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Special Issue: America

Births of a Nation

Motherhood and Mortality in America

Catherine Opie, Self Portrait/Nursing (2004)

BY Naima Keith
vice president of education and public programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

In Other Insights

My husband and I welcomed our second child this past spring, so the subject of motherhood has been on my mind a lot lately. This issue feels particularly relevant given the recent media attention on maternal mortality, especially in the African American community.

In a New York Times article earlier this year, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” (11 April), Linda Villarosa wrote about the intertwined crisis of black infant and maternal mortality and their relation not to genetics, but to the lived experience of being a black woman in this country. While the rate of overall maternal mortality in the United States has risen by more than half since 1990, the grim increase is largely due to alarmingly high rates among black women: nationally, they are three to four times as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth as white women.

The rate of overall maternal mortality in the United States has risen by more than half since 1990

As Villarosa notes, “For black women in America, an inescapable atmosphere of societal and systemic racism can create a kind of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions—including hypertension and pre-eclampsia— that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death.” Just months before Villarosa’s article was published, the African-American tennis star Serena Williams wrote about her own life-threatening complications during her delivery. As an African-American mother of two, I know that the challenges faced by black mothers are complicated and will take years to fully address. But the prospect of motherhood should be a source of joy for black women, as it is for others, without the fear that their race will threaten their life.

In this context, what does motherhood mean to me? As rewarding as it is difficult, motherhood marks a new and different chapter in a woman’s story. It can build you up and tear you down at the same time. It gives you a new sense of purpose in life. You encounter a love and passion for your children unlike any you’ve ever experienced.

In 1967, the African-American photographer, writer, director, and composer Gordon Parks published a photo essay on the Fontenelle family. The mother, Bessie, her husband, Norman Sr, and their ten children had tragic lives. The Fontenelles at the Poverty Board, Harlem, New York, 1967, is one of the most arresting photos shot by Parks; a portrait of Bessie and four of her children—Kenneth, Little Richard, Norman Jr and Ellen—applying for government assistance. This intimate portrait of the Fontenelles epitomizes what it means to live in poverty. But it also demonstrates the lengths a mother will go to provide for her family.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Momme (2008). Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome

Motherhood is an experience through which you see yourself in your children, while they grow to see themselves in you. It calls to mind LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Momme (2008)—one in a series of collaborations between Frazier and her mother. The title, a conjunction of “mom” and “me”, references both the collaborative nature of the project and the seemingly conjoined appearance of the photograph’s subjects. Frazier’s mother appears in the foreground, peering downward, her profile parallel with the frame; LaToya’s face is split by her mother’s profile as she looks out sternly toward the viewer. With both sitters dressed casually and sporting matching hairnets, the dual portrait highlights the similarities between two generations of women living through the travails of impoverished communities. However, the photograph also serves as a personal meditation on the relationship between mother and daughter—one that appears to be fraught with tension as well as mutual admiration.

I think also to Betye Saar’s Mother and Children in Blue (1998), a faded collage that merges found patterned material with an early time-weathered formal portrait of a mother with two young children. Gathered from the ephemera of Saar’s recently deceased great aunt’s possessions, the work depicts the artist’s own lineage. Documenting a scene of mother and offspring, this piece likewise speaks to Saar’s position as a matriarch of contemporary African-American art and a pioneer in the assemblage movement whose own two daughters have followed in her path as practising artists. The girl, mother—and even the baby—all have austere demeanours and their out-dated, prim clothing demonstrates the passing of time. Despite their seriousness, I am also struck by the way they hold onto one another, a subtle embrace that evinces the depth of maternal bond and its intimacy.

Working mothers are assumed to be less dedicated

If you are a working mom, motherhood can seem even more complicated. In another recent New York Times article (“The Open Secret of Anti-Mom Bias at Work”, 16 May), Katherine Goldstein lays out the ways in which working mothers are assumed to be less dedicated to their jobs and calls for a “national discussion about discrimination against mothers, one that begins to raise in the collective consciousness the notion that this kind of discrimination is wrong and truly harmful”.

This discrimination can manifest in many ways, such as being passed over for a promotion to outright being fired—and the bias begins before the baby’s birth: an extensively researched investigation of American companies, again in the NYT, found that “pregnancy discrimination is rampant”. This report has since prompted the state of New York to investigate four major companies and launch a public awareness campaign. As Goldstein notes in her article, the consequences of this discrimination are huge. She cites a working paper by the US Census Bureau which reveals that women who have children when they are aged between 25 and 35 never close the pay gap between themselves and their husbands. Women who have children before their careers have really started or after they’ve been well established do eventually close that gap.

The famed Catherine Opie photograph of artist nursing her son, Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), has been influential for me in my visualization of motherhood. While Opie’s powerful composition echoes the classical pose of Mary cradling Jesus, it nevertheless subverts the conventional, feminized trope of the mother figure.

Known for her images of queer subcultures, here the artist presents herself to her viewer in a vulnerable, physically exposed position as a mother holding a baby in her arms. The artist’s skin and serene gaze meet that of her baby, and a grace permeates the unspoken affection between these two figures.

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Make Up) (1990) © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

One of my favorite photographs is Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled (Woman and daughter with makeup) (1990). It depicts a mother, lipstick in hand and gazing into a mirror, with her young daughter in a miniature version of the same pose. Even without looking at each other they synchronize this gender performance. A mother who teaches her girl-child the fragile ways of femininity, even as the mother does not fully embrace or embody these same terms of womanhood for herself. In this context, then, the mother and daughter’s self-gazing is a reparative act, with a far more valuable lesson: to be able to see each other—their black woman and black girl selves—in spite of the gendered and racial invisibility into which they both were born.

Motherhood is one of the most sacred journeys one can travel in life. It’s a blessing, a gift, a relationship that never ends, and a love that never dies. It’s the best thing I have ever become, the greatest love I have ever felt, and the best part about being me.

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