At 32 weeks pregnant, track superstar Allyson Felix headed to the doctor’s office for a routine checkup. What followed was anything but routine: Felix was diagnosed with a very severe case of preeclampsia that threatened the lives of her and her baby.
“Things just kind of spiraled downhill from there quickly,” said Felix, who was immediately sent to the hospital and ended up having an emergency C-section. “Just as a professional athlete and someone who knows my body and knows how to be healthy and trained throughout my entire pregnancy, I was just shocked to find myself in that situation — also scared.”
Felix’s harrowing labor and delivery in 2018 led her to become involved in Better Starts For All, a multi-year maternal health program launched by the March of Dimes and RB’s Enfa portfolio of brands. The program offers on-the-ground clinical care and virtual interventions to bring maternal health care to underserved communities.
It’s estimated that more than two million women live in geographical areas defined as “maternity care deserts” because they have no obstetrics providers and lack access to hospitals offering obstetric services. Another five million more women of childbearing age live in counties with limited access to maternity care. Taken together, around 500,000 babies are born every year to women living in these areas.
“If I was in that situation and I had great medical care. I just knew that other women, especially women of color, were also facing and at risk for the same thing,” Felix told Know Your Value. “And it just really opened my eyes to that.”
Every year, about 700 women die from childbirth and pregnancy in the United States, according to the CDC — the highest rate of any country in the developed world. The numbers are even more shocking among women of color: Black women are about three times as likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause as white women. Research has shown that 60 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths in this country are preventable.
“That's really what broke my heart,” Felix said about learning the majority of these deaths are preventable. “As I took a deeper dive into what was happening and met surviving fathers and women who had had complications, and [during] my stay in the NICU and talking to other mothers, it's really heartbreaking when you see the aftermath of what happens to these babies and the families.”
“Knowing that something could be done, I just felt compelled to do something,” she said.
Felix is no stranger to raising her voice on behalf of moms. Two years ago, the six-time Olympic gold medalist and 11-time world champion spoke out about her fight with Nike to secure maternity protections. When she asked Nike to contractually guarantee that she wouldn’t be financially punished if she didn’t meet her performance standards in the months surrounding childbirth, Nike declined. (Nike has since enacted a maternity policy that ensures pay and bonuses for sponsored athletes like Felix for 18 months around pregnancy, prompting other athletic apparel companies to follow suit.)
From her advocacy work on maternity protections to maternal health care, she’s buoyed by the responses she hears from other women.
“I was really blown away,” Felix said. “The more I've talked about my own experience, [the more I’ve heard] about other women who have experienced very similar things across different industries. And I think that it's encouraging, but it's also still bothersome, that so many women are going through this, you know, in the year 2021,” she said.
Through Better Starts for All, women in maternity care deserts and other underserved communities gain access to a variety of prenatal care services, including via mobile health vehicles that bring medical care to women in need. Other offerings include Supportive Pregnancy Care, a group-centered education, support, and care model; an online prenatal education service; and virtual OB care via telemedicine. The program is currently engaged in pilot markets in Washington, D.C. and Southeast Ohio.
“It was really important to me because of my own daughter,” Felix said. “Her life started in the NICU. And I'm so fortunate that things turned out well for her. But my eyes were just open to this whole new world of what women face and the risks associated with pregnancy, and especially with women of color,” She said. “My heart was just tugged.”
With the arrival of her daughter Camryn Grace in November 2018, Felix felt how hard it was to maintain her career and while thriving in her family life. Over the past three years, the 35-year-old mom has learned that balance is elusive.
“Being an athlete, I am someone who is all about planning and schedule, and that has just completely been thrown out of the window,” Felix said. “I think just the unpredictability of it all. And just learning a lot more about myself and stretching myself, you know, to figure it out how to balance, not even balance, how to integrate, you know, my training and, you know, my career with being a mom and my family. I think that has been the most challenging aspect.”
Felix is the first to acknowledge that “it is a really hard time to be a mom,” from the twin crises of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout — both of which have disproportionately affected people of color — to the recent racial justice reckoning.
“It feels very heavy,” she said. “Being a Black mom, I think just raising strong children, raising children who are empathetic and who celebrate diversity and understand that differences are powerful — I just hope that that is something that we can really teach our children so that their generation can be more inclusive and can not have some of the same challenges that we have faced,” Felix said. “It feels like a very big task to take on, but also, I think that holds a lot of power as well to be able to shape and form those ideas and give our children the tools to be able to live together in a beautiful world.”
Day-to-day, she’s working on showing herself some kindness as she navigates motherhood in a historically challenging time.
“For women of color, to understand that even though this is a lot to take on, we are strong and we're able to do that, and just mothers in general, to give ourselves some grace and to be kind. And to know that every day is not going to be perfect. It's okay to have days where we don't have it all together, and it's okay to ask for help. And that's perfectly fine. We just have to do the best that we can.”