“Brave. Compelling. Provocative. ” —Gabrielle Union Wade, actress and New York Times bestselling author
In this moving memoir, Shirley Smith, wife of NBA Champion and All-Star J. R. Smith, tells the story of giving birth to one of the youngest premature babies to survive—using her experience to heighten awareness of the crisis of Black maternal and infant health and pay tribute to Black women’s resilience.
Shirley Smith and her husband, NBA champion J. R. Smith, looked forward to the birth of their second child, Dakota, as they celebrated New Year’s Eve with family at home. After dinner, Shirley felt a sharp pain that worsened through the night. Only 21-weeks pregnant, she was in labor. Mama Bear is the story of her 141-day ordeal, from entering a hospital emergency room on New Year’s morning and giving birth to her premature newborn, to taking her daughter home for the first time the following May.
In telling her story, written with Zelda Lockhart, Shirley shines a spotlight on the dangers Black women face during pregnancy. Black mothers are twice as likely as their white counterparts to go into labor prematurely and lose their babies—and almost four times as likely to die giving birth. Neither socioeconomic status nor access to quality healthcare seem to matter. Tennis champion Serena Williams experienced life-threatening complications during childbirth, and Beyoncé suffered toxemia with her premature twins.
Shirley chronicles the emotional and physical battle she and J. R. endured to save their daughter, and her continual struggles to support her family while nurturing herself. Like many Black women, Shirley was raised to believe that pain is a sign of weakness. The one who kept it together for everybody, she had always put herself second. She parallels this difficult journey to her childhood growing up with an addict mother, and having to raise herself and her brother from a very young age.
A chronicle of pain, loss, and infidelity, Mama Bear is ultimately a story of love—a celebration of community, family, faith, healing, the maternal bond, and one woman’s indomitable spirit.
In this affecting debut, Smith, an advocate for families with premature infants and wife of NBA all-star J.R. Smith, tells the tumultuous story of her own daughter's early birth, the lasting effects of intergenerational trauma, and the burden Black women carry to survive in a society inhospitable to them. As she writes, "Being in survival mode... can make anybody feel like they can do anything as long as it takes, with undying endurance. But that's a myth, Black women aren't machines." With vulnerability and compassion, Smith celebrates the resilience of the Black women in her life while pointing out the ways in which they have been failed, particularly concerning maternal and infant mortality caused in part by "experiencing extreme and moderate racism on a regular basis." To this end, she weaves together recollections of her own tragic childhood which was overshadowed by poverty, neglect, and her mother's drug addiction with the ordeal of witnessing her daughter, "the youngest preemie ever to survive," fight for her life at 21 weeks old. While the visceral emotion is gripping, the book's momentum is sometimes stalled when Smith turns to aspects of her husband's life such as his infidelity, court proceedings, and brief prison stay. Nevertheless, this is a captivating, important work. Agent: Rica Allannic, David Black Literary.