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These Black Moms Gave Birth Early. They Don't Want Their Experiences To Be Normal

Sabrina Beavers, shown here holding her daughter, Destiny, and her friend, Shantay Davies-Balch, at StoryCorps in 2019.
Sabrina Beavers, shown here holding her daughter, Destiny, and her friend, Shantay Davies-Balch, at StoryCorps in 2019.

Like many Black women, Shantay Davies-Balch and Sabrina Beavers delivered their babies earlier than they'd hoped.

The two friends came to StoryCorps in 2019 to speak about the challenges they each faced during pregnancy.

Beavers, then 35, brought along her 5-week-old daughter, Destiny Johnson.

When Beavers was about to deliver Destiny, what should have been a celebratory moment stoked worry in her friend.

"I remember when I heard that your water broke, I felt sad," said Davies-Balch, 38.

She knew it meant that Beavers was going to deliver her baby prematurely just as Davies-Balch had with two babies of her own. A too-early delivery poses a host of medical risks for the baby, including developmental problems, diabetes and even death.

Beavers said she "felt kind of cheated out of" the last part of her pregnancy.

"People talk about pregnancy glow and being able to deliver full term," she said. "I didn't get that experience. I would have appreciated having that extra time with her in utero to build that bond and for her to come out as healthy as possible."

For Davies-Balch, the end of her pregnancy term took a toll mentally. She thought she had done what she could to prevent a premature delivery.

"I remember feeling depressed because I was like, 'I take my folic acid.' I even had a spreadsheet where I tracked my vegetables," she said.

For Black women, the rate of preterm birth is 50% higher than it is for white or Latina women.

"I knew a lot of friends and their families who had suffered with babies that were in the NICU for weeks or who didn't make it home," said Beavers.

Research shows that chronic stress from racism is linked with a higher risk of premature birth among Black women. The social and economic factors caused by systemic discrimination — such as education and income levels and access to health care facilities — can also influence a Black mother's risk for premature delivery.

"I remember growing up seeing babies born really tiny," Davies-Balch said. "I didn't know there was a name for it. It was even normal to have Black women die either during birth or soon after."

The two friends are also colleagues, working to advocate for Black maternal and infant health. Beavers is the community outreach coordinator for the Fresno County Department of Public Health in California, where she provides community outreach as a health education specialist for their Black infant health program. Davies-Balch is the president and CEO of BLACK Wellness and Prosperity Center, a nonprofit in Fresno that aims to help African American women and babies.

Beavers wants Black communities and their doctors to talk regularly about these reproductive health dangers, similar to the more familiar messaging around the disproportionate genetic risks of heart disease and diabetes among African Americans.

"Why aren't these normal conversations?" she said. "I felt very overwhelmed, 'cause it wasn't something that I was prepared for."

Her newborn was born at just 4 pounds. At five weeks, her daughter was almost 7 pounds — closer to the average weight for babies at birth.

"That's so exciting," Davies-Balch told her. "I'm really proud of both of you. I know it was really hard."

But the two hope that no family has to clear those hurdles in the first place.

"The only ask that I have is that — for my daughter's sake and for the sake of any Black woman here, now, or destined to be — that we figure out how to prevent this from happening. I want this to not be normal," Beavers said.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Annie Russell. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.