This father is standing up for all the families who’ve needlessly lost a birthing parent.

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Illustration by Maya Chastain

Charles Johnson was preparing to become a father for the second time.

His wife, Kira, was a healthy, vibrant mother of one who had already undergone a routine cesarean delivery with her first child.

When she arrived at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles — a hospital known as a leader in quality healthcare — to give birth to her second child, there was no reason to think anything would go wrong.

Kira underwent her second cesarean delivery after an uncomplicated pregnancy. However, shortly after her surgery, there were signs that things weren’t right.

“Kira went in for the delivery at 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” says Johnson. “I recognized that there was blood in Kira’s catheter around 4 o’clock.”

The Johnson family questioned medical staff. No answers were provided. No action was taken. Kira began shivering uncontrollably, and her catheter went from light pink to crimson while her family watched helplessly.

After a CT scan, an ultrasound, and a series of other tests, Kira was classified as a surgical emergency at 6:44 p.m., nearly 5 hours after her husband initially alerted doctors to her symptoms.

At 12:30 a.m., a full 10 hours later, Kira was admitted to surgery, a procedure she wouldn’t return from. Johnson was left to raise his son and the new baby—alone.

Becoming a single dad overnight was the last thing Johnson expected.

“The thought that when we walked into that hospital that day that Kira would not walk out to raise her sons, it never crossed my mind,” he says.

But that’s what happened, and Johnson isn’t alone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 700 women die each year in the United States from pregnancy-related complications. About 3 in 5 of those deaths are preventable.

Additionally, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women.

After Kira’s death, Johnson began to hear stories of other women experiencing obstetric violence. Then he started researching.

“I came to learn we’re in the midst of a maternal mortality crisis in our country, and it’s shameful,” says Johnson. “How is this happening right here in the United States, with all that we have … and why is it that everybody is not outraged?”

Johnson was a devoted family man before his wife’s death, but the loss served as a catalyst that would impel him to serve other families too — families who, like his, had needlessly lost a birthing parent.

Johnson went on to found 4Kira4Moms, a nonprofit organization fighting for improved maternal outcomes through advocacy, coalition building, public education, and peer support.

Johnson has testified twice before Congress to pass key legislation, including the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2018, the Protecting Moms Who Served Act of 2021, and the California ‘Momnibus’ Act.

In addition to putting an end to the maternal health crisis, Johnson is dedicated to helping the families — and fathers — left behind.

To that end, 4Kira4Moms provides financial and emotional support to families in the wake of maternal loss.

The Maternal Mortality Family Response Team reaches out to families who’ve lost a birthing parent within 48 hours to provide support and services, from a full year of grief counseling to essential items like diapers, formulas, and food.

The Housing Project for Father/Widower aims to provide housing to those who, like Johnson himself, find themselves single parenting overnight.

4Kira4Moms also organizes Father Engagement Events, including The Dad Stroll, an event where fathers come together — accompanied by their children — to march as a form of advocacy and visual activism.

In addition to maternal mortality, there’s another issue at play regarding the disproportionate death rates between white and Black birthing mothers.

Medical racism plays a major role in these widespread disparities in healthcare.

Johnson is all too familiar with medical racism and its often fatal consequences. Even before the birth, he suspected he might have to face it.

“I was innately aware how we would be potentially perceived even before I walked into the hospital, not ever thinking that it would get this bad,” Johnson says.

After planning to wear something comfortable and practical for what would be a potentially long, exhausting event, he thought better of it. He swapped his sweats and T-shirt for slacks, loafers, and a button-up.

“I remember making a cognizant decision,” Johnson says. “You know what, let me change my clothes, because I never know when I may need to be perceived in a certain manner.”

Johnson isn’t the only one.

He tells of nurses rudely greeting one Black father as “Baby Daddy” as well as another who threw a hospital gown at a pregnant mother in a wheelchair and commanded her to strip.

“I can tell you stories about a group of nurses who … were delaying epidurals from young Black mothers because they presumed that they were what they call ‘welfare queens,’” says Johnson.

The nurses “intentionally wanted to make [the mothers’] childbirth experience as painful and traumatic as possible so they would not come back with additional children,” he says.

In other cases, the racism is more subtle.

“Oftentimes, it’s just microaggressions,” says Johnson.

Maybe a Black mother is expressing concern or pain, and the hospital staff is flippant, suggesting that they “wait and see,” while a white mother is immediately tended to.

Then there’s the Johnsons’ personal experience.

“Anybody who’s had a lived experience as a person of color, minority, and — in certain respects — sometimes a woman regardless of your ethnicity, these feelings become familiar,” says Johnson. “Being dismissed out of, you know, lack of eye contact, being talked down to, being cut off abruptly, of just being and feeling invisible.”

The more time went on as Kira shivered in her hospital bed, ignored, it was clear to Johnson what they were dealing with.

“I definitely am clear that if Kira was a white woman, she’d be here today,” he says. “Plain and simple.”

Johnson points out that it’s important to hear women, especially in a space where they’re commonly ignored, minimized, and overlooked.

“I always do my best to just pay homage and express my appreciation for the people, the women, and particularly the Black women, who have been screaming at the top of their lungs about this for decades,” he says.

According to a 2015 study that surveyed 30 women from ages 30 to 55, the women described their relationships with healthcare professionals as “limited and sporadic.” This was due to “anxiety about being perceived as complaining about minor concerns” as well as previous negative experiences, including “feeling rebuffed or treated with disrespect.”

When it comes to Black women, the treatment worsens.

A 2016 review notes that “beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites — beliefs dating back to slavery — are associated with the perception that black people feel less pain than … white people.”

This leads to inadequate treatment recommendations for Black patients’ pain, the study concludes.

“Unfortunately, it took a man sharing his experience to get people to really say, ‘Whoa, whoa! Maybe this isn’t just a bunch of women that are overreacting,’” Johnson says. “It’s also important for me to be a good steward of my privilege as a man in this space.”

Johnson encourages other men to steward that privilege by amplifying the voices of the women who so often get silenced.

Want to get involved? Johnson says the first step is to talk about it.

“Have these conversations. Make sure that people around you, regardless of your race, your background, know that there is a maternal mortality crisis in our country,” he says.

Secondly, take action by letting both your U.S. senators and your local congressional representative know you support the ‘Momnibus’ Act.

You can do that here.

“Every mother, every family, deserves a safe, dignified, beautiful birthing experience,” says Johnson.

It’s a simple statement to rally behind.

Mothers “should be there at the first day of school, dancing at weddings … And so that’s my goal. That’s our objective as an organization.”

Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses at Simple Wild Free. You can find her on Instagram.