Motherhood and Mental Health with Theresa Fortune

Theresa Fortune (at right) with a family friend, Mamma Flo.  (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

If Theresa Fortune’s story were a Hollywood film, the trailer would start with a scene of her laying on the floor, in her house. As dramatic music swelled, the camera’s focus would go from Theresa’s face, distraught and in the foreground, to a knife not too far in the distance.

Suddenly, the music would drop out, and the trailer would cut to her birthday party earlier this month.

Held a day before her birthday on March 2, Theresa's party wasn't your usual birthday celebration. Instead of having drinks at a bar or cutting it up on the dance floor, Rese, as friends call her, hosted an artist talk at a gallery on 15th and Webster in downtown Oakland.

The subject of the discussion: mental health and motherhood, from a firsthand account.

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As people gathered inside, some talked about the rainstorm outside, while others discussed the dark cloud over the Oakland Unified School District, as its teachers had just spent most of the week on strike.

On one side of the gallery, a video of Rese walking barefoot in the wilderness, made by Jeremy Allens, played on a large screen. On the opposite side, photos of Rese were framed and mounted on exposed concrete.

The photos, by Stephanie Warner, depicted a range of Rese’s emotions, reenacting of all the things she’s been through—from being depressed in the shower to feeling delighted while in the presence of her child.

They showed a window into a world I had never experienced firsthand, and, as a man, I never will. But I was familiar with the elements. Be it my mom, my sister, my lady—hell, just about every mother I know—they’ve all been through some aspect of what Rese has started talking openly about.

Theresa Fortune in conversation with Jeannine Hooks-Allen
Theresa Fortune in conversation with Jeannine Hooks-Allen. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Inside the gallery that night, Rese told the story of how she and her former partner came to have their daughter. After the child’s birth, the couple hit hard times financially. That, coupled with a number of other circumstances, caused the two to break up.

Rese, learning how to navigate single motherhood and overcome financial woes by becoming a culinary artist, was also dealing with postpartum depression. And in the United States, that’s not uncommon.

According to a New York Times article published last week, one in seven mothers in the United States deals with postpartum depression. The FDA recently approved new medication to treat postpartum depression, a big move toward recognition of the seriousness of the issue. Maybe next, they’ll see how big the issue is for African American women, especially.

Case in point: in Los Angeles, the journalist Priska Neely covers just about all aspects of maternal health, from the importance of breastfeeding to city-backed solutions addressing birth-related deaths for black women and black babies. According to an NPR story by Renee Montagne, black mothers and children are two to three times more likely to die during the birthing process than any other racial demographic.

Essentially, Rese is doing similar work as Priska by tackling multiple aspects of a monumental issue—maternal health. It's just that Rese does so using her own story and her own art, and asking for the input of others.

“I’m creating a platform,” Rese, who has created a company called Communion with the Community, tells me. “Using theatre as a space for transparency, and to engage in a dialogue that most people aren't ready to have out loud.”

Those taboo subjects include infidelity, healing from trauma, as well as being unemployed and receiving welfare, which Rese addresses openly in her regular schedule of performances. She acknowledges that she's not in the same financial predicament she once was, and that she's pursuing a career in the arts in order to get off of government assistance.

And through her art, she helps others recognize that they aren't alone in their experience. She does that by telling her story. Even the tough part, when she was on the floor, looking at the knife.

Theresa Fortune, reliving her experience, on camera
Theresa Fortune relived her experience of postpartum depression for a series of photos by Stephanie Warner. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

At one point in the conversation on her birthday, Rese got quiet. She held one hand over her pursed lips, starring blankly past the 30 or so people in the audience. "You can tell me," said the host, Jeannine Hooks-Allen. Rese dropped her hand, giving her mouth space to move, and said, "I’m going to tell everyone."

I put my head down and took shorthand notes on my phone as Rese explained how she chose not to take her own life.

"I just wanted to smell daughter’s clothes."

"I made a conscious decision to stay. I challenged God."

"If there’s no one to call when you’re drowning in your darkness, it’s OK to talk to yourself."

"Pain is a process, with a purpose."

"Life’s greatest challenge is how to successfully deal with pain."

And the last words I have in my notes from that night is a name:

"Mamma Flo."

Florence McCrary, or Mamma Flo as she's known to many, was in the building that night. She's the mother of one of Rese's childhood friends, Erika McCrary, as well as Terrence McCrary.

Terrence "T-Mack" McCrary was killed in 2016, on the same corner where Rese's performance was.

When I met Mamma Flo before the event started, she told me that she wasn't avoiding this block: "it's going to be there." And then she looked me in my eyes and said, "but if I find the men who did it... well, that's another story."

To Rese, Mamma Flo embodies everything that she aspires to as a mother. "Her ability to show up to this show, and having to walk the same street her son was killed on, spoke volumes to me. She is the essence of strength, grace, purpose and love," Rese told me afterward.

Mamma Flo being there also underscored the event's purpose: to provide a platform of mutual support. "As mothers, oftentimes we're not allowed to take our capes off and be vulnerable within our moments of pain," Rese said. "That day, she took her cape off, and still had the ability to flow through her pain."

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Theresa Fortune hosts a performance with Jason Jasper about health, relationships and family on Sunday, March 31, at the Copper Spoon in Oakland. Details here.

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