Soon after Candice Brathwaite gave birth to her daughter Esmé – by Caesarean section, rather than the home birth she dreamed of – she became convinced something wasn’t right.
At night she was sweating through her sheets, which midwives put down to hormonal changes. And the raised lump gathering beneath her C-section wound? Just scar tissue, they said. “If those who had studied medicine with the hopes of making people feel better were treating me as if nothing was wrong, who was I to argue?” Brathwaite writes, but in the meantime, she gave up on breastfeeding Esmé and felt little connection with her.
Then one night she was awoken by a smell so horrific that it was “like the Hulk had taken a shit and forgotten to flush”. She felt something wet and slimy oozing down her legs and screamed for her husband to call an ambulance. By the time they reached the hospital, she had slipped into septic shock. It took almost a month for her to recover. “As I finally went back to a baby girl who didn’t know me, I could find no words for how I had been treated or how I was feeling and, not unexpectedly, this went on to impact my mental health.”
This is not the sort of tale you usually find emanating from the picture-perfect mummy influencers on Instagram. But as Brathwaite’s new book, I Am Not Your Baby Mother, makes clear, she is not your average mummy influencer.
Since Esmé’s troubled entry into the world, Brathwaite, 32, a former receptionist and marketing assistant from south London, has built up thousands of followers for her bracingly direct, frequently hilarious Instagram posts featuring Esmé, six, her son Richard Jr, now two, and her Nigerian husband, Bodé (AKA Papa B), in their colourful home in Milton Keynes. The pictures can’t help but highlight how white and middle-class the general image of British motherhood is – all “horizontal-striped T-shirts and shiny boobs”, as she puts it.
But I Am Not Your Baby Mother is also an attempt to reach beyond Instagram and offer a sustained commentary on what it means to be a black British mother and how a lack of awareness of the racial dimension of motherhood can have deadly consequences.
In 2018, she learned that black British mothers in the UK are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. According to the Office for National Statistics, black babies have a 121% increased risk of being stillborn and a 50% increased risk of dying within 28 days of birth compared with white babies. Brathwaite has since received apologies from hospital staff for the long list of “inconsistencies” and dismissive behaviour that “fell far below” the NHS standard, but her experience of feeling “invisible” or, at best, an aggressive nuisance is clearly not isolated.
She remains angry. “My therapist says that when babies are born, they have these tiny synapses where they’re looking for their mum and if they can’t smell you, they break apart and never go back together, so Esmé’s always going to pine for me. That makes me so furious, because that separation could have been avoided.” However, she says, she now has a purpose: “I’m at the forefront of a discussion that will hopefully save women’s lives.”
Part memoir, part manifesto, Brathwaite’s book was written to help “black British mothers feel validated and encouraged to take up space”. In recent years, social media stars with handles like “Vegan Earth Mother” or “Slummy Mummy” have helped create a “beige” image of motherhood, Brathwaite says, a land of “glossy women” who seem unnaturally happy to be “spending their days breastfeeding or pureeing organic vegetables into ice-cream trays”.
She doesn’t just mean beige “in terms of skin tone but in personality, in performance, in content being rolled out”. When she started her blog in 2016, “there was no other version out there. If you weren’t white and middle-class with this certain set of mummy friends, it just felt like you were sitting on the outskirts looking in.”
The book’s title is an attempt to dismantle (not reclaim) the term “baby-mother” – which dates back to the 1960s and is often cast upon single black mothers. It’s not simply written through the perspective of a black woman but someone from a working-class background with an unconventional upbringing. Brathwaite is the eldest of three children brought up by her maternal grandparents (who came here from Barbados as part of the Windrush generation), though it was her beloved grandfather – blinded in one eye after a mugging and no longer able to work – who did the bulk of the childcare and domestic tasks.
Her parents split up due to her father’s infidelity, which then exacerbated her mother’s mental health problems. Brathwaite remained close to her father until she was 21, when he died suddenly of the common flu. He had gone to hospital, put up a fight to be seen and then, suffering from sepsis, went into cardiac arrest. All of which makes the Covid-19 crisis particularly sobering for her, she says. “Having the news pour in on my iPad has made me see that black people really need to work on protecting themselves, because we just see these black bodies piling up.” Her hope is that data around BAME deaths during the pandemic will ultimately create a domino effect as health inequalities become impossible to ignore.
But I Am Not Your Baby Mother resonates beyond race – and should strike a chord with any mother alienated by stereotypical images of motherhood. When Brathwaite first became a mother, she was more worried about paying the electricity bill than whether her child’s food was organic. “If my child is not crying through hunger, I’m winning. The time to fuss is itself a privilege.”
While the lack of diversity in images of motherhood might look like carelessness or complacency, you don’t have to scratch too deep to detect uglier impulses. We discuss why Michelle Obama was so successful at projecting an image of black, middle-class motherhood but Meghan Markle has been attacked on everything from how she cradled her bump to how long she leaves her son with a nanny. “What spun Britain through a loop was seeing Meghan’s mum at that wedding. It was like: ‘Woah, that is a black, black lady with locks’… people are outraged that she has brought a dollop of melanin into the royal family!”
Brathwaite has also experienced direct hostility from the mumosphere. Last year it emerged that she had been among those attacked by a secret account created by midwife and reigning queen of the mumfluencers, Clemmie Hooper (AKA Mother of Daughters). Hooper accused Brathwaite – whom she had previously invited on to her podcast – of being aggressive and weaponising race (Hooper has since apologised).
“That really came at me from behind,” Brathwaite recalls. “I had to tell myself: ‘Wow girl, get it together, not everyone is your friend.’ But what she decided to do has actually been helpful to me showing people the many things black women are dealing with, not just online but in the office and on the street.” Of all the social media apps, she has most confidence in Instagram, which she insists has the best processes to protect users.
Brathwaite and her husband, who works in the tool hire industry, now live in a house bought in part thanks to endorsements and sponsorships. But while she is reluctant to see herself as a role model, the responsibility for speaking to mothers on a lower income clearly plays on her mind. “When we tell people to relax their spending at, say, Primark or H&M, we have to be conscious that someone’s ‘fast fashion’ is someone else’s ‘high-end’.”
Nevertheless she is unabashed about her own material aspirations. She studies idols like Serena Williams, Beyoncé and Michelle Obama and is fluent in the language of influence and markets. “I’ve always said: ‘I’m just here to stack my chips, I don’t know what you guys are on,’” she laughs.
“As this pandemic has shown, anyone’s financial situation can change at any time. Just because we [may attempt to] buy our way out of our blackness, it doesn’t mean that’s a solid thing... using the extreme example of police brutality, no racist cop is asking to see your bank balance before they shoot you. No one is saying: ‘What are you worth, where do you eat, where does your kid go to school?’”
Financial security for black people may well be “a comfort blanket”, she says, but “it’s a blanket I can’t afford to let go of, because I don’t have anything else”.
Still, she insists she doesn’t want to be the product for ever. She has established the platform Make Motherhood Diverse to shine a light on images of motherhood beyond the white, middle-class and able-bodied – and her hope is that soon black fatherhood will have its turn in the spotlight. She is “very purposeful” in showing her husband in a domestic setting, sharing “soft moments” with their son. “I want everyone to know – but specifically the black community – I am with a guy who really supports my public career. It’s not something that is typical. Being with him makes me giggle because I realise I’ve just ended up with my grandad – it’s really, really funny.”
A week after we speak, America is in crisis after the killing of George Floyd. Brathwaite is posting a lot about racial injustice and has gained 20,000 followers over a weekend. When I catch up with her over email, her anger about black people “being killed for nothing more than being black” is tinged with a sense of hope: “I do think it’s a turning point. There is something about this murder that has made the entire world sit up and listen.” When I ask if she will be joining the protests planned in the UK, she says she thinks she will: “It will be the first time I’ve been out since lockdown but if there is any time that venturing out is worth any kind of risk, it is now.”
• I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite is published by Quercus (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15