Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers, stepmothers, aunties, grandmothers, and caregivers!
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, mother as a noun means a female parent, and a woman in authority. Mother as a verb means to give birth or to give rise to and to care for or protect like a mother. In February 2020, however, Concordia University and the Vanier Institute of the Family held a conference to discuss the definition of family as it relates to our modern lives, as well as, who gets to define motherhood. In fact, “a narrow definition of family can neglect the experiences of single-parent, poor and minority families. For example, research shows that women of colour and low-income women often experience and interpret motherhood differently than white, class-privileged mothers”.1
I asked a couple of friends to discuss their family experiences growing up as minorities in Canada. Robin, who identifies as Afro-Latina Carribean first-generation Black Canadian, affirms that “the concept of the nuclear family in black homes, is not as common in the Western world.” She goes on to say that “food is such an important part of a lot of different cultures around the world, but in the Caribbean, many families cook together and bond over food.” This sentiment is echoed by Cecilia, who identifies as Mexican and French Canadian, says that “a lot of my good memories revolve around food. Mexicans LOVE food, and their cuisine is so rich, full of tradition, memory, and a powerful connection to a pre-colonial past.”
This connection through food across many cultures gives me the sense that our narrow, white, dictionary definition of mother and motherhood misses the mark. Other cultures have entire languages created through food and gives me a sense that motherhood is a state of nourishment, not only physically, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
As we celebrate mothers this month, we must keep in mind that having a healthy pregnancy, delivery, and a healthy infant is a privilege. According to the Canadian Association of Midwives, “systemic racism is putting the health of expectant [BIPOC] mothers and their babies at risk”.2
In the United States, “Black mothers are three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes and Black babies are twice as likely to die before their first birthday, regardless of the mother’s income or education”.3 The reason I cite a reference to US statistics is because Canada does not keep track of race-based health information, so we do not have accurate data about the health of Black and Indigenous mothers and babies. However, if we look at the history of the treatment of Indigenous patients, we certainly cannot ignore the systemic biases that have existed and persist today in Canadian medical facilities. Until the 1980s, Indigenous people were routinely segregated from other patients and treated in separate hospitals.4 Like the legacy of residential schools, these hospitals were the scenes of abuse, rape, and unexplained deaths.
Medical racism is evident in the accounts of patients denied standard pain medication because they are stereotyped as addicts, in the tragic death of Joyce Echaquan, and “birth alerts” which disproportionately target Indigenous women and is currently banned in some provinces (but is still allowable in Ontario).4
During the pandemic, in-person visitor regulations at the hospitals have restricted many mothers from having a midwife or a doula in the birthing room.4 Also, the current situation at Laurentian University highlights racism and misogyny at the highest systemic level as the midwifery program is being cut even though midwives and doulas offer culturally sensitive support and have been proven to increase healthy birth outcomes specifically within communities that have been marginalized.3 In addition, Black and Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by Covid-19, putting mothers and babies further at risk.
Ways that privilege is experienced in the medical setting:
- Your pain is believed and you are given pain medication right away.
- Nurses respond to your requests quickly and are professional and courteous.
- You are not questioned or blamed for the situation/illness(es) you are presenting with.
So how can we change the outcomes for BIPOC mothers and infants? We must address the systemic racism that is evident in the medical field and work to change it.
5 ways to check your privilege
Invest in midwifery programs.
Just as we need more programs of this kind, Laurentian University has made drastic cuts to its curriculum, including the midwifery program. Use your privilege and platform to support the calls to reinstate this program.
Do your research and listen.
Look at the history of medical racism in this country and listen to the accounts of current BIPOC medical students and health care workers. Many accounts of racism are shared on social media. We must listen to these accounts and sit with the discomfort and the knowledge that it is still happening.
Uplift the voices of marginalized communities within the discussion.
A health care practitioner must ask questions to determine the most beneficial treatment for a patient. Similarly, we must ask marginalized communities questions and listen to the answers. Many Indigenous mothers must travel several hours away from their homes and families to give birth in the nearest hospital and access to health services is largely online, while only 24% of reserve households have reliable internet connections.4 This could be solved by investing in culturally appropriate local community health centers. Many new Canadians are dismissed for missing paperwork and while waiting on their OHIP card to be issued. We can invest in providing more education around health care rights and help with language barriers.
Vote for inclusive healthcare programs.
Use your privilege and vote for healthcare programs that support healthy mother and infant outcomes, health care education, maternity and paternity leave, child-care tax credits, caregiver benefits, and compassionate leave benefits. Voting for platforms that prioritize the health of mothers and infants and expand the definition of family is a start to healthier communities.
Highlight joy in motherhood instead of perfection.
There is so much pressure to be the “perfect” mom in our society. Instead of striving for perfection, look for joy in all its forms.
How do you laugh with your children?
How do you teach them to love themselves, to love their community and their heritage? “Story telling has always been one of my favourite ways of connecting with my parents and learning more about my history, culture, and background,” says Robin.
How do you show up as a role model in the lives of those you love? As Cecilia says, “role models [are] a really big part of how I learned to navigate how I saw my cultural identity.”
How do you project a nurturing perspective to others in your life? Motherhood comes in all shapes and sizes. Expand your definition of motherhood and family. Read and listen to BIPOC accounts of family and what it means for them. When we can see others more clearly, we can empathize more deeply.