When I delivered my daughter nearly four years ago, I planned on having a natural home birth. I had spent the majority of my pregnancy educating myself about the business of childbirth. I had a low-risk pregnancy and knew I wanted low-intervention childbirth for myself and my baby. But my daughter had other plans!
I was completely unprepared to end up in the hospital having an emergency Cesarean section. I quickly became part of an alarming statistic. According to the U.S. Census, Black women have higher rates of C-sections (35.9%) than their White and Latina counterparts. I felt too vulnerable to challenge doctors and nurses who assumed bullying, condescending tones to badger me into procedures. I was made to feel I could not trust my wishes or my body, in the face of their expertise.
Unfortunately, my experience was not unique. Jamilla Webb, a nurse and doula based in New Orleans, believes stereotyping is a stigma many pregnant Black women face. “Black women are looked down upon when it comes to our sexual health, ” she said. “Often, providers will treat you as if you don’t matter, as if you are uneducated.”
I am fortunate two other women in my delivery room (my mother, a health professional; and my aunt, a certified nurse midwife) became my voice when I could not speak. Their help was invaluable. I have been determined ever since to learn ways Black women can advocate for themselves in pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care. But if they need help doing so, like I did, what resources are available?
Although birth can seem like a one-woman sport, every woman can benefit from having a support team. One essential person in that group can be a doula, a nonmedical professional who provides physical and emotional support before, during, and after childbirth. Technically, a woman’s obstetrician or midwife should be considered as part of that team as well. But it can be difficult to have a positive birth experience with a medical professional who is at odds with your wishes as a patient.
Webb advises taking action sooner rather than later if you do not feel comfortable with someone on your birth team prior to going into labor. “If you see someone who is not being a good team member, ” she says, “it’s time to open up the draft and start looking for someone else to help you win the game of health and of having a positive birth experience.”
Expectant mothers should definitely use the Internet to their advantage when looking for resources for pregnancy and beyond. Nicole Deggins, a certified nurse midwife with over 20 years of experience, founded SistaMidwife.com to give Black women a starting point in finding support for empowering childbirth experiences. The site provides a directory for doula services across the country, in addition to offering “education and training through teleconferences, webinars, keynotes and live workshops.”
The International Center for Traditional Childbearing is a midwifery and doula training organization that also hosts a treasure trove of resources on infant mortality, Black midwifery, and breastfeeding support on its website.
Ultimately, Black mothers need to know they have rights during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care. If you are unable to build a network of support, there are still ways you can advocate for yourself. Self-education is a powerful tool. Deggins suggests that women exercise their rights to informed refusal, to delay or decline unwanted procedures, or to ask medical providers if there is cause for concern if they have misgivings about consenting to a procedure.
If mothers need to inform authorities about improper treatment by a healthcare professional, they may contact their hospital’s ombudsman to make a complaint. Evidenced-based birth organization Improving Birth provides an excellent guide on how to file complaints.
The birth of our precious babies should not be cause to worry about mistreatment. But community support is invaluable in arming women with the resources it takes to get their voices heard. It not only takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to safely deliver them, too.
Did you have (or will you have) a birth support advocate during pregnancy and delivery?