Pregnancy and giving birth, particularly for a first-time mom, remain somewhat of a mystery for many women. During pregnancy, the mainstream conversation revolves around the dos and don’ts of surviving the intensity of the next nine months. But no one can fully explain it to you in a way you could understand unless you’ve been through it before. The whole experience is, while transformative, also traumatic. It changes you forever. It is exhausting, lonely, depressing, sad, and emotionally and physically draining, all while you’re trying to hold yourself together long enough to care for, feed for, and provide for this new, tiny, fragile life. As vulnerable individuals, we want to ensure we have a team of professionals taking care of every aspect of our lives, putting all our trust and faith in Western society’s standards of gynecology. However, for women of color, many of our traditional expectations, practices, and needs are left out of the birthing and labor conversations. In Western medicine and gynecology, the midwifery and doula work is often ignored — leaving many of us to try to trust our doctors solely. But unfortunately, women of color are losing faith in doctors who have failed to care for us all equally.
Recently doulas and midwives have grown in popularity in some states in the U.S. though they’ve always been popular in Latin America. Traditional birth work is important because women of color, particularly Black women, are not receiving the same quality of prenatal care as white women. This fact is a telling sign that modern gynecology practices may not understand the biological, medical, mental, and physical needs of women of color.
Dominican twin sisters Dr. Miguelina Rodriguez and Dr. Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon, better known as Brujas of Brooklyn, extensively study women healing amongst marginalized communities. Dr. Rodriguez-Solomon tells HipLatina that “Western gynecology was spearheaded by white men that found a niche in gynecology. They determined that this type of practice was profitable. There was also this idea that If you can control people’s health, then you can control a population”. It’s not shocking to realize that racism and colonialism both have roots in the gynecology field. More surprising is how far back doula practice and midwifery have been pushed out of modern medicine’s prenatal, postnatal, and maternal care dialogue — mainly because it is part of our ancestry.
Historically, women relied heavily on community elders to help them give birth. Older and experienced women in tribal environments were considered healers, wise women, and medicine women. They were doctors without the lab coats and the degrees. It was women of color who taught European men their first lessons in gynecology medicine. “You have to think back to the black grand midwives. They were the healthcare providers for their communities before they were enslaved. In this country, the grand midwives got pushed out of births because doctors decided they wanted to start doing it. Doctors used to do home births because it’s what midwives did, but doctors felt more comfortable in the hospitals, so they moved it to the hospitals,” certified birth doula and postpartum doula Annette Perel tells HipLatina. She continues to share that doctors attached academic qualifications to their profession so that midwives would be considered “unqualified” and unable to practice.
Knowing that the practice of doulas and midwives is part of history for women of color can help us feel safer with this type of birth work. Understanding the sacred connection we may have with birth workers can impact our birthing and postpartum experience. Mainly because, as women of color, we already have traumas lingering in our system. “Centuries of structural forms of oppression, specifically the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, have left profound spiritual and emotional wounds that people of African descent have passed on, through the bloodline, from one generation to the next.” Dr. Rodriguez-Solomon explains. She adds that women of color inherit these traumas that manifest in the womb. This, combined with unhealthy family dynamics, low quality of food, high-stress environments, and low socioeconomic status, can create multiple issues and mental health problems for WOC specifically Black women. Essentially, we don’t have the support needed to raise a child in a healthy environment and none of this is typically discussed in a gynecology office.
“Birth is a very spiritual experience. We transverse many realms when we are giving birth. Even with an unmedicated birth, you have to transcend the pain. It’s a moment where a first-time mother, in particular, but all people, when giving birth and bringing another human life to earth, changes the biochemical brain patterns (research-backed), and heart space can open. Trauma or fear attached to the process can really push people into a form of depression or disassociation.” Dr. Rodriguez-Solomon shares.
Marginalized communities have endured trauma for decades, from slavery and colonization to racism, assimilation, food insecurity, and low-quality health and educational resources. Living through oppression can cause PTSD, which manifests in symptoms of anxiety, dissociation, irritability, and drastic mood changes.
“Our communities have been so devastated in many areas of life that it’s hard to get back to that community center. Imagine living in poverty, already trying to figure out where your next meal is coming from, and now you have to worry about taking care of a baby. We have no support. The system is not set up to help us,” Perel explains.
The stress that comes with being a minority in this country can be triggered during pregnancy or at birth which the fetus can absorb. That fetus then becomes a baby who believes mom’s triggers are their own and mom’s trauma is their own. “If a mom is stressed, it affects her milk production, her ability to bond with her baby, her sleep and mood patterns, and all of that affects the baby,” Perel says. She explains that every traumatic event the mother experiences in her life can be triggered during pregnancy or birth and that trauma then shapes the new cells, biologically passing down distress, fear, and trauma to the fetus. This is how generational trauma develops. This is why advocating for peaceful birth work, and a trusting team is crucial to the birthing process. It makes a lasting impression on both mom and baby’s life. It can change the trajectory of both of their lives.
With this growing rise in awareness around doula work and midwifery. Home births, natural births, and dialogue amongst women have brought up our natural and inherited ability to heal, care for one another, and care for the most vulnerable. While modern medicine and traditional medicine practices differ in many ways, many hospitals can now integrate both a gynecology team and a midwife and doula. Patient advocacy is the responsibility of the patient. Still, those who practice traditional birth work believe that improving prenatal and postnatal care is in the hands of all women. Dr. Rodriguez-Solomon says, “before men took over, women were the healers.”