Our Body Politic

Best Of 2021: Addressing Maternal Physical and Mental Health, the Ongoing Crisis over What to Teach Kids, and How One Activist Disrupts from Within Institutions

Episode Notes

In this holiday rerun, Farai Chideya brings back some of the best interviews of the year. First, Representative Lauren Underwood of Illinois on her personal and professional connection to the maternal health crisis, and what she thinks politicians can and should do about it. Author Carmen Maria Machado shares how her gay memoir found itself at the center of a controversy in a Texas school district over what to teach students. Educator Lydia X.Z. Brown explains their perspective working within and without institutions as an activist in the disability justice movement. On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Farai discusses how moms are faring with their mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the co-hosts of The Double Shift podcast, Angela Garbes and Katherine Goldstein.

EPISODE RUNDOWN

0:50 Representative Lauren Underwood on maternal health in the U.S.

12:33 Author Carmen Maria Machado on the power of a moral panic

18:38 Educator Lydia X.Z. Brown on embracing different ways of learning

31:18 Sippin’ the Political Tea: the co-hosts of The Double Shift come on to talk to Farai about the mental health of moms during the Covid-19 pandemic

Episode Transcription

Chideya: Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. We hope you are having a wonderful holiday season. If you have time, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcast. It helps other listeners find us, and we read them for your feedback. Thanks so much. This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. This week, we take a look back at the best segments we aired this year. A lot happened in 2021. Oh my goodness. And we are going to take stock of the joy and growth we experienced. We're also going to highlight the work of Black women and all women of color improving our lives.

Chideya: We've spent the year covering topics that are heavy, from white supremacist extremism, which I've long covered, but which hit the national stage in a new way on January 6th, to the Biden Harris administration and a narrowly Democratic Congress, and of course, the question of how Americans are truly asking their government to provide for them. For this episode, we're taking a look back at some of the best segments of 2021. First, one of the women we've interviewed, who took a tragedy in her inner circle and turned it into a quest for systemic change. Lauren Underwood is a US representative from Illinois. Back in April, we talked to her about the bill she reduced in Congress at the beginning of the year. It's called the Momnibus, and it tackles maternal health and mortality rates of birthing persons in Black and other underserved populations. It works on social determinants of health like childcare, food security, and housing, and on diversifying the maternal health workforce. The Momnibus also increases funding for research on this segment of the population. We already know that maternal mortality rates in the US are the worst of any developed country, and that Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy related complications than white women. Representative Underwood has extensive experience in this field, having been a registered nurse, worked at the US Department of Health and Human Services, all before being elected to the House in 2018. She's making this a core issue she wants to work on. We talked to Lauren Underwood earlier this year. Representative Underwood, welcome.

Rep. Lauren Und...: Thank you. Hi, Farai. I'm so glad to be with you.

Chideya: I am really glad to be with you. And you really have such an extraordinary background to bring to law making. Start off by telling us about your work in the Black Maternal Health Caucus. Why did you decide to do this work?

Underwood: In 2017, as I was wrapping up my service in the Obama administration, a friend of mine from graduate school was preparing to become a new mom. Her name was Dr. Shalon Irving. She was a Lieutenant commander in the United States Public Health Service Commission Corps, working at the CDC on health disparities. And we did our master's in public health together. Anyway, she had a baby, a beautiful baby girl named Solee. And three weeks later, we lost her. She died of complications related to her pregnancy. Now, as a nurse, I have long been aware of maternal mortality disparity that we see in this country, where Black women are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy related complication than white women. However, this is the first time that it really touched my life personally. And I knew that if I won my campaign for Congress, that this is an issue I want to work on. So, I teamed up with Dr. Alma Adams. She's a Congresswoman from North Carolina. And we started to work on this issue. Now, because it's Congress, we gave ourselves a name. And we called ourselves the Black Maternal Health Caucus, really thinking it was just going to be the two of us, but quickly we got lots and lots of interest and support from colleagues on both sides of the aisle and the Congress. And so, now we have over a hundred members. And we have some support on the Senate side. And in 2020, we introduced a piece of legislation called the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, which is comprehensive legislation to end this maternal health crisis that we face as a country.

Chideya: I'm so sorry about your friend's passing. What's in the Momnibus that we should really know about that sticks out to you?

Underwood: Okay. So, everything that we are doing is designed to comprehensively address this problem. In the American Rescue Plan, which is this most recent COVID relief package, we have finally passed into law, a postpartum Medicaid expansion. And so, so many of the interventions to tackle maternal mortality in this country have had that intervention, that policy change as a foundation. We've done that now that states have an incentive to extend Medicaid coverage to the full year postpartum. However, we know that Medicaid on its own will not solve this problem. That's where the Momnibus comes in. So we have, for example, and our Social Determinants for Moms Act funding to expand WIC for postpartum and breastfeeding people to extend WIC coverage and eligibility, really important, right? Because as we talk about social determinants of health, these are factors like nutrition and housing, and transportation that all impact our health status, right? And we have to do this kind intervention at a systems level to change the policy, if we're going to hope to improve the nutritional status of individuals. Our Perinatal Workforce Act to grow and diversify that healthcare workforce, so that we have the diversity of OBs and midwives, and nurse midwives, and doulas, and lactation consultants. We want to make sure that every birthing person has a choice. Another example is mental health. So, in my state of Illinois, Black women are six times more likely to die from a pregnancy related complication than white women. And the data has shown us that mental health conditions, overdose and suicide are the leading cause of maternal death in our state, which is just a statistic that is mind blowing. We need to have this care and the specialists available in all of our communities, because we're going to continue to lose people if we don't solve this. So, that's when I talk about systems level approach. As the federal government, there are things that we can do to enhance and refine existing programs like WIC, but also to create additional resources for families and communities to solve this problem.

Chideya: Let's talk a little bit about generations. You are a millennial, from what I understand, the first millennial representative for your district in Congress.

Underwood: Yes.

Chideya: And all generations have their ups and downs, but the millennials have been dealt a pretty rough card in terms of educational debt, job market fluctuations. And there's a lot of signs that a lot of people are just really frustrated, and even people who want kids are like, "I don't know if I can raise a kid in this country, in this economy." For people in your generation, how do you view your work on maternal health in the context of these other things like the economy?

Underwood: Yeah. Listen, this is the second recession of my career. My generation is less likely to be homeowners. We're less likely to outpace our parents in terms of wealth acquisition. And that's across race and ethnicity. That is not just a people of color thing. And when we talk about making choices to start a family, making choices to and sometimes get married, or have a partner, that is something that I think a lot of us feel a real sense of agency in. And that's an opportunity that millennials have that prior generation, particularly for women or other birthing people have not had that same sense of agency. So, I would acknowledge that how far we've come as a society. However, there is a recognition, particularly among people of color that when we make these decisions, it comes at great risk. Because one of the things we haven't talked about in this conversation is, we've talked about maternal mortality, maternal death, but severe morbidity is also an issue, right? Near misses. People who've had extraordinarily difficult birthing experiences or postpartum experiences. And the statistics says that for every death in this country, there are 70, 70 near misses. And so, as a result, when we talk about this Black maternal health crisis, we talk about it in terms of both, the deaths and the near misses, which as a result, it means that so many of us, from a cultural standpoint, we all know someone. If it's not us, it's our sister, our best friend, our sorority sister, somebody at our church, the girl from around the corner, right? We all know these stories. And it's become this cultural force. It's not just Beyonce or Serena Williams, or Allison Felix, the great track star, right? It is something that is pervasive so culturally, that I think as millennials, and particularly a millennial in Congress, this is when representation matters, right? This is a disparity that's been around my entire lifetime, and I am 34 years old. That means we are talking about decades of inaction. And so, yes, I'm the youngest Black woman to serve in Congress. Yes, there is responsibility that comes with sitting at these tables as a policymaker. And if we cannot solve problems like this, this is what I want people to remember. This is a problem that has not only a solution, but an evidence based solution. We know what to do. It's about having the courage and having the opportunity to make the change. And I think that among the American people, at least I certainly had the assumption before I was elected that Congress worked on the most important things, most important issues in our country, right? Worked on the toughest challenges, right? That there was something that was directed our work. No, the members of Congress decide what we work on. We make that decision. And so, if we are not present in these chambers, in these bodies, then some of these problems don't ever get addressed. And this is one of these issues where it's just never been on the agenda. But guess what? We're here in the now.

Chideya: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.

Underwood: And we've built the coalition now. And so, now we have this opportunity to save lives and make change.

Chideya: Your bio on your website says that you are a lifelong girl scout. I also was very active in scouting and have great memories of going to sleepaway camp and any number of things, also my local troop. What do you think that you got from being a girl scout that you've carried forward into your career as a member of Congress?

Underwood: Oh, I have been a girl scout. I was a gold award recipient, which is the highest award in girl scouting. I've also been a troop leader. I don't have children. So, I was a troop leader for some girls in Washington, DC, and I was very involved. Right? And one of the things I always emphasized to my girls in my troop, was that piece of being a sister to every girl scout. And what that means about working together, about solving problems, about leading with love and compassion, and understanding and patience. And teaching some middle school girl in a challenging urban environment is something about that concept was something that was difficult for me. But I think that that approach has helped me so much as I do this work in Congress, where I am facing a severe partisanship, where in our community, we have so many people who fall all along the ideologic spectrum and are so interested and willing to put up barriers and make those divisions rigid. And my job and a lot of times, it's just to break down the barrier. Well, how do you do that? It's by being a sister to every girl scout.

Chideya: Yeah.

Underwood: And it's a lesson that I learned as a young girl that I've taught other young women. And now I get a chance to implement in my role as a Congresswoman. It's important.

Chideya: Well, Representative Underwood. It has been a great pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Underwood: Thank you for having me.

Chideya: That was Representative Lauren Underwood of Illinois's 14th Congressional District. She's also co-founder and co-chair of the Black Maternal Health Caucus. Since we first interviewed our next guest, the intense debate over what we teach our kids has become central to many political campaigns. Back in the spring of 2021, a high school's recommended reading list in Texas made headlines when a parent complained about one book's sexually explicit content.

News Clip: This is what we're asking our children to read. It's a strap-on (beep).

Chideya: The parent speaking at the Leander Independent School District meeting pulled a pink dildo out and dropped it on the podium. She was referring to a sex scene between two women in the book, In The Dream House, by our next guest, Carmen Maria Machado, a queer Latina author.

Carmen Maria Ma...: I'm a writer and also a teacher of writing at the University of Pennsylvania. I first learned about this incident in Texas when I was... I actually got an Instagram message from a reader out of the blue. And I was having breakfast with my partners. And everybody was just hanging out and drinking coffee and chatting. And I looked at Instagram and I was like, "Oh my God."

Chideya: Her memoir published in 2019 is a powerful retelling of an abusive relationship, Machado was in when she was younger with another woman. She says her book was one of several that were singled out by unhappy parents.

Machado: The video was at first, it was very funny. I mean, because I feel like I grew up like practically living at a library and I loved Banned Books Week. So, I was laughing. And then she pulled the dildo out or the strap on, and it was super funny. And I was just cracking up. But then as it kept going, it was really messed up. It went from being hilarious in its silliness and shortsightedness, and pearl clutching, that part was sort of funny, but then it got really dark at the end.

Chideya: That parent reportedly argued that letting a student read Machado's book could be considered child abuse. Machado responded with an opinion piece for the New York Times, saying her book could actually help educate teenagers about abusive romantic relationships. That's something that schools often don't teach their students.

Machado: Professional educators put my book on these lists. People whose entire job it is to develop curriculum for certain age groups. And I think my book was an easy target for this particular group, this very conservative group, because it's about difficult subject matter. It does not shy away from things like sex and speaks very frankly about certain topics.

Chideya: The easy scapegoating was obvious to her and to many people who question the local furor over the book.

Machado: And like all moral panics, when you say, what about the children? You can get away with a whole lot. And so, to frame the book in the context of, won't someone think about our children who are being groomed by reading a gay memoir about domestic violence. They become able to manipulate the conversation on their terms. I mean, it's deeply disingenuous.

Chideya: For Machado, talking about domestic violence in the queer community was one of the reasons for writing the memoir.

Machado: When I wrote the memoir, I was really expecting to be having conversations about what does it mean to air dirty laundry of a community, and talk about a topic that because of respectability politics and because of the public negotiation of rights that is happening with various groups that there's this desire for a single story, that's very digest and uniform to the majority, right?

Chideya: The district ended up pulling several books from these recommended reading list, including Machado's book and a graphic novel based on the handmaids tale. They suspended book clubs that students formed around these list and tasked a group of staff, parents, students, and community members to vet all the books selected by the district.

Machado: Also, it is not a coincidence that often the books that fall into these nets of this kind of censorship that's happening on this level, they're often gay books or trans books, or books about people of color. It's like all of the best and most interesting work that's getting written is just getting caught up in this system. I mean, ultimately, when this was going on, I kept thinking about people are always saying weird things. We're like, "Oh, red states, who cares?" But it's like, there are gay people in Texas. There are young gay people in Texas, who this could be helpful for them or this issue affects them. I want young gay students in Texas to be able to read my book, have access to my book through their school, if they want to. And that's really important to me.

Chideya: Machado says she wrote "In the Dream House" for herself, but it found a wider audience than she anticipated.

Machado: Certain groups of people, I think my work speaks to them. Particularly, I think women really respond to my work. Queer folks really respond to my work. I do think that there are sub segments of the population that feel drawn to the kinds of stories I want to tell.

Chideya: Carmen Maria Machado is author of the memoir, "In the Dream House," and of the short story collection, "Her Body and Other Parties."

Chideya: You are listening to Our Body Politic. And this is a Best-of episode. Our team is resting and recharging this week, and we hope you are too. I am spending time with my family. My mother, Cynthia was literally born on Christmas day, and it's her 80th. So, happy birthday mom. Now, not everything has always been easy for her. My mother was someone who gave a lot to journalism and got not as much in return. She was frozen out of the field. She had a graduate degree, spoke fluent French and some Arabic, German and Shona, which is my dad's language, but she was not the right color or gender, or parental status for the journalism industry. All of which is to say, I am here because of her. And we fight on. Now, that we're wrapping up 2021, we are so excited for the show in the new year. We'll continue to bring you stories of people making a difference in their fields and cover important topics like extremism and accountability in the tech industry. In the fall, we had the opportunity to interview a really fabulous guest. Lydia X.Z. Brown is a disability justice advocate, teacher and lawyer. Brown, who goes by they, then pronouns, founded and directs a mutual aid fund, they say has given over $150,000 back to autistic people of color. They also work with the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Autistic Women and Non-Binary Network, and teach at Georgetown and American universities. Lydia, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Lydia X.Z. Brow...: Hi.

Chideya: How do you think of autism today? How do you define it? And how do you work with this as part of your identity and part of your mission in the world?

Brown: Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability. That means that autism is a way of being and existing in the world, a way of inhabiting space, taking up space that profoundly affects every aspect of an autistic person's life. Taken all together, we can recognize autism as a distinct neurological way of being that is different from those people who are not autistic. And not autistic people function according to certain patterns of thinking and learning, and processing sensory information, and communication. And autistic people function according to certain other patterns. And every autistic person themself also can fluctuate in what exactly our need needs are, what our skills and abilities are and what our limitations might be from moment to moment. But the thing is, that's also true for non-autistic people. Disability is constantly in flux and constantly fluctuating. But non-disabled people also experience shifts in their capacities and in their limitations on a day to day basis, as well as between larger moments or seasons of their life. The difference is that for disabled people, those changes are often a little more dramatic. And the ways in which we have bodily minded needs are always pathologized as abnormal, deviant, burdensome, or even dangerous and threatening. We're treated as something or someone that is wrong. And this comes out of ableism in society. So, to the question, what is autism? It is two things. It is our individual lived experience, a way of understanding and naming certain profiles of neurological, neurodevelopmental functioning in existence. And it is a disability. Because of the ways in which we understand disability in the society, we can't separate that understanding out from our ableist values. And even in resistance to ableism, disability can also be home. Disability can be kin. Disability can be culture, political, empowerment and community.

Chideya: Yeah. And you play this role in teaching at two different, very highly lauded universities. How do you bring different parts of your lived experience as well as all of your intellectual work into those roles as someone who teaches?

Brown: I believe that everyone brings their lived experience to the work that they do, whether they realize it or not. And it's actually a very specific framing of privilege to presume that it is possible not to bring your whole self to the work that you do. It is the epitome of privilege to pretend that you can enter a classroom, somehow neutral objective, devoid of any external or outside beliefs or any preconceptions, or any life experiences. It's the epitome of privilege. Because privilege and the mechanics of oppression seek to render themselves invisible as a way of victim blaming and gas-lighting those who are oppressed and marginalized into believing that we alone are responsible for our own oppression. It's that whole idea of, "Oh, well, you just like to play the victim card." Nobody wants to be a victim. I want to be able to live my life freely and safely. I don't want people to be afraid. I don't want people to be terrified that any day might be their very last day because of a doctor who discriminates, because of a police officer, because of a natural disaster that our cities and our states have utterly failed to prepare for. That's not what I want. So, I bring my whole self to the work I do. And I am unapologetic and unashamed about that. One of the most important ways that that shows up for me is that I, myself, because of my own experiences, survived so many kinds of abusive education, so many layers of emotional abuse, beginning in elementary school, all the way through law school, which I refer to as hell. When people say, "Where did you go to school?" I say, I went to hell. I mean, law school. And my primary goal in the classroom, in my pedagogical, as well as curricular design is to be the exact opposite. How can I challenge and provoke my students, and also make them feel cared for? How can I make my classroom a space, where my students know that they too can bring their whole selves, they can lie down on the floor, they can bring something to eat, if they need to, they can draw in class, they can join from home from bed. Because learning doesn't always happen in one specific location. Learning does not always happen in one specific medium. Make no mistake, my students are always learning. But the expectations that we have in society for what counts as learning, for what counts as them achievement or work, or productivity, those expectations are steeped in a very narrowly defined ableist, racist and classist mindset of what counts as labor and what counts as learning. And I reject that.

Chideya: How are you personally dealing with universities, students, professors, in person versus not in person.

Brown: I am witnessing the grief and the rage from so many of my community members, who are being told left, and right, "You have to come in person. And if you don't, you might risk your job." Which means that you risk your livelihood, your economic stability, or access to housing, or access to food, and even get this, your access to healthcare. Because the system we live in predicates access to housing, food and healthcare on our work. This is dangerous and it sends a message to sick and disabled students, faculty and staff, that those of us who are at higher risk for complications or death from COVID, that those of us who have literally spent the last year being told over and over again, "Your lives don't matter." Especially those of us who are disabled people of color, those of us whom come from so many other experiences of marginalization on top of being disabled and chronically ill, that we shouldn't be present. Now, where I am in my classrooms, some of my teaching, I am doing virtually because they're classes that were already designed to be taught virtually, but one of my classes isn't. And the way that I'm hoping to unfold this semester in conversation with my students, is to be able to adopt a hybrid approach to learning that keeps all of us safer than being in person, indoors for every one of our classes. Does the university approve of that? Probably not, because the policy see at the university is that we're all supposed to be in person a hundred percent. But what have I ever cared about what institutions tell me what to do.

Chideya: And yet, let me just be real here, you seem to be at least deeply invested in the potential of institutions, even when they're not approaching disability the way that you approach it or race, or gender.

Brown: I do not believe in institutions. I do not. I do not trust institutions. I do not believe in institutions. The institutions that exist will fail us. They will fail us. It is inevitable, and it has already happened, and it is already happening. I don't believe that the university as it exists can be reformed. I am not a reformist. I don't believe that our judicial system can be reformed. I don't believe that our healthcare system can be reformed. We don't need a reformation. We need a transformation.

Chideya: Tell me why you work with institutions then?

Brown: Number one is as harm reduction. How can I make this space less harmful? And number two is we work within institutions to disrupt and to undermine their power and violence. For example, one of the ways that I've done that throughout my time in academic spaces is by deliberately bringing in people who are leading on the groundwork outside of institutional spaces. And I find ways to strategize using university resources to pay people for their time, knowing that when you pay an organizer, when you pay an artist, when you pay a community builder money, that money is an investment and a reinvestment, directly back into a whole community, right? And that is a way of undermining the university's expectation that the only people capable of teaching and of imparting useful or actionable knowledge are people who hold certain degrees, people who have certain types of positions. I can tell you as someone who is actually teaching university courses myself right now that most of what I learned, I did not learn that from a university classroom. I learned that from community.

Chideya: You've talked about how your most important work often has no title, job description or funding, and probably never will. That's a pretty amazing statement. Tell me a little bit more.

Brown: I put that sentence in a lot of my bios that I share with people, especially because I've been living and working in the Washington DC area. And in DC, as you know, it's very common culturally in the white collar part of DC, whether among people of color or white people, for you to be asked by way of introduction, "So, what do you do?"

Chideya: Yes.

Brown: And the answer to that question is expected to be a description of your job or a job title. And that's both supposed to define who you are by what you do. And it serves to create a ranking or a hierarchy, so that the person who's asked you the question can place themselves in relation to you, are you more important or less important than they are? What can they get out of knowing you? I reject that. I reject that notion, which itself is based in white supremacy culture that our self worth and our value is defined by what position we hold in a social hierarchy, by what position we hold based upon our work or our productivity. So, when I'm at those kinds of spaces, I don't give that kind of answer. I tell people, either, I do a lot of different kinds of things, but I really want to talk about something else. Or if I'm really feeling annoyed, I will just look people dead in the eye, and I will say, "I (beep) off white people."

Chideya: And for the purposes of this interview, that means that you strongly annoy white people.

Brown: I say that because more seriously, right? It is a direct challenge to the expectation that we should be defined by a job title. I don't want to be respected for those reasons. If that's the reason that someone respects me is simply because of a certain job to title or an affiliation that is not somebody who I want to be building with, because those are not the reasons that I or anybody else deserves respect.

Chideya: Yeah. Nope. I hear you on that. So, as we wrap up here, something that we try to ask a lot of people about is what brings them joy. What brings you joy these days?

Brown: In the work for disability justice, what brings me joy is seeing so many more folks learning about and doing the work of disability justice, so many more people than 10, 20, 30 years ago. Now, outside of that, what brings me joy, the most joy is making food, cooking or baking it for other people in my life, especially if it's food that they love, and especially if they have dietary restrictions, because my specialty is cooking for anyone's dietary restrictions. My favorite kind of food in the entire world is Ethiopian food. Basically, one of my hidden talents is that anyone can tell me where they're from, anywhere in the world, and I can tell them where delicious Ethiopian food is near them.

Chideya: Amazing. Lydia, I've really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much.

Brown: Thank you so much for having me. It has been a pleasure.

Chideya: That was Lydia X.Z. Brown. You can find the Autistic People of Color Fund at autismandrace.com.

Chideya: You're listening to Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. We're airing some of our best segments from the year. And this next round table received some of the strongest feedback from listeners. We collaborated back in June with the creators and hosts of The Double Shift. It's a narrative show focused on motherhood in the US. And in the summer they did a two part series on moms and mental health. They covered topics like the exhaustion moms are feeling raising their kids at home during the pandemic, and the pressure of trying to hold down a career when women are dropping out of the workforce in record numbers, also the importance of destigmatizing the use of medicine to treat mental health issues. Here's a sip in the political tea with The Double Shift. Enjoy.

Chideya: My guests are The Double Shift creator, Katherine Goldstein. Hey, Katherine.

Katherine Golds...: Hey Farai.

Chideya: And her co-host, Angela Garbes. Hey, Angela.

Angela Garbes: Hi, Farai.

Chideya: So, Katherine, tell us about this series and how it came to mind, and what you're covering.

Goldstein: So, in 2020, Angela and I were having a conversation about our show, and it naturally came him up that we both had started taking antidepressants during 2020, during the pandemic for the first time as adults. And we realized we'd been having all sorts of conversations together and trying to uncover all sorts of angles on motherhood, but had never chosen to share this detail with each other. And we wanted to unpack why. And we realized that there might be a lot more there and a lot of other people who were having new mental health experiences and struggles. And we thought that there was definitely fodder to do some real reporting in here from listeners.

Chideya: Angela, how did you pick up on that thread?

Garbes: We both knew that we wanted to cover mental health, maternal mental health, but it's a really big topic. And so, as we were figuring that out, we realized, we wanted to share our stories, not because we think our stories are so extraordinary. I mean, they are important. But we wanted to create a space for people to see that they're not alone, right? That it's safe to share these stories and that other people are going through it. And then we decided, we also wanted to hear from an expert because as Katherine and I, we'll both be quick to tell you, we are not mental health experts ourselves.

Chideya: Yeah. Katherine, how did you deal with that question of talking about a really important issue that intersects personal and medical without claiming expertise that you don't have?

Goldstein: Yes, we're very clear that we are journalists not trained mental health providers, but I think it also touches on a lot of media aimed at moms is about advice and about fixing moms and quick fixes. And that wasn't the conversation we wanted to have. We wanted to allow an expert to provide context, not tell everyone, "Here are a bunch of quick tips and tricks. But really listen to what is being said and help us think about it in a different way.

Chideya: Also tell us Katherine, about your listener named Marika, who called about her decision to up her dose of Zoloft. Here's a clip of her from The Double Shift.

Marika: As my friend likes to say, if your neurotransmitters aren't working, store-bought is fine.

Chideya: That's a great line. So, tell us more about that conversation.

Goldstein: So, we asked our community at the start of this year to send us voice memos about their mental health and what their mental health journeys had been like over the course of the pandemic. And what we heard was a lot of conversations about feelings alone in deciding to start medication, up medication, seeking out therapy, restarting therapy. And a lot of this felt like these individual personal decisions rather than part of a response to all sorts of systemic failures that mothers have born the brunt of and being asked to do impossible things. I mean, so much of motherhood in America is about some of the really damaging ideas is about making it on your own. And that's also about our mental health. People are conditioned to believe that our mental health is private and that this is just a personal struggle or a personal failure in response to actual systemic failures.

Chideya: In that same story, we hear that one of the things weighing on her mind was how much household work she had to do. And Angela, in 2020, before the pandemic, Gallop found that women in heterosexual couples continued to do more housework than men. This question of how you prioritize the pressures that mothers are under with household work, job work, raising children, Zoom school, et cetera. How do you make sense as a mother yourself, a working mother yourself, and co-host of The Double Shift of some of these pressures.

Garbes: Right. So, I mean, all parents and mothers are working parents, whether or not they have jobs outside of the home or not. You can't say one is more important than the other, because I think for people like that's a personal decision that gets made or sometimes it's not a decision that can get made, because economics is like the number one factor. But in terms of mental health and why we wanted to do this series and why we had this conversation is that I think it's important to kind of take that step back and that bird's eye view, there is all this work, there's this cascade of caregiving and housework, and professional responsibility that people are drowning in along with a sense of grief. It's totally overwhelming. And that has mental health effects, whether that is just a general overwhelm, an anxiety or a condition or a diagnosis of depression. And it's important to remember that if mental health underlies everything we do in our daily life, if you are depressed, getting up out of bed can be really difficult, right? Washing the dishes, getting yourself to do that. It's not because you're tired, it's because you can't. It is a struggle. And so, if our mental health is not right, if we are not right, we can't do anything else. And if we are able to do those things, it comes at a cost. So, I think it's just important to, mental health, we tend to separate that from our physical health. I think that they are tied. They're equally important. And we need to talk about prioritizing that aspect of our health, which makes it possible for us to do anything else.

Chideya: Angela, you also wrote for The Cut about mothers leaving the workforce. Your point was that this is not the whole story. What did you want to say?

Garbes: I think, arguably the biggest economic story of the year, right? Is that 50% of the population is bearing the brunt of unemployment and diminished salaries. And so, we get caught up in these statistics. And those statistics are important, but they can feel really anonymous. Right? I think that those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. We're not talking about the personal losses, the much harder thing. I'm interested in what is it that is not quantifiable or what at this point, I mean, is data not capturing, right? What is it that we would dismiss in some ways as anecdotal evidence, but that I think over the next few months and years really, we're going to see women are not returning to the workforce, and what is that going to do to their identity and sense of self. In terms of mental health, this is really the beginning. I think a lot of people have been high functioning and putting a lot of these issues aside or in the back of the brain, because they just need to get things done, but this is going to come back. It's going to affect everyone. And I think we need to be having a conversation now to prepare ourselves for that.

Chideya: And Katherine, let me bring you in again, you are often talking on The Double Shift about how policy and economic priorities could support parents. We're seeing some real changes, at least for the meantime in how the federal government is trying to resource parents. And so, what role do you think our conversations like your podcast and our private ones play in influencing these policies?

Goldstein: Good public policy doesn't come out of nowhere. I mean, I think good public policy comes out of conversations and driving in a lot of behind the scenes work to lead to these moments. And I think we are at a turning point potentially of a transformative moment for families, for mothers, in terms of finally, finally, finally feeling like people with power in the federal government, understand that this isn't personal problems. These aren't just individual choices. These need massive federal interventions, which a lot of the time has to do with money. So, the childcare tax credit is really a revolutionary for America policy, where families with children under 17 are getting between $250 to $300 a month, depending on the age and income. And that's almost every family in America is going to be getting that direct cash payments. So, this is an experiment finally in understanding that it is expensive to raise children in America and know we can't do it on our own. And I think that this is a turning point and a consciousness that there's a lot of hope that this could be permanent, but it's also just a marker in a much larger conversation about what kind of country we want to have. Do we want to have a country that has a sustainable birth rate? Do we want to have a country that treats families with dignity and allows them to thrive? So, these are all just very, very important moments that we're really at an inflection point.

Chideya: Angela, I'm going to come back to you. You open up on the topic of being from an immigrant family and being a woman of color, and how that can get in the way of seeking mental health treatment. When did you realize this for yourself in your own life, and what would you like other women of color to know about how you process things?

Garbes: When Katherine and I talked about doing these episodes on mental health, we wanted to talk about our own experiences with therapy. And I think Katherine was, I don't think I'm putting words in her mouth, she was surprised, maybe even a little shocked when I said that I did not seek therapy out until I was about 40 years old. And I certainly knew that therapy existed. I certainly knew people who had been in therapy. And I come from a Filipino family. And I can only really speak to my experience, but I know that this is true for other people that I have spoken to. And we just didn't talk about mental health. We didn't talk about going to therapy. And I think there's a variety of reasons. Like in my family, my parents, they came here with nothing. They came here alone. They were very focused on survival. And so, ingrained in that life was that you figured stuff out on your own and you solved problems. As I got older and I got to a place where I was like, "I need help." So, I want other people to realize, maybe even to understand, you make assumptions about yourself and other people in accessing mental health services, you think that's not for you. It is, it's for everyone. I don't think there's anyone who couldn't benefit from a neutral listener, who's there to affirm them and give them tools to face life in a better way and suffer less. But yeah, it's just a conversation that doesn't happen in many communities. And we have the onus on ourselves to prioritize mental health.

Chideya: And both of you interviewed Dr. Amber Thornton, a psychologist and motherhood wellness consultant. And she talked about the pressure that women of color, especially Black women face to hold it all together when struggling. Here she is in your interview with her.

Dr. Amber Thorn...: People of color, women are not often given the benefit of the doubt that we might see a white man be given. And so, with that, there's this drive to continue to perform and push through, because that's how you have learned to live or to make a living, or to survive in this world. If you cannot push through, then you cannot survive.

Chideya: And she goes on to talk about strong Black woman syndrome, just an informal name for that song, I'm not your super woman. I wish I could sing. I would sing it for you. Many of you know that song. But there is this idea that Black women and many other types of women of color and immigrant women have to put on the cap and do everything for everyone. So Angela, how can women of color advocate effectively for self-care? I mean, Audrey Lord wrote beautifully about self-care as a revolutionary act.

Garbes: Yeah. An act of political warfare, I believe is what she said. Yeah. It's really, I think it's important the idea then that, so when Dr. Amber talked about strong Black woman syndrome, she said that there's this idea that if I'm not strong, then I'm not going to be able to make it. Right? And I think we need to really start to reframe it that acknowledging that you need help, acknowledging that you can't do it alone, acknowledging vulnerability is actually the strength, right? You need to be able to care for your self in order to continue the work of caring for other people, showing up every day for yourself. And then also, plotting the revolution. Women of color accomplished so many great things in being strong, but it does come at a cost. And I want the next generation and I want women of color now to be able to live whole lives.

Chideya: And Katherine, what did you get out of this conversation with Dr. Thornton, and from your listeners about being able to tell if you're okay or if you need help?

Goldstein: Dr. Amber really provided some great baseline knowledge for us to start asking ourselves questions. And it's not necessarily always about being at a moment of crisis, but asking ourselves some questions about where we are and being curious about ourselves, whether it's around our use of alcohol and marijuana, whether or not that is part of wellness and self care, or if that is something that has evolved into a problem. She really, I think helped put into context that, yes, so many of these things feel personal. And I think a lot of times, again, moms are conditioned to feel like they have to take so much on and that if they don't do it, no one else will. And it all comes down to them. And really trying to reframe some of those ideas to make it clear that as Angela said, asking for help is not a weakness. And also putting ourselves first. We had a conversation about for some member episodes about the power of being selfish and about standing up for ourselves, and how that as well as part of a larger political act of not ourselves small and diminishing our needs. And that is also part of our own wellness in allowing ourselves to be okay. I thought that those were some really powerful takeaways that I took from Dr. Amber.

Chideya: Angela, I'm going to go back to you. In the first episode, in this two part series, you shared something really touching about how you felt like you'd lost sight of yourself as an individual. Have you had any luck in reconnecting?

Garbes: Oh, I'm on a journey. Yeah. And that's something that therapy and medication has really helped me with. I mean, it's a moment that sticks with me when I went to see a new therapist and she asked me, "Who are you? Tell me something that you like about yourself." And it took me like 20 to 30 seconds to think of anything. And the things that I thought of were, I'm a good partner. I'm a good parent. And she was like, "No, no, no, that's not what I'm asking. Who are you?" And it's chilling. And it was humiliating too, and also as a feminist, who's always like, you are never any less important than your children or your family. I was like, "What happened to me?" Right? And those things, the way that we know ourselves, we change and life's circumstances change, and they have effects on you that maybe you don't realize. And I'm now on a combination of Lexapro and Wellbutrin. What I feel like they have done is given me a chance and the space to refamiliarize myself with myself. It's just like Marika said, sometimes the neuro-transmitters are not working, but store bot has worked out really well for me. I feel much more in touch with myself and I feel like it's been essential to me surviving what has been a really unsustainable way of life.

Chideya: Thank you so much both of you, and I appreciate everything that you've had to say. Grateful for your work on The Double Shift. So, thanks again. And goodbye, Angela.

Garbes: Thank you Farai. Take care.

Chideya: And bye, Katherine.

Goldstein: Thanks for having us.

Chideya: That was co-host, Angela Garbes and Katherine Goldstein of The Double Shift Podcast. Find The Double Shift wherever you find your podcast.

Chideya: Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcast. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior editor is Veralyn Williams. Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure are our senior producers. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and makes this episode. Our political booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by Associate Sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistants, from Mark Betancourt, Elizabeth Nakano and Natyna Bean.

Chideya: This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Harness Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath and JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.

CITATION:

Chideya, Farai, host. “​​Best Of 2021: Addressing Maternal Physical and Mental Health, the Ongoing Crisis over What to Teach Kids, and How One Activist Disrupts from Within Institutions.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. December 24, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/