When Covid first began it was decided in many hospitals that birthing people were to birth without a partner- that would include birthing without the assistance of a birth Doula. Doula communities across the country fought back against this. Here in New York in particular we argued that even in a time like this- when a pandemic was killing so many people, that it was actually more harmful for Doula’s to not be allowed into birth spaces.
And rightly so. Families need/deserve Doula care no matter how intensely the world around us is falling apart.
I see a similar fight happening in non-Covid related spaces where midwives, doctors, and nurses are viewed as “required care providers” while Doulas are not. Where we have to fight to be heard or seen as important at all. There is a hierarchy in the birth world that says that we are second best to medical care. That isn’t true and I see how hard so many of my fellow Doulas work to prove that it isn’t- that we are just as essential as any medical care provider.
But the thing is, I don’t see as many people fighting to say that we are ALSO just as essential and just as RESPONSIBLE for the death rate of Black birthing people and their babies. That even though we don’t have medical degrees we still impact the community of birth as a whole and influence whether Black birthing people leave these hospitals alive or survive once they get home.
We can negatively affect how the birth community functions even when we don’t serve Black clients, even when the Black clients we have are well take care of by us, and even when we deeply love and care about this work.
We influence it by what is allowed to take place here without being questioned. How out of fear we don’t demand that the white birth workers here take up less space. When we don’t hold them accountable for harm that they inflict but instead keep friendships with them, continue to work with them, and continue to listen to their voices before the Black peoples that they have harmed. All of that is done because there is a mistaken belief that stayin in proximity to whiteness will somehow elevate us enough to get us to the collective goals that we are trying to reach. That if we stay in the good graces of the most popular white birth workers that somehow their popularity will help us enact change and truly get things done. Collectively as a community of birth workers many still think that we need popular white people to gain access, even if in other spaces we can fiercely say “I don’t want a seat at the white table. I want to build my own!”
Six months ago, I came forward with my story of experiencing racism at a white doula collective that I was working for. My job there was to teach anti racism in the birth and postpartum Doula trainings. So much harm came to me while working in the space. But one of the things I think about the most is how unimportant anti-racism was to the three white co-owners of the collective. I created the position myself when that shouldn’t have ever been something a Black person should have felt they needed to do. However, I was originally trained with them as a birth doula and while in that very white space and talking Black maternal mortality in there, I was gaslit and undermined by other fellow white trainees. In that moment, I realized that this place was actually dangerous. That this white space was creating an environment where all Doulas but particularly(mostly) white Doulas could be trained and sent out into the birth world where Blackness and race was just something that was mentioned in a small segment in their world and never really revisited again. When in reality the entire collective and the trainings should have been built with anti racism as the foundation. These trainee Doulas were entering the Doula world through this collective without ever unpacking their own biases or racism and with only limited knowledge of how harmful the institution of medicine actually is, even though they were choosing to work right along side of it.
Obstetrical violence, medical negligence, birth mortality, and infant mortality are things that can affect all birthing people- but they are a branch on a tree that is a system designed to subjugate and oppress Black birthing people. Everyone suffers under a system created like that. Mistakenly I thought that infiltrating the thing myself would help me to aid in changing how everything functions. But I was wrong. And mistakenly many birth workers feel as if this information about these systematic issues isn’t information that is necessary to their craft as care providers. They would also be wrong.
I begged and pleaded and clawed my way into that collective, then once in. I watched as my work was unappreciated, under valued, and where the owners never even prioritized showing up to the anti-racism trainings themselves. Despite the fact that this was my demand as an educator there. That everyone- including white teachers also have to be fully submerged in anti racism work because there is no hierarchy in unlearning racism. When they did show up, if at all, it was only for a very short amount of time before they had to run to do something much more important than anything we could have possibly been speaking about in that space. But i felt like i had to do something, I couldn’t sit by and watch this collective function and harm this way so I pressed on. And people in my life, especially my Black friends asked me why I did, why I still am, why I am even writing this in this first place right now. And my only answer ever is just that I care so deeply about Black birthing people and their babies that I am moved to keep trying to aid in molding this community into something that functions better. Even continuing to demand that these conversations be had. This isn’t a diversity meeting with the employees of Starbucks. This is a community who’s job it is to evade harm and to aid families in minimizing generational trauma by caring for and protecting the birth space.
That birth space again isn’t just the individual ones that we serve clients in, it’s an entire community. That’s a big responsibility we have here- to aid in changing the trajectory of the birth world. And I don’t think everyone who came into this work thinks big picture- that it isn’t just us or just our clients. That we are apart of something bigger, and that what we allow or ignore can impact the way that people birth even when we are all no longer alive doing this work one day.
I remember my last training I did, I was 8 months pregnant and when I got into a car to head to the Doula collective my hands where shaking so badly the entire ride. Teaching throughout my pregnancy put me in the hot seat now. I was not just speaking about Black people who had died giving birth in some far off disconnected space from me, I essentially was speaking about my possible future. It is terrifying to educate on this and know everything I know about why we experience violence/are killed having our babies and then enter the birth space myself. The same week of that training I made a Will so that if I died giving birth to my daughter and she survived than at least there would be a plan for her and care and loved ones already ready to take her into their family. With shaky hands and a voice that kept breaking. I showed up that day to teach as I had many times before. And i left that training upset because i realized that no matter how hard I tried, because I had fought my way into the space and been given little room to exist there that I could never truly build what needed to exist- not in that space. I felt like i had wasted so much time and subjected myself to trauma to do this because i never wanted to work in a space that told me to squeeze anti-racism or Blackness into small already built spaces. That didn’t find it necessary for me to have my own training and instead shoved me in everyone else’s courses that were already packed with information to fit in the limited time we had. I never wanted my work to center dead Black people. That doesn’t accomplish anything. We can’t save them but we can change how those that come after them birth and we can honor them. But centering Black death all the time doesn’t move the needle. I wanted my work to center Black joy and Black abundance and protecting that in any and all ways and of course in the ways that stifle that and harm/kill us. But like so many other people. I was looking for that space among white birth workers, I was looking to build that there and obliterate what existed already. Instead I should have built something of my own that could have been all the things I needed it to be.
When I gave birth to my daughter and had complications, I realized that more needed to change in this community then even I had realized. Then two weeks after I gave birth Covid isolation started and I was passively let go from my teaching position. Their reasoning was that it was out of respect for my postpartum time. So I asked what anti-racism educator would be stepping in in my absence. I was told there wasn’t one. At a time when Black people where being ethnically cleansed by a virus because of lack of care in these hospitals and a time where many families especially Black ones were being forced to birth alone or choose between a family/friend or Doula when hospitals did say one partner was allowed- still prioritizing the care of Black birthing people wasn’t important in this collective. And as the year has gone on and protests happened for months and many white people and non Black POC decided to declare that Black Lives Matter, STILL with all of this, many birth workers are not centering anti-racism. Still after all we have seen this year and all the Black birthing people who did not make it here alive with us, there is a separation in the importance of this work we are doing.
This work is still predominantly looked at as family planning and physical and emotional care. Not advocacy or harm prevention. But that’s what we are. How do we properly care for people as Doulas without constantly demanding more from the entire system? Without advocating on these families behalf? Without demanding more from fellow birth workers? Without holding each other accountable? Without constantly questioning our own intentions and biases? Without burning structures to the ground in our anger- why are many birth workers not as angry as i am?
The failures in the system is why we are here. Why we even do this work even if we don’t always realize that. We have created these roles for ourselves because the way that birth and postpartum spaces function is often times traumatic or deadly. It was founded on white supremacy. Any work here that does not center disruption of white supremacy ultimately harms all birthing people. And I think that many birth workers got into this space without truly sitting with the importance of our roles here. We actually have the power to impact how the rest of someone’s life goes and if they get to live it or not.
So yes, Doulas and all birth workers are so essential. We are essential in the birth space, in the fertility space, in the death space, and in the postpartum space. But more than those we are essential in the accountability space, in the anti-racism space, in the building space and in the protection of Black bodies space. And every move we make while doing this job should be with the notion that what we allow feeds a monster that is bigger than our Doula practice.
Birth is the portal not just to life but into truly living. The way that Black people birth and enter this world can affect us for generations.
Amber Rose Isaac
Dr. Chaniece Wallace
And so many others who’s names never became well known.
Remember their families, and their babies and the lives that they never got to finishing living.