Mom Talk: The Birth of A Doula

Written by

Latham Thomas

9:00 am
04/17/20

PHOTOGRAPHED BY HEATHER MOORE

Today’s Mom Talk comes from the one and only Latham Thomas, a long-time advocate for women, children, birth workers, and marginalized communities around the world. The founder of Mama Glow and mother to a 16-year-old son (who happens to be a well-known kid DJ), Thomas is also a self-described “Creative Matrix, Soulful #Doula, Yogini, and Self-Care Sorceress.” Oh, and she’s an author, doula to the stars (Alicia Keys, Ashley Graham, etc.), and one of Oprah’s “Super Soul 100.” In other words, she does it all. And more often than not, she is doing it all for black women and babies. In honor of Black Maternal Health Week, Latham shares a beautifully written essay on how giving birth nearly 17 years ago led to her current calling. 

It was 12:30 a.m. on a warm and balmy July evening in the summer of 2003. I was just 23 years alive, having celebrated my birthday just 2 months prior. And living alone with my boyfriend in New York City. I was sitting upright in our bed, with my hand resting at the top of my fundus and gazing down at my ripe belly wondering if this would be the night my baby decided to be born. I had walked the entire city that day, hoping the rhythmic sway of my hips would ease my baby deeper into the bow of my pelvis and that the pressure would thin my cervix and send me into labor, finally. I was already 41 weeks along and under the treat of induction should my son hang on another week.

But on this particular evening, the moon was behind Earth with respect to the sun, and its face was fully illuminated. It was the full Buck Moon, the Native American name for July’s full moon. Male deer shed their antlers every year and begin to regrow them in July, hence the name for this full moon. This was a new beginning for me, a shedding of the past, and a new life. And I had a peculiar feeling that this was going to be the precise time my baby made his debut. I asked God, please give a sign…

Not a mere 20 minutes had passed after I petitioned my prayer, it was answered. We were listening to the gospel cries of Mahalia Jackson, I remember her bellowing voice in a crescendo shouting “touched by the Holy Ghost,” when my water broke. And suddenly while sitting in the bed I was both excited and confused—I’m pretty sure this is amniotic fluid, although my son’s father was convinced I had peed in our bed. “Stand up,” he shouted. “Let’s see.”

And sure enough when I stood up, a healthy gush of saline fluid splashed on the floor. Just like Sex in The City when Miranda’s water broke (for those who remember). I stood there and watched the water flow down my legs and while standing barefoot and pregnant in a pool of my own making, I reached for the phone and called my mother, “Mommy, it’s time, the baby is coming.”

I stayed up too late watching Ken Burns jazz documentaries because I was so excited. After finally falling asleep around 6 a.m. I started to feel waves of sensation building and by 8 a.m. it was strong, I took a shower and spent time alone. Just me and the baby and this cosmic dance. Finally at 9:05 a.m. I was ready to head to the birth center, just 7 blocks away. I exited our building, breathing heavily and moving slowly to hail a cab from 222 West 23rd Street to 222 West 14th Street—those numbers were serendipitous to me.

What would ensue would forever change the course of my life and would impact thousands of lives of women afterward. My birth was the entry-point to my work as a doula. It was an extension of my work in the natural sciences. I had studied human physiology at Columbia University, but nothing that I have ever learned in school could prepare me for that moment when I was propelled to the threshold of my being to give birth to my son.

Nothing aside from patience, faith, belief in my body, and feeling the safety and support of my midwife could prepare me for the experience that unfolded. No one told me that I would be visited by my ancestors, and that birth is really a meditation, a trance, a sacred right of passage that results in the birth of a baby and the birth of a mother. No one ever mentioned that this powerful transformative experience was my birthright. I intuitively knew it was. And today I support women at the threshold of change in their lives—at birth, rebirth, and loss.

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When I was 4 years alive my mother was pregnant with my sister, my uncle’s wife was pregnant with my cousin, and my great-aunt was pregnant with her first daughter. They were all due within a month of each other in the Spring of 1985. As a 4-year-old I was fascinated with the process, my mother bought me books and taught me the sacred anatomy of the female body. She often jokes that while people would speak down to me and say “your mother has a baby in her stomach,” I would correct them and say, “my mother has a baby in her uterus and it’s going to come out of her vagina”.

My cousin who was just 5 years alive and I would play together and our dramatic play was always centered around stuffing Cabbage Patch Dolls under our shirts and delivering each other’s babies. Little did I know that this interest would spark the rudimentary seeds of my life’s work—supporting women along the childbearing continuum.

After the birth of my son, the birth center where he was born was shut down two months later due to malpractice insurance premiums skyrocketing. It was a big deal in NYC as Elizabeth Seton was a pillar of excellence in the birth community and was the only free-standing birth center in the city. I became increasingly more interested in advocating for a new free-standing birth center and started to visibly track the war on women’s bodies to give birth the way they desired. I was surrounded by white women who envisioned a future of birth for themselves and I didn’t see anyone who looked like me advocating for the future of birth in these circles. I knew birth mattered to black women.

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We come from a lineage of tribes. Humans lived communally because our lives depended upon it. In even the earliest known societies, we see evidence and examples of women supporting women in childbirth. It has only been within the past 100 years that childbirth has become medicalized and technocratic, straying from the women-helping-women model.

When our ancestors the first African Midwives arrived, having crossed the middle passage, having delivered babies shackled in the darkness, they arrived with the skills and wisdom of midwifery. They arrived in America in 1619, they brought with them ancestral wisdom and alchemy from an array of African cultures and their rich traditions and rituals for prenatal care. Their extensive knowledge and well-honed skills positioned them to care for African women and white women in the U.S. as well as deliver their babies. Very often the midwives would look after entire families, providing primary care for women, pediatric care for newborn infants and children, and medical care for men when necessary or if there was no doctor around.

Black Granny Midwives are an integral part of American history that many are unfamiliar with or attempt to erase, something we experience all too often as black women, but their presence is a thread integral to the historical fabric of society as well as the medical and midwifery profession in the U.S.

Legislative action combined with racist propaganda was used to change an entire health care system and our ancestral way of life, contributing to the development of health and reproductive disparities that persist in our communities to this day. Black midwives were used as scapegoats for the high infant mortality rates in the rural south when in fact their birth outcomes were far better than those of physicians, because obstetrics was a nascent practice and the ancestral knowledge about the sacred womb was extensive and passed down for generations in our linages. Many healthcare providers did not provide care for black women, nor were they allowed to birth in most hospitals, so they continued to deliver their babies at home.

There was systematic erasure and elimination of Black Midwives and their practices because new legislation provided reimbursement for obstetrical care, suddenly making Black women attractive clientele to white physicians. Rather than address the pillars of poverty i.e. systemic racism, poor sanitation, lack of nutrition, stress, and overwork, which subsequently contribute to infant mortality rates, Black Midwives were pinned as the source for infant mortality. And this myth has persisted for generations. Black Midwives were plentiful and delivered our ancestors who built this country and are part of the reason why many of us are here today. And we the descendants, who are called to do this work, are walking in the footsteps of our ancestors, are being called home.

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Birth is transcendent. Sacred. Holy. It can impact how you live the rest of your life. Having a multi-pronged approach to service is critical to reduce poor maternal and neonatal health outcomes. We are in a crisis, it’s not up for debate, but it’s up for solution. For black women, who are 4 times more likely than white women to die during childbirth or due to childbirth-related causes, having doula support can be life saving. I am not saying that doulas do it alone or that we can tackle the maternal health crisis solely with doulas, but that we are standing on the front lines and have a trusted relationship with the clients and create the safety net necessary for patient advocacy. We often see health issues as they are beginning to unfold and can troubleshoot accordingly, by providing counseling and education for families figuring it out. We can provide and advocate for culturally competent support for mothers. It’s important to have practitioners who operate outside of the system to provide perspective and support. I want mothers to be initiated into motherhood and feel empowered. And having a great doctor or nurse just isn’t enough. We need skilled birth workers who can help change the culture one birth at a time.

Continuous support during labor should be the norm, rather than the exception. Everyone should have access to continuous labor support that’s affordable. Hospitals should permit and encourage women to have a companion of their choice during labor and birth. Policy makers and hospital administrators in high-income countries who wish to effect clinically important reductions in inappropriately high caesarean rates that lead to complications should be cautioned that continuous support by nurses or midwives may not achieve this goal, in the absence of other changes to policies and routines. Institutional staff are unlikely to be able to offer laboring women benefits comparable to non-staff members, in the absence of fundamental changes in the organization and delivery of maternity care. This is why doulas are critical—to stand up, advocate, and be a powerful presence of support in a risk-oriented and technology-dominated system. Doulas remind us of what’s possible for the future by tapping solutions that are rooted in our past.

We need to get back to our roots, women serving women. Our mothers need us, our babies need us.

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As I think back to that beautiful summer Full Buck Moon on July 13th 2003, moments before my son would pass through my pelvis and make his grand entry earthside, I remember the feeling, the setting, everything in the room. I felt a presence, I was not alone, in the darkness I suddenly felt heat in a horseshoe formation hovering above me. I gazed up to see that I was joined by a lineage of ancestors, none that I could recognize by face, but there was a soul recognition. I pointed to the sky and said “I want to be there.” My midwife and son’s father gazed up to see where I was looking and all I remember is ascending out of my body to see everything in the room from that vantage point. I remember watching my son be born, from outside of my physical body. My astral body saw everything. That primal experience transformed me.

I have heard stories of people traveling to far away lands to experience the sacred medicine of Peyote or Ayawashka in Shamanic ceremonies in Peru. And the same neurochemical compound, DMT, known as the God Chemical, found in these psychedelics are found in copious amounts in laboring women and their babies. As someone who has never done drugs, I felt an incredible high, induced by my own internal pharmacy when my son was born. I had something I didn’t have when I started this journey, it wasn’t just that my son was now here, I had purpose, I had downloaded a transmission of ancestral information. I had new vision. I knew what I was meant to do.

As I think about our ancestry and this calling, I am reminded of the great Harriet Tubman who led enslaved women and men in darkness to freedom. She traveled by night and had to rely on her wits, her intuition, her faith, and had to gently guide men and women and protect them until she delivered them to safe passage. This is our work, to guide women in the darkness, to gently anchor them in support, and deliver them to safe passage into new motherhood. This is our ancestral call, we must answer and act in the way we know how. We must stand as servant leaders and rise to meet the occasion. This is about future and our freedom. This is about autonomy over our bodies and the freedom and right to protect ourselves and our babies.

This moment calls for us to rise up and change the course of history. For our sake, for all of us. The black maternal and infant health crisis is not a black issue, it’s a human rights issue, and it has devastating effects on the long-term health and longevity of our community. We have a responsibility now to change the legacy. Change the course. Take action.

I recall the very first coherent words that I uttered after meeting my son for the first time…“I have to protect this experience for women.” I thank God for blessing me with a birth story that inspired the work I do today. I wrote those words in my journal nearly 16 years ago, I have to protect this experience for women.” With the spirit of Harriet, my Granny, and other foremothers guiding me, that is exactly what I sought to do. That is what I implore each of you to do. Protect this sacred experience for women and babies. It’s our birthright. We must protect women, and children. Our lives depend on it, our future depends on it. Let’s envision this future together, and lead the charge, as we always do as powerful black women, let’s create it.

Latham’s essay originally appeared on Mama Glow. You can find out more about Latham by reading her MOTHER profile, as well as following her brilliantly curated Instagram feed.

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