With Mother’s Day coming up on May 13th, many may not know the origins of the holiday celebrated across the world. In the 19th century, a community organizer named Ann Reeves Jarvis hosted “Mother’s Day work clubs” to help decrease infant mortality. We might assume that health outcomes have drastically improved since then, due to better quality of life and medical advancements. However, despite an improved trend overall in infant mortality rates in the United States, the disparity between white and black mothers has actually widened.
A recent article in the New York Times titled “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” details the disparity in not only infant mortality rates among black and white mothers, but also in maternal mortality. Black babies in the United States die at a rate of 11.3 per 1,000 black infants, while the rate is less than half for white babies at 4.9 per 1,000 white infants. This gap in infant mortality is actually worse now than it was in 1850. What is even more shocking is that this disparity does not decrease with higher education or social status. According to the article and the Brookings Institution, babies born to black mothers from a middle-class background with advanced degrees are more likely to die than babies born to low-income white mothers with a high school or middle school education.
Research in recent decades has started to uncover the reasons for such a disparity--that the “experience of being a black woman in America”, one in which systemic and institutional racism persists in all walks of life and induces persistent stress, has resulted in worse health outcomes for black mothers. In addition to the physiological effects of racism, there is also the prevalence of racial bias in healthcare, which can result in misdiagnoses. Even with all the resources and money in the world, we know that black mothers are still not immune to these biases. For instance, tennis athlete Serena Williams discussed her own story recently of how healthcare providers initially disregarded her life-threatening symptoms of a pulmonary embolism before giving birth to her daughter.
Racial biases in the healthcare system and its effects on children, mothers, and families is something we hope to explore in the upcoming months in further blog posts. One thing to keep in mind this Mother’s Day is that as much as we celebrate our mothers for everything they do, our healthcare system may be failing them in certain ways. However, despite the setback the United States has experienced in infant and maternal mortality rates for racial and ethnic minorities, steps are being taken by local municipalities to combat this issue. Research is starting to show the potential benefits of having a doula to provide emotional support and physical care for expecting mothers, which many providers and organizations are beginning to suggest for pregnant patients. Nonprofits like Make Your Date Detroit, which helps women in Detroit enroll in classes for prenatal education and partner with a mentor during their pregnancy, have shown promising outcomes as well. We hope similar discussions and initiatives continue to help improve the health outcomes of all mothers.