wore my heels until month nine and enjoyed being fashionable. I relished not buying maternity clothes (with the exception of maternity jeans). As I did my work to resolve the emotional so I could really enjoy the physical, I just had the most wonderful experience.
I would read all of my school textbooks to my baby. Now, I tell her that's why she's so smart. I had wonderful cravings around mozzarella and tomato salads with fresh basil. Physically speaking, my biggest challenge was I would eat fruit and I actually got the first cavity of my life while pregnant!
During the pregnancy, things had started to resolve with my family. My goal was to complete all of my schoolwork early and make sure to get all my papers in before I went into labor. I worked really hard during my last month of pregnancy with the worst pregnancy brain ever to complete my work. I remember being at my parent’s house working on a freelance assignment and going into labor during a phone call. I was like, "Why is my belly tightening up every 20 minutes?"
Once I realized I was in labor, I had this great idea that I needed to get my hair done. My mother was just beside herself! But I just wanted to get a quick wash and blow. That way I'd feel good about myself. I was literally at the J.C. Penney in the Roosevelt Field Mall in labor. The lady that did my hair was traumatized.
I, on the other hand, was very calm. Probably foolishly so, but calm. After I got my hair done and we walked the mall, we went to see the doctor. My water broke, I believe, in the car. By the time we got to the doctor, he told us to turn around and go to the hospital.
My mother was just stressed out. She was not prepared for this level of pregnancy. By the time we got to the hospital, I still had not progressed enough. I never dilated to ten. By the time it got very, very late into the wee mornings, I ended up having to have a C-section, which was disappointing.
I definitely had a birth plan before going into the hospital. I had gone to childbirth classes. I wish I knew then what I know now. I certainly wasn't aware that I probably should have avoided the hospital longer and that I should have asked to walk around more once I got there.
I went in prepared to deliver my baby vaginally. That was my plan. When I had a C-section, obviously I was awake up from the neck up and I remember hearing them say, "Please lift up the uterus." I said, "Please knock me out!" Maybe I don't want to be awake for this! But I remember them lifting my baby up and I could see her—Kayla—and they let me feel her face. I couldn't hold her because of the surgery, but my mom did. When I woke up again, my sister came and confirmed that Kayla had all her fingers and toes.
I had, for me, a traumatic birth experience in terms of how I was treated during my birth. I felt completely disregarded, particularly after I delivered. I told the hospital I was breastfeeding, and they gave my baby formula against my wishes. I kept asking for my baby to be with me and that seemed to be a problem. It was deeply troubling.
And the thing that I found so troubling was that I had gotten recommendations from many of my white girlfriends for hospitals. I was living in New York City and most of my friends had delivered were my white girlfriends from school and they had such glowing recommendations for this place, and I couldn't understand why I had such a completely opposite experience.
At the end of the day I was an unwed Black woman with student insurance, and I was treated like the unwed Black woman with student insurance. I never forgot that. Later, my friends and I talked about it because they also were shocked to hear some of the things that I experienced, many of which I chose to black out so I could move on, but it was all part of the launch of my work--realizing that people are not being treated the same way at the same place.
Something that has now been documented by pregnancy studies is consistently, Black and Latino women report feelings of disrespect. Think about what happened to Serena Williams--a celebrity--who was completely dismissed about her pain.
For many years I couldn't figure out why that experience was what it was for me. In that space, I was kind of on my own without any resources, trying to figure things out around not just healing from a C-section, but also breastfeeding. I just started reaching out to people. "Why are we all struggling at this? There's gotta be a reason!"
At that time, I was certainly unaware of the disparities that exist with Black women and breastfeeding rates. I did not know that Black women weren't breastfeeding. I was very surprised to not be able to find support groups that looked like me. People in my own circle, even in my own family, who had supported me through undergrad and my master’s degree and all of my career pursuits, were like, "Why are you doing that? Breastfeeding is for poor people." I was like, "Where did that come from?" It was really strange.
I think those cultural nuances were more challenging for me than the technical aspect of getting my boob in my infant's mouth. You can get an expert to help you with that, but no one can help you navigate grandmothers and aunties and your mom and dealing with these cultural barriers and the isolation that comes with doing something that apparently Black women aren't doing through no fault of their own.
That led me to try to understand these things. I started to dig into the history of Black women breastfeeding and why we had these unspoken and spoken norms in our culture. My journalist mind led me to question why I had struggles around breastfeeding, which led to ultimately my fifth book. I would say that through it all, it was a productive pregnancy.
When I went back to my apartment, my grandmother and my mother would come by, help me, and take care of me. They were more focused on me rather than the baby, which was helpful. I was breastfeeding and they were like, "We don't know how to help me with that."
They made sure that I ate and rested. My mother had a lot of old wives’ tales about things you shouldn't do, which was fine. I was grateful to at least have those weeks of support, even if it was just for myself. It gave me more energy to deal with the things that I didn’t have support for.
I attended a breastfeeding support group that was held back at the hospital. Unfortunately, I had to drive to the hospital, and I couldn't drive immediately after the C-Section. I was entitled to one home visit from a lactation consultant, and I did take advantage of that and then I started going to group, which I highly recommend. There really wasn't anybody who looked like me there, but I had just gotten used to it.
After my daughter was born, her father and I reconnected and worked through our issues and eventually married. But now we're divorced. Maybe that's a something of a cautionary tale. I am very proud that we both came together to try for our family. We also have a son.
This year, my daughter is going to be 20 years old. Through her, I learned so much of myself, not just kind of overcoming that pregnancy, but overcoming single motherhood. Kayla was my triumph baby. I used to be nervous about the story of how she came into the world. I didn't want her to know that I was by myself and that she came into the world and her father was not there. I really had to learn to embrace that. As she got older, we used to joke about Photoshopping him into pictures.
Having those conversations and her father having that conversation with her about why he wasn't there was very important for her, as a young woman to ask questions and to get answers. And to be able to continue as she got older to ask more questions. It's been amazing watching her grow.
When she was a little girl--and she still is--everything that we did was just she and I. It was a very special time. I was quite blessed. Because I am a writer, I was able to freelance. It enabled me to settle into my mothering and I'm very grateful that I was blessed to have educational skills to be able to stay home with her. I think that helped me in that moment. I know that not all single mothers have that privilege.
I was able to breastfeed Kayla a little over a year during which we moved to London with her dad and got to experience that life together. It was really a time of discovery. I look at all of those pieces as part of what we did together and I'm just sad she doesn't remember it.
The most important thing that I want Kayla to know is that she has options and the ability to educate herself and always use her voice. The other thing that every Black parent tells their child and my father told me this, was that you can't do what other people do. That is unfortunately the nature of being Black in America. We have to develop additional tools, additional resources, and do extra work, because what it takes for white women to survive pregnancy and childbirth and what it takes for Black women to survive pregnancy and childbirth are completely different.
The other thing I speak to Kayla a lot about is that Black women know how to save ourselves. We were giving birth by midwives and had a community model that was lost in medicalization of birth. Sometimes we do much better in those types of processes. I would love for Kayla to know about a childbirth center and have other options. That's really what I want for her. To have more options, more awareness, and for her to be super clear that what it takes to survive pregnancy and childbirth is just not the same for all women. It's unfortunate that the same thing my dad told me I'm telling my daughter and son, but that is just the nature of what it is.
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