Mamas on Bedrest: Medical Research and the African American Community

December 5th, 2012

I have an interview tomorrow with a research group seeking to understand what matters most to mamas during pregnancy and birth. They are circulating  a survey and are not receiving the response they’d like from mamas of color. They are asking me to share ideas that may increase participation amongst minority mamas, African American mamas in particular.

I am so happy to be able to assist with this research. I truly believe that the more mamas speak out about their needs during pregnancy (bed rest???) and childbirth, the more the medical community will have no choice but to listen and make changes.

As I’ve pondered what I may say, I realized that most if not all mamas want the same things for themselves and their offspring:

  • Complication free pregnancies and childbirths that result in healthy babies.
  • Access to quality health care before, during and after their pregnancies for themselves and their babies
  • A safe and secure home
  • Healthy, nourishing food for themselves and their children/families
  • A healthy, happy family
  • A living wage (either for themselves or their spouse/partner) so that they can support and provide for their families.

It’s pretty simple really. And if you look at mamas across species, these issues are the same for all mamas. The mama bear wants a quiet, cozy cave in which to birth and nurture her cubs, and food to feed them until they can go out on their own. The mama fox wants a cozy, safe foxhole in which to nurture and rear her pups. Mama bird builds the perfect nest high up away from danger in which she hatches her eggs, feeds her birdlings and eventually will send them on their way. And if anyone even contemplates hurting one of those “young ins”…Be prepared to lose life and limb because mamas of all species (humans included) will kill you as quickly as look at you if you approach/attack their young!

Contemplating the question further I began wondering, are the surveys reaching women of color? Research studies often target a certain demographic; working mamas or mamas of a certain educational background or age. In the African American Community, it may not be enough to simply look at age or income. You may need to look at where specifically to find the women. In the African American Community think churches, salons or other social/community gathering places.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, how you approach women in the African American Community is critical. There is a long history in this country of African American people being used as study subjects and being subject to various treatments and interventions without their understanding or consent. Cases in point: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. These events are very contemporary, a mere one to two generations away depending on the age of the women you are querying.  It’s hard to embrace a medical/health care system that has had such dubious behavior in the past which lead to such profound (negative) consequences for those “studied” and their families. And even though many African Americans have no direct relationship to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment or to Henrietta Lacks, almost every African American knows or has experienced discrimination or suboptimal treatment from the health care system in this country. So it’s really hard for African Americans to embrace medical research and the notion that “their best interests” are really going to be of utmost priority.

In the case of mamas, think of it in terms of mama bears; you are approaching her den and seeking access to her and her cubs (born and unborn). If she is not fully assured that she and her cubs are safe, she’s going to withdraw to safety first, or, if there isn’t time for that,attack! How you approach her can be the difference between life and death-of your study.

What is it going to take to lower the walls between the medical community and the African American Community? Kind of like animals we’re going to have to sniff eachothers’ butts. We’re going to have to find familiarity, a common ground upon which to establish a new foundation for relationship. It can be done. But it’s going to take time, patience and a whole lot of understanding on both sides.

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