When I became pregnant with my first child, I was only 19 years old. I had no idea what was to come, what was already happening or what I was supposed to do next. I had a disappointed mother giving me the silent treatment, sisters away at college, and a “baby daddy” who was absolutely no support at all. What I chose to do next is what led me to my life’s work and passion, being a black doula.
My Baby Bump, and All the Bumps Along the Way
My pregnancy wasn’t a breeze. There were some major bumps and quite a bit of book worthy drama. During one ultrasound, the tech found a cyst on my placenta. After speaking with my provider, we scheduled for a follow up ultrasound, genetic counseling and then the dreaded genetic testing via amniocenteses. (Basically, a needle the size of California going into my pregnant belly to remove and test fluid for genetic deformities.) The worse part was the waiting. After what felt like forever, (about four weeks), the doctor called and said I have nothing to worry about. That’s when I packed up and moved to Atlanta to be with my sister and closer to my family.
Once I settled in Georgia, I got to work arranging new health insurance and tapping into resources. The hardest part was finding an OB or Midwife that I felt comfortable with and could see me right away, so I settled for a convenient Obstetrician that was on my bus route to work. After three visits, I could feel the difference in the level of care. Across my three prenatal visits, I never saw the same doctor twice. I only met the actual doctor, who I thought I selected, during my final office visit and at the time of delivery (or at least that’s what the birth certificate said). From what I remember, he had his surgical mask on from the moment he walked into the room until the moment he left.
My Birth Story
I delivered my son at 40.6 weeks gestation. I was overdue and miserable when I finally began laboring Easter Sunday morning. By that evening, I was contracting every four minutes. My contractions were strong and consistent, so my sister took me to Labor and Delivery a little after midnight. They checked to see how dilated I was while in triage, and I was only 1.5 cm dilated. I wanted to cry. My baby was pressing so low and hard that they could feel his head as soon as they went to check me, but there were no beds. My cervix wasn’t dilated enough for them to admit me. There was no walking around, no comfort, no reassurance, no hope for progression. I had no choice but to go back home and continue to labor.
After about six hours of long and hard, back labor contractions, I returned to the hospital. They checked me again, but nothing had changed. My mother had driven up from Alabama for the birth of her first grandchild, and a nurse tried to tell her that I was going to be sent back home. Luckily for me and unfortunately for them, they did not know who they were dealing with. My mother is a born advocate, and she explained to them in not so many words that her daughter wasn’t going anywhere, and to find her a bed and get her checked immediately. That is exactly what they did.
Finally, the doctor broke my water, gave me all the drugs I heard so much about, and I progressed without a problem. When it was time to push, the staff did not inform me, prep me, coach me, encourage me, or even really talk to me. I was just told when it was okay to push and when to stop. I couldn’t feel anything that was happening as I pushed because of my epidural. After a few contractions, I managed to focus my energy and push my baby out. I gave birth to a healthy, beautiful, red head baby boy. Soon after delivery, a nurse came into my room and began roughly massaging my pelvis without warning. It was so painful, and I did not understand why she was doing this. It felt like an assault. After, they told my mom and sister to pack up my stuff and follow them. The nurse moved me to the wheelchair, handed me my swaddled son and wheeled us away. We were all confused until my mother asked where we were going. The nurse explained that I was being moved to my postpartum room. The big, comfy, spacious room that I had given birth in was temporary. I was wheeled into a tiny shared room. Thankfully, I was the only patient for my entire stay.
During my stay, the nurses were hit and miss. Some were awesome, but most were not. There was no bedside manner or basic communication about what was happening. They never asked if I needed help with breastfeeding. My advocate mother had to request a lactation specialist, who was awesome. I can’t forget about when a nurse brought my son back from the nursery. As I began to change his diaper, I let out a yelp! My son’s penis was red and bandaged with a moist gauze wrapped around it. I called for the nurse, and she explained the circumcision procedure. Of course, I opted for this procedure, but there was no setting of expectations, no notice, no training on how to care for the circumcision. Thankfully, the nurse took the time to walk me through how to care for his man-parts after the fact.
The worst part was how unheard I felt. While at the hospital, I asked several nurses if they thought I should be concerned about the yellowing in my baby’s skin. They told me not to worry. When it was time to be discharged, I asked once again, because the whites of his eyes were now bright yellow. Still, no real concern. I am so glad I had chosen an awesome, very popular pediatrician who required a visit the day after a newborn comes home. The doctor took one look at my son, tested a small bit of his blood and sent me straight to Children’s Hospital. My son was severely jaundiced and needed immediate medical attention, which consisted of four days wearing a mask under UV lights and taking formula instead of the milk I was pumping.
I learned so much from my first pregnancy and delivery, and by baby number two, I was back in New York with a birth plan, a carefully chosen medical provider and some experience. With the knowledge and experience of my first pregnancy and delivery, I was able to avoid another uninformed, chaotic, unplanned, unheard pregnancy or birth experience again.
The Spirit of a Doula
Throughout the years, I took what I learned and shared it with friends, family members and co-workers. I shared resources, experience, a voice, expertise and an empathetic ear. I used those gifts for those transitioning, not just though pregnancy, but other transitions as well, like life and death. It was natural for me.
Toward the end of 2018, I hit a point of uncertainty. I was happily married with a dope, blended family. I had five children ranging from ages 5-17, three dogs, two birds and a demanding full-time job that I decided to leave behind. I was great at the job I worked in, but it was time for me to find pleasure in my career. I knew I needed to be doing work from the heart. Work that helped people and had an impact on lives. I was not sure what that was, and the uncertainty pushed me into a depressive state. I needed some time to remember what came naturally and how I could use it to feed my soul and my family. When I finally focused on myself, it came to me. I made the decision to work toward becoming a fully trained doula.
I have had the spirit of a doula for a very long time. I have always served as a support, a listening ear and a resource to friends and family. I have always stepped up and offered myself and what I had to ensure that others were empowered throughout their transition. The training just affirmed and legitimized all of the things I learned, adapted, and normalized over the years.
18 years ago, I had no choice but to grow up and take care of myself and my baby during my first pregnancy. I made the decision to prepare and educate myself, but I still needed someone to advocate for me when I was vulnerable. It’s been 18 years and educated, middle class, black women are still being ignored and poorly treated while transitioning through childbirth, postpartum, infertility, loss, and more. More than ever, advocating for black women is critical.
Having support, a chosen, certified and trained “person” to help you along should not be considered a luxury. It is more a necessity, if only for the sake of a person’s mental health. Don’t get me wrong, a doula cannot not take the place of any medical professional, mental health professional, obstetric care provider, or otherwise. However, a doula is able to listen, to observe, and help you articulate your thoughts so that you can share with your provider. My role as a doula is to help educate, provide resources and referrals, normalize, and listen. Most importantly, I help people plan for an autonomous transition with room for the unexpected. As a doula, I cannot replace the support already in place, be it family, friends or partner(s). What I can do is provide that support team with the necessary tools to focus on and help meet the needs and wishes of my client
Choosing birth work begins in the soul of a person. Making myself available to support, advocate, educate, listen to, sit silent with, plan with and grow with a person throughout their transition is all heart, and it gives me purpose. My purpose is fulfilled with every birth, every loss and every transition I am privileged to support someone through.
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