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The Small, Deadly Love of White Mothers
“After I left you, those boys came in there and took my milk. That’s what they came in there for. Held me down and took it…”
“They used cowhide on you?”
“And they took my milk.”
“They beat you and you was pregnant?”
“And they took my milk!”
Beloved, by Toni Morrison (16-17)
I awoke in the night to pangs so strong that they nearly bowled me over on the way to the bathroom, and caught me again rounding the corner at the foot of the bed. We rushed to the hospital. After 8 hours and 13 minutes of pain and hard pushing, I held my baby girl in my arms for the first time.
One month later, I was back in the bathroom overwhelmed by gushes of blood. Another frantic car ride to the hospital. Another sleepless night tethered to an IV. A trail of nurses and doctors came and went with furrowed brows and concerned queries. The heavy bleeding had stopped, but they still ran a slew of diagnostic tests. My milk came in and I worried about my little one. She needed to eat and I needed to release the growing pressure. I felt the tug of a phantom umbilical cord still inside me, tying me to her every breath. The nurses noticed my agitation. “Can we get you anything?” they asked.
“Please,” I responded, “a pump.”
The diagnosis was postpartum hemorrhaging due to retained products of conception. They recommended a minor surgical procedure to remove the mass in my uterus that the tests revealed. Another option was to return home, begin a course of antibiotics to stave off any potential infection, and see if my body would resolve the issue on its own. I elected the latter.
It was a sweet, albeit groggy reunion with my baby girl. For four hours I nursed her and held her close. But the gushes resumed suddenly, much stronger than before. I was unable to stand up. A third hurried drive to the hospital.
As soon as we arrived, the staff wheeled me straight to the OR prep area. I was in surgery less than an hour later. Throughout the entire experience I felt an odd sense of calm— never fear. But as the staff talked me through the final health questions and waivers prior to administering the anesthesia, I was overcome by a strange malaise. My body felt heavy and uncomfortable. I struggled to keep from slurring my words. My brain was foggy and slow.
The procedure took only 20 minutes. I emerged drowsily from the anesthesia, the doctor discharged me, and we returned home for a relatively easy recovery.
What I realized at the time, and continue to process until now, is that I could have died. Hemorrhaging is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in the United States. And yet, it was unlikely that I would have succumbed to my condition. Why? Not because the bleeding wasn’t serious. But because I am an upper middle-class white woman in America.
When I went into the ER, the hospital staff believed me. They accepted my account of my symptoms as valid, even when those symptoms had momentarily abated. They were eager to alleviate any pain or discomfort. It was this close, caring attention on my first visit to the ER that allowed for the quick, crucial intervention on my second visit. Moreover, I did not hesitate to seek medical attention and financial cost was not even a consideration. This was my racial and socioeconomic privilege at work. What saved my life was my posture and my place.
I am the other side of the widely circulated statistics about Black maternal mortality.
Today, in the United States, mothers are dying in shocking numbers. According to Every Mother Counts, a global nonprofit addressing maternal health issues, “the U.S. is the only industrialized nation with a consistently rising maternal mortality rate, despite spending more per capita on health care than any other country.” And Black mothers are dying at three times the rate of their white counterparts.
Society normalizes into invisibility its prioritization of me and its assault on Black motherhood. Both are the result of systemic racism embedded in our medical and economic systems. Health disparities manifest in preexisting conditions like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity which are exacerbated by poverty and chronic stress. Medical professionals downplay and dismiss Black women’s reports of pain, following a well-established historical pattern. Moreover, the lack of universal health care disproportionately impacts Black and brown families.
And it does not stop there.
What of the mothers who survive to see their children grow, only to mourn them as victims of police brutality?
When protests erupted two summers ago over the lynching of George Floyd at the hands of US law enforcement, I didn’t watch the video. I didn’t need to witness the senseless killing to be incensed. But when I saw the chilling footage during the trial of Floyd’s murderer, what haunted me the most— indeed, haunts me to this day— is that Floyd cried out for his mother. I thought of Mary’s agony as Jesus hung on the cross. I wanted to scream, “When will we stop killing people’s babies?”
But it is the nice, Christian mothers like me who are often the quickest to question the means and motives of good faith activism in defense of the Black right to breathe. Despite our professed passion for protecting the sanctity of life, killing is exactly what we do. We kill when we choose our own “safety” over the safety of others. We leave communities to wither and die when we give in to our basest biases and flee to the suburbs or pull our kids out of public schools. We do it when we support “law and order” policies, oppose public housing projects near our homes, and fight to barricade our borders so we can feel secure.
Becoming a mother does not imbue anyone with an innate sense of higher morality. It does not free you from the grip of ingroup bias or outgroup animosity. When I became a mother, my world both expanded and contracted. My love for my family ran deeper, but my circle of empathy shrank smaller. As a white mother, even if I profess to care for those outside my circle, I can easily choose apathy over action. I can choose self-preservation over sacrifice. Black mothers do not have that choice. They fight every day for their own lives, and the lives of their children. In doing so, they fight for us all.
In 2016, Americans elected Donald Trump after a campaign of fear and barely veiled white supremacy. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, pundits and pollsters predicted that white, suburban mothers could be the demographic to sway the election for Biden. Admittedly, I too bought into this reasoning. We were wrong. Soccer moms did not win the election for Biden. Black voters did, thanks to the perseverance and leadership of Black women like Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown.
In his seminal book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James Cone painfully recounts how,
In their justification of lynching, southern whites often used the pretext of an alleged “outrage” against white women. Lynching, they claimed, was necessary to protect the virtue of white women from the “unspeakable crime” of the “black male beast,” who no longer had slavery in place to keep his bestial behavior in check. Rape “placed him beyond the pale of human sympathy,” and “the world accepted the story that the Negro is a monster which the southern white man painted him.” (127)
It was the work of activists like Black journalist, Ida B. Wells, that helped to expose the lie behind this narrative. They brought to light the hideous truth that we now take for granted: lynching was never really about sexual violence. It was always about maintaining white supremacy.
The reality is white women, and white mothers in particular, have a vital role to play in shaping American society. We can allow ourselves to be pawns in the politics of fear. Or we can divest from the lie that we are under threat, that our children are under threat, that our neighborhoods are under threat. We must disown the violence. Not violence against us, but the violence that we wield against our Black brothers and sisters when we silently wash our hands of their suffering, or worse yet, cry, “Crucify them!”
Last month, I returned to work after my five-month maternity leave. In that relatively brief period of time, a jury acquitted a white boy who openly carried a loaded gun across state lines and killed two white men marching for Black lives. Over one hundred Black clergy and interfaith leaders gathered and prayed in Brunswick, Georgia over the verdict of the trial of three white men who lynched a Black man on a run after one of their lawyers objected on the record to all the “Black pastors” present to support the victim’s family. A white Senator voted against her party to prevent the end of the filibuster, long a favored tool in blocking civil rights and anti-lynching legislation. The change would have protected voters’ rights at a time of rampant suppression of minority votes.
All this took place while I recovered from my minor surgical procedure, nursed my newborn in the comfort of my easy chair, and sang lullabies over my two-year-old.
Larcenia “Cissy” Floyd was not alive to hear the cries of her son’s dying breath. But I think of Floyd’s six-year-old daughter, Gianna, and how her words— “Daddy changed the world”— echo those of Mamie Till— “When people saw what had happened to my son, men stood up who had never stood up before.”
George Floyd was somebody’s baby. Emmett Till was somebody’s baby.
What will it take for us— the white mothers— to stand up? When will we cease to be silent in the face of the lynching mob that marches out on our behalf? When will we stop killing other people’s babies?
Injustice is relentless, and motherhood does not exempt us from fighting it. So take time to care for those you love. But join the struggle. March. Write. Vote. Divest. Agitate. Organize. Preach. Pray. Invest. Raise the next generation of resisters.
As Fannie Lou Hamer so famously cried, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” and as Audre Lorde added, “even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Or as the Apostle Paul put it, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26, NIV)
I fight because I want to be free from the systems of oppression and hate that my ancestors erected and that white people uphold by default when we don’t work to dismantle them. I fight because I want my children to be free from generational sin, which I will either repent of or repeat. I fight because no mother should have to feel the pain of losing a child to state-sanctioned racial violence, and no child should be left motherless because of the color of their skin. When one Black mother hurts, we should all feel pain. When one Black mother weeps, we should all weep beside her. And when she rises to change the system that killed her baby and devalues her life, we too must rise.