Anita Rao 00:05
I am slowly inching closer to an age I've been hearing about for a really long time: 35. It's the moment when cis-women's fertility starts to decline more sharply, and the chances of having a healthy, relatively easy pregnancy start to fade. I know plenty of people who've become mothers later in life in a variety of ways at all different stages of adulthood. So I know age is not the end all be all. But the number has come to urge a big question: Do I want to be a mom? As the question simmers, there are a lot of things that come up for me. How would being a mother impacted my career? How would my partner and I work toward a fair division of labor? Will I be able to hold on to the parts of myself that matter most? I have way more questions and answers, but I know it's time we started hearing a lot more from people who are navigating through this and doing motherhood their own way. People who are trying to radicalize and revolutionize and push the boundaries of what we think motherhood can be. This is "Embodied." I'm Anita Rao. It's funny to think that peeing on a stick has the potential to change just about everything . A pair of urine-soaked lines can inspire elation or dread or 100 moods in between. Even if this is the moment you've been preparing for, this is when reality meets with major decision making and a process it is entirely impossible to gameplan. Let's keep it real, about 10% of women experience infertility issues. Health complications — both physical and mental — can arise during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates the number of women who experienced pregnancy loss, miscarriage or stillbirth is between 10 and 15%. The decision to become a mom is likely to affect a woman's earnings for the remainder of her professional career or shut down her ability to maintain a career at all. And that leggy pose you always see women in when they're in labor on TV? That is not even how most moms are positioned when they're delivering a child. I don't mean to be a downer, but there is so much we don't talk about when it comes to motherhood. And that means there is so much we have the potential to learn about from each other.
Dani McClain 02:44
When I was pregnant with my first child, I started reporting a story on the black maternal health crisis, so I was in my second trimester. It was the summer of 2016, and I had been covering reproductive justice organizing and reproductive health for the prior maybe six years.
Anita Rao 03:02
That's Dani McClain. She is a mother in the very active sense of the word. She writes about mothering as a verb and much more in her book "We Live for the We: The Poitical Power of Black Motherhood." The book starts out with Dani recalling a moment in her pregnancy when she watched with horror as story after story of police violence against Black Americans seemed to fill the headlines. The birth of her daughter came shortly after the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Dani McClain 03:30
I started hearing the statistics that Black women were three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications. I kept hearing this statistic but I wasn't getting a lot of information about why that was happening. And so I started reporting a story. I called some of my sources in the reproductive justice movement and asked, you know, what they were hearing, who I should talk to. And they all said: You need to talk to Black birth workers. You need to talk to Black doulas and Black midwives to see what they're finding with the families with whom they're working. And what I learned was that, you know, we have a major problem in terms of the kind of shift — the medicalization of birth — and who really is in charge of, you know, birth now. [It's] primarily OBs and a field that's very white and very male.
Anita Rao 05:18
A lot has been reported now on the dire statistics surrounding mortality and Black motherhood. We know that Black women are twice as likely to suffer severe complications during labor and delivery as white women. And Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications. I asked Dani McClain about what that kind of anxiety can do to an expectant mother, and how she confronted systemic forces to advocate for the health and well-being of her and her unborn child.
Dani McClain 06:42
Well, I was always very aware, as you said, of how I was being perceived. So, just a couple of examples. When I was pregnant, I was engaged to my daughter's dad, and I had a ring — I didn't wear it all the time. But before every prenatal appointment, I made sure to put my engagement ring on, because I knew that I was going into these doctor's offices where the receptionist, the nurses, the doctor I would see — everyone was white. And I figured that they were, you know, that they had ideas about unmarried Black women and single Black women, and, you know, there are plenty of media messages that tell us that, you know, talk about the broken Black family and how Black women are messing up and getting pregnant when they're not married and all of these things. So, I made a point to put on my engagement ring. I also, you know, at the time, I was changing my hair pretty frequently because of its length, and I was wearing it naturally, meaning like not chemically straightened. And so I would switch up the style a lot. So sometimes I would have cornrows. Sometimes I would wear it out in an afro, and sometimes I would have it flat ironed, and I was always just aware, you know, I wonder if they're going to perceive me differently because I have my hair braided and last time I had it, you know, straightened into a bob. So these are the kinds of things that I was thinking about. I knew that I needed to be taken seriously. I needed to be seen as a partner in this process. And I was always aware that, you know, the way that I was presenting myself any given day might affect how seriously I was taken.
Anita Rao 08:31
Pregnancy comes with a lot of questions. Where do you want to deliver your baby... home? The hospital? How do you want to deliver your baby? Which loved ones are going to be in the room with you? Will you be aided by medication to reduce the pain and strain on your body? But there is no guarantee that any of the plans you presumably spent 10 months making will ever have a chance to fall into place. So what should you expect when you're expecting? Only the unexpected.
Angela Garbes 09:00
The moment that I found out that I was pregnant, I was actually hungover.
Anita Rao 09:06
Angela Garbes 09:06
I mean, there's more to that, which is that I had lost a pregnancy. And so I was not in the mindset of thinking about getting pregnant again. I wanted to give myself a break from, you know, the fears and the worries that maybe I was too old. Maybe I had waited too long. Or maybe, you know, I couldn't do it.
Anita Rao 09:19
Angela Garbes is the author of "Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy." She'd be the first to tell you that the journey is full of surprise stops, and sometimes sinkholes.
Angela Garbes 09:29
When my doctor called to tell me — and this was in the wake of pregnancy loss, I had not yet gotten a period again. But he called with what really should have been joyful news. And I think, you know, deep down somewhere, I felt relief, and I felt happiness, but mostly I felt the bottom drop out from under me, and I thought— the very first thought I had was — Oh, God, like, did I just pickle my fetus with tequila shots last night? Right. So the thing is, yes, I understand that feeling. It begins from the moment you find out you're pregnant, because, you know, if you're partnered with someone, it's something that they won't understand. Like, this ... this is happening in your body. And immediately you're thinking — because of the way that we present information and advice — because it's advice about pregnancy as we tend to set things up as it's right or wrong. It's good or bad. Right. So clearly, it's bad to begin your pregnancy hungover.
Anita Rao 10:23
Well, I mean, tell me about that. Because you went into these books as kind of, you know, someone who is newly-pregnant wanting to seek out information, and you found things that were kind of lacking on information, but heavy on morality.
Angela Garbes 10:37
Yes, exactly. So I mean, I think again, the problem is we present information about pregnancy in the form of advice, right. And when I was writing the book, I was thinking, well, if we always present things in pregnancy and motherhood as good or bad, right or wrong. What happens if your experience — which is what found — falls outside of those lines. Well, there's really no path forward besides feeling terrible, right? And so I thought, well, what if ... what I want is information. I want information so that I can make choices, so that I can feel confident, you know. I'm not a scientific expert, but I'm an expert in my own life — in my body and what feels good, and what I know I need. And so I thought, if we just remove this idea, right, like when you prescribe a way of being pregnant, I think it's really ... There's no one right or wrong way to do it. Just as there's no one right or wrong way to be a person. There's infinite ways. And so if you take out the morality and just present people with information and support to make the choices that are right for them, because what's right for you is not going to be right for your neighbor or your best friend. Right, then people could proceed with that confidence. And maybe we could move forward with with less of that judgment.
Anita Rao 11:48
So you began on this journey to excavate and understand and try to clarify information and separate it from advice and morality. Give me a bit of a sample of some of that information that you found that was surprising to you that went against some of some of your assumptions that you'd kind of learned growing up in this society?
Angela Garbes 12:07
Well, so I mean, the first — the thing that really started it off for me was that I felt, you know, tremendous pressure to breastfeed. When you're pregnant people will tell you: You should breastfeed. Breast is best, right? Which again, sets up this idea that that somehow formula is bad, or that if you're unable to breastfeed, that's also bad, right? But, um, so I was just like, okay, so people will tell you it's best for the baby, and it's good for immunity. And when I would ask a health care provider: Well, how does that work exactly? No one could tell me. And I just thought: I'm owed a better explanation for this. And so as a journalist, I mean, if I'm just Angela at home, I can't call someone up and they'll explain these things to me. But as a journalist, I was able to find an evolutionary biologist. And I asked her all of these questions that I had about breast milk, like how exactly does that immunity boost work? And what she told me was incredible, which is that when an infant suckles at its mother's breast, something called the intra-oral vacuum is created, and some of the infant saliva is sucked in to the mother's nipple where mammary glands read it, and if they detect an infection or pathogens, it compels the person's body to create antibodies specific to that. I mean, this is just what bodies do, right? And that's, it's a fact. This is what happens. And I remember thinking: Why aren't we talking about this all the time? You know, the tremendous power that our bodies have, right? Like parenting is hard, but it's also amazing. And that's the thing that I I felt like I was just thinking about this as: Breastfeeding is work. Breastfeeding is hard. This is what I need to do to be the best mom. And I think it was just letting go and realizing this is just what's happening. And why don't we talk about that? Why aren't we celebrating and talking about the things that our bodies do?
Anita Rao 13:58
Well, does not having this information have real impacts on women's health and bodily freedom do you think, and in what ways?
Angela Garbes 14:07
Well, I mean, if you don't have a full understanding of your body, if you're disembodied, and I think overall as a culture, we are pretty disembodied, then I think it's easy to, you know, to have rights, choices and freedoms taken away from you. You know, in 2016, there was an elected official in Oklahoma who said: I know that they think that it is their body, but you know, what I tell them is: You're a host. And I think that that's ... I mean, I think that trickles down to people feeling like, right, I'm pregnant. And it is a very heavy responsibility to realize that everything you put in your body could have an impact on somebody else. Sometimes for many people, it's the first time in your life that you are really responsible for something larger than yourself, for somebody else. So you want to do the best that you can. But I think a lot of times we allow the health of a fetus or a potential baby to take utmost primacy, and then we allow the mother or the pregnant person and that parent to take a backseat. And that kind of, you know, carries forward after the child is born. And we're really supposed to be seen as selfless caregivers. And we don't think about it from the point of view that the health of a fetus, yes is incredibly important. And so is the health of that mother.
Katherine Goldstein 15:32
As American mothers and women, we've often been sold a bill of goods that the ideal family structure is the nuclear family structure.
Anita Rao 15:40
Many of you listening may recognize that voice. It belongs to journalists Katherine Goldstein, host of the extremely popular podcast "The Double Shift." Katherine has spent a couple of seasons now examining the cultural and societal expectations of working mothers. And if you haven't heard this show, it is really good. But what was it that Katherine said about the nuclear family, aka a couple with a couple of kids ... let's get back to that. And why the concept drives so many of our ideas about motherhood.
Katherine Goldstein 16:11
That is very grounded in capitalism. And it's very grounded in, I think, a lot of dominant white ideas about, you know, what is success. And I think that these ideas about kinship and how you create community are really important. Now, I think the idea of growing up in multi-generational families with lots of different family help and communities can be really appealing and not everyone has — that's not available to everyone. Obviously, we've also created an economy where people move around a lot. People don't always have the option to live close to family. Family is not always able to help for many, many different reasons. But I think that we're at a moment where we as a society, to really not only survive as mothers, but really thrive as mothers, we need to invest in community. And basically, community is the only thing like — in my opinion community is one of the few things like capitalism can't buy. You have to invest in it. You have to invest your time. You have to choose who you want to be in your community and invest those time and relationships. And so obviously, in our economy time is very precious. So it's very hard to necessarily get to know your neighbors, or invest in friendships that sort of create this community over time. And so, I think that while I'm a big fan of multi-generational structures and help, like right now, I'm almost eight months pregnant with twins, and my mother-in-law, I think, is at my house like organizing baby clothes while I'm doing this interview. So I am very lucky to have family support, but I think that we have to sort of think about not just family support, but co-housing, or how we actually get to know our neighbors, and that was sort of an inspiration for me in the second season of "The Double Shift" is to think about community and creating family in different ways that's not just multi-generational family structures.
Anita Rao 18:11
Some personal news. Well, not my personal news. But since I interviewed Katherine, she had those twins bringing her total number of children to three. And very soon after that, she got back to work on a new season of "The Double Shift" podcast. I want to think some more about how we support mothers and how our communities and social networks act as supplements to family. In Dani McClain's book "We Live For The We" she writes that Black mothers have cultivated such systems of support for centuries.
Dani McClain 18:42
We're building family in different ways, because we've had to over the years — looking back at what was called for, what was necessary when our families were disrupted by slavery. And, you know, into the Great Migration and just other things. Social forces and economic forces that have made us have to get really creative about how we form family and where we find care and support. I think one thing that gets overlooked in the conversation about Black family structure is the role that the extended family plays and how good we are at really leaning into kinship structures beyond the nuclear family. So, you know, I was raised by a single mom, but I had, you know, her seven sisters and her parents and this community of elders in which we live. That was my family. You know, I didn't grow up with this idea that a family is just like two parents and your siblings. And I think another thing that gets overlooked is the fact that even, you know, even when we don't marry, it's quite often the case that the noncustodial parent plays a huge role in the child's life. So Black men are generally more likely than men of other races to read to, feed, bathe and play with their young children on a regular basis, and that's whether or not they live in the same home with the child. This is CDC data. This is, you know, from a CDC study, and I think there's this perception that because our marriage rates are lower that one parent is just a complete absentee. Typically, the idea is that the dad is absent. And that's, that's not the case.
Anita Rao 20:26
You were raised by an unmarried mother. You are now an unmarried mother. And you talk a lot about kind of how your own version of what it means to be a parent pushes back against some of the assumptions and statistics about unmarried mothers that kind of create these false assumptions. Could you talk a bit about that?
Dani McClain 20:45
Sure. I mean, I think that there's this belief that Black women and Black family is, you know, are to blame for so many of society's ills, right? And we hear this on both the left and the right. This is not just something that you're going to turn on Fox news and hear— that you're going to hear from Republican elected officials. We hear this, you know, among Democrats and on the left as well. And just to kind of reach back a bit and use an example, you know, while Obama was campaigning for the presidency, we heard, you know, him give talks in which he kind of took Black men and unpartnered Black parents to task. We've heard, you know, candidate Romney back then as well talk about, when asked a question about gun violence, you know, immediately point a finger at Black unmarried mothers, and it's like there's this bizarre correlation, I'm sorry no causation. Like it's presented as a cause, right? Like, Black people don't get married before they have kids, and so their children don't graduate from high school, and they pick up guns, and they're, you know, disrespectful and all these things. They need a strong man in the home. And I just think that, you know, based on my own experience growing up with a mother who is not married to my father — I just didn't, you know, feel like she had somehow put my life at risk, or, you know, kept me from growing up with dignity and with the potential to be a successful person by not marrying my father.
Anita Rao 22:12
Full disclosure, I come from one of those so-called nuclear family units. And for a long time, the only job my mom held was mom. But before my siblings and I came along, she worked as a midwife helping other women start their own families.
Sheila Rao (Anita's mom) 22:27
Right from the get go, even when Priyanka was born, I knew that being a mom could be stressful. You know, I was a midwife. I was a nurse by training. So I knew a lot about the basics of, you know, taking care of a baby, breastfeeding, all that stuff. I knew all of that stuff having been trained, but still, you know, it was stressful.
Anita Rao 22:46
What expectation about being a mother or motherhood has been the most challenging for you over time?
Sheila Rao (Anita's mom) 22:56
It's a really good question. Well, dad and I had ... We chatted about this from the get-go. And I knew that for me, I was not going to be able to do a good job of doing a job and being a mom. I knew that I wanted to wholeheartedly just, you know, be a mom and let dad take care of the work part, you know, when you guys were small Because I just felt that — I knew my personality that I didn't think that I was going to be able to handle working and being a mom. So you know, I chose my path. And then once I chose that path, I went down that path with my whole heart and didn't feel like, you know, I was trying to jump between two worlds. And I know that's what many people do now. And you know, the thing about, you know, the checklist and stuff, you know, the checklist was my job, and I was happy to do it.
Anita Rao 23:43
I guess I think, though, that there are ... yeah, that there's more of a negotiation happening in my generation of people feeling like kind of no matter what the mother chooses to do — if she chooses — or the father to stay home or to not, there are conversations around like division of labor and workload in the household that are kind of separate and apart from, you know, who may go to a workplace or not. And I wonder dad for you. I mean, I've talked to a lot about that in all of the shows that I've done over the years. Has that brought up any questions for you?
Satish Rao (Anita's dad) 24:16
I think, you know, this is often a very personalized decision that each couple will have to make. And I think we chose the option that I would work, which I was very passionate about, and certainly my job as a physician, especially as an immigrant, was was much much more challenging. I had to establish myself, and I was wearing three hats, you know, both not just as a physician, but also as a researcher in a new country with virtually no mentor and virtually nobody to pull me up. I had to literally stand up on my feet and move up the ladder so to say. So at that stage, we had to make a clear decision as to whether I can stay at home and support, which I really would have loved to. I mean, actually I enjoyed, you know, all of your company as much as I could when you were all growing up and so on. When I came home, I did my very best in giving up the work part and being a dad. But really, mom was the main anchor. And it really rewarded us with three beautiful kids who've grown up to be useful citizens in the world. And I think we couldn't have asked for anything better.
Sheila Rao (Anita's mom) 25:35
Yeah, and I think it is it's such a difficult sort of a delicate subject, you know, how to balance the whole thing.
Anita Rao 25:43
Yeah, I don't think I'd ever really thought about the coming to a new country piece of it shaping the decision so much, but it seems like it did.
Sheila Rao (Anita's mom) 25:50
Yeah, it did. It did. Because, you know, it's not like we had, you know, well, we can call someone to come and help us. We don't know a single soul. So, what are you going to do? We just had to just do the best that we could. And, I mean, I took like mothering as my full time career and as my job, you know. It was a very serious occupation.
Anita Rao 26:10
Well, you did it well. You do it well. You're still a mom. [Laughs]
Sheila Rao (Anita's mom) 26:13
Anita Rao 26:21
Go, now. Call your mom or a mother you know, and just say: Thanks. My thanks to Amanda Magnus and Charlie Shelton-Ormond for producing this episode. Shoutout to Natalie Dudas-Thomas for raising our podcast's ocial media profile. Jenni Lawson is our amazing sound engineer, and Lindsey Foster-Thomas is our executive producer and content director. Our theme music is by Quilla. "Embodied" is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC. Thanks also to you for your support of WUNC when you give at wunc.org it helps make more episodes of this podcast possible. We also have to thank Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative that sells organic and local food at four Triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup: weaverstreetmarket.coop. I'm Anita Rao on an exploration of our brains, our bodies and taking on the taboo with you