April 11-17 is Black Maternal Health Week. These stories regarding the health of women during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period are to commemorate the work being done to improve the birthing experiences of Black mothers in this country.
When Tanika Ray first found out she was pregnant in late 2013, she was in disbelief. The TV and podcast host had never seen motherhood for herself, focused more on her work in the industry than starting a family.
“I never really thought I was going to be a mother,” recalls Ray. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m a career woman.'”
“The dream was never picket fence, husband, child. It was never that,” she adds. “My dream was to be a boss woman and to travel the world and have experiences and be able to write that book when I’m 60. That was the goal.”
In addition to that, Ray didn’t actually think she could have a child. After being on birth control for more than 20 years, so long she couldn’t remember life without it, she decided to forgo her method of choice because she assumed, at 42, she was in the clear.
“God decided to make miracles happen,” she says.
Though it had never been a part of the plan, once Ray knew she would be bringing life into the world, she took it very seriously. She tried to be discreet with the news (that is until a photo of Oprah touching her bump at the 2014 ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood event found its way online), spending time learning, connecting with her unborn child in the womb.
“With motherhood, there are so many unknowns,” she says, noting that her relationship with her child’s father ended around this time. “I just had to put my big girl panties on, meditate, February to July, nest, make sure I built the space for her, talk to her or him, wherever he was, and really try to prepare myself emotionally so I didn’t have to depend on anybody else,” she says.
She had the support of a Black woman Ob-Gyn, which made things a lot less stressful for a time.
“There was a connection there,” she says. “I feel like I didn’t have to worry about my life being taken away by irresponsible medical efficients. I knew that she was going to have my back.”
With her big girl panties on, Ray was at peace as she prepared for her greatest role. And then she wasn’t. Out of nowhere, she fell ill during pregnancy and a lump formed in her neck. When she went to see a specialist for help, she found herself grilled in an offensive way.
“The ear, nose, throat doctor was a white guy. And he immediately goes, ‘Do you have AIDS?’ I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘Well, your white blood cells are low.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ He made me go get an AIDS test before we went any further on figuring out what was in my neck. And I was just so offended,” she says. “I went back to my OB who has nothing to do with my neck. She’s the only Black doctor I have. And I go, ‘He asked me if I had AIDS.’ And she goes, ‘What?! Wait, wait, why?’ I said, ‘The white blood cells.’ She goes, ‘Sweetie, Black people have lower white blood cell counts than white people.’ If he was educated on that, then it wouldn’t have been a concern. I wouldn’t have been humiliated. I wouldn’t have had to go get an AIDS test. They can be so uneducated when it comes to us.”
Then at 40 weeks pregnant, she was told by her Ob-Gyn that her child needed to come out. She was induced and given medication for her pain. Things soon turned chaotic. Her delivery room was quickly packed with people who told her that the wellbeing of her child, a baby girl, was compromised due to the child’s changing heart rate. After being advised that she would need to push, an overwhelmed Ray bore down and pushed her daughter out in 10 minutes. The hectic scene stays with her nearly 10 years later.
“I think if it wasn’t for my Black Ob-Gyn who led the charge, I would’ve been in dire straits because she was the one who was like, ‘Heartbeat, something’s not right,'” she recalls.
“For me, that blood pressure was going low, her heart rate was dropping. I didn’t know what was going on. All I knew is the people that were there did not make me feel safe,” she adds. “All I know is that if my black Ob-Gyn wasn’t there, I don’t know if I would be here. Because I remember hearing, ‘You’ve got to do this!’ And her just being the voice of reason: ‘Stop! Hold tight. Let me see if the baby’s ready.’ Her stopping the other 45 people in there to speak her truth, that truth kept me alive and my baby alive with no problems.”
Ray, who now hosts the podcast Mamaste, a sanctuary for the mommy collective, now encourages Black women to do pregnancy in a way that is best for them. Seek out the assistance of doulas or midwives. See if delivering in your home is the right alternative for you. Know all of your options to have the best outcome.
“Obviously I tore. They sew you without any numbing. It’s crazy what they do to women,” she says. “When you go through it, you realize how barbarian it is and how they haven’t modernized it. And in my opinion, if I had to do it all over, I would’ve had a doula. I would’ve been in my home. I would’ve had all the people who look like me, that care about me and my offspring around me.”
In addition to that, she no longer is interested in relying on traditional medicine and hospitals to take care of her needs. Following her birthing experience, Ray decided to get serious about taking her health care into her own hands. These days, she sees an iridologist who reads blood vessels in the eye to pinpoint any health issues or sensitivities. She’s also a proponent for knowing your own body well.
“I feel like anytime we take our medical care or our health into our own hands, we are saving our lives. And that goes for every single day,” she says. “Please women, discover other ways to heal yourselves outside of the medical system. It is the same medical system that told you, ‘You don’t feel pain. You’re tough. You don’t need to be taken care of in a way that’s precious.’ And so I always say if you are here to be healthy, if you are a woman who wants to own your own body and own your own health, you’ve got to do something outside of what they are telling you to do.”
“When there’s anything that feels out of the ordinary, research it. Find out what the best way to deal with it is. And it’s not always the Western medical care that we have in America,” she adds. “As we see, we are not the priority, so we’ve got to stop. If we do the same thing over and over expecting a different result, we are crazy. We’ve got to lean on something else.”
She supports whatever way women choose to deliver their babies and whomever they decide to have bring them into the world. Her Black Ob-Gyn made all the difference in her own situation. But she believes that until the traditional medical system improves its methods, expectant Black mothers and Black women in general need to see what else is out there to figure out what will be best.
“When you lean on other people to tell you what’s best, it’s scary, it’s dangerous. You are putting your life in other people’s hands,” she says. “Obviously study, research, be educated, really have a strong connection with self to know when it’s super dangerous and you’ve got to go seek an expert and when it’s manageable and it’s a matter of eating something different, drinking more water, saving yourself.”
“We’ve got to take agency over the control of our bodies and the way that we move in this world,” she adds. “I know these doulas and these midwives are popping up everywhere. And I say employ them, consult with them. See if that is a better, more confident option for you. I really want to encourage women, do something different. I know that’s not easy. It takes a lot more research, time, care, but it’s worth it.”