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My Childbirth Influences and Experience: From my Foremothers to Erykah Badu #blackbirth

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Welcome to the First Edition of the Black Birth Carnival. Hosted by Darcel of The Mahogany Way Birth Cafe and Nicole of Musings From The Mind of Sista Midwife. Our first topic is Birthing While Black: A Historical Perspective. At the end of this post you will find a list of links to the other participants. Some of these posts may contain Emotional Triggers and will be labeled at the beginning of the post.

My mother and her mother are from a small Caribbean island called Jamaica. Maybe you’ve heard of it. My grandmother gave birth to six live children at home in rural St. Elizabeth Parish. Her own mother or the village midwife assisted with each delivery. Doctors were expensive, far away, and only fetched for in cases of emergency. A woman in labor was not considered a medical condition in need of doctor care. My grandmother birthed six healthy children who grew up and had kids of their own. My mother was her fourth child. Mommy also gave birth to six live children, but in the United States. 
I am the oldest, born in the defunct Fordham Hospital in Bronx, NY. My sister after me was born in a Manhattan hospital and the rest of my siblings were all born in hospitals in Miami. 

I am more than a little curious to know how a family goes from midwife-assisted home birth to doctor-administered hospital birth in one generation. Immigration and assimilation are two obvious answers, but I think it goes deeper. In rural, impoverished Jamaica my grandmother had no choice. In America, where doctors are plentiful and easily accessible, even for the poor, I cannot imagine my grandmother encouraging my mother to deliver at home under the supervision of a midwife. It was a symbol of “moving on up” to give birth in a hospital, especially a private one. It’s what any old-school Jamaican woman from “de yard” would want for her daughter. 

Even in a hospital setting with all its medical technology and procedures available to her, my mother maintained an old-fashioned outlook on birth, particularly that it was a natural process that women’s body were built to perform. She eschewed epidurals and other medical interventions during all her births. All six of us were born naturally, promptly breastfed (for varying lengths of time), and raised with a natural parenting style. Growing up, I remember our meals were always home-cooked and heavy with fresh vegetables. There was never junk food in our cupboards and we didn’t eat fast food except on rare occasions. My mom kept an arsenal of homeopathic remedies to treat every childhood ailment from whooping cough to ringworm. We only went to the doctor for our annual check-up and received the minimum required vaccines to attend school. Chickenpox was considered a childhood rite of passage. 

When I became pregnant with my first child, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my foremothers and continue the tradition of natural birth and parenting. So I was beyond surprised by mommy’s and grandma’s reaction to my birth choices. On my decision to give birth naturally at a birthing center with a midwife…“Is that going to be safe? What happens if something goes wrong?” On my decision to breastfeed past six months…“you should add formula so you can get a break.” On my decision to cloth diaper…“why do you want to create more work for yourself?” 

I chalked up the rude questions and comments to maternal concern. No mother wants to see her daughter in pain or suffering. I forged ahead with my birth plan, which wasn’t executed according to my vision but achieved the desired outcome. During the first 10 hours I was in labor I kept picturing my grandmother squatting in her bedroom and pushing out six babies. Surely, I could do it at least once! When it was time to push I wanted to squat too, but my midwife, a former nurse, insisted I lie on my back and lean forward. She didn’t respect my instincts and she certainly didn’t understand my need to spiritually connect with my roots. After several attempts to do it her way, I was transported to a hospital at the 11th hour because my baby girl was in distress. When I arrived I was greeted by a black, female obstetrician who took my hand and said, “let’s go get your baby.” A sense of peace washed over me as she led me to the labor and delivery room. Inside, a squadron of nurses were busily preparing trays of medical tools and the feeling of dread returned. The OB examined me, said my baby needed to be turned, and politely asked if I would like an epidural.” I honestly wavered for a minute, bust said no. The OB reached in and gave my baby a quarter turn, and my daughter arrived two pushes later. It hurt like hell, but I’d do it all over again to bring her into this world 100% au natural. The pain quickly evaporated in the euphoria of holding my daughter and nursing her for the first time. 

I have never discussed my first birth experience from a racial perspective. I’m not saying that the white midwife was incapable of delivering black babies, but she was culturally incompetent. For example, when she asked to touch my natural hair during an appointment or when she chastised my pregnancy smallness with the comment that, “black women usually don’t have a problem gaining weight,” it put a divide in our relationship and hung a cloud of suspicion in my mind. I think I carried these misgivings into my labor on a subconscious level. Could I have said something? Yes, but it’s not my job to point out her racial insensitivity or reprogram her ignorance. A more aware professional would have recognized what a huge milestone natural childbirth was for a black woman in today’s society. She would have embraced my color by recommending books for me to read or sharing copies of articles by black midwives. After all, among the small percentage of women who are opting for natural childbirth in this country, black women are an even smaller, um, minority. 

Overall, I am filled with pride when I recall my birth story. I feel like I have drawn another notch on my maternal lineage and brought my heritage full circle. I can’t help but think about the black women during slavery who gave birth in cotton fields without pain meds, slung their newborns on their backs and kept picking or the mammies who nursed their master’s children. I wholeheartedly believe their spirit and strength is in the blood of every modern black woman. Natural childbirth and breastfeeding is a part of our history that we should embrace. Too many of us are surrendering our bodies and babies to modern science (formula), miseducation (a hospital is the only safe place to give birth), and myths (breastfeeding spoils babies). I am all for a woman choosing to give birth and raise her child the way she sees fit as long as she is making an informed decision. I applaud midwives and doulas like Erykah Badu who are reaching out to the African-American community and providing real birth education and offering alternative birth options.

I am currently preparing for the birth of my second child any day now and my first prayer is to deliver a healthy baby, but a close second prayer is for another natural birth.
Please take time to read the other submissions for the Black Birth Carnival. These are very touching, thought-provoking posts
Nicole - Musings From The Mind of Sista Midwife: Our History Does Not Have To Be Our Future Darcel - The Mahogany Way Birth Cafe: What Happened To Our Strength? Takiema - Connect Formation Consulting: Black & Still Birthing - A Deeply Personal Post Teresha - Marlie and Me: My Childbirth Influences and Experiences: From my Foremothers to Erykah Badu Denene - My Brown Baby: Birthing While Black In The Jim Crow South Stole My Grandmother: Thankfully, Things Change Olivia - The Student Midwife: Birthing While Black: A Historical Perspective of Black Midwives Chante - My Natural Motherhood Journey: Homebirth Stories


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your wonderful submission to the blog carnival. This is a GREAT post. Initially, I smile widely reading it. So interesting to me how Black Birth everywhere from Jamaica to America was similar. Here in America as the hospital shift came it was also seen as better. Many grandmothers/mothers are often misguided in thinking that the "choice" of hospital and epidural makes it better when in reality it does not. Bravo to you for standing your ground.

At the same time I am sad that your midwife was that way. This underscores the need for us to have more black midwives and doulas serving our women. It matters!! Thanks again for sharing. I pray for you for your second birth that you once again Birth Something Beautiful in your way and in Divine time.

Mama Up! said...

This is incredibly powerful writing - and literally gave me chills. I was aware that there is some, well, history between the black community and the medical community that's less than pleasant but I never thought about birth and birth choices and how they play into all that.

...and seriously, what was up with your first midwife!

Denene@MyBrownBaby said...

What a lovely, thoughtful post—thank you for sharing your birthing journey with us. Here's to a healthy baby, born exactly the way you envision, with lots of love and God's speed! I'm REALLY enjoying these #BlackBirth posts!

Tanashia said...

Thank you for sharing. I had my first two babies in a hospital with midwives. It was my maternal grandmother's birth experiences that instilled my confidence in out of hospital birth. She had her first baby in a hospital because she assumed it was best because it was where the white women were having their babies. She went on to have four more babies at home with a midwife. When I shared my plans of a homebirth for my last, my grandmother encouraged me and told all my doubting family that doctors and hospitals don't always know what is best.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I love how you trace your birth experience up through your family history and the diaspora. It really is complex and fascinating how, when we try to return to a "simpler" time, it can be seen as problematic by those who love us.
I think it's hard to speak up when you're in a vulnerable position- you needed support from your midwife- in all areas, not someone to pat your head and marvel at you hair. SMH. I wish you a beautiful, peaceful, culturally fulfilling second birth!

Maureensk said...

Why in the world did she want to touch your hair? That is just weird! When you talk about the slaves delivering in the fields and giving birth in reminds me of The Good Earth, which takes place in ancient China. The woman goes in a room by herself, quietly labors and then gets straight back to work. The description in the book was so vivid, I just could not fathom how a woman could deliver a baby and start manual labor right after. I tried to do too much two days after the birth of my first, by running errands and I almost passed out (true, I had pre-eclampsia and was still suffering from some of the effects, but still). What happened if a slave woman had complications? Was she just left to writhe in pain until she died or would they summon help? If they did summon help, would she be allowed some sort of break after a difficult labor? Unfortunately, the depths of humanity's cruelty knows no limits at times.

Lee-Ann said...

A wonderful post and so interesting to look at the cultural aspect of it! I have to admit that I hurt for you that your midwife wasn't very sensitive. :( I would love to hear what your plans are for this birth? The same as with Marlie?

Darcel said...

I love this post. so powerful. You have such a rich history of midwifery in your family. What lovely stories you'll have to share with your children. I hope this birth is all that you want it to be. I'll be in stalk mode waiting for your baby announcement.

That midwife was very rude. Some people just don't get it.I think we are getting ready to see a rise in black midwives again.
Thank you so much for participating in the carnival with us.

Anonymous said...

Wow, wow, wow to so many aspects of your post! Thank you so much for sharing!

keyalus said...

Don't know how I missed this post, but just wanted to say that I loved it.

Quiana said...

I'm finally reading this after seeing the link in Desmond's birth story. Wow! This is so insightful and thank you for sharing in context of your family history. That is truly an amazing heritage and I imagine even a book or documentary delving deeper into your story.

Precious Hands said...

Sista,Sista! Do I have stories to tell! I'm one of the few Black nurse-midwives,and after practicing urban midwifery for 20 + years,if you could see,thru my eyes! Black women specifically asking for the white doctor,asking to be transferred to,the university because the white doctors KNOW MORE!! Even asking to be transferred to the case load of the white midwives! I think I have seen and heard it all! Our brainwashing has been so complete and prolific, but we continue to offer the best care available! Women not understanding that we (Black) midwives had to do better and be better during our educational journey and our practices. It continues to break my heart when I see the woman's face light up when the white or any ethnicity other then Black walks into the room. I was born to midwife,love my sistas and babies!! We still have a lot of of work to do!

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