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Maternal Stress Is a Key Factor in Higher Black Infant Mortality

Being black in America makes it more likely that you will be diagnosed with conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. It even lessens the chance that you will draw your first breath or make it to your first birthday.

In WKSU's continuing series on infant mortality, maternal stress is highlighted as one of the biggest risks to black babies surviving. 

Maiharriese Wooden
Credit Kelly Woodward / WKSU
Maiharriese Wooden fills a blessing box in Canton.

Maiharriese Wooden fills a blessing box with food in a poor, largely black neighborhood in Southeast Canton. It’s known as a food desert, an area with no healthy food within easy reach. She was once part of the disproportionate number of black families experiencing food insecurity.

That led to her putting food in outdoor cabinets in poorer areas of Stark and Portage counties. 

She recalled the day she saw a little boy take a can of green beans from a box near a school.

“He was like, ‘My mom likes these. She’s going to have a baby.’ I was like, “Score!” she said.

Her blessing box can help relieve the stress of putting food on the table. But infant mortality experts say the stresses that keep the death rate for black babies 2.5 to 3 times higher than white babies include more insidious pressures, like microaggressions, the negative drumbeats that continually tell someone that her life is worth less because of her race.

Tania Lodge, clinical director of the Minority Behavioral Health Group, says they weave into a fabric of chronic stress that affects African-Americans regardless of income.

“Chronic stress is just as toxic as taking drugs and alcohol during pregnancy. It carries the same impact, medically speaking. It causes prematurity, and it causes low birth weight,” Lodge said.

Credit Joe Smithberger / WKSU
Danyell Goggans is part of Black Mental Professionals Group, OWN.

Counselor Danyell Goggans is part of a newly formed group of black mental health professionals and peer support specialists called Our Wellness Network, or OWN, formed by First Year Cleveland.

“On any given day, a woman in general is worrying and concerned and thinking about so many things," Goggans said. "You add on top of that there's a second judgment that happens when someone sees your face ... a second look or a passing glance or a comment that sounds condescending can be very difficult to externalize. And so one internalizes it.”

OWN provides a safe place for black women and men to express the pain of racism and related issues, like infant loss, instead of internalizing it in an unhealthy way. 

A film called TOXIC: A Black Woman's Story profiles a day in the life of a successful pregnant Black attorney, created with the help of committees from First Year Cleveland. First Year Cleveland's Katrice Cain says the film illustrates the concept of weathering. "So it's the cumulative effects of racism and toxic stress over a period of time, and how that toxic stress affects the woman and her body and ultimately the child that she's carrying. And we know that it's generational, that when that baby is born, that baby carries on that stress."

"Toxic: A Black Woman's Story"
Credit toxicshortfilm.com / WKSU
"Toxic: A Black Woman's Story"

The film was made before the death of George Floyd spurred protests and inspired Maiharriese Wooden to lead a group trying to bridge racial gaps.

“I have nightmares of my grandsons in choke holds, swinging from a tree, or going to prison for years for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.

She wrote on social media about maternal stress, including an experience with police in central Ohio.

“I am a black woman that got pulled over every week by the same cop in my neighborhood for months because he felt that the car I was driving was too nice for someone like me," she wrote. "If a cop will do that to me, a black, single mom working three jobs, on her way home from picking her baby up from daycare, what will they do to my grandsons? I cannot share with you my full truth because you can’t handle it. I can’t handle it at times. As black folks, we are taught to carry the trauma alone. We don’t talk about it much. This is the best I can do for now. Welcome to the view behind the black curtain.”

The goal is for people to come together to change that view.

To contact the Wellness Network for help in Cuyahoga County, call 1-888-505-7245.

WKSU’s reporting on the issue of infant mortality is funded through an Informed Communities Grant from The Cleveland Foundation and the Akron Community Foundation and is part of a collaboration with Spectrum News One Ohio.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

Kelly Murphy Woodward, a regional Emmy Award-winning producer, loves to tell a good story and has been privileged to do that for more than 20 years, working in public television and radio, commercial news and running her own production business. She is passionate about producing quality programming for Northeast Ohio.