Jada Pinkett Smith’s mother among Black women who shared harrowing childbirth experiences on ‘Red Table Talk’
Tressie McMillan Cottom was four months pregnant when she was rushed to the hospital for extreme pain and bleeding. Cottom said she arrived and the hospital staff made her sit in a waiting room for about 30 minutes as she cried and bled on a chair.
When she was finally called back, a doctor dismissed her concerns as normal pregnancy symptoms, Cottom said.
Later that night, Cottom said she returned to the hospital for continued pain and an ultrasound revealed she had two large tumors. Cottom gave birth to a daughter that night who died shortly after her first breath.
“What happened is both traumatic but not singular, it happened to a lot of Black women,” Cottom said on Thursday’s episode of “Red Table Talk,” which focused on the “Invisibility of Black Women.”
“At every step of the process no one really took seriously that I knew what was happening to me,” she said.
Cottom’s appearance on the Facebook Watch series, hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith, her daughter Willow and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris, comes as the Black maternal health crisis receives renewed attention from federal lawmakers and celebrities.
Last month, President Joe Biden’s administration issued a proclamation designating April 11-17 as Black Maternal Heath Week to recognize the racial disparities Black women face with pregnancy-related deaths and complications. Vice President Kamala Harris penned a letter to Black women promising to advocate for maternal health and the implementation of a Maternal Mortality Review Committee. Harris also invited a group of Black women to the White House in April to share their experiences with pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum complications.
“I’ve heard countless stories of women telling their doctors they were experiencing pain, only to be ignored,” Harris wrote in the letter “Dear Black Women” published in Blavity. “Stories of women trying to talk about their postpartum depression, only to be dismissed and sent home. In the medical field, implicit bias is why Black women can speak up and still not be heard.”
On “Red Table Talk,” Banfield-Norris shared her own challenging experience with pregnancy and childbirth during Thursday’s episode.
She said she was not treated well when she was pregnant with Smith despite her father being the head of anesthesia at the hospital.
“I was denied the pain that I was having at the time,” Banfield-Norris said, recalling the hospital staff saying to her “Oh it’s not that bad. Just be quiet.”
Activist Tamika Mallory also appeared on the “Red Table Talk” episode and said being pregnant at 18 was so traumatic that she decided not to have anymore children.
“They treated me really bad…,” Mallory said. “My water leaked for a month. It was just so much trauma that after that I was like ‘never again.'”
The US continues to have the highest maternal death rate of all developed countries. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the maternal death rate among non-Hispanic Black women was 37.1 deaths per 100,000 live births, a rate up to three times the rates for white and Hispanic women — and that disparity increases with age. Researchers say 60% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. And the racial disparity in maternal deaths remains even despite the mother’s income and education level, experts say.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform highlighted the issue last week in the hearing “Birthing While Black: Examining America’s Black Maternal Health Crisis.”
Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the committee, said the country needs to acknowledge that its health care system was “built on a legacy of systemic racism and mistreatment of Black people.” Maloney recognized the Black congresswomen that have written bills to combat the health care bias that Black women face.
For example, Rep. Alma Adams recently announced the Maternal Care Access and Reducing Emergencies (CARE) Act, which creates two new grant programs including one that would support training programs on implicit bias for health care workers. Harris introduced the bill when she was a California Senator in 2018 and 2019 but it stalled in the Republican-led chamber.
Maloney urged Congress to advance legislation addressing the Black maternal health crisis to the Senate and then to Biden’s desk.
“Health equity for Black birthing people in attainable as long as we address racial disparities with the urgency, empathy and focus that this issue requires,” Maloney said.