By Etecia Brown
My intention of being a birth worker is to provide womb healing to Black and Brown communities. I would like to empower folks to tap into their divine creation power and to trust in their primal ability to bring gods into this plane. As a "doula"/birth assistant I have the honor of supporting pregnant folk and their journey through pregnancy. I am able to use holistic healing and spiritual tools to carry on light work and pass these tools on to pregnant folk so that they can hopefully break cycles of intergenerational trauma so that we may all flourish. In my practice I stand on the shoulders of my mothers, and I honor all the sacrifices that they have made so that I may be here. Understanding the technology of mothering and nurturing is crucial to maintain a nation. Womyn have been the key stone to keeping families together, providing food, and making a home. Throughout history and today womyn have relied on each other to create markets, share medicines, and pass down important stories and rituals. When I think of mothering I think about compassion and love. When asked by someone who taught me how to love I think of my mom. Childbirth historically involved a support system of womyn who assisted a womyn from her pregnancy through the birth and the immediate time after helping to care for the newborn. This type of village style nurturing insures the longevity of all the children in the community. This shared mothering also helps to relieve the new parent of the stress that may come with caring for a child for the first time and relieve the possible feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt. My grandma talks about the times when everyone in the neighborhood knew who you were and therefore you could rely on neighbors to keep an eye on your children. I am reminded of the family nurturing and the sacred rituals of motherhood we carry with us that have been passed all the way down from our primordial mother, still with love in our hearts and care to give (in spite of all that we have been through as enslaved people).
In ancient times there was no more of a noble occupation than to be of service to mothers. In many parts of ancient Africa and throughout the Americas pregnancy and child birth was a honored and revered time in a persons life. The people who helped bring the child-gods into the world were loved and depended on by the entire community. In Africa the practice of midwifery was an art and science which required prayer, rituals paying respect to the ancestors, massage, herbs, aromatherpay, and breastfeeding. Each village had a Grand-midwife who taught an apprentice midwife the traditional rituals of mothering and child bearing. The philosophy of midwifery around the world understands birth as both a social sacred event as well as a medical event. In the case of the African midwife, she was the key in the community that maintained traditions and solidified families. Grand midwives taught womyn how to be mothers and men how to be good husbands (husbandry-meaning to take care of). According to Egyptian Archaeologist Marie Parsons of Tour Egypt, the tchnology of mothering was important and sacred enough to be described on temple walls, "A baby stayed with its mother, carried in a sling around her neck. The mother would nurse the baby for three years." Ancient Egyptians had many papyrus scrolls dedicated to the medical aspects of pregnancy and childbirth, including pregnancy test and estimating due dates, as well as rituals and prayers to help bring the child into the world with ease and good health. A mammisi was a type of sanctuary built within a temple specifically for womyn to give birth, like a modern day birth center. The mammisi were dedicated to the local goddess and her child. The goddess was often Isis or Hathor. These divine births were celebrated with music, dancings, and plays. Likewise, in ancient Mexico at Cozumel, mothering and childbearing was a sacred and honored time. Rosita Arvigo, teacher of Mayan Medicine explains there once stood a sanctuary and temple of Ix Chel a Maya Earth Goddess of medicine, parteras (midwives), fertility, childbirth, and the moon. A temple dedicated to healing Maya womyn who made a scared pilgrimage to the site a Cozumel to learn midwifery techniques and sacred mysteries and the art of care. They were also taught spiritual divination, astronomy, the art of prophecy, and how to work with crystals. Many of these sacred rituals and midwifery techniques are still practiced today such as yoni steams, abdominal and pelvic massages, and using the rebozo (large shawl) as a tool to ease contractions.
The survival of ancient African midwifery practices in the United States is magical resistance. Black Grand midwives of the pre- and post-civil war in the South were generational and cultural gatekeepers. Both Black and white communities depended on Black Grand midwives to deliver their children and help rear them. These shaman matriarchs and womb healers created philosophies of mothering during enslavement and well after during the violent transition to "freedom". Systemic racism and Eurocentric patriarchy created a barrier for Black and Brown midwives to continue their cultural practices- traditions that were essential in cultivating community and strengthening the Black family. In the early 20th century there was a paradigm shift regarding the mental, physical, and emotional stability of womyn known as the 'cult of domesticity". These unwritten character laws governed how womyn were to behave in American society: submissiveness, piety, domesticity, and purity. In the book When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race, and Sex in America, physicians utilized fear to manipulate womyn in order to legitimize their authority in birthing rooms of hospitals and to further exile midwives from birthing work during the early 1900's. This manipulation also catapulted the multi-billion dollar hospital birthing industrial complex. The Sheppard Towner Act of 1921 challenged the Black midwifery tradition and sparked a slew of smear campaigns designed to deem Black womyn and midwives as dirty, illegitimate, evil, and unfit to care for or bring children into the world. According to the International Center for Traditional Childbearing, in 1920 there were 5,000 Black midwives in Georgia; by 2002 there were only 15, a growing trend in the decline of midwives across the country. Nurse-midwifery was established in the 1920s in the U.S. as an extension of public health nursing to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates in hospital deliveries and provide a medically "acceptable" alternative to immigrant and granny midwives. African based midwifery was able to continue through nurse midwifery schools, such as the first one established at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee Alabama. Due to racism and educational disparities, many midwifery schools and training programs closed and the Black community continued to struggle to find entry into institutions to learn and practice midwifery. Midwifery has always been an honored and spiritual profession among Africans who continued their rich traditions, even while enslaved. Historically, midwives of color have saved the lives of countless mothers and babies throughout the United States. Both free and enslaved African midwives provided midwifery care not only in their communities but also in communities outside of the Black community, specifically for white families.
In spite of the overwhelming obstacles to gain the necessary credentials to practice medicine or become a birth worker in the U.S. there is a growing reemergence today of womyn of color becoming birth workers. Midwives and Doulas (a person who supports a pregnant person emotionally and spiritually through education and physiological practices) continue to fulfill the historical role of helping pregnant womyn advocate for themselves and their child. Often times womyn are pushed into cesarean births and taking synthetic and even life threatening drugs during labor to cushion the pockets of physicians, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies. When womyn are supported by birth-workers such as doulas or midwives they have a lower risk of cesarean births, and further research has shown more satisfaction from mothers and healthier and higher functioning newborns. The American College of Nurse-Midwives published a study indicating that utilizing midwives and doulas reduces preterm births and saves millions of public dollars a year because of the higher rate of vaginal births during midwifery care versus hospital care which have a higher rate of cesarean births. Midwifery and doula care is extremely important in the context of Black and Brown maternal and child health. According to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, San Francisco Black infant mortality rates are over 5 times higher than whites. The traditional ancient practice of midwifery and doula care provides womyn with consistent spiritual, emotional, and culturally competent medical support throughout pregnancy. Birthing outside of the system is essential to our fight for liberation. When we have the freedom to birth in a peaceful environment on our own time without invasive medical procedures and being doped up on synthetic drugs our babies are able to come into this plane with a more serene and grounded spirit.
Black and Brown Home Birth Midwives in the Bay Area:
Andrea Ruizquez- Partera, traditional home birth midwife, Spanish Speaking
Kiki Jordan- Only Black homebirth midwife in Bay Area
For doula services or questions email firstname.lastname@example.org
American College of Nurse-Midwives. Midwifery: Evidence-Based Practice A Summary of Research on Midwifery Practice in the United States. Publication. Silver Spring, MD: American College of Nurse-Midwives, n.d. Print. Revised 2012.
Arvigo, Rosita. "Midwifery on Ancient Cozumel Island." Midwifery on Ancient Cozumel Island. The Birth Insitute, 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
Borst, Charlotte G. (1995). Catching Babies: The Professionalization of Childbirth, 1870-1920. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674102620.
City and County of San Francisco Department of Health. Health and Health Disparities in San Francisco Equity in Birth Outcomes. Rep. San Francisco: SFDPH – Maternal, Child & Adolescent Health, 2013. Brief. Maternal, Child & Adolescent Health. City and County of San Francisco Department of Public Health, May 2013. Web. Oct. 2016.
Giddings, Paula. 1994 When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race, and Sex in America. New York: Morrow.
International Center for Traditional Childbearing. "History of Black Midwives." International Center for Traditional Childbearing. International Center for Traditional Childbearing, n.d. Web. 8 Oct. 2016.
Tour Egypt. "Egypt: Childbirth and Children in Ancient Egypt, A Feature Tour Egypt Story". Tour Egypt, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
Van Teijlingen, Edwin R.; Lowis, George W.; McCaffery, Peter G. (2004). Midwifery and the Medicalization of Childbirth: Comparative Perspectives. Nova Publishers.