Having a baby is generally touted as being one of the most momentous and enriching milestones in a woman’s life. The miracle of birth, and the sweet bundle of joy that results, conjure images of glowing mothers, flowing fashions, and juicy, adorable babies, all typically viewed through an ethereal, soft-focus lens. But as any mother already knows, there is one particular, less glamorous, very critical phase of pregnancy that hits women at their most vulnerable point.
The window of time after a woman gives birth is rarely spoken of in polite company. And if you’re a Black woman, the situation has the potential to be dire, if not life-threatening. We know that Black mothers die at a rate three to four times higher than White mothers, both during and after giving birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disparity can be attributed to several factors including pre-existing conditions, lack of health insurance, socioeconomic status, and the bias and discrimination, blatant and implied, that is prevalent throughout the nation’s healthcare system.
Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo and Marcia A. Cole, the founders of Fourth Phase, are advocating to ensure that the afterbirth period—the “’fourth trimester” of pregnancy—is no longer shrouded in secrecy, or worse, simply overlooked or dismissed as not being a critical part of the full birthing process.
Born out of the real-life postpartum experiences of Eyeson-Akiwowo, Cole’s holistic lifestyle, and the philanthropic endeavors that both women engaged in separately, their Fourth Phase enterprise is dedicated to addressing the physical, mental, and spiritual maternal needs of women. Former magazine industry colleagues and now forever friends, Eyeson-Akiwowo and Cole are collaborating in a space where passion meets purpose. They’re doing it through education, dialogue, and their newly launched maternal aftercare gift boxes that feature custom-made products for lactation support, perineal and pelvic care, belly and body pampering, and the mental and spiritual well-being of new mothers.
The duo’s website, podcasts, and must-have afterbirth goodie boxes provide the insider intel and mother-wit remedies that can be literal lifesavers for new moms, who often don’t know these things until they go through the birthing process themselves.
“When a child is born, a mother is born as well,” says Eyeson-Akiwowo, 44, quoting a familiar adage. “During pregnancy, which really is a year-long process, if not longer, a woman becomes a new person, and she has to adjust to who she is and who she has become throughout this life-altering process. Some never fully recalibrate,” continues the mother of eight-year-old daughter Omolara.
Just this week, a coalition of 21 state attorneys general nationwide penned a letter to Congress, urging the passage of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, aimed at addressing the social impact of the Black maternal mortality crisis, ensuring that Black women have access to equitable care at all stages of pregnancy. The legislative package comprises 12 bills that propose to address the crisis through increased grant funding, enhanced data collection, and improving community programs.
“The concept of the ‘fourth trimester’ is a real medical thing,“ says Cole, 54.“Bringing awareness, specifically to women of color, that pregnancy is really a year-long experience that includes the healing phase, which isn’t the same for every woman, is essential, and should be a part of all pregnancy discussions and planning.”
BET.com spoke to both Eyeson-Akiwowo and Cole about their unwavering dedication to helping other women through these final stages of pregnancy and what it took to get the Fourth Phase movement off the ground and running.
BET.com: What was the tipping point for the launch of Fourth Phase? Why now?
Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo: It had to be now. For nearly two decades, my philanthropy has taken me back and forth to my native Ghana, where I’ve been engaged with bringing much needed health supplies to the women there. When I saw a mom trying to re-use a baby diaper and hearing her share that she was supplied only one sanitary pad after giving birth, I knew something more had to be done. Here in the States, Marcia’s work with homeless women in shelters sadly unearthed some of the same issues of disparity and lack among new mothers. The pandemic delayed our plans, but the need for this type of outlet is critical and the time is now.
BET.com: What are some of the harmful effects that can occur when new moms don’t receive balanced care during their postpartum healing?
Marcia A Cole: Physical, mental, and spiritual neglect can have serious consequences that lead to tragic outcomes. Postpartum preeclampsia, lochia irregularities, depression, social detachment, cracked nipples, and a host of general discomforts can be symptoms of something more serious, if left unchecked. Women learn to suffer in silence, and unfortunately, given that the U.S. globally ranks 10th in pregnancy-related mortality, silence can sometimes result in death.
BET.com: Nana, during and after you gave birth, what specific needs did you feel weren’t addressed at the time?
Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo: I felt let down and lied to by other moms, including my own who never shared their true experience, either out of a sense of shame or discretion! Every time I tried to breastfeed, I cried because my daughter was rejecting my breasts, which made me feel she was rejecting me. I was shocked to learn that my doctors’ appointments after birth were few, and that this was standard. I came to realize that the mothers I knew had filtered their birthing experience, so a lot of the not-so-glam aspects after delivery were a surprise to me. Instagram photos of smiling moms with their new babies only told a part of the pregnancy story. I was missing a community where honest and affirming dialogue and information was being imparted and shared.
BET.com: Marcia, how does your holistic training and shelter system experience inform your participation with Fourth Phase?
Marcia A. Cole: Through my personal interests, I’ve studied aspects of traditional Chinese medicine, Korean therapies, and basic home remedies from Caribbean, African, ad African-America cultures. These tried and true cultural treatments helped greatly as we worked to manufacture the product line that goes into our Vaginal Birth and Belly Birth afterbirth boxes.
BET.com: The Fourth Phase Box retails for $150 (Belly Birth Box) and $165 (Vaginal Birth Box). What can be found in them?
Marcia A. Cole: We feature items such as nipple salve for soothing dry, cracked nipples; lactation and relaxation tea; belly balm; hot/cold compresses; postpartum undies, hydrating essential oils, digital affirmations and meditation downloads; and a customized writing journal, to name but a few items. All products are full-size, organic, free from phthalates, non-toxic, cruelty-free, and are sustainably sourced.
BET.com: Besides the boxes, what else will women visiting the site experience?
Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo: We have a section that features experts in the perinatal field, including doulas and midwives. We’re building a community focused on “fourth trimester” cares and concerns. We share cultural traditions and treatments from around the world that are practiced by new mothers, yet aren’t entrenched here.
Soon we’ll be launching a “Healing After Birth” blog that will post to the site. And there’s a philanthropic aspect, where those interested in this cause can donate boxes and other products to Black women in the U.S. and worldwide who are in need, but who have limited resources.
BET.com: What will success look like for the Fourth Phase movement?
Marcia A. Cole: Seeing Fourth Phase products and philosophies showing up in hospitals and birthing centers in this country, while we support other women globally. Our goal is to help create normalcy, transparency, and a lack of disparity around the birthing process. As advocates for maternal health and wellness, our mission is to help Black women heal, feel, and be heard.
For more information, visit fourthphasebox.com