When we asked The Fold's Literary Editor, Elizabeth Lane, if she would be open to interviewing her friend Christy Turlington Burns about her advocacy work for safe, reliable maternal healthcare (in time for Mother's Day no less) we were elated to hear she was up for the task. We've long known that Burns was a force for good — she founded the non-profit Every Mother Counts in 2010 where she and her team are dedicated to making the road to motherhood safe, respectful, and accessible for all.
Today Elizabeth shares their conversation on the cusp of the 9-year anniversary of EMC and discusses birth stories, shocking maternal care truths about the US, a list of reads by Christy's favorite momma authors, and ways we can all contribute towards equitable, safe maternal care for every mother, everywhere.
In support of The Fold’s month of features honoring mothers this May, I was thrilled to sit down with an incredible mentor in the work for safe and respectful maternal health care: Christy Turlington Burns, founder of the non-profit organization, Every Mother Counts. I have been a runner and supporter of Every Mother Counts for six years and I know after this interview you will want to dive in with me, too. A sobering fact: The US has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, so there is major work to be done here and now. Which is the work Burns has committed to: "We continue to use storytelling to elevate women’s stories and amplify their voices, and we also invest in community-based led models of care that are compassionate and evidence-based," she says.
And, be on the lookout Christy’s book recommendations, all written by an amazing group of mothers and hand-lettered by artist Samantha Hahn, alongside our picks from the The Every Mother Counts Orange Rose Collection — nine amazing gifts that directly support EMC’s maternal health work.
One of my first memories of Every Mother Counts (EMC) in the early days was a prompt on the blog portion of the website to write in and share our birth stories – a simple call to everyone to write in and share, no limits. It struck me as such a fresh and insightful invitation, because it really is through our shared stories that we create community and then, through community, that we can make change.
As I learned more about EMC, I saw that this thread of storytelling wove through every aspect of the organization’s message. So I’d love to start at the beginning — would you mind sharing the birth story that started this work for you?
It all started with a birth story — my own. After giving birth to my daughter Grace more than 15 years ago, I hemorrhaged. I had had a good pregnancy, and had every possible birth option and all the support in the world. I had no idea that complications could occur after your baby was born and healthy. I would learn soon after that more than 500,000 women and girls were dying each year (in 2003) from pregnancy and childbirth related complications around the world and that that number had not improved in decades. Once I knew the facts, I couldn’t forget them and women without access to basic and life-saving maternity care became the focus of my life and advocacy work through Every Mother Counts.
In 2008, a few years after my son was born, I began studying public health at Columbia University’s Mailman School and also started production on No Woman, No Cry, my first documentary film. The film was completed in 2010, and by then it was clear that this project was the beginning of something much bigger. Every Mother Counts launched as a campaign along with the film’s premiere at The Tribeca Film Festival right before Mother’s Day, nearly 9 years ago.
Today, we are a nonprofit organization with a mission to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother, everywhere. We raise awareness about challenges and solutions that impact women and families and engage individuals in a variety of ways to improve maternal health and prevent maternal deaths and disabilities. We continue to use storytelling to elevate women’s stories and amplify their voices, and we also invest in community-based led models of care that are compassionate and evidence-based. Every Mother Counts currently has 11 grantee partners in six countries: Bangladesh, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Tanzania, and the United States.
Following Grace’s birth, you realized your personal birth experience was part of a larger global story. How did the global state of maternal health first come to your attention? And what prompted you to make No Woman, No Cry, sharing this global story through the medium of film?
When I was pregnant with my second child, I went to El Salvador, the country of my mother’s birth, as an ambassador for the global humanitarian organization, Care. While there, I realized I easily could have died without access to the maternity care that I received when my daughter was born.
I know how powerful film can be and knew instinctively that the best way to educate others about this issue would be to document the birth stories of other women and their care providers. No Woman, No Cry is as relevant as ever despite global maternal health improvements. Many of the countries highlighted in the film have reduced their maternal mortality ratio, with the exception of the US. In fact, the US continues to fall behind and has dropped in maternal mortality rankings from 41st to 46th in the world, behind 45 other countries. The US is the only industrialized country with a rising mortality rate and complications are also on the rise. To raise awareness and educate others on the dire state of maternal health in the US, in 2016, we launched a documentary film series called Giving Birth in America to examine the barriers that women in many states face. Our fifth installment launched last fall, and we are in the process of finishing the production of the sixth now.
I remember you mentioned that EMC (as an organization) was a natural extension from No Woman, No Cry, simply because so many people approached you after seeing the film, asking what they could do to help. What an amazing and overwhelming response! What were these earliest days like as an organization?
It’s true! I would have never thought about starting an organization had there not been such a heartwarming response to the film and our advocacy work. We started as a team of two and have grown steadily and strategically over the last decade. Many of our first staff members actually started out as volunteers.
The goal is not to become a huge organization but to remain agile and responsive to the issue and to create and support policies that will impact the lives of as many individuals as possible. We have sought out strong strategic partnerships along the way and are grateful for the support of so many who have helped to build and extend the reach of a small organization.
How did you envision EMC's work in the beginning? Has that vision changed in 2019?
We have grown a lot more focused. I have learned so much over these years and have built a really strong network of partners, allies, educators, and policy-makers around the world. It’s not enough to start something – you have to stick with it and continue to evolve, not merely to exist, and that’s what I am most proud of all these years later. Every Mother Counts has been meaningful to so many people and on levels I never imagined.
In recent years, EMC has turned the lens on the maternal health landscape here in the US through the Giving Birth in America series. In 2019, what do you feel most optimistic about in terms of maternal health? And what areas do you feel need continued support, attention, or even a complete “turning of the tide”?
We have definitely played a role in elevating the profile of the US maternal health crisis and the Giving Birth in America series continues to bring the issue closer to so many through story telling. People are listening and becoming more engaged. The political climate is currently pretty bleak for healthcare in this country, particularly for women, but there have been some wins and strides forward, which gives me hope.
Two critical maternal health bills, which we championed since their inception in 2010, were passed at the end of 2018. One of those designated funds for maternal mortality review boards to be established and improved at the state level. Those boards track information about maternal deaths and complications, identify trends and develop strategies to improve care. The other directs the government to identify maternity care shortage areas. This year, three additional maternal health bills have been reintroduced and others are pending reintroduction. This legislation is all strong and complementary and has the potential to address some of the most pressing issues in our maternity care system.
There has been so much more awareness of the problems with the maternity care system in the US, and progress is coming from a variety of different directions, including efforts to improve and standardize the best practices for preventing emergencies like hemorrhages or preeclampsia from arising and properly addressing them when they do. Other promising strategies to improve the system but need increased attention include integrating midwives and doulas into the US health care system.
One key part in my own involvement with EMC has been running races. EMC is actually what made me run my first three miles! Running races — whether 5ks or marathons — is such a powerful metaphor for the birth experience. How did the link between EMC and running start?
The connection deepened for me when I started training for my first NYC Marathon in 2011. When I was pregnant with my first child, my doula asked if I had ever run a marathon — trying to gauge my threshold for pain and endurance, I assumed. At that time, running a marathon was a distant bucket list kind of goal and one I couldn’t imagine in my foreseeable future.
As soon as I gave birth, however, I understood why my doula had asked. There are so many parallels between the two. The time and preparation that goes into planning for and training for a marathon and the support system required for it to go smoothly are very similar to those of pregnancy and childbirth. The highs and lows throughout, the possibility of complications, and other emotional barriers that arise are similar. The intensity of the last miles before finally crossing that finish line and the pushes before your baby is finally on your chest both bring a rush of endorphins. And after childbirth I thought, “I could do this again… maybe.”
Once we actually assembled that first marathon team, trained and completed the race, it was even more clear how running and maternal health were so naturally and beautifully linked. My running mantra/hashtag is #Everymileeverymother and that is literally my motivation for every step, mile, and race since the first.
You’ve now run several marathons (and are a finisher of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, what an amazing feat!) and countless half marathons. How did it feel when you crossed that first marathon finish line and how does it feel today?
It’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment and very satisfying to achieve such a physical feat. I remember feeling proud and resilient, like a warrior. I felt the same when I delivered my daughter, Grace.
It’s been almost a decade since No Woman, No Cry. What will the next decade look like for EMC?
I must confess that I never looked this far ahead at the beginning. It really has been such a journey and discovery process. As much as I have tried to put some structure to what we do and be more mindful of the planning, it’s just as important to remain flexible and open minded. We have a solid sense of the year ahead and a good sense of the year after that (the year Every Mother Counts turns 10), but I know that for me, to be my most authentic, present self, I have to focus on the here and now. I know we will continue to forge partnerships and alliances and elevate women’s voices and stories because they matter, and they will lead the change that needs to happen. I am as excited about the possibilities as ever.
And finally, what is your greatest wish for your daughter and the next generation with regard to maternal health?
For a long time, I would have said that my wish was for maternal mortality to be the rare event that most of us think it is by the time my daughter was at an age when she was thinking about motherhood. She is 15 ½ now and with our current trends, progress in this country isn’t happening quickly enough to make that wish come true. This is the time to push ahead and to dig deep, just like my friend ultra marathoner Scott Jurek says. This (maternal health) is an endurance sport in its own right. The finish line will come but you have to take one mile (stone) at a time.