Dr. Doula (Andrea Little Mason, Ed.D.) encourages African American women to reach back to take hold of the best that previous generations have to teach, so they can be equipped to move forward and toward their full potential. She shows them how to empower themselves as birthing mothers by reclaiming and embracing what has been surrendered, lost, and forgotten. “SANKOFA” teaches us: “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot”… even if what you have forgotten is something as magnificent as BIRTH.
Through my engagement in birth culture, I have noticed that the historical narratives about childbirth were different than what my elders told me happened in our family. (See the post “So… Dr. Doula, why do you doula?”) I saw that some practices and techniques were being shared from perspectives that were deemed to be fairly new and revolutionary, yet they were a part of the stories I had been told about birth from my family and others in the rural south. Birth support was part of my family’s culture. The historical perspective being told was one where women were birthing in a hospital, largely with men as physicians, and often with in inhumane situations practices, with harmful medications that left women traumatized about their birth experiences. In many ways, those African American women who were disenfranchised from hospitals and mainstreamed birthing practices in the U.S. were spared the inhumanities that women faced in hospitals. Doulas were born out of the need to free women from the isolating and individualistic attitudes of the labor and delivery room. Yet that was not the story with many African American families who were not able to birth in hospitals in the south.
For almost four decades, doula work as support for women during the childbearing year has been presented as a new innovative concept that has required validation and substantiation in American society. Historically, African American women always understood the importance of things like supporting women during each part of the childbearing year, birthing in different positions, delaying cord clamping, keeping babies close to mom on her chest so that breastfeeding could be easily initiated after birth, belly binding after brith, carrying our babies, etc. While much of western culture is discovering and confirming evidence based research about these ancient birth practices, the importance of doulas and how they add value to women during their childbearing year, I believe that African American have a responsibility to RECLAIM these BIRTH practices as RITES of passage.
While doulas present a wonderful alternative and progress to mainstreamed birthing practices represented historically throughout the majority culture, doula work alone does not create a sustainable society around birth. For most of the United States almost 250 year existence and hundreds of years before, people of African descent used their knowledge, skills and resourcefulness to survive and thrive during the childbearing year, even through tumultuous times. Unless birth work also strives to preserve and help restore essentials needed to take care of oneself and one’s family in the absence of outside resources -like doulas, healthcare or medical facilities – then efforts in birth work are incomplete.
As African American women, access to this information is often closer that we may know.
My thoughts about early motherhood and community…
My mom Johnnie Mae Gray Little – who was also an educator – passed away a year before my oldest son was born. She had always told me that when I had my babies she would take a leave of absence from teaching to come where I was and “teach me.” When I became pregnant with my sons, without knowing it, I began to look for my birth community. Without my mother, I looked for the people in my area that were to be my support, however, I did not find it where I lived. Instead, my sisters traveled to where I was to provide me support after my babies were born. My husband Eugene was invaluable birth support. HE WAS MY ROCK STAR and advocated for me, while “holding space” for me during each of my four births and beyond.
I never understood why all of my adult life I was so drawn to supporting women in birth. When I told my family about the commitment I had made to be a doula and birth ally, first I had to explain what a “doula” was. Initially, the response was a typical one, “Oh, so is it like a midwife…?” After I explained what the differences are, the older members of my family, who are from rural Alabama, began to explain how what doulas do was once what the women in the community did when they were growing up. My Aunt Carrie asked me if I remembered “Ms. So and So” who was a midwife and was also the one they called when people in the community were sick because she understood what herbs, roots, and teas helped which ailments during a time when hospitals were not accessible to Black people.
My Dad, the oldest sibling of eight children, reminded me that all of them except one was born at home in the front room of the house I knew as my grandmother’s – Big Momma’s – house. He shared memories of his Dad (my Pa Pa) going to get the midwife “when it was time.” He told me how the women in the neighborhood (grandmothers, mothers, etc.) would assist my grandmother and care for her during her pregnancy. Then how they helped her during labor until it was time for her to give birth. He remembered these women taking long pieces of torn sheets and wrapping her stomach after she gave birth. He also said they cooked meals, cleaned for her and helped care for her children during the postpartum time.
After those conversations, I began to reminisce on my childhood. I recalled the times when the older women would gather all of the teenage girls in a back room to talk to us about our bodies and explain what it meant to be entering womanhood. Even after my mother had passed away, older women encouraged me and my sisters to take care of one another. It was an expectation that we would care for one another during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Without ever having heard of the word “DOULA,” we knew instinctively that the birth year was a year where a woman should have support. It was part of our tradition.
In the absence of the community of women, I educated myself and learned to advocate for myself as a pregnant woman. Since that time, I have filled various roles as a wife, mother, educator, speaker, researcher, advocate, etc.; still, my heart and passion towards supporting women during their birthing year has not waned. Assisting women during their birth year has always felt natural to me and a part of my DNA. Supporting women is a part of my legacy and I am always mindful to call upon the inner wisdom of the community of women who have traveled before me. They have laid out a powerful path for me to follow and I continually depend on my memories of them to point the way.