Giving birth in America should not be dangerous, yet more women die during pregnancy and childbirth here than in any other similarly wealthy country in the world. Most, about 60 percent, of those lives could have been saved. Of those lives lost, Black and Native American women are disproportionately represented. Meanwhile, the experience of giving birth in an American hospital costs a whopping $32,000 or so—more than any other similar country in the world, and with poorer results.
The numbers paint a disturbing picture, but it all comes down to one thing: the culture of childbirth in the United States. “There’s a lot of pressure on women to birth in hospitals,” says certified doula Janet Scheller, SBD. “With the medical advances that we have in the United States, women feel discouraged by their providers to birth at home, often telling them that they’ll get sub-par care, fewer interventions available in case of emergency, and less pain management available.” Despite research showing midwives and doulas can help reverse the devastating trend of rising maternal deaths, they are rarely covered by insurance, states often don’t officially recognize them to attend births, and pregnancy is often treated like an illness requiring hospitalization.
During an experience where birthing people should feel empowered, women in the U.S. are given a surprising lack of access to options and information. Childbirth shouldn’t feel like a risky endeavor, and it shouldn’t be an experience filled with anxiety. These five doulas from diverse specialties want you to know that it doesn’t have to be that way.
“It’s not just about having a healthy baby—your emotional and physical well being are so important too.” – Summer Roger, certified birth and postpartum doula with Birth and Fire Doula, specializing in caring for queer parents and parents expecting children with special medical needs
“As a doula I care for, educate, and support a birthing person and their support team during pregnancy, birth and postpartum,” she says. “Fear of the unknown can fuel anxieties.” Roger suggests the best way to counteract such fear is with evidence-based pregnancy and birth information. “Every pregnancy is different, so I recommend straying away from other people’s personal birth stories and instead focusing more on education as well as reinforcing your own personal support system.” A couple of tips Roger has for quelling pregnancy-related worries is finding concrete ways to prepare for what you can. She works with clients to create both a birth and a postpartum plan that covers the what-ifs and the back-up plans.
Planning and support is key, she says. “I’m a mother of three children. I‘ve experienced the transformative nature of birth as well as the trauma that can happen when you don’t have the right support team by your side,” she says. “It’s not just about having a healthy baby—your emotional and physical well being are so important too. Don’t forget yourself. Ask for help if you need it and remember both you and your baby are getting to know each other, it’ll take time to get in the groove and that’s okay.”
“Our maternal mortality rates have no business mirroring third world countries.” – Calvis Williamson, M.S., maternal wellness specialist and natural health practitioner with Grand Rising Holistic Wellness, specializing in postpartum support and care for birthing people having C-sections
Williamson says her model of care is a mash-up of Caribbean and African-Judaic wisdom. “I focus heavily on the rest, nurturing, and nutrition of the birthing person,” she said. A trained labor doula, Williamson also focuses on helping her clients manage gestational diabetes, a condition affecting Black and Hispanic pregnant people at higher rates.
“My doula practice is Black centered,” she says. “The 2017 reports from the CDC regarding the maternal mortality rate of Black birthing bodies had me shook. Our maternal mortality rates have no business mirroring third world countries. I had to do something.” Williamson’s initial plan was to do labor support; however, she decided her passion was in postpartum support in order to really make a difference. “I know my services are reducing the one-third of deaths that occur between one week postpartum and one year postpartum.”
“Black women are dying at three to four times the rates of white women. Institutional racism is real and it’s killing us.” – Chauntel Norris, doula, childbirth educator, and certified lactation counselor with Baobab Birth Collective, specializing in birth, lactation support, and support for incarcerated pregnant people
For any birthing person who is anxious about giving birth, Norris says educating yourself is one thing you can do besides hiring a doula. “Take a childbirth education class, ask your doctor questions, think about what you would like your childbirth experience to look like,” she says. Norris became a doula after attending her friend’s homebirth and noticing how different her friend’s birthing experience was from her own. “During her birth, everything in the room centered around her. Her needs and comfort were placed first. I left that experience in awe. I had no idea birth could look like that.”
After that, it was her mission to ensure all pregnant people knew that they had options when it comes to birth. It was also important to her to engage with her own community, and doula work is what spoke to her the most, she says. “As a Black woman, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the health disparities that exist for birthing Black people in this country,” she said. “Black women are dying at three to four times the rates of white women. Institutional racism is real, and it’s killing us. I love us, and I love this work.”
“Laboring and delivering alone is not an ideal scenario for mothers to be, especially first-time mothers.” – Janet Scheller, SBBD, doula certified by Stillbirthday, specializing in birth and bereavement
“Pregnancy and birth is often frightening for mothers, especially mothers birthing for the first time,” says Scheller. Home birth is a valid choice, and Scheller wants birthing people to know. “Birthing at home with a licensed midwife and doula can be a safe and comforting experience, offering mothers more choices in the way they choose to labor, more natural options for pain management, and less pressure to have interventions, and it can be a wonderful experience.”
Some people are still surprised to learn that there are pain management options beyond epidurals and that moving around as opposed to staying in bed to labor is actually beneficial. Scheller tells birthing people considering home birth to keep up with prenatal appointments and have a licensed midwife and doula who knows your birth plan like the back of their hand.
“Laboring and delivering alone is not an ideal scenario for mothers to be, especially first-time mothers,” she says. “The stress of not having a support person could potentially lead to complications during delivery for the mother.”
“Birthing people should never enter any birthing space alone. You need your people.” – Diamond Hill, advanced holistic doula with Mammissi Birth Services, specializing in holistic labor experiences
A birth experience to Diamond Hill is one that’s all-encompassing. “That includes babywearing, sound therapy, touch therapy, aromatherapy just to name a few,” she says. To anyone facing anxiety about giving birth, she says, “Get some amazing people on your team. You need a knowledgeable person who can make you laugh and you feel comfortable being naked in front of. Don’t be afraid to show us all the things you would label TMI.”
Hill became a doula to do her part to address the racial disparities in maternal health care. “Black women are dying at an astronomical rate. I wanted to become a neonatologist but I realized I didn’t feel comfortable there,” she says. “I needed to touch my clients and talk to them. I need to teach that we don’t have to do interventions every time. We need someone who can tell us all of our options.” She wants birthing people to know they have a voice. “We have doctors who only spend 15 minutes with us, poking and prodding is. We are apologizing for yelling and opening our legs in the throughs of labor,” she says. “I want you to know you need an army. You need a doula and a lactation consultant. Birthing people should never enter any birthing space alone. You need your people.”