Shirley Smith recalls giving birth to 1-pound miracle baby: ‘I had to rely on God’

The advocate for premature babies and wife of NBA star J.R. Smith, shares her fight for Black maternal health in a new inspiring memoir, “Mama Bear.”

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Shirley Smith was told to prepare for a funeral. It was New Year’s Eve four years ago when she arrived at the hospital after experiencing pain at 21 weeks pregnant. While the rest of the world toasted champagne and counted down clocks, Smith’s doctors told her to count down to giving birth at any minute for an emergency delivery required to save her life.

Former basketball star J.R. Smith and wife Shirley Smith
Former basketball star J.R. Smith and wife Shirley Smith. (Photo: Instagram/Shirley Smith)

“They was just telling me to pretty much prepare her funeral arrangements because it was no way she was going to make it,” Smith tells theGrio in a recent interview from her home in New Jersey. “Like ‘you and your husband might have to have a hard conversation.’”

Smith, who is also wife to NBA star J.R. Smith, was devastated. She’d hadn’t expected to give birth five months early, nor had she prepared herself for a premature birth.  To make matters worse, Smith’s own doctor was on vacation at the time. As doctors huddled around the hospital room speaking in hushed tones, Shirley Smith tried to process the news.

At 21 weeks, a baby is considered extremely premature — the size of a small banana — with slim chances of survival.  

“What I went through was straight trauma, a whirlwind of heartache, pain, depression, and lack of knowledge and understanding,” Smith tells theGrio.

Shirley Smith in hospital bed during premature birth.
Shirley Smith in hospital bed during premature birth. (Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Smith)

But Smith’s fighting spirit kicked in. Surviving a tough upbringing in Newark, she had faced trauma before — Smith’s mother died when she was just 21 years old, leaving her determined to carve out a new destiny. Now a mother herself, she says she had no choice but to reject the doctor’s prognosis about the child she was carrying.

“I snapped and I said, if you’re going to come to this hospital room with this negativity, please don’t come in here at all,” Smith remembers. “The last thing I needed to hear or have surrounding me was negative words, negative energy. 

“So I pulled from where I’ve always knew to pull from and that’s from my faith.”

That faith and the delivery of what would become a 1-pound miracle baby named Dakota who defeated the odds, is the subject of Smith’s debut memoir, Mama Bear: One Black Mother’s Fight for Her Child’s Life and Her Own. The book recounts a story that has become all too familiar for Black mothers in a country with the highest maternal mortality rate amongst developed nations, and higher rates of preterm birth, even amongst wealthier socioeconomic groups.

Shirley Smith, husband J.R. Smith and daughter Dakota
(Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Smith)

Baby Dakota would end up spending 141 days in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), a nearly 5-month journey which required Smith to dig deep for strength. She played music, blogged about the experience and approached the long days with a smile.

“In that room, I tried to normalize it as best as possible so it could just ease the pain not only for myself, but family, even for the doctors and the nurses,” Smith says. “I had to rely on God.”

As the days went on, Dakota grew and faced every medical intervention like a champion. A trait her champion father, J.R. Smith, also brought to the hospital visits.

Former basketball star J.R. Smith and wife Shirley Smith with daughter, Dakota
Former basketball star J.R. Smith and wife Shirley Smith with daughter, Dakota. (Photo: Instagram/Shirley Smith)

“I appreciate the strength that he gave me just being there and being my rock,” Smith says of her husband. Smith says the struggle of a premature birth isn’t just felt by mothers, and fathers deserve recognition and support. “The torment and the stress they go through … These men feel like they don’t have a voice when it comes to their children because the doctors and nurses always go to the mother.”

Smith hopes her family’s journey encourages others, especially Black mothers, to fight for quality maternal care and postpartum support. Something Smith says shouldn’t just be for a privileged few. She hopes her book also encourages Black mothers to also ask for help, even as they rely on their faith and resilience to get through difficult pregnancies.

“I just want to uplift and give people that sense of hope,” Smith says. “Even a superwoman needs a superwoman.”

Watch the full interview with Shirley Smith above.

Natasha S. Alford is the VP of Digital Content and Senior Correspondent at theGrio. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.

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