It’s a question you normally wouldn’t ask a stranger, but ever since starting a podcast about black people and pregnancy, Martina Abrahams Ilunga and Gabrielle Horton have fielded it constantly: Do they plan on having kids?
Horton and Ilunga are the executive producers and hosts of a new docuseries, NATAL, which focuses on the entirety of the childbirthing journey through the eyes of black parents and the birth workers, medical professionals and advocates who support them.
Neither Ilunga nor Horton have children and before working on the podcast, both had deep anxieties about the experience.
“I came into this experience very afraid to have children,” Ilunga told The Root. “It was very top-of-mind for me.”
Horton agrees: “I was very uncomfortable with the idea of having a kid.”
If you do a simple Google search of “black maternal health statistics,” it’s easy to see why. While pregnancy and postpartum deaths are still relatively rare, the risk is higher in the U.S. than in other developed nations. And black women, for reasons that are largely systemic, fare much worse than women of other races and nationalities. In 2018, pregnant black women were 2.5 times more likely to die of maternal causes than white women. And this was an improvement over recent years when that rate was nearly 3 to 4 times higher.
As a recent Scientific American article notes, the underlying cause isn’t race, but racism. And neither class nor social status can immunize a parent from birthing complications: ask Beyoncé or Serena Williams. Pregnancy can be a pretty isolating experience as it is, but scrolling through news story after news story about the dangers and complications facing black parents can be overwhelming, especially when they have to navigate so much already.
Thankfully, NATAL provides a salve, one where the medicine lies in making black pregnancy stories more visible. The podcast’s trust in its participants is remarkable, considering how frequently the medical establishment itself fails to trust the concerns and feelings of black patients. And its insistence on focusing on what proper care for black families can look like is refreshing.
The belief that undergirds NATAL is as simple as it is powerful: that through community and communal storytelling, black parents can find support, healing, knowledge, and perhaps most importantly, joy.
Produced by an all-black team, the podcast debuted its trailer and a prelude episode on Wednesday, April 15, right in the middle of Black Maternal Health Week, with its first full episode set to air on April 22. Spanning eight episodes in total, the docuseries passes the mic to black parents, letting them get real about their experiences bringing new life into the world. NATAL also highlights the birth workers, advocates and medical professionals who are fighting every day to make the world safer and kinder to black families.
A prelude for the show opens with a reference (a tweet, to be precise) to Beyoncé’s experiences with preeclampsia, a condition where pregnant women develop high blood pressure during pregnancy. Untreated, the condition could be deadly. It’s a relatively unusual condition, affecting between 5 to 8 percent of pregnancies, according to ProPublica. But research has found that preeclampsia and eclampsia impact black women 61 percent more than white women, and present in black women earlier in their pregnancies.
“When I think back to that viral tweet, you know what really blew my mind? Like after like, retweet after retweet, all of the comments, all of the DMs, I started to realize just how common this experience is,” Horton confides to Ilunga. “You know, a lot of folks either have direct experience with it or they know someone who did.”
Seeing its resonance was like pulling a veil back: Here were all these black people who had gone or were going through this deeply stressful, disorienting experience, but who seemed largely unaware of the extent they shared that experience with others.
Ilunga responded to Horton by reflecting on her own mother’s birthing experiences: she didn’t have preeclampsia but experienced natal complications with each of her four children.
“I hear my friends’ stories hint at challenges during their prenatal visits or even in the delivery room, and that’s when I realized my mom wasn’t unlucky,” she says. “There’s just a bigger story happening here.”
Telling that bigger story is NATAL’s main goal, but what makes the docuseries unique is the holistic approach Horton and Ilunga take to the podcast’s platform. Every podcast now comes with a corresponding Instagram and Twitter account, but the NATAL team has been especially intentional about the community they’re creating around the podcast.
On their site is an extensive list of curated resources, including a mental health directory, organizations providing doula services and breastfeeding support, and additional readings about perinatal health and birth justice—all focused on black parents. There is also a community blog where people can contribute their own personal stories or op-eds. The NATAL Facebook group brings together parents, birth workers, advocates and policymakers who can share resources or talk through a variety of issues, like how the coronavirus is affecting birth parents and their loved ones.
Before the pandemic, NATAL had planned live events in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.. Since the goal is meeting their audience where they are—no matter where they are—the NATAL team has taken their events online, hosting Instagram Live events with the hashtag #NATALChats.
“We definitely see ourselves as kind of a bridge,” said Ilunga. “We came into this work very green. Both of our eyes have been opened to this whole support network for black parents and babies.”
And while many podcasts focus on care and wellness, few are as transparent as NATAL is about what caring for their docuseries participants looks like. The podcast has partnered with black therapists who provide care sessions for participating parents following their interviews. Ilunga and Horton want the experience to be as beneficial for those sharing their stories as it is for those listening in. They’re quick to acknowledge that re-living pregnancy and birthing experiences can be traumatic for parents and family members.
“Being visible requires quite a bit of vulnerability,” says Horton. “How do we care about people as they make themselves visible to the world and to each other?”
That vulnerability is not only essential to the communal storytelling that propels NATAL, but it’s also the foundation of the inclusive, community-focused healing that sets the podcast apart.
This inclusivity can be seen in how Horton and Ilunga talk about the subject of natal care, focusing on the overall experience of being pregnant beyond the act of birthing a child. They also are very deliberate in using the term “birth parent,” rather than “woman,” or “mother”—an acknowledgment that not all parents who get pregnant or give birth identify as cis heterosexual women.
While fear or anxiety might drive people to listen to the podcast, Ilunga hopes listeners will come away from NATAL feeling empowered. She does plan on having kids one day, and doing the docuseries has her feeling “so much more excited for when that time comes.”
Because not only does the series focus on the very real challenges black parents face, NATAL also features stories about what good, compassionate care can—and should—look like.
“I feel like I’m better equipped to advocate for myself and make sure I have the right people around me to help me advocate for myself,” Ilunga said.
Horton echoed that feeling, specifically highlighting the doulas, midwives and other birth workers featured on the series. People who have dedicated their time, energy and knowledge to creating safe and supportive spaces for black children to enter this world.
“There’s something very special with black birth workers. The energy just shifts in the room,” Horton said. “It’s something that’s quite beautiful.”