A new report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that in the United States in 2021, there was an alarming increase in maternal death rates compared to 2020 and 2019. In 2021 according to the report, 1,205 women died of maternal causes compared to 861 who died in 2020 and 754 in 2019. The report also notes that for Black women, these rates were significantly higher than the rates for white and Hispanic women. The Biden Administration issued a statement during Black Maternal Health Week to raise awareness about these disturbing trends and since then, the gap has continued to widen. Black maternal mortality rates are important to highlight. Changes are needed at a systemic level to improve maternal mortality rates but there are also organization-wide actions and individual efforts that can be taken to support Black mothers. Creating an equitable and inclusive workplace for all employees requires taking these challenges into consideration. What happens outside the workplace has an impact on how employees show up to work. Are you creating an environment that centers the needs of birthing parents and specifically Black expectant mothers in your workplace?
There may be growing anxieties that Black expectant mothers have about the birthing process, given the widening disparities and medical racism that has been well-documented. Workplace leaders often overlook the myriad ways that the parenting journey can impact employees. What can be done to support Black expectant mothers in your workplace? Cultivating a community to support them is fundamental. “During my first pregnancy I admittedly didn’t know much or what to expect,” shared Zanade Mann. Mann serves as the Executive Director of the Black Women’s Business Collective and is a mother of three. “I heavily relied on books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting to guide me through each trimester. I wish back then that I had a community of women to share my concerns and highlights with. I felt quite lonely throughout my pregnancy. A community of Black expectant mothers would have made me feel better and more informed as to what I should expect throughout the journey.”
Consider ways to build community amongst your employee parent population. Some workplaces have implemented affinity groups specifically for working parents. It is important to create community for expectant mothers while also providing them with the resources to navigate these systemic issues. What resources are already available or can be provided for these employees?
Creating forums, communities, and groups to support employee populations of expectant mothers, working mothers, birthing parents and working parents is vital. Be sure that if you create communities for working parents, that these groups are intersectional and take specific challenges like the disparate Black maternal mortality rates into consideration.
Workplaces have finally started to normalize breastfeeding and legislation has been created to support it. The Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act of 2019 is one such example and requires public buildings to contain a lactation room for breastfeeding parents. Not enough conversation has centered around the difficulties that birthing parents face when it comes to breastfeeding. “Breastfeeding is tough,” shared licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Raquel Martin. “It is not an easy experience for many and you shouldn’t feel shame or guilt if you don’t enjoy it, if it is painful, or if it doesn’t come easily. Most insurances cover a lactation consultant for a number of sessions or provide one at a reduced rate so get a consultation to get extra support.” What resources are available for expectant parents that are covered under your workplace’s insurance? Employees should not have to scour the company’s intranet page to access this information. Consider creating an easily-consumable and accessible document that provides a detailed outline of all the resources available to expectant parents like lactation consultants, breastfeeding equipment, and access to midwives and doulas. For Black expectant mothers, midwives and doulas in particular, may provide additional levels of support which can improve outcomes for Black mothers. Does insurance coverage include access to midwives and doulas? If not, provide employees with information on how they can invest in that type of support if they desire.
A critical component of creating more inclusive workplace cultures is opening up conversations about these particular experiences and challenges. “We know the disparities for Black women in healthcare: we are not treated the same during labor and delivery and we have different maternal health outcomes. Our babies are more likely to die and our aides are less likely to hold our hand,” explains chief equity officer Janelle Benjamin. “I wish I knew my hair would fall out after giving birth. I wish I knew my hormones would need rebalancing and cause the hair loss and weight gain. I wish I knew I’d never sleep the same way again and I’ve had insomnia for years,” Benjamin shares. What opportunities can you provide for expectant mothers to discuss their experiences, their options, their challenges, and seek advice from other parents?
Creating opportunities to have these more nuanced conversations about parenthood is vital. “As a physician educated, trained, and socialized in the Western biomedical model, I have never considered giving birth anywhere but a hospital,” shared Dr. Uché Blackstock. Blackstock is the founder of Advancing Health Equity, which was created to dismantle racism in healthcare and close the gaps in racial health inequities. “It took my own personal journey of unlearning and relearning what I had been taught to recognize that what happens around birthing in the U.S. is an outlier…my hope is that every birthing person in the U.S. can have access to the resources and spaces they need to birth their babies in an environment that respects and honors their humanity.”
As previously mentioned, workplaces should consider what resources are currently available to support expectant parents. Information should be easily accessible to employees. Assess your parental leave policies and consider benefits like child care costs, daycare fees and ways that your employee assistance program supports birthing people and working parents. Consider adopting a parental leave handbook to make workplace policies around parental leave comprehensible and straightforward. Provide support systems and open dialogue for employees that have experienced or may be experiencing postpartum depression, infertility, and miscarriages. Research indicates that Black women may be more prone to infertility and stillbirths compared to their white counterparts. Black women are also more likely to develop health conditions like uterine fibroids, which can impact fertility.
Discussions to support your population of expectant mothers must include conversations about these issues, as well. Also, consider how experiences with things like menopause may be impacting your current employee population. Be intentional about opening conversations about Black maternal mortality. Bring in consultants and educators to facilitate ongoing dialogue about these topics.
What mental health resources are in place? Consider bringing in experts and educators who focus on issues that new mothers and parents will face. It is important to explore racial differences in experiences for new and expectant parents. Bring in sleep educators, mental health advocates, lifestyle coaches, counselors, and those with expertise in stress management. Although these tools will not address the systemic issues that perpetuate disparities like the Black maternal death rate, they can be influential in helping individual employees navigate parenthood. “Motherhood has been the most tiring and rewarding experience for me,” shared senior consultant and mother of four Fieven Amare. “It’s so easy to lose yourself in all of the love you give your children but it’s also important to take care of your mental health…it truly does take a village.” Understanding the challenges that Black mothers face is one piece of the puzzle. Before they have to ask, employers should provide access to resources that Black mothers need to navigate structural barriers that impact maternity experiences. Workplaces should also be consistently evaluating ways to offer continued support to this group of the working population, to not only attract and retain these employees but to ensure they are given the support they need to thrive.