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Someone Like Me

When I found out I was pregnant four years ago, I was living two thousand miles from my family, in a shaky marriage, changing jobs and moving to a new city. My new employer was a behavioral health agency that had tasked me with creating a brand new art therapy program. Meanwhile I was dealing with unbearable exhaustion, nausea, and zero sick days. To say it was a stressful time in my life would be an understatement. While I could say there were a lot of things I was lacking at that time in my life, something I did have was knowledge about pregnancy.

About four months prior to discovering those two cheerful pink lines on a “just-to-prove-I’m-not-pregnant” pregnancy test, I had taken a weekend long training to become a birth doula. A doula is a trained childbirth assistant who supports women in labor. Not only had I attended the training, but I had read books and watched documentaries as well, that helped to shape my view of childbirth in the American health care system. Armed with considerable knowledge, I had a good idea of what I wanted for my birth- and one important item on my list was a black doula.

I can’t put into words exactly why I needed a black doula. This was not a well thought out decision I made, but an instinctive conclusion I simply came to. Although my own family was far away, I wanted to have someone that felt like family in the birth room with me. If I couldn’t have my sister, I knew I at least wanted a sista, and so my search began. While I had the pleasure of meeting a black midwife and two black doulas during my pregnancy, they weren’t available to assist me on my due date. I called another black doula, and then another, and quickly realized the well of black doulas in my areas had run dry. It became clear to me that I wasn’t going to get the doula that I wanted for my birth.

This lets me know that we need more black doulas. There just simply aren’t enough to go around right now. While I’ve heard many woman joke that they want Erykah Badu as their personal doula, for most of us that is not an option. I, for one, would have been just as happy to birth with another woman who could have appreciated the significance of my birthing my baby to Maxwell’s song “This Woman’s Work.” Perhaps she could have held my hand and sang softly “I know you’ve got a little life in you left, and I know you’ve got a lotta strength left” as I pushed out my daughters big ol’ head after a period of time that could have been on hour or all of eternity.

During my pregnancy, I struggled with perinatal anxiety, which for me showed up as irrational thoughts. I was concerned that I was incapable of being a good mother because I could not stay at home with my child. Had I had a black doula should could have reminded my that historically speaking, African American mothers have (for the most part) always been working mothers. She could have reminded me of the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” and helped connect me to my village.

When I was neglecting my self care, and stressing over an idea of perfection, my doula could have reminded me of that black babies are 2.4 times more likely to be born prematurely compared to babies of other races, which is the leading cause of black infant mortality. She might have explained that this is even true for babies born to middle class African American mothers. She could have helped me find ways to prioritize relaxation and self care to ease my stress and reduce the risk.

While I was lucky to have the option to receive my care and give birth at a free-standing birth center, which is a homelike facility providing care within the wellness model of pregnancy and birth, nearly 99 percent of women birth in the hospital. For women who live in areas that lack ethnic diversity this means birthing in what feels very much like an ethnically exclusive space. While the midwifery model of care that I experienced offered more freedom, hospital births tend to be more restrictive. Hospitals have their rules, guidelines, and standards of care, and many mothers and couples are unclear on what their rights are. It’s hard to know what you are “allowed” to refuse and what you are “allowed” to ask for. An experienced doula will be able to prepare parents ahead of time, teaching about various procedures, encouraging parents to discuss them with their doctor, and remind them that the doctor doesn’t “allow” anything, but is ethically required to get informed consent. For many mothers having a black doula as part of her team of mostly white birth professionals can be empowering. Having a black doula may reduce or shield the effects of problematic power dynamics that can crop up (think oppression and “white savior” dynamics”) and also add the element of culturally competent care.

Black women and couples birthing with black birth professionals are connected to a legacy that echoes throughout out history, from black women supporting each other birthing in the cotton fields, back to antiquity when midwives were known to be wise women and spiritual healers. While many great doula training organizations exist, the International Center for Traditional Childbearing is the only one that focus it’s training to be culturally specific to the African Diaspora. No matter where training occurs, it remains clear that we need more black doulas to welcome healthy black babies into the world.

Although I am not currently working as a doula right now, I am happy to provide referral to other local doulas of color. It’s important that you have people on your team you feel like you can relate to and who honor you as a unique individual. The same can be said about working with a therapist. If you are looking to work with a therapist that understands the complexities of black motherhood in this day and time, I would love to work with you.

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