by Fudia Muhammad
While doulas may simply be an added luxury for some who desire personalized care and tutelage in natural birth management; Black doulas, in particular, have become a necessity for Black mothers whose maternal mortality rate has reached an all-time high – rivaling that of ‘third-world’ countries. Black mothers are nearly four times more likely to die from complications surrounding childbirth than their white counterparts. Black babies in America are also dying unnecessarily during pregnancy and delivery, or shortly thereafter. According to Linda Villarosa, New York Times, “Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants…a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most Black women were considered chattel…Education and income offer little protection. In fact, a Black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.” Yet, there is no national outcry – no public health emergency declaration – no nationwide investigation!
Black people have always had good reason not to trust the medical industry, which historically has been rampant with discriminatory and racist practices. It is clear that Black mothers are not receiving the same quality of care during and after pregnancy as others. However, Black women are not rolling over – Black women have responded by exploding onto the scene and becoming their own advocates and caregivers. Black women are receiving training and certifications as doulas and are actually saving lives by providing options and alternatives for their Sisters! They are filling the void that often manifests during the Black childbirth experience – a void that is no different from the Black experience in America’s educational system, judicial system, and business industry; where there is an overwhelming lack of empathy, equity and sense of community.
According to DONA International, the world’s first, largest and leading doula certifying organization, a Doula is “a trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a mother before, during and shortly after childbirth to help her achieve the healthiest, most satisfying experience possible.” The word ‘doula’ is of Greek origin which means, “a woman who serves.” And serving Black mothers is exactly what is happening in several pockets throughout the country. There is a wide range of specialized Doula services; but the three most common are childbirth doulas, postpartum doulas and full spectrum doulas.
The impact doulas are making is remarkable; but not surprising – traditionally, communal care was always the Black way. The relationship between an expectant mother and her doula is personal and intimate. Though she is a professional, Black doulas, in particular, believe it their foremost responsibility to invest in the future of their community by providing a safe, healthy and natural birthing experience for both mother and baby. According to Jasmine Roussell, a postpartum doula in Austin, Texas – doulas provide both physical and emotional support for the mother by assisting her throughout her entire pregnancy, birth and postpartum journey. The doula maintains a constant presence. However, she also stressed that postpartum doulas actually serve the entire family – the first six-weeks (or more) after birth is completely planned out – everything from breastfeeding, arrangements for housekeeping, cooking, medical appointments and errands are all organized in advance.
Though doulas do not provide any direct medical or clinical care, they are well trained in natural techniques and remedies that can provide additional assistance and support beyond what a midwife or doctor may offer. Just over a century ago, Black women comprised the vast majority of midwives in America and these midwives always had an assistant to provide direct care and comfort for the mother. The term doula was coined in 1969; and doula, as a profession began shortly thereafter – however, Black women have been serving their Sisters during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum since time immemorial. Somehow, the use of midwives and doulas was co-opted and is now seen as belonging exclusively to a class of posh, elite, white women. Yet, as more and more Black women receive the proper education concerning the benefits of having a doula-assisted pregnancy and birth, we will continue to see improved Black childbirth outcomes.
According to a published study in the Journal of Perinatal Education, “Expectant mothers matched with a doula had better birth outcomes. Doula-assisted mothers were four times less likely to have a low birth weight (LBW) baby, two times less likely to experience a birth complication involving themselves or their baby, and significantly more likely to initiate breastfeeding.” This study was done with mothers of color and showed that Black and Brown women specifically benefited from the assistance of a doula. Premature births and cesarean rates are also much lower with a doula’s assistance. The wonderful birth outcomes are so significant that there are now many organizations that provide low-cost and even free doula services for expectant mothers. At the same time there is a strong push for insurance companies to begin to cover the cost for doula services.
Black women no longer have to suffer in silence, bear their burden alone and have their complaints dismissed. There are a host of organizations and services devoted to connecting Black mothers with Black doulas; they also guide potential doulas who desire to receive proper training and certification. Some of these organizations include, but are not limited to – National Black Doula Association, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Mamas on Bedrest & Beyond, Black Women Birthing Justice, RouCares, Radical Doula and Blackdoulas.org. Not to mention a host of Facebook pages and groups devoted to Black doulas and mothers.
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan said, “The world is in trouble because the world has no respect for woman. And if the world has no respect for woman, the world has no respect for God. When you respect God, you must respect woman, because the womb of the woman is a place of sacredness. Woman should be held in awe, because of the majesty of her womb…”
(Sister Fudia Muhammad is a member of Muhammad Mosque No. 64 in Austin, Texas. She is married to Student Minister Robert L. Muhammad and they have been blessed with four children. Sister Fudia holds a Master’s degree in Education – she is a writer, an educator and an advocate for God-centered child-rearing.)