I am a childfree Black woman and I owe my womb to no one
I am not here to birth Black revolutionaries.
This essay contains discussions of death in childbirth and reproductive violences
“Who she pregnant for?”
This is how I remember my aunts inquiring about the potential father of any given person’s unborn child while I was growing up. Not “Who are they pregnant by?” or “Who are they pregnant with?” The question was always, Who she pregnant for? And the answer was never themselves, nor was it ever expected to be.
From an early age, I gathered that any pregnancy I might experience would never be for or about me, or even the child. It would be about whoever impregnated me. Beyond that, it would be about my apparent “duty as a woman”. “You’ll change your mind” and “Don’t say that” were the typical responses I got whenever I reminded my family that I don’t want children. I still hear them today, from my aunts, strangers on the internet, and other people who feel they have the right to dictate my feelings on motherhood, especially as a Black woman.
I have tokophobia. It’s the fear of pregnancy and childbirth. My fear is extreme, but it is also valid, regardless of how often people try to gaslight me and insist the phobia is either purely irrational or wholly fictional.
The thought of my body going through one of the most uncomfortable and excruciating experiences known to humankind absolutely terrifies and nauseates me, and my fear of this nightmarish ordeal is only compounded by my Blackness. Because of this and many other reasons, I choose to be childfree.
Black birthgivers die during pregnancy and childbirth 3 to 4 times more often than their white counterparts. Black babies have the highest infant mortality rates, at 11.4 per 1,000 live births. Some continue to posit that higher education and socioeconomic status might prevent these numbers from being so high, but studies have already shown that neither create better outcomes.
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These numbers are specific to America and this is something that the medical community has had knowledge of for a long time now. In 1997, Doctors Richard J. David and James W. Collins, Jr. found that Black babies born in America consistently had lower birth weights than both white babies born in America and African-born Black babies, and low birth weight contributes greatly to the amount of infant deaths. Years later, David and Collins, Jr. published another study in which they found that African immigrants also tend to give birth to low weight babies after having lived in America.
It seems it’s not just being born Black that is so fatal, it’s being born Black in America. But, more than that, it’s giving birth while Black in America.
Combating everyday sexism and misogyny, and the most pointed, insidious forms of these things, has psychological and physiological effects on women and those assumed to be women. Racism and anti-Blackness impact us in similar ways, causing us undue stress as we try to hold onto our sanity. Black people who present as women are contending with both of these oppressive systems in the form of misogynoir, along with any other marginalized identities we may hold. The impact on us is immense, and the stress of just trying to survive this misogynoir directly affects any pregnancies we might have because high levels of stress can cause low birth weight, premature birth, and a host of other pregnancy and birth complications.
The reality is that pregnancy and childbirth are routinely fatal for Black birthgivers and babies in this country, and I often find myself considering how our transgenerational traumas and lingering connections to the reproductive violences of the plantation continue to impact our lives. The thought I keep coming back to—between the truth of the aforementioned mortality rates and the frequent deaths of Black children by state violence—is that it seems as if the Black womb in America is already a tomb.
Despite this, I cannot escape the general societal pressure to have children. Even the resources that I have found on tokophobia are about how to help me get over this fear, rather than acknowledging the fact that the fear is valid, or exploring why pregnancy and childbirth continue to be so dangerous in this “developed nation”, or investigating this fear among racial and class lines.
The pressure to procreate as a Black woman often goes beyond this because the expectations placed upon me are an extension of the burdens I am meant to carry as the mule of the world. I’m supposed to give birth to the next generation so they can help free us from the bonds of white supremacy. “How can a Black woman like you not have children?” they ask, even as they shame the unwed Black parent beside me. “We need more Black children because they keep killing us.”
The idea that people like me should carry out pregnancies for someone or something else is an old song, and its sentiments can be found in the rhetoric of Black male Civil Rights activists of the 20th century. In 1968, a statement by the Black Unity Party read: “The Brothers are calling on the Sisters to not take the pill… To take the pill means that we are contributing to our own GENOCIDE… When we produce children, we are aiding in the REVOLUTION in the form of NATION building.”
Many Black men were vehemently opposed to Black people using birth control and other forms of contraception. Their argument was that Black people should have as many children as possible to inflate the Black population so much that it would help destabilize white supremacist power structures. In response, “the Sisters” wrote: “Poor black sisters decide for themselves whether to have a baby or not to have a baby.”
Resistance against the attempt to govern Black reproduction did not begin here. It was present even in the time of chattel slavery, and Liese M. Perrin’s Resisting Reproduction: Reconsidering Slave Contraception in the Old South details several of these stories.
“Master was going to raise him a lot more slaves, but still I cheated Master,” said Mary Gaffney, a woman who was born into slavery in 1846 and became free around the age of 20. The former slave-master forced her to marry a man she hated and expected them to procreate, but she refused to sleep with him. When her husband complained, Mary was whipped. She finally complied under duress, but she continued to resist in another way. “I never did have any slaves to grow and Master he wondered what was the matter… I kept cotton roots and chewed them all the time but I was careful not to let master know or catch me.”
Picking up where slaveholders left off, members of our own communities and the white supremacist institution of medicine have made several attempts to control our reproduction and use of contraception throughout the 20th century and beyond. Whether the aim was to force us to have children or prevent us from getting pregnant, both were in service of their own interests.
Forced sterilization inspired by Eugenics has continued into this century, and Black people have been particularly affected by it. Many were coerced or deceived, like the illiterate mother of Mary Alice and Minnie Relf, who signed an “X” on a piece of paper after being told that her daughters, then 12 and 14, would only be getting birth control shots, but later learned that they had been sterilized. Black wombs have been taken advantage of and mistreated by the racist medical system, and it is clear why some would be skeptical of birth control.
But even if none of this were the case, and even if I wasn’t mortified and noxious at the thought of birthing and losing Black babies, or dying in the process, my decision about whether or not to have children should be for and about myself, not about anyone else or their vision of the future.
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I am not here to birth Black revolutionaries. I am neither an incubator for the progeny of Black patriarchy nor a manufacturer for the Black souls “nation-builders” would have us use as weaponry. I will not conceive of Black babies as infantry and cannon fodder for battles against white supremacy, and I am willing to gut anyone who asks me to do so.
It is no one’s place to attempt to control Black birth except for those of us who have the ability to carry out the birthing. Black conception, Black pregnancy, Black childbirth, and Black children somehow never seem to be about the Black birthgivers who carry them to term, or die trying.
Mary Gaffney chewed on cotton root. She did not grow any more slaves for the white master and his ugly, dehumanizing machine fueled by free Black labor nor did she create children with the man she hated, and who clearly hated her. She birthed and mothered Black children on her own terms after she became free. She made damn sure that she was pregnant for herself.
Hers is the path of resistance that I will follow. I will never be pregnant for anyone else. I can help birth Black futures without birthing Black babies, and I will.