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Bearing Witness

A #VQRTrueStory Essay

ISSUE:  Winter 2021

 

1.

In 2018, after learning about the dangers that Serena Williams and Beyoncé Knowles faced during childbirth because of improper care, I became curious about pregnancy risks that Black women face in the US. Their stories might be well-known, but those of women who lack access, agency, or resources too often go untold.

In Virginia, Black women die from pregnancy complications at a rate more than double that of white women: 79.3 per 100,000 live births. Across the US, equal care during pregnancy, delivery, and the postpartum period is a fantasy. Maternal health care for Black women suffers from systemic barriers and the absence of social support.

When I learned this, I started training as a community-based doula with Birth Sisters of Charlottesville in June 2020. Soon after, I began a photo essay focusing on the Black maternal-health crisis, to document inequities and show how doula support improves health outcomes.

Community-based doulas are trained to provide nonclinical support during pregnancy, labor, and after delivery; they are also trusted members of the community they serve, and as such are well suited to address issues related to discrimination and disparities. They bridge language and culture gaps, serving as liaisons between clients and service providers.

My experience as a Black woman and large-bodied yogi formed the backdrop for my interest. It’s important, in a world spinning so quickly, to create space to pause. I take that on as a yoga teacher—creating a safe container, a place to find refuge, respite.

Students often credit me when they feel better, but these emotions are misplaced. My yoga teacher expressed it this way: When you point to the moon, you want your students to see the moon, not your finger. The benefits of yoga result directly from being quiet enough to connect to a core self.

When supporting women during childbirth, my intention is the same—to create and hold a safe space. I’m able to do that by listening deeply—to myself and to the women I work with. I have felt honored to bear witness to their journeys.

 

2.

Photography by Benita Mayo

Michaela and her husband discovered that shewas expecting during the pandemic. She wasn’t afraid; she was set on finding joy in pregnancy and hiring a doula and midwife for a home birth. She’d partnered with a doula, Doreen, for her last pregnancy, and knew Doreen would help her navigate this pregnancy in a way that felt compassionate, safe and liberating.

Michaela would be my first client as a doula in-training; Doreen was my mentor. I spent the months of Michaela’s pregnancy consulting with her via Zoom calls, accompanying her to the midwife’s checkups, and making home visits.

Initially, I felt awkward as a doula—starting a conversation about birth felt strange, and I had no idea how to approach a relationship with a client. Doreen reminded me that working with Michaela would be similar to how I guide my yoga students. Becoming a doula was about more than acquiring knowledge and skills—it was about creating a supportive space for a Black woman during one the most vulnerable moments of her life.

In the early hours of July 11, I got the text that Michaela was in labor. I set out into the night and made my way to her house. As I drove the narrow country road, my tummy was nervous, my hands shaky. But it helped to remember that this wasn’t about me. It was about something bigger. I pulled up into a yard full of cars and entered Michaela’s home to find her in active labor, surrounded by her closest friends, family, and birth team—doula, midwife, and midwife assistant.

The midwife was giving verbal cues, encouraging her to listen to her body. Push. Release. Surrender. Things were happening fast. At 3:30 am, with the loudest, sharpest, most intense shriek I’ve ever heard, Michaela birthed her daughter. There was nothing left to do but to be present.

Doreen rubbed Michaela’s head, gave her water, heated food for her, assisted with her shower, and walked her back to bed. In those moments, I saw clearly the trust, instinct, compassion, and power of this work.

 

3.

Photography by Benita Mayo

As a storyteller interested in the experiences of Black women working with doulas, I met with Seanna during her third trimester. Seanna sought doula services to have a home birth and a support network of strong, caring Black women; she wanted to labor at home longer and limit medical intervention. Her partner was anxious about the prospect, but Seanna wasn’t deterred. Having gone through masters and PhD programs while pregnant, she was used to setting high goals.

Seanna had a natural ease about her. She wore a headband to secure her hair, yoga pants and a bellyband—which, she explained, stabilizes the pelvis and helps reduce pregnancy aches and pains. During our conversation, she spoke quickly, easily giving a detailed and engaging account of her pregnancy. I understood immediately why she was popular with her students.

Seanna had experienced giving birth three times, so she was no stranger to the changes her body would undergo or the realities of a health care system in which Black women often receive subpar care. When Seanna developed complications related to a thyroid condition, her doctors were slow to connect the two—they didn’t take her symptoms seriously. As this dynamic continued throughout the pregnancy, she became afraid for her baby’s health and her own during delivery. Luckily, Seanna had the guidance of her doula throughout. Even when her birth plan had to change and she was laboring in the hospital—where few people could be in the room, due to COVID protocols—her doula provided virtual encouragement by phone.

Building a support system and allowing her experience to shift as needed was crucial for Seanna. In the spirit of intentionality, she also created a plan for postpartum care. The realities of caring for three children while bonding with her newborn felt daunting. How could she get the rest she needed? After the birth of her third child, postpartum depression had taken her by surprise. This rapid drop in hormones after delivery is common—but no one had explained to Seanna what it was, and she felt unprepared for it. This time, with the help of her postpartum doula, she established strategies to guide her through.

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