African American new momBy TARA PRINGLE JEFFERSON

The nurse flitted around the room, flipping through her chart and checking my vitals.

“Do you mind if your…boyfriend,” the nurse settled on the word, “steps out of the room for a moment?”

My fiancé nodded quietly. He kissed my forehead and went to pace up and down the hallway.

The nurse patted my bed. “The social worker will be in to see you in a moment.”

“Social worker?” I repeated. I was about 36 hours postpartum and adjusting to life as a brand-new mommy of one. My daughter, with her adorable chubby cheeks and massive curly ‘fro, caught the attention of just about every staff member at the suburban hospital and my room was constantly rotating with doctors, nurses, and even janitorial staff who had heard about the “Hawaiian-looking baby in 406.”

But as her mother, I was getting all types of unwanted attention as well. Several nurses had commented on how young I looked and asked me how old I was, even as they were holding my chart.

And now hearing that a social worker wanted to talk to me, I was scared. I understand that social workers fill a variety of roles and that one should not automatically assume their presence is bad. I know that now, as a 27-year-old woman who has had more experience in the world. But as a scared 20-year-old mother with her hormones out of whack? A visit from a social worker ain’t nothing good.

The social worker (a 40something white woman with big brunette 80′s hair) came in with a tight smile and a big clipboard. She sat in the same chair my fiance had just vacated and asked a couple standard questions about my name, my daughter’s name, the name of my daughter’s father, and how old I was. Then the questions began to turn left.

“Do you feel safe in your home?” she said, pen poised above her clipboard, ready to check one of the boxes depending on my answer.

I’d answered this question dozens of times at my prenatal appointments. “Yes,” I said.

“Is your partner abusive to you—physically, emotionally, mentally?”

“No.”

“No to all three?”

“Yes. I mean, no. He’s never been abusive in any way.”

She kept her eyes on the clipboard. The questions continued.

“Where do you live?”

“With my fiance.”

“Is it subsidized housing or…?”

At that point in my life, I didn’t even know what subsidized housing was. “No.”

“And how big is your place of residence?”

“You mean…?”

“How many square feet,” she said.

Shit, I didn’t know. “Um…we live in a two-bedroom apartment.”

“You know,” she said, scribbling some notes, “we’ve found that parents who live in smaller residences have higher incidences of child abuse.”

What was I supposed to say to that? I guess she took my silence as an answer. “Well, you watch out for that,” she said. “It’s not something we like to see.”

She flipped to the next page and continued. “So you’ll be establishing paternity? Do you need assistance with that? DNA testing, anything?”

How many different ways is she going to ask me about my daughter’s father? It was at this point that I started getting heated, but I didn’t want to come across as a hot-headed new mother for two reasons: 1) I still didn’t know the purpose of this visit and 2) I wasn’t about to have anything marked down on that stupid clipboard that would prevent me from going about my life with my new baby as I pleased.

“No, I don’t need any help with that.”

She asked me a few other questions and left. My fiancé came back in and found me sitting on the bed looking stunned. I relayed as much as I could to him and he took me a minute to rub my back. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, even though I wasn’t.

My daughter—”the Hawaiian-looking baby in 406″—is almost seven. And I remember this interaction like it was yesterday. There was no social worker visit with my son, born 18 months later, when I was 22. By that time, I had tied the knot.

I’ve wondered what triggered the visit, especially since I was in a painful C-section recovery fog and didn’t ask at the time. Talking to a few people gave me a couple of possible explanations:

Maybe it was hospital policy that everyone/everyone under 21/everyone who is unwed gets a visit?

Perhaps. But it still doesn’t explain the weird line of questioning. The 10 minutes we spent talking accomplished absolutely nothing.

Maybe it was because your daughter was in the NICU?

At eight pounds, five ounces and born at 41 weeks, my daughter was the largest, healthiest baby in the NICU. There were no ongoing concerns about her health, and if there were, the social worker did not address any.

Maybe the social worker was there to give you a heads-up about resources, assistance you could sign up for?

I could understand this, if the social worker had given me ANY information on resources available. My county has a “Help Me Grow” program where first-time parents get home visits from registered nurses. You know how I found out about it? It was in the folder of materials they gave me during discharge.

So what was the point of that visit? I did not feel any more prepared for motherhood than before she entered the room. All the visit did was strike a blow to an already fragile, newly developing confidence as a new mother. That “child abuse” line had me scared out of my mind for the first two years of my daughter’s life. If she cried a bit too loud or a bit too long, I was in panic mode, trying to hurry to calm her before someone called social services on me. After all, they burst into my hospital room while my stitches were still fresh, why wouldn’t they come back when I’ve been on the job for a while?

When I discussed this incident on the Young Mommy Life Facebook page, some moms claimed they were fine with the interrogation if it meant every baby is being sent home to a loving, safe environment.

But that’s not what this visit with the social worker felt like to me. It felt nasty and impersonal. Full of assumptions about who I was, what type of man I’d chosen to be the father of my child and what type of mother I’d turn out to be.

Perhaps I’m a bit sensitive. But when it comes to my children, I have a right to be. If I could go back in time, I’d be a stronger advocate for myself. Ask why the social worker felt the need to come to my room, offering no help or resources. Ask if it was standard procedure. If so, why? If not, there’s the door.

Since leaving the hospital, I’ve had my share of infuriating run-ins with strangers making assumptions (like the older white man at the park who asked me, point blank, if we lived in the projects). But in my hospital room? Where I’m leaking breast milk, sitting on a maxi pad the size of Rhode Island, trying to learn how to walk without engaging my stomach muscles? I did not need that. No mom does.

Tara Pringle Jefferson is the founder and editor of TheYoungMommyLife.com, one of the first websites created specifically for first-time mothers under 25. She is an author, social media consultant, and young parent advocate. Visit her at www.theyoungmommylife.com.

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8 Comments

  1. At the hospital that I had both my kids at the nurse asked similar questions like if I was getting abused, if we had a safe place to live with the baby, but she was nice and very warm during the questioning. She also showed me the form with the questions on it and explained that it was policy for the hospital that they ask. My experiences were not as cold and insensitive as yours. It’s sad and heartbreaking to read that you had to go through this.

    The social worker should have explained herself and why she was asking the questions she was asking. But when you’re a young mom, a lot of people think they can treat us any kind of way. They choose to believe all the stereotypes and that we don’t deserve respect. So glad that you continue to share your experiences and be an advocate for other young moms and parents!!

  2. I had the same thing and the woman told the reason. They have a checklist and if you have at least 2 checks on their list of criteria, you get a visit from the social worker. My two checks were that I was black and unmarried, and that is what yours probably were too. My lady was very nice, though, and basically cut the questioning short when she realized I didn’t need services. One of the first things she asked me was if I had a GED or a high school diploma. I said, “No I have a master’s degree” and that was pretty much the end of that. While I do think these policies are a good idea in theory (I am sure these people see a ton of women who are in horrible situations and need help but don’t know how/are scared to ask for it) I think the criteria should be different. Don’t assume based on my race and lack of marriage certificate that I must be broke and devoid of an education. I don’t know how they should screen people for the social work visit, but there has to be a better way than this!

  3. White South African 15 year old mom here. Didn’t get a social worker visit, but did get an ancient nun yelling at me that I was going to hell. Which was… not lovely. Plenty of side-eye but no actual professional intervention.

    7 years later with my daughter, I was the oldest in the maternity ward, and the only white woman. Was left alone completely for the 24 hours I was in the hospital. Today I work with teen moms (mostly black but not all) – here we don’t really have the resources to question new moms this way, even those who might need it. Often, new moms are discharged from hospital within 6 hours of giving birth and nobody checks to make sure she’s happy or even healthy.

    That said, it’s certainly not inevitable that a teen mom is “at risk”. Not all need that type of help. For any mom, of any age or race, a 5 minute talk to say “are you okay, how are you feeling, is there anything we can help you with” is enough to get the conversation started if necessary. HATE HATE HATE the idea of somebody asking questions off a clipboarded checklist based on assumptions. It’s rude and misses the point that ANY type of mother could be in need of help.

  4. Oooh I remember this so vividly. Though I was a year older than you at the time. No man in sight to be abusive… but the questions, the comments.. They asked me several times how many years of schooling I had completed even after explaining that I just squeezed 90 credits into the year that year, so that I would get my degree before giving birth.

  5. Interesting, I had the same line of questioning, which I think is routine, but I was married and my husband wasn’t asked to leave the room. He was still in the room while she asked the questions. My nurse wasn’t nice, but she was just starting the night shift and informed me that she was slow because I came in on the night they were starting a new computer system. I haven’t had any more children, but my hospital experience wasn’t great and I know that is the case for many women. At this point, I just hope and pray it is better for others.

  6. Thanks for sharing this story, Tara. As always you are eloquent & composed & insightful. I’m so proud of you & all you’ve done & become & continue to do & become. And those babies? Are beautiful & lucky as hell.

  7. Interactions with healthcare professionals at our most vulnerable moments can put us on the defensive and leave a bad taste in your mouth. I just had a similar experience at a check up for my daughter. The comment about exposure to gun violence because we were black and didn’t live in the hills threw me for a loop.

  8. Thats ‘mericka for you. Im not a mother & have no desire to be, but i will not ignore this treatment of my fellow black women. Being out in the world more often than grade/highschool has caused me to believe this country is 98% ignorant as hell. Smdh

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