Since 2017 the rising maternal mortality rate in the U.S., particularly for Black women, has been all over the news. NPR, The New York Times, Vox, Huffington Post — they’ve all been covering it with headlines like “Dying to Give Birth” and “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis."
And here’s the thing: these articles are needed. They are shedding light on significant gaps in healthcare for pregnant people in the U.S. and we do need to talk about that. But as a birth and postpartum doula for the past two and a half years, I’m tired of hearing people who meet with me say, “I’ve been reading the news and it makes me scared for myself and my baby.”
These high-click-rate titles and tones are creating high-anxiety — and that isn’t healthy during pregnancy and going into birth either. When someone is preparing for birth, and entering into that space, they should feel confident in their body, their mind, and the support they’ve chosen to have around them for that time. Nervousness is normal, but the looming fear of death is not.
So what then? What’s missing? Besides these articles about the gaps, I’ve been looking for resources to offer. What can I give a parent to combat both the normal nerves of an upcoming birth and the weighty fear our society is currently setting us up to carry?
Most of the parents I’ve worked with as a doula haven’t known much about what to expect during the pregnancy or birth or postpartum process. And “What is birth going to be like?” is honestly a complicated question to confront. There is no one answer. Birth doesn’t look the same for anyone, it’s a unique experience that we don’t even know 100 percent about how it works.
But while we never know what a given birth may be like, we do know how many births past have gone, and we know what tools and techniques and kinds of support have been used in those.
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So what if parents could get a closer look at that? And I don’t mean random YouTube videos of birth that sometimes traumatize more than educate. I mean curated, intentionally documented experiences — not just of birth, but of prenatal appointments and postpartum visits — that can give parents a frame of reference to understand, “Oh. That’s something I might feel, or see, or choose to do.” Might give them something to compare their care providers to, to say, “hmmm, my care provider didn’t respond to me that way,” or “yes, my care provider encourages me just like that.” Through that, parents would be given neither horror stories nor rose-colored fantasies.This is what Life’s Work is endeavoring to do. By documenting in detail real-life care like prenatal appointments, births, and postpartum care, it offers parents a foundation of information to build their own choices from. Choices like birthing at home, at a certain birth center or a certain hospital; choices like picking this doctor over that doctor, this midwife over that midwife (because of how they speak to you, or answer your questions); choices like whether or when to get an IV, what type of monitoring for parent and baby, laboring in various positions or in water, and the list could go on.
Life’s Work doesn’t say, “choose this,” it just says, “Observe this.” The project puts together photos, audio clips and brief descriptions of what happens during someone’s experience at Roots, which readers and viewers can move through at their own pace.
This first installment of Life’s Work takes place at black-owned Roots Community Birth Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Roots opened in 2015, founded by midwives Rebecca Polston, CPM, LM, and Aly Folin, CPM, LM. It remains a small practice today, now joined by midwife Jahan Zuberi, CPM, LM and several birth attendants.
During the six days of documentation in February 2019, one birth, two newborn exams, three prenatal appointments and one postpartum visit were documented, along with several interviews with the staff about how they approach their care.
As an example, in one moment of Ashley's birth, you can hear Midwife Jahan pour hot water into the birthing tub while looking at the photo of Ashley sitting in it. You can hear Birth Assistant Britt taking Ashley’s blood pressure and see in the photo how Ashley didn’t need to leave the tub or move very much at all, to make that possible. You can hear Midwife Rebecca encouraging Ashley to lift and tuck her belly, a technique that helps babies descend past the pubic bone, and see her doing the move while her own mother sits behind her to support her. After her child is born, you can see and hear Midwife Jahan measure the baby’s head as Ashley holds his hand, just beside him on the bed.
While the project may not always feature midwives, it does seek to center the work of Black and POC midwives, the original care providers for pregnant people whose legacies both old and new have largely been left untold.
The path to owning our pregnancy, birth and postpartum experiences really isn’t that uphill or difficult once we know our options. The narrative of birth in the U.S., especially for Black people, cannot be told in just one way, and should not leave anyone feeling empty-handed and afraid. The options are out here, and they're ours to choose.