Natal, a podcast about having a baby while Black, shares stories and answers the questions Black parents need to know about giving birth in the U.S. today.

By Melissa Mills
June 17, 2020
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Illustration by Brittany Harris; design by NATAL

Shellie Blackson, 50, and her partner, J.D., tried to conceive for a decade. After many unsuccessful artificial insemination attempts, the couple finally received the good news that Shellie was pregnant after their second round of in vitro fertilization. Despite a pretty uneventful and healthy pregnancy, Shellie's big birth plans—freshly done hair, a scheduled wax, and a water birth with Miles Davis playing in the background—went out the window pretty quickly.

Shellie's water broke two weeks early. She got an epidural despite her plans to labor unmedicated, and the guilt that she had "failed" set in fast. Like many other Black women in the U.S., she would go on to need a cesarean section to deliver her baby, a son she and J.D. named—naturally—Miles.

After Miles, now 12, was born, the loneliness and sadness—over breastfeeding, over formula, over whether or not she was a good mom—set in. Like so many new moms, Shellie was dealing with postpartum depression. The difference? Nobody knew until years later.

"I suffered in silence. I didn't ask for help because I was ashamed." One in seven women experience postpartum depression but, like Shellie, Black women are less likely to receive treatment. Their symptoms are more likely to be overlooked, especially for those who are low income or are in the LGBTQ community.

Shellie's story is just one you'll hear this season on Natal, a new podcast docuseries that launched during Black Maternal Health Week and covers a range of Black birthing experiences across all socioeconomic statuses and sexual and gender identities. All Black lives are important, and that is reflected in Natal, which is supported by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism, and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Executive producers and co-hosts Martina Abrahams Ilunga, 30, who's based in Brooklyn, and Gabrielle Horton, 29, who's based in Los Angeles, hope Natal will serve as a resource and community for families—whether they have kids or not.

“We are very aware of our identities as not being parents, mothers, people who have labored before," says Horton. "That means that we are completely comfortable with being able to pass the mic over to parents who have had these experiences. They are the experts of their bodies and their stories and their experiences. I wear my 'Proud Auntie' hat and think about my role in being able to advocate and share resources and information to the people in my life who identify as Black birthing parents.”

The idea for Natal, in fact, started in June 2019 when Horton's childhood best friend experienced preeclampsia at seven months pregnant. It wasn't something Horton or her friend were really aware of—outside of the fact that Beyoncé had experienced it with her twins—so she took to Twitter and the conversation just took off. Ilunga, who kept in touch with Horton after working together on You Had Me at Black, a podcast about Black millennials, also commented on the tweet and two started plotting.

"A lot of the journalism that we had seen about the Black birthing crisis wasn’t from the voices of these parents," says Ilunga. "So we wanted to hear, in their own words, what’s happening. Some of these stories are things that folks keep very close to the chest. They’re not sharing with family or friends, and the opportunity for us to provide a safe space for them to do so, I think, is definitely what sets Natal apart."  

The fact is that nearly 700 women die each year in the United States from pregnancy and childbirth-related conditions, with Black women three times more likely than white women to die from complications. With the help of experts like Joia Adele Crear-Perry, M.D., FACOG, president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, and Paulomi "Mimi" Niles, a full spectrum midwife and delegate of the Birth Place Lab who has been involved with New York's Maternal Mortality and Disparate Racial Outcomes task force, Natal explores some of the issues Black birthing parents face today. Ilunga says that at the core, though, most of what's still happening in 2020 stems from "the systemic and structural racism on which our country was built that permeates every institution, every industry—and that, of course, touches health care."

Episode two of Natal, "Roots of the Black Birthing Crisis," explores just this, starting with J. Marion Sims, who experimented with surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia and is now "heralded as the forefather of gynecology and obstetrics," says Ilunga. "Doctors and nurses and folks who go through medical training are really taught to praise him without understanding how this history still ties into how folks are being cared for.”

When it comes to the issues Black people—and especially Black birthing parents—face, "it's almost like, where do you start?" says Horton. That's evident now more than ever. But when it comes to birth, Horton continues, "There’s not a couple of issues that are the biggest ones, they’re all kind of at play. If you’re already being limited in how you’re able to access health care or jobs or quality education, it’s going to impact how you experience pregnancy.”

That's why, for Horton and Ilunga, it's so important to not only speak with parents, but also to highlight the birth workers, health care workers, and advocates who are out there helping and providing resources to the Black community. And they're not just passing the mic to these parents; they're taking care of them, too. The co-hosts make sure that every parent they speak with has the opportunity to talk to a mental health advocate to help unpack anything they might be feeling after they share their story, which is just one more reason it's so important to donate to keep the initiative going.

While the world may seem dark, Natal is shining a light on the information and resources Black parents need to navigate pregnancy and childbirth—everything from midwifery and home births to doulas and health conditions to be aware of.

"The solutions exist and are there," says Ilunga. "This is not a problem where people haven’t researched it, people haven’t identified what works and what protects Black moms and Black parents and Black babies. The solutions exist, and hopefully Natal can help turn them to the solutions within their communities.” 

Listen to Natal on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google, and everywhere podcasts are available.

Parents.com investigates the nation’s maternal health crisis and what can be done to lower the risk for thousands of expecting mothers. Read more here.

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