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“It’s a boy!”

There are too many and too few words to describe the experience of becoming a mother. For some women, the transition is smooth: The joy is omniscient, the baby latches well, the hormones are cooperating, the sleep deprivation isn’t crushing. For many of us, those first days, weeks, even months can be terrifying, leaving us feeling like we’re being swallowed by a sinkhole.

The latter was me.

That’s because no one story is the same. For me, a part of my story goes something like this: I became pregnant at 19, and at 21-months old, my son died of an accidental death and I spent 2.5 years in prison for his death.

That sounds devastating, doesn't it? While my story is unique, it is not uncommon.

In fact, women of color are particularly vulnerable to postpartum depression and anxiety and less likely to be diagnosed and treated for it. A study led by researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, reported that Black women were more than twice as likely to experience postpartum depressive symptoms as white women. The risk for Hispanic women was also almost twice as high. And yet, minority communities have less access to mental health facilities and services.

To say this is a problem is an understatement.

Compound that with poverty, limited or no access to healthcare and mental health services, and a lack of community and familial support and you have a disaster in the making. That’s what happened to me.

I was 19 when I delivered my first child, a boy, named Earwin. I called him E.J.

I loved my son. He loved playing in the ball pit and I can still see him laughing and jumping for joy. He had the brightest smile and always had the cutest little drool. He had dark, soft curly hair that no matter how much I brushed it, it was in a constant afro. And I loved every bit of it. And yet and still, with all of that love, in those days, as it had been for years, everyday was a struggle.

You see, my childhood was far from what you would call healthy, loving or safe. From age two to four, I was sexually assaulted by two family members and my biological mother’s boyfriend. Because of this, I was removed from her care and my siblings and I were thrust into the foster care system. I eventually ended up with my adoptive family, who did their best to provide me stability, but by the time I was a teenager, I rejected the structure I so desperately needed and often ran away from home.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. I graduated from high school by 16. And I attended a local community college. And once I had E.J., I was committed to providing him a life that I never had. 

Hellbent on being the best mom and person I could be, I prepared to move with E.J. to a new apartment near the college I was going to attend. But, I was completely alone: I had no childcare, much less movers. I needed help.

They say to “ask for help” when you need it, right? What happens when you don’t have anyone to call? And do “they” realize how hard it is to reach out?

I tried asking for help. That’s what led me to quickly run downstairs to use the payphone across the street as E.J. was eating his breakfast. I figured it would be fine, I could see into the apartment window and would be back in just a few minutes.

As moms, we all have the inner voice, that intuition, that feeling in your gut, when we know we could be at a crossroads in our life. I had it and I heard it. But I was tired. And I was stressed. And overwhelmed. I thought if I could just make a few quick calls, I’d be right back.

I was gone for less than 10 minutes. When I returned, I found him unresponsive in my bedroom underneath a mattress I had propped up against the wall. I immediately and desperately grabbed his lifeless body and ran to a neighbor, frantically screaming to call 911. But the paramedics couldn’t save him. There was nothing that they could. My son died at 21 months old.

My E.J., the light of my life, was gone. I cried, I screamed. I’ve felt pain and sadness and violation before. But this? This was different. In the moments following watching the life slip from his little body, numbness took over. All I wanted to do was hold my baby again. Which is why, I was confused and stunned when I was whisked away by police and instead of being treated like a grieving mother, the police were treating me like a criminal: Interrogating me as if I did something wrong. I kept repeating what happened but they didn’t believe me.

My world had stopped, my son was gone, the authorities didn’t believe my story. I was in jail when I should've been laying him to rest. I felt trapped and helpless.

After being held in jail for three days without food, legal or social representation and denied access to the bathroom while I was menstruating, I was coerced into a false confession. The authorities forced me into saying that I hurt my baby. I didn’t. I just wanted to go home.

The autopsy showed that E.J. had not been abused. What was a desperate and bad decision that led to a horrible accident snowballed into me being branded a murderer.

I was sentenced to 10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. I was in disbelief. Why was this happening to me?

My faith was the only thing that got me through being in prison. What I didn’t expect was to meet and connect with other women who had their own, unique stories to tell. Yes, a lot of them were guilty of the crimes that had landed them in prison. But they were also daughters and mothers, with families on the outside, who still felt all of the emotions that make us human: happiness, disappointment, regret and sadness.

When the gross mishandling of my case by the legal system, my attorney and social services came to light, I was released from prison after serving only two-and-a-half years. When I was released, I started my life again.

This time, I had the support of an extended, if not somewhat dysfunctional, family. While as a child I would run away from church when forced to attend with my family, I embraced spirituality. I worked and went back to school, and went on to have three healthy, thriving sons.

It’s not to say that my life has been all roses since being released from prison: I experienced more domestic abuse and anxiety from the scrutiny of my past. But now, I have established a consistent relationship with a mental health professional who specializes in trauma. I leaned on my spiritual and professional mentors to help guide me.

However, what I was missing was peer support that went further than just providing encouragement for one or two hours a week. I wanted to be able to connect with women in the places that they were most vulnerable, their homes and communities, to be able to provide that extra boost of specialized care. So when I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I did what anyone in that situation should and would do: I created my own.

This eventually evolved into me founding Shades of You, Shades of Me (SOYSOM,) an organization that empowers women of color to advocate for the support they need as they embark on motherhood, including improved access to mental health services, peer group support, home visits and community resources that can assist them as they raise their children.

This week, SOYSOM is proud to host a virtual conference, the 2020 Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference, creating a safe space for meaningful conversations about the mental health of women of color. This year’s theme, “COVID-19 + Multiculturalism in Maternal Mental Health Care,” will spotlight how the global pandemic has disproportionately affected diverse communities through five sectors: politics, business, incarceration, prevention services and healthcare.

I am so proud of how far I’ve come and of the work I’m doing now. Never did I think that I, a child forgotten in the foster care system, would grow to advocate for more than 100 women who have been helped by SOYSOM. I want women to give themselves permission to take ownership of ALL shades of themselves and come to the conference without fear of judgement or shame.

I do this work in honor of E.J., who would be 20 years-old this year. I do it in honor of my living sons, who have helped me heal and fill me with devotion and love. I do this because I am determined to catch as many mothers as possible who are slowly slipping through the cracks, including the mothers I met in prison who are missing their babies.

You deserve to be heard. You deserve to be seen. You are not alone.


SOYSOM is proud to host the 2020 Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference, taking place virtually October 22-24, 2020. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit SOYSOM.com.