“I knew how dangerous things could get”: the dangers of childbirth as a black woman | Family

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IIn the bathroom of a friend’s house in Washington DC, I waited anxiously for a few minutes before turning to the pregnancy test. It was positive. My eyes filled with tears; I was delighted, grateful and excited, but also very scared.

I think many parents can relate to this feeling, which seems to start as soon as we see the test result, and continues until our children are adults; we are overwhelmed with happiness for their mere existence while being terrified of losing them. But as a black feminist scholar, I was well aware that I had even more reason to worry.

I knew the dangers for a pregnant black woman. I knew that neither my degrees nor my access to resources could protect me from the black maternal health crisis in which black women in the United States are three to four times more likely to experience pregnancy-related death than our white counterparts. I was aware that my experience of caring for my child was likely to be marred by biases that could lead to my needs being overlooked by the professionals who were supposed to serve me and my baby. And I knew that was the case in part because the medical system I had to rely on had been built by experimenting on the bodies of black women who were enslaved.

Since pursuing my PhD at Cambridge University, I wondered if it would be safer for me to be based in the UK for antenatal care and the arrival of my child; I had access to the NHS and also knew that my care would be led by a midwife. But I did my research and found that things were the same, if not worse: in the UK, black women are five times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than white women.

What was I supposed to do? How could I get rid of the stress that was surely having a bad effect on my health and that of my child? I found inspiration near my home; I was writing a book about the mothers of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and James Baldwin. Writing about the lives of Alberta King, Louise Little and Berdis Baldwin has given me strength and inspiration. The lives of these revolutionary mothers showed me how women of color, and especially black women, often used their motherhood to fight against systems of domination.

I knew I had to talk about my fears and that I had to build on the experiences of other women of color. I decided that I wanted to work with doulas; to have women of color by my side who have been trained to support me emotionally and physically before, during and after work. I wanted someone to talk to about my pregnancy issues right away, who would allow me to ask questions without judgment, who would help me communicate my needs during childbirth.

Tubbs and his son, pictured at their Los Angeles home. Photograph: Philip Cheung / The Guardian

I was lucky enough to find my doulas across the Oakland Better Birth Foundation, California, which is dedicated to improving the chances of mothers and babies.

When we first met, Samsarah and Mika asked why I wanted to work with them. I sat in my living room holding my husband’s hand and told them that I felt I had very little control over what would happen the day I gave birth; that this lack of control scared me and how much I was aware of how dangerous things were.

Samsarah, who has been a doula for over 40 years, was kind and gentle but what she said surprised me: “You are wrong. I looked at her, confused. “You are the person in control of this pregnancy and you will remain in control during your labor and delivery. We are all here to listen to your wants and needs, ”she said, pointing to my husband and Mika. I took a deep breath and felt relaxed with gratitude.

What Samsarah and Mika presented to me was an age-old practice for black women: a new mother led throughout her labor by a birth expert, usually an elder, in her community. It is also a tradition that has come under attack since the introduction of Medicaid in the United States in the 1960s. Before that, black women were greeted with hostility if they attempted to give birth in hospitals, sometimes even being turned away. ; if admitted, they were placed in separate care that was far from equal to their white counterparts. When the reception of black women in hospitals became profitable and the experience of childbirth was medicalized, these women were treated as if they knew less about the delivery body than the doctors (always doctors). white men). It is an attitude that prevails.

Traditional childbirth experts were portrayed as untrained, and women who wanted to work with them were vilified for risking their children’s lives by not trusting hospitals and doctors. Over the years, the separation of midwives and doulas from hospitals in the United States and the lack of recognition of their role as birthing experts has meant that they are rare, especially in communities that cannot. not afford to pay them. Getting help from a midwife or a doula has become a privilege for those who can afford it. I originally wanted to give birth at home, but where I lived in Stockton, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, I couldn’t find a midwife of color nearby. My next option was to work with two doulas who were willing to drive 90 minutes to see me whenever we met.

Throughout the pregnancy, my husband and I would sit with them every few weeks. They continued to empower me to feel in control. I was strong, I was able, I understood my body: my body could do it. Between sessions, they checked my symptoms and adapted dietary recommendations to help ease any discomfort. They involved my husband and taught him techniques to use during my pregnancy and labor to soothe and comfort me. They both trained us on what to expect on the same day and gave us techniques to handle working from home until it was time to go to the hospital. They constantly reminded me that I was not alone.

The day has arrived. I went to bed the night before with a severe case of consecutive Braxton Hicks contractions. I woke up this morning with menstrual cramps and a little blood. The cramps got worse throughout the day until they turned into contractions. I texted my doulas with updates from this morning until the start of labor that evening, and the two women arrived at our house shortly after. They and my husband massaged me where I felt pain, played soothing music, reminded me of my breathing techniques. At the hospital they gave my birth plan to my nurses and because I didn’t want to be hooked up to an IV they were ready to give me water and juice whenever I needed it. .

My job lasted 15 hours, and they were by my side the whole time, telling me how strong and fierce I was. My son was born at 9:07 am. Following an incredible delivery, my doulas taught me to breastfeed, as well as to carry my baby in a sling; they checked in with us in person three times more over the next several weeks. I always text them with random updates and concerns.

I went out of my way to find people who would support me in this extraordinary time. But it shouldn’t be so unusual; research has proven that working with midwives and doulas results in better birth outcomes. All giving birth parents should feel as listened to and supported as I do: partners should feel included, the environment filled with happiness rather than fear. Even when I felt the most unimaginable pain during contractions, the people around me made me feel stronger and more powerful than ever.

Anna Malaika Tubbs is the author of Three Mothers: How The Mothers Of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X And ​​James Baldwin Shaped A Nation, published by William Collins, £ 18.99. To buy a copy for £ 16.52, go to guardbookshop.com

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