The NATAL Stories docuseries podcast provides a platform for Black birthing parents to fully and freely share their stories. The podcast, executive produced by Gabrielle Horton and Martina Abrahams Ilunga, holds space for stories of pregnancy, birthing, and postpartum care while Black, told from the first-hand perspective of the people who had those experiences. The podcast also incorporates the perspectives of birthworkers, medical professionals, researchers, and advocates who are leading the fight for birth justice.
We spoke to Gabrielle and Martina about the inspiration behind launching NATAL, how the podcast has shaped how they think about starting families of their own, and what they hope for the future of Black birth.
What inspired you to start the NATAL Stories podcast as a platform for telling Black birth stories and providing information and resources for expectant people?
GABRIELLE: It think it always comes back to this personal connection that we had. Martina and I both were very aware that there’s this crisis happening with Black maternal health care, but then it hit home. So Summer of 2019, my childhood best friend, Pat, developed preeclampsia. She was trying to convince her doctors like “Something’s wrong, I’m gaining all this weight, my blood pressure is like through the roof. Something is wrong and not being heard.” And she ended up going into labor two months early and the baby was in NICU, but it was in that first week right after she came home from the hospital without the baby I went over to visit and I was just like, “Well, what happened? You were just hiking last week, everything was so normal, you were so healthy.” And she was like “I had never heard of this before. I developed preeclampsia.” I was looking at her, and her body was just physically so different, clearly something was wrong. And so I think just hearing from someone that I’ve known since diapers… before I had read about it in articles I read Beyonce’s 2018 Vogue cover story. I had seen it, but I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes and I just knew I had to do something at that moment, but I didn’t know what. I took to Twitter with a post that was just sort of saying like, this is such an important topic we can’t fail to not acknowledge it and not do something about it. And it went viral, and people started sharing their own stories with preeclampsia, and then Martina commented and she and I knew each other.
MARTINA: Yeah, so Gabrielle and I had worked together briefly on another show, and we just had a relationship through social media and I saw her tweet. And for me, you know the Black maternal health crisis is something that over the past few years I had just been starting to pay more attention to. I had friends who were having kids and starting their family and just seeing people’s posts about their experiences with pregnancy and delivery, and a lot of them were just like hinting at something going wrong. Even thinking about my own mom and all the stories that she told us about you know her time bringing my siblings and I into the world, and the complications that she experienced – I know the details of those stories very intimately. I started to piece together that none of these are just random, coincidental, isolated incidences – they’re really part of this much bigger trend and bigger problem. So when I saw Gabrielle’s tweet and all the responses I was like “Hey, this is something that for a while I’ve been thinking about, you know, how do we tell these stories. If you want to do something, I’m so down.” And so it really just started there with us both wanting to take audio storytelling which is like the forum that we both have turned to for sharing Black stories and then wanting to really focus on Black birthing, particularly.
By passing the mic to Black parents to tell stories that otherwise might not have been told, how is NATAL uniquely able to contribute to the fight for birth equity and hold the US health care system accountable for the ways in which they’re failing Black birthing people?
MARTINA: I think one thing that we do differently than a lot of pieces of journalism or other content or media around this topic is we center Black parents and we give them the space to be the experts of their own stories. Oftentimes, someone else has come in as an expert and tries to explain the way a Black parent experiences, but we come at this like we know what we go through every day and it’s stuff that we’re going through in every city, in every state and we don’t need anyone else to really corroborate or explain our stories and our experiences. Because they are ours and we’re sharing them, that’s enough, that’s all that we need. So NATAL, from the very get-go, is very intentional about making sure that our parents are the experts of their own stories and experiences. And that’s really powerful for medical providers to hear, that’s really powerful for lawmakers and policymakers to hear, and it’s really powerful for the general public and people who want to support and advocate. And for Black birthing parents to hear, as well.
GABRIELLE: Our priority at the end of the day is passing the mic to Black parents to share their stories in their own words, but we also engage and invite in providers of color who can shed light on their experiences navigating within the system and what does it look like to sort of advocate for change within the system as well… When we do invite the experts into conversation or through our IG live series, or other kind of digital engagement that we’re doing, it’s a way for us to say “We’re also talking to you all, as well. And we’re inviting you into the conversation because we understand the role that you play in helping to affect change where you are, wherever you are.” Someone wrote in to us the other day saying “Thanks to you all, I’m going to be changing how I approach care for queer parents coming into the hospital.” This was Cedars Sinai reproductive psychiatrist, and that’s powerful. You have people in hospitals or different practices who are saying, I never thought about what it’s like to be a low income parent trying to navigate care, get on the bus, and do all these things just for a prenatal visit… And I think through episodes, you can also hear what does not work, what is wrong, what is racist as hell, but also what can be done differently. I think that’s a way of how we hold them accountable. I think that’s that you know inviting them into this space, you know like you play a role in this.
MARTINA: And for each story with each parent, we make sure that we ask them to talk to us about the care experience. What were the interactions that you had with your medical provider? What did they say to you? How did they respond and how did you feel in those interactions? Because that’s feedback that we know that providers oftentimes don’t get. And so NATAL is a space for them to hear how people feel about their care in their own words.
We know the horrifying Black maternal death statistics, and we too-often hear the stories of BIPOC women who have lost or nearly lost their lives in childbirth. But why is it important to share the joyful stories of positive birth outcomes, too? What is the power of positive storytelling when amplifying Black birth stories and reclaiming the birth experience?
GABRIELLE: Our stories, our lives, our experiences as Black people is not all doom and gloom. And I think especially right now in this moment where we are seeing one of the largest movements for radical social change and this movement of anti racism around the world, we’re seeing that our Blackness is not the issue. Our Blackness is everything rooted in joy and all things beautiful and light. It’s racism that we’re really trying to address. So, with Blackness, you’re going to have everything because we are full human beings, we’re fully realized individuals. So you’re going to have sad days, you’re going to have joyful moments, you’re going to have everything in between. And so, why would a storytelling platform like NATAL not be able to kind of really reflect that range? We would be doing a disservice to let people know “Oh everyone’s just gonna die.” Well, honestly that’s not even true by statistics. But we wrestled with this when we first were really developing NATAL. It was like, “Do we focus on the stats that everyone is talking about that obviously warrant conversation and action and change in behavior?” And then it was conversations with doulas and midwives through our early pre-production process, and they were like “We hope y’all talk about the joyful stuff because Black birthing is sacred.” And I think that’s when the light bulb went off. And so everything we’re trying to address that’s wrong, it’s not really from the parents I think people deserve to hear the joyful stuff, because it’s sometimes intertwined with the sad shit, but we’re full people. We have all the feelings and emotion.
MARTINA: In 10 months, a parent can experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and it’s hard to only sift out one or the other. But there are some people coming to NATAL to learn for their future. And I think of Gabrielle and myself, neither of us are parents, and in some ways NATAL is helping us to answer some of the questions that we have around what does it mean to give birth, and have a baby and bring life into this world as a Black person. And we need that hope. People need to know and we need to know what we’re aspiring to as well. We would not be doing anyone a true justice or true service if we did not include those stories in that world.
GABRIELLE: We can reimagine a new model of care, which is what we also ask every guest that we talk to. We ask them “What would be your vision of care? What would be a new vision or new model of care that you would like to see implemented?” You can’t reimagine anything if there is not some sense of joy tied to it… Joy has to be a part of the revolution and how we reimagine new ways of caring for Black parents.
Podcasts are a modern-day passing down of oral history. What is the significance to you of preserving the stories of Black parents and families through this medium?
MARTINA: Black history has always been passed down through oral tradition. Our history we don’t find in a textbook. It’s all been stories that are just held by different people in our communities that then pass it on to the next generation. And so I think the beauty of podcasts is that we are able to honor that tradition but have these stories be preserved in a way that they haven’t been preserved before, and that’s actually one of the things that originally drew me to podcasting for Black storytelling. And it’s just so intimate. There’s something intimate about hearing somebody’s voice in your ear that you don’t necessarily get when you’re watching a video. And it really allows a connection to your imagination and other senses in a more intimate and deeper and profound way that I think is really powerful and really cool.
GABRIELLE: It touches on this thing about accessibility. Obviously we have global listenership, but if we think about this in the US, most folks, most households have a smartphone, which means they’re able to access podcasts. We know that not all households do, but majority of folks have smartphones or some kind of connection to the Internet, whether it’s through the library, through a computer, whatever it is, and so you’re really also able to access these really rich stories with a bit more ease. You don’t have to wait to go to this event, you can literally turn it on and off as you see fit. And so I think it’s also us playing into this accessibility, because we want people to hear. But I agree with everything Martina said – this is our way of paying homage to Black oral history and tradition, and it’s just our way of doing it in a millennial digital world.
Why do you believe it’s important for childless millennials to be engaging with information and conversations around the reproductive continuum before we become pregnant and start families of our own?
GABRIELLE: I think it’s exactly that. If we’re childless now, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be childless forever. So for a lot of us, this is a time where people are partnering up, or maybe they’re not partnering up but they’re starting to think about what their future is look like in terms of their families and households… It’s information that we all need to know, because even if we choose not to have kids, we’re going to know someone who it is. I think something that NATAL really tries to drive home is that NATAL is all about Black birthing parents, but there’s a whole lot of us in community with Black birthing parents. So it’s not just providers and like the birthing parent – it’s like the loved ones, the friends, the best friends, the auntie, the uncle, the grandmother, the husband, the wife, whatever it is. We all have a role to play, so whether or not you know what your reproductive future looks like or if you’re already a parent, as millennials we have a role to play because we’re in community with people that we care about, and that means that we also need to know what their experiences are like and how we can really show up for them. And then also you can make more informed decisions based on what you’re hearing from NATAL, accessing a resource hub. We’ve got so many resources that people can really explore on their own, and be able to make the best decision for them, which is really at the heart of reproductive justice.
MARTINA: We all know someone who’s given birth, who is a parent, had a baby. And you know, the last episode that we aired was a story from a woman who suffered from postpartum depression [Gabrielle’s aunt]. She talks about not feeling like she had a support system and it’s like we really are our family and friends’ support system, so it’s important that we be more informed on the experiences of Black birthing parents, but also some of the solutions and things that are out there so that we can help be their ears and eyes when they just aren’t able to do that for themselves. And also millennials, we are a generation that likes to talk about things that past generations didn’t always like to. This just plays right into it – sharing these experiences, sharing these stories, sharing information in a very like open and blunt and accessible way is something that I think is unique for our generation that we can’t necessarily say the same for some older generations.
How has launching NATAL changed the way you think about being pregnant and giving birth in your future? What is the most valuable perspective you’ve gained so far?
MARTINA: For me, it’s changed everything. I definitely came to NATAL very nervous, very focused on the negative headlines and statistics, very doubtful, but NATAL has given me a lot of hope. Just learning about the solutions that are out there, and this whole community of birth workers that are fighting for Black birthing parents, and that really have the answers has been totally life changing for me and so I feel excited for if that time comes for me. I feel a lot more empowered just knowing what my options are or resources are and having a community that I can tap into for support. And also having the language and being able to prepare my family to support myself and my partner. I would say it’s a complete 180 from when I started the project and how I view my potential future experience.
GABRIELLE: Hearing from parents is always really powerful. I’m always still blown away, even when we replay episodes or replay interviews. I definitely think that I was less familiar with birth workers as a whole and alternative birthing spaces as well, and so I think that I feel very encouraged and excited by the idea. Even now, not as someone who’s pregnant, but I have friends who are pregnant and it’s so cool that they can come to me and they can ask questions, and I actually have answers rooted in truth and fact because we’ve been talking credible providers. So it’s been really great to think about my role, and also I’m soon to be a doula. It’s also encouraged me to think about what are other ways I can be supportive for Black parents who just want to have this really beautiful experience but don’t know how to or have been told that they can’t have it. And so it’s challenged me on a personal level, and then it’s also just giving me great comfort in knowing that there is this really expansive and network of birth workers around the country who are fighting for, for all of the things that we’re talking about in NATAL.
What is your hope for the future of Black perinatal care?
MARTINA: The opportunity for Black birthing parents to have options and to know what those options are. More resources behind community care, more resources behind different kinds of support for Black birthing parents. There are few challenges – there are the resources, then there’s also that exposure to those resources. And so I really imagine a world in which any Black birthing parent can go to their nearest care provider and be introduced to a whole range of options that really centers them. That centers their health, that centers their needs, and that centers their joy. It’s very altruistic, but I think it’s possible and we’re seeing it in communities across the country. And so I am excited that I, through NATAL, really have been exposed to the tip of the iceberg and I’m excited to continue to dive in and to help to be a small part of making a lot of those opportunities available to more Black birthing parents.
GABRIELLE: I’m gonna rub off what Dr. Bamgbose said in Episode Four – that’s the reproductive psychiatrist at Cedars Sinai. Dr. Bamgbose opens up the episode talking about this almost idyllic place where you will literally have every type of provider in one space and kind of have like this birthing hub. So you have your OB, you have a nurse you have lactation consultants, you have psychiatrists and therapists and social workers, you have lounge spaces where Black parents and their loved ones can interact with other people there for services, but it’s almost like you have these physical spaces erected in communities where people can get everything they need to sort of navigate this new journey. And so when I think about the future, I think about the physical phases as well, just as much as how we want to sort of transform our intellectual approach, our financial approach. I imagine all those things, but the tangible thing I see is these little hubs. I think we were seeing that on a micro level right, they’ve got a couple things here in LA where I am, but I can see this being on a larger scale, which means it requires a considerable increase in the investment that we have. I see a more integrative model that really is also drawing on a lot of demands people are calling for now in the movement for Black lives and investment in social services right that really allow people to benefit from human centered services, and culturally responsive ones. Imagine this space where all of this can kind of exist and thrive and just kind of be at the epicenter of communities.
As you continue to work as leading voices in the Black maternal health space, what are you doing to reclaim Black joy and care for yourselves?
GABRIELLE: We both are plant mamas. So keeping our plants alive, which is really a whole thing. I thought it’d be a lot simpler – I wanted more plants, but the idea kind of stresses me out. Coloring, I run, I cook. I have a puppy coming this weekend. I read a lot, I sit outside for picnics by myself.
MARTINA: We do a lot of the same things, but one thing I’ve actually really definitely noticed in the last few weeks is that I need to be much better at intentionally caring for myself and not allowing it to be an afterthought and really prioritizing and scheduling that in to my life. All the activities that Gabrielle said, they all work for me. For me, meditation in my faith is also really important – making sure I spend time with God each day, but I definitely need to get better at all of these things.
Gabrielle Horton began her audio production career at NPR member station Michigan Radio and Crooked Media. In July 2019, she launched her production company, The Woodshaw, and currently produces the Hear to Slay and The Black List podcasts. Gabrielle is a graduate of Harvard-Westlake School, Spelman College, and the University of Michigan.
Martina Abrahams Ilunga and her sister founded You Had Me at Black in 2016 with a mission to reclaim the Black narrative by passing a microphone to regular people to share stories and create a multimedia archive of Black life. To-date their team has recorded almost 100 stories, 80+ of which are published on their podcast (downloaded over 500k times by listeners in 31 countries), and brought the show to life on a five-city tour.
NATAL (@natalstories) is a podcast docuseries about having a baby while Black. Throughout the season, we pass the mic to Black parents to tell their stories about pregnancy, birthing, and postpartum care, in their own words. The docuseries also highlights the birthworkers, medical professionals, researchers, and advocates fighting daily for better care for Black birthing parents. NATAL is available wherever you get your podcasts.