To The New York City Department of Health and New York City Council:
The Bronx needs doulas. There is a serious lack of access to these services for women in the Bronx for a multitude of reasons, the main one being that they live in some of the poorest congressional districts in this country. For this fact and more, the Healthy Women Healthy Futures program came as a welcomed solution. Women from the Bronx and other boroughs were moved to receive birth and/or postpartum doula training so that they could serve women in their communities. Many of us are mothers ourselves and understand the necessity of having this invaluable support in communities that do not foster healthy families. All of us have given countless hours helping women through this significant part of their lives. To be able to continue giving quality care to our fellow women, we demand the agreed upon compensation for our work immediately, both retroactively and currently.
My understanding since the winter of 2014 is that bureaucratic barriers have kept this project from reaching its full potential, which includes paying the doulas recruited for the initiative in a timely fashion. I have also understood that the New York City Council agreed to provide this funding and the Department of Health is responsible for releasing the money to the appropriate organizations. Therefore, everyone involved is responsible for this delay by their negligence. We are infuriated with the lack of progress, and find it inappropriate to be continually asked to volunteer our time for compensation that will be given at some undetermined time. First and foremost, it is unprofessional to offer compensation to anyone and lack follow through nor a set timeline for expected payment. Secondly, the women that this project seeks to help can easily be one of the doulas. We are community members and experience the same financial barriers that our constituents do. Because of the systemic disparities, we also are surviving on public assistance and struggle to make ends meet. To block and delay our rightful compensation is to keep every woman and family connected to this project at a deficit. Intentionally or not, this type of behavior keeps the very boroughs and people meant to be assisted impoverished and with no resources. Why do you claim to want to uplift the Bronx if you cannot properly see to it that we all get our basic needs met? Furthermore, repeatedly asking for our rightful compensation is dehumanizing. It has been painful to continually show up to meetings and get inadequate answers about our compensation. “Eventually” would never work for any of you. If your biweekly checks were held up, you too would be up in arms. What’s the difference? Is it a class issue? Do you see us as less valuable and less human, or less deserving of ensuring our own survival in such difficult conditions?
This great project has not been given a fair chance to thrive and you are all responsible, be it with your silence or having no sense of urgency. We are demanding that the funds be released to the partnering organizations, including Bronx Health Link, within 24 hours of receiving this letter. If the grant money is for some reason unavailable, we demand the discretionary funds of every organization involved, and this includes the Department of Health and City Council, be tapped into to solve this problem immediately. To even dare ask ethnically diverse women to volunteer their time and effort is offensive given the legacy of violent colonialism, racism, economic exile from our homelands, and insidious manmade impoverishment. This type of exploitation is cheating both doulas and families of the potential of this great program. We demand our humanity be honored by ensuring our means of survival, in this society being money, is made available so that we doulas can in turn contribute significantly to the reduction of infant and maternal mortality, cesarean sections, postpartum depression and restoring humane treatment in labor and childbirth.
‘The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.’ – Alice Walker
It is far too easy to think we are powerless in this world. Being powerful is a change in perspective and how we center ourselves on our life journey. In order to move in the world empowered, we must return home to ourselves and our roots.
Body of Knowledge Summer Workshop Series is a two-workshop series developed by Ynanna Djehuty, founder of These Waters Run Deep (TWRD). Body of Knowledge is the second initiative of TWRD and is a reproductive health and identity series dedicated to providing information on the biological female anatomy and physiology and the development of a sexual education toolkit with an emphasis on empowerment and strengthening identity. Participants will be encouraged to go on a journey of self-discovery facilitated through movement, multimedia, writing and discussion.
Wednesday, July 20th: ‘The Return Home’ – explores what a person’s roots are, what makes them grounded in their realities and what being secure in themselves means.
Wednesday, July 27th: ‘The Flame Awakens’ – discusses the source of our inner power, passion and will, as well as issues and ideas related to personal power.
Each workshop is 2 1/2 hours long. Workshops can be taken as a drop-in course though it is highly recommended to take both to experience the full journey of self-empowerment and groundedness. A light dinner will be served both evenings.
Check the link for details: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/body-of-knowledge-summer-workshop-series-tickets-25960407277
There’s this white elephant with a rainbow belly who has been in my life for 30 years. My mom is very good at keeping sentimental things from her children’s lives. So it came as no surprise to me that she would have this stuffed toy that I inherited. What made me tear up was making the connection that I was gifted a rainbow elephant and the reason why my mother a particular desire for my life before I was even born. As a grown up rainbow baby and a birthing professional, it has been a profound experience to encounter miscarriage and loss in my work.
A rainbow baby is a baby that is born following a miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death or infant loss. Something that I don’t hear spoken about often by birth workers is how to cope with prenatal loss as professionals. I get told a lot of things by clients and random folks about their reproductive journeys. I have had to learn how to hold the things I am told, as they are often the stories of loss and not being understood throughout their reproductive lives. I have been on the end of not being the most understanding, nor supportive, and have seen my growth in handling the dark side of reproductive experiences as connected to being a gift after loss.
I remember the first time I realized my mother had a miscarriage before me. The memory is blurry but I can distinctly recall my mother going to a service at her parish when I was in elementary school. She was sad about it and I could feel the pain emanating from her. It was this moment that made me vehemently pro-life for a large part of my life; I just couldn’t understand why someone would choose to end the very thing that had my mother in a state of grieving until she made peace with it. I’ve learned that abortion is also wrought with emotions that are often not considered by pro-lifers fighting to remove an individual’s choice to gestate another human. The loss that is experienced in the reproductive lives of childbearing people are not so black and white, much less respected by the patriarchal way of confronting life.
When my friends and I began to be sexually active, the decision to terminate a pregnancy became topics of tense and upset conversations. It was having people close to me confide their emotions and thoughts about their choice and loss that I became pro-choice. I understood that even when deciding such a profound act, there was a lack of support before, during and after the procedure. It was made real for me the one occasion I was able to serve as an abortion doula for a peer. Loss is never easy.
Miscarriage has taken time for me to learn how to process it and hold space for it. I find it interesting that I’m a rainbow baby and this topic has been one of the hardest for me to grow through. I’ve had clients who have lost their creations and early on in my career, I was not as supportive as I could have been in retrospect. I didn’t know how to process the emotions that came with the loss – mostly feelings of guilt that the miscarriage was my fault somehow, of being a bad doula, and ashamed that I wasn’t better with bereavement support though I deeply wanted to.
In midwifery school, the most impactful experience with miscarriage hit right at home. A former roommate miscarried at the beginning of my time there. Being in the house, witnessing how they lost the fetus and completely shutting down was jarring.
when i looked in the toilet and saw blood. so much blood; the scent of death was palpable. houses go silent when there is something dying. it kept dying and dying and dying, spilling from between her legs out into the world. i did nothing. paralyzed. unable to attend her.
I knew, after processing and healing from this experience, that I had to grow in how I cope with miscarriage and loss in birth. I thought and meditated on it, trying to do better each time I was invited into someone’s intimate pain. It was helpful to contemplate being a rainbow baby doing the work I’ve been called to do. For me, my process with loss has been a tranformative one and one can say that it was ordained at birth for me to take on such a visceral journey. I came across this book, Ended Beginnings: Healing Childbearing Losses, and was about to see the larger experience of loss in childbearing years. “Because of its wide scope (infertility, miscarriage, sudden infant death, abortion, release to adoption; emotional disappointments including handicapped babies, cesareans, premature or traumatic birth; and help for grieving children), this book will help parents and care-givers understand the great burden of all loss experienced.”
I think what has been one of my takeaways as I develop and grow through this is that people who experience this loss suffer in terrible silence and isolation. Miscarriage and childbearing loss is taboo to speak of. Often we do not know how to comfort someone due to how little we acknowledge it, despite the fact that miscarriage is the most common type of pregnancy loss, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Studies reveal that anywhere from 10-25% of all clinically recognized pregnancies will end in miscarriage. We as a society have no coping skills with death and loss, particularly around birth. It is the perception that the childbearing person is supposed to be joyful and excited about the coming life that blocks out the fears, losses and trauma that often happens.
More support around childbearing loss is necessary. I have found The Seleni Institute as a valuable resource for mental health support, as well as bereavement groups for childbearing loss. There are also groups on social media where grieving parents support and share with each other. My recommendation would also be to develop more programs like The Doula Project, which has abortion doulas available and push for the development of full spectrum healthcare providers, as well as bereavement support and resources.
I feel honored to be a rainbow baby doing my work. It helps me understand how parenting folks recover and become more resilient as they process and heal from such painful experiences. I hope to only become better with bereavement support both professionally and in my personal life.
In the recent years, the topic of maternal and infant mortality has become one of dire importance. Living in the United States, which is erroneously thought of globally as a leader in health (among other things), it is very real to me that women do not fare well in their overall reproductive health. In a report from NoCeilings.org, it states that though we have had some improvements in terms of reducing maternal mortality and expanding reproductive health services, specifically family planning, the progress is uneven for poor, rural and marginalized women. What the report fails to mention is that the effects of poverty and oppression, particularly racism for me, creates a mental health crisis for childbearing women that dictates their overall health and that of their children.
There has been a lot of attention given to postpartum depression by female celebrities such as Christy Turlington sharing their experiences and coverage in the media. While these efforts have raised awareness and opened up dialogue, the link between preexisting mental health issues prenatally and postpartum depression is largely overlooked. Prenatal depression must come to the forefront as the number one cause of postpartum depression. Low-income African American and Latina women are the most vulnerable to maternal depressive disorders. It must be recognized, addressed and viable solutions created to lower a host of risks to mother and child. This is my everyday reality and work living in the South Bronx.
Mental health is an integral part of overall health, particularly during the perinatal and postpartum period. 10 to 20 percent of women experience depression during pregnancy or postpartum. This number only reflects reported cases; in reality the numbers are much higher. There are many risks for the mother and child with untreated depression. Many women do not receive treatment out of negligence by healthcare providers not screening women, fear of talking about their troubles, the mental health stigma that exists in society and lack of education, among other things. For example, African American women are often raised to emulate the image of the “strong Black woman”, which exacerbates the stigma around mental health. It discourages them from showing vulnerability and instead pushes them to mask their emotions, thus being denied support for depressive moods. This is further compounded by the denial of African American and other ethnic groups that mental health affects their communities at all, further silencing the voice of those suffering from depressive disorders (Okeke 2013).
Rates of maternal health issues are at about 35% for African American women while Latina women have uniformly high rates. Outside of race, low-income women are at an increased risk. The impact of maternal depression on the mother and child have profound effects. Mothers experiencing prenatal depression are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors. This includes substance abuse, reckless sexual behavior and dangerous driving. Additionally, a mother to be struggling with depression may not comply with their prenatal care. This means they will be likely to skip prenatal appointments, important assessments/tests, be at risk for having a poor diet and ignore danger signs for serious conditions. Prenatal depression increases rates of maternal suicide. This neglect to her health becomes a risk for complications and poor birth outcomes. Mothers with prenatal depression are more likely to deliver preterm and low birth weight infants.
Furthermore, the long-term issues for the children also include the development of impaired immune systems that leave them susceptible to disease later in life. The infant is vulnerable to the mother’s depression and stress and can be predisposed to high stress reactivity and mental health issues as well. While nine months is not enough time to reverse a lifetime of stress, intervening in pregnancy can begin the healing.
Though the odds seem stark, the increasing awareness of maternal depression has motivated change at different levels. From the work I do as a midwife and doula, I see how support prenatally can improve these outcomes. Solutions that focus on expanding a support network for pregnant women that is both preventative and healing must be explored. One suggestion would be to increase access and the quality of care for all women but in particular low-income African American and Latina women. The emphasis on vulnerable groups of women to have more access is because systematically they are exposed to healthcare providers who are not be sympathetic and have biases towards this population.
Another solution to increasing quality of care prenatally would be making midwives more accessible to women. Because midwifery care is woman-centered, having women who are especially predisposed to being triggered into prenatal depression be seen by midwives can drastically improve outcomes. As opposed to the often rushed and shorter visits with obstetricians and gynecologists, midwives tend to spend anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes with their clients. In these visits, they are not only assessing vital signs for mother and fetus but also building trust, answering questions and have the opportunity to notice mental health changes.
Another idea is incorporating more doula care in the birth and postpartum process. Doulas are often trained in screening mothers for prenatal and perinatal depression. Two examples of organizations that have their doulas trained in identifying and supporting mothers both prenatally and postpartum are Ancient Song Doula Services and Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership. Birth doulas have the unique ability to give mental, emotional and spiritual support to pregnant and laboring women. Postpartum doulas encourage the initiation and maintain of breastfeeding, which promotes recovery from childbirth, reduces risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, ovarian and breast cancer, as well as diabetes. The promotion of breastfeeding is also important in developing healthy bonding between mother and infants, which can help prevent postpartum depression. Aside from the benefits of breastfeeding for the mental health of the mother, benefits for the infant include stronger immune systems and optimal cognitive development. Postpartum doulas are able to help women transition into parenthood, and can also help identify any mental health issues that may arise. They are in a position to link new mothers to outside resources and referrals (Choices In Childbirth 2014).
Community education is another important aspect to promoting more community support and encouraging women to speak up. Because there is such a stigma around mental health not just in society but increasingly so in disenfranchised populations, it may prove to be beneficial to find ways to spread information about maternal depression. Included in this education would be the prevalence, signs and symptoms, as well as the risks to mother and child. It would be ideal if the outcome for the mother and child were tied to the future and well-being of the community at large.
In conclusion, prenatal depression is an important part of prenatal care. It should be understood as both a continuum of lifelong determinants in a woman’s life and a state of being triggered by pregnancy. More awareness of prenatal depression must be made to prevent postpartum depression. Specifically, low-income African American and Latina women must be considered as they keep falling through the cracks. The solutions exist. They must be implemented and understood to produce better outcomes for women and their families.
Okeke, Alexandria. “A Culture of Stigma: Black Women and Mental Health.” Georgia State University Library. Undergraduate Research Awards. 2013.
Strauss, Nan, JD ; Giessler, Katie, MPH; Elan McAllister. Doula Care In New York City: Advancing the Goals of the Affordable Care Act. Choices in Childbirth 2014.
I feel sometimes I can be really intellectual about what occurs to me. It’s how I coped with trauma for most of my life. It’s how I began to confront one of the biggest changes to my uterus since menarche: an IUD. I am no stranger to birth control. I have experienced being on the pill and the patch in my early twenties, and didn’t have the best time with them. It varied from physical changes that included enlarged breasts (ones that were almost too big for my frame), nausea, and psychological ones that made me feel off, crazy and at one point suicidal. I was not sexually active enough at that point to need it to prevent pregnancy. It was solely to regulate my menstrual cycle, which comes with a couple of emotions.
I got my period when I was 14 shortly after school was done for my first year in high school. I remember that day clearly. I was in the bathroom and looked at my toilet paper after I cleaned myself, seeing blood. I wasn’t freaked out by it because I had been told about it (superficially) and my mom had me carrying a pad on me for a while before it happened. I remember feeling both relieved and ambivalent about it. For years I thought that the reason it took so long for me to get my period was because God was punishing me for being a bad little girl in regards to my childhood sexual trauma. Reflecting on it now, the experience of being on birth control pills back then exacerbated my insecurities about my reproductive system because I was dealing with wishing my body was “normal”. I was put on birth control by an uncompassionate male gynecologist who coldly told me that I had polycystic ovary syndrome (which turned out to be false) and that it was going to be very hard for me to have children. That was a blow to me, someone whose deepest desire is to be a mother.
Knowing what I know now about hormones and the menstrual cycle, I understand the vulnerable state I was in when I was on that medication. After I got off the patch, I used only condoms for contraception because I didn’t want to feel the way I did on birth control pills. In this time between getting off hormonal contraception and getting the IUD inserted, I put myself in situations that could have led to pregnancy. This risk was exacerbated by becoming slightly baby-crazed around 25 years old. Thankfully I never did conceive (to my knowledge). Additionally, condoms in the past were very uncomfortable. They caused a great deal of irritation after use, which led to using the withdrawal method in long term relationships. I am now at a point where I want to be a mother from a much healthier perspective, which is why I got the IUD. For a long time I was vehemently against getting one. The idea of having a device inside my uterus that I couldn’t control was scary to me. I was most afraid of my uterus being perforated.
My decision to get the IUD last year then came from the desire to be intentional about when I bring a child into the world. I saw it as a sacrifice for a greater good, especially because I was clear that I was not willing to use the other forms of contraception that required more work and less spontaneity as I became more sexually active. I wanted to be sexually intimate and welcome the possibility of children with open arms; as I matured, that notion without having support in place to cultivate those children was ill-advised. I no longer wanted to play Russian roulette without a condom even in committed relationships. I felt this way intensely throughout midwifery school and after, the gravity of what becoming a parent having been made real to me during that time.
Still, I felt a vague apprehension and fear about getting it inserted. I remember asking other women about it and getting both support and stories full of everything that could go wrong with an IUD. I went to my appointment at Planned Parenthood one morning to get it inserted. The nurse practitioner that attended me was incredibly compassionate. Before we went through with the procedure, I told her that I had a vague fear that I couldn’t put my finger on. I told her I was afraid that something would go wrong. I disclosed to her that I had a history of sexual trauma and was worried that I was going to have a trauma response. Her eyes even watered up as I let myself be vulnerable.
The procedure itself was not very long. It was uncomfortable physically but my healthcare provider talked me through it and stayed present with me. The worst part though was the steps before the actual insertion of the IUD, which is when they measure your uterus internally and the manual dilation of the cervix. I normally do not have cramps at all when I’m on my period so having a cramp at this point was incredibly painful. Thankfully she was done quickly. What happened for the next week and months after that, I wasn’t ready for.
I remember not wanting to look anyone in the eyes after I left the examining room. I felt strange and uncomfortable as my uterus began contracting again. I had to go to work after but stopped to gather myself and got a hot chocolate. I had a distinct awareness that I was disassociating as I felt myself become far away from the coffee shop and the volume seem to have lowered on everything. I couldn’t focus and knew right away that I was attempting to leave my body.
The memories that stay with me most is the torrential amount of blood I lost. That first week, I went to the emergency room because I could feel the strings and was bleeding so much that it triggered my deep anxiety about hemorrhages. I was physically fine but some part of my emotions and mind were rattled. The relationship I had cultivated with my uterus after years of disassociating from it was in jeopardy, as the pain from my cramps and the bleeding made me less interested in regulating my cycle and more pressed to find relief. I experienced brief moments of disdain and nearly hated my reproductive system. The IUD was disrupting my well-being. I kept questioning myself as to why I’d do something I said I never would, and kept these thoughts to myself, regretting my choice and finding that sexual intimacy without the worry of pregnancy came with a price for me.
I had the IUD for seven months. It was the most painful seven months for my uterus that I can remember in my short little life. I can safely say the copper IUD is not for me, but with more thought, I am not convinced to try any other forms of the IUD or anything that will alter my body. The idea of having something metallic or plastic inside my uterus never sat well with me before and definitely does not sit right with me now. I have strong feelings about how much a woman must compromise her hormonal and by default, overall health just to prevent and control pregnancy. The necessity to be able to do so is not lost on me; the adverse feelings is how much of the burden is squarely placed on the shoulders of women. I fantasize about a world in which we would control our reproduction as humans in a collective way. I dream of using herbs and natural methods of intercepting sperm, supporting our menstrual cycles into their own balance and gaining a deeper knowledge of a female body that can be healed without an onslaught of medication. I imagine that generations of women who have no idea what it means to know their own personal moon cycles and it chills me to the bone.
My experiences with hormonal and invasive contraception give me first hand knowledge of their effects and compassion for the choices we make about our bodies. There is power in being able to control when we have children; it is the sole reason why we have so many politicians trying to outlaw our right to our bodies. Yet, as a budding medical professional, I am concerned about the suppression of our intuitive reproductive knowledge by synthetic hormones. I am not sure we are having conversations about how altering our hormones and natural processes affect the psychological well-being of women. I know that returning to invasive and hormonal contraception for me would be a long decision making process because of how my body reacts to it. For anyone considering the IUD, this is just my experience. Do your research and ask yourself if the type of birth control you are using is right for you.
Mama Tiwa is proud to be a Black woman. Black pride became a central part of our relationship as doula and pregnant momma and now as sister friends in the struggle for liberating ourselves. I remember meeting her for the first time in her home last year and knowing she wanted me to be her doula immediately. We would meet mid-mornings in the summertime, our dresses flowing in the wind as we walked in the park trying to identify plants for their medicinal properties. From prenatals in her car to one of our last in her mother’s home, we talked about her dreams for her child and personal goals. She’d share with me what it meant for her to be a Black mother given the current political climate, making it clear to me that she understood the responsibility and the reality of it. It was an honor to serve her in her pregnancy and birth.
I got to see her postpartum, after she had spent a week with her partner’s mother; this is when I asked her about her birth story. I didn’t get to watch her child be born because the hospital had a limit on visitors and I wanted her family to witness the birth. When I arrived, she was breastfeeding her baby. “I’m definitely happy to be breastfeeding. It was difficult at first. She latched on pretty quickly and I also told them not to give her any bottle at all because I heard that disrupts the chemistry they got going on so I didn’t make them give her a bottle,” Mama Tiwa explained when I asked her how it was going. “It hurt a lot. Like, by day two, my breasts were really sore. And the lactation coach was not there.” The lactation coach ended up coming on the day she was leaving and gave her a brief tutorial. “She told me that if it hurts, that means I’m not doing it right. I was so nervous to breastfeed her because it hurt, but I need to breastfeed her because my breasts are so big and engorged, which also hurts. So I spoke to my grandma, you know, my source of power, and she was like, “It’s supposed to hurt.” I was like, “The doctor said if it hurts, I’m doing it wrong.”
Mama Tiwa’s mother never breastfed because of the pain. Her grandmother and her partner’s mother did so she talked to them. “My grandma was like, “It’s supposed to hurt. Don’t let no doctor tell you that you’re doing it wrong if it hurts you because honestly, just like the birth, it’s going to hurt. But after a while, it’s not going to hurt you anymore. And my boyfriend’s mom pretty much said the same thing. When she latches on, I can feel the grip. Now it doesn’t hurt at all.” Mama Tiwa got animated as she described how she sometimes can’t wait for the baby to wake up because her breasts become engorged when it’s time for a feeding. This is one of many ways she has been getting to know her new baby.
She has had a lot of support in the postpartum and doesn’t know how people do it without it. “I give props to anyone who does ‘cause it’s hard. With support, it’s [still] hard because being around somebody for 24 hours a day who needs you is a little intimidating ‘cause sometimes I don’t know what she wants. I’m still learning. They say that usually she wants to eat, she wants to sleep, she’s overstimulated, understimulated, or she’s wet. So if I try all those things and she’s still crying, which happened to me last night…I’m like, “What is going on?!? Everything I did….!” I kept counting, “I did all the five things!”
“That’s another thing too. I feel like a creep.” Mama Tiwa is so in love with her baby that she can’t help but stare at her. She felt bad while at her boyfriend’s mother’s home because there were so many people in the house and she just stayed in the room, looking at her. “No TV, no nothing…just looking at her for like hours at a time. And it was for days too. I would just stay in the room and just kept looking at her. My boyfriend does the same thing. It’s just…I feel we both are like creeps because we just hover over her like, “Look at her face. Look at her mouth. Look at her eyes.” Oh my gosh. I still can’t believe her. It’s crazy. I can’t believe I made that!”
During the week that she spent with her boyfriend’s family, she experienced a Nigerian baby bath. “It was excruciating the first night watching her do it ‘cause it looked so rough,” Mama Tiwa recalls. She described that within this bath ritual, the baby received rigorous massaging and they would hold the baby over the grandmother’s knees. “She had a bucket [on the floor]. First, she washed her hair and then she washed her skin. Then she pours the water all over her. And the baby’s so small and fragile and she’s crying like crazy. And I’m just like, this is not okay.” She kept trying to catch her and her daughter’s grandma would reassure her that the baby wouldn’t fall as she flips her up. “I was really on the verge of tears. She was like, “Are you going to cry?” “Are you going to kill my baby?” (laughs)
From her research, it seems like a lot of West Africans do the same ritual. She continued to try to do it every night on her own since it’s supposed to be done for 41 nights; she only stayed with her daughter’s grandmother for a week. “You have to be kind of firm with them, you have to be strong. And she said it’s a part of making the baby strong.” Mama Tiwa shared that the first few nights her baby would cry but soon began to relax into the ritual. She was scared but was glad to have learned the bathing ritual. “She took really warm water with a rag and she would just massage it all over the baby. [She would] straightened out the baby’s arms and legs; she said that’s to prevent bow legs. Remember she had that canal head? She would mold her head with the water and gave her a back massage [and belly massage to relieve gas].” Her daughter’s grandmother told her these massages were very important because the baby was always being carried and handled; the baby could experience a lot of pain from that.
Mama Tiwa benefitted from the week as well. Her boyfriend’s family cooked and catered to her. It was strange even for her own family because this type of postpartum tender love and care is not common in American culture. She was able to take breaks from the baby and family members would care for the infant while she showered or even just took a nap. And who is this baby? “Tiwa. It means, “She’s ours”. And we had a naming ceremony for her and the guy who named her in the service extended it to Tiwaloluwa, and that means “the essence of God”; “we all belong to God”.
A woman proud to be of the African Diaspora, Mama Tiwa wanted her daughter to have a very strong African name. “Her name is really beautiful; with talking about most high and God, she is the essence of that and we as Black people are the essence of that. We are the essence of God…and my baby, that’s what her name is. We are little mini demigods all over the place. And that’s what my baby is. That’s what I see in her. All I can think about from the time she was born was, “Oh so THIS is what God is.” Because I felt like I saw God when I saw her, which is crazy. I know some people might think I’m crazy but when I saw her, when she was born, for a while that’s all I could think about. And then Tiwaloluwa, which we found out seven days after, was the extension of Tiwa, just made a whole lot of sense. I have a piece of God right here in my hands that I made so that means I’m an even bigger piece of God. It’s beautiful.”
She shared with me that in many African cultures when a woman has her first child she is no longer referred to as her given name, but as Mama(insert child’s name here). “I think this is truly awesome as it signifies the evolution of a young woman’s life. You are no longer the person you once were, you are now someone’s mother… A bearer of life. At that very moment when your child is born your whole world is transformed and you are no longer the same person you were the day before.” She felt that change the very moment her daughter was born. Mama Tiwa felt the catalyst implode inside her that changed the very essence of her being. “I had an outer-body experience and knew at that very moment I was face to face with what many would call God. This was my true rebirth. My life is no longer my own and my purpose has become very distinct. I am so proud and so grateful to be Mama Tiwa. Baby girl has made me new.”
Motherhood has meant that she needs to step her game up, Mama Tiwa explained. “I want to be her inspiration. I want to show her the right way so she knows what’s right. When she goes out there, other people will tell her otherwise – you know how it is to be a Black woman, [we’re] never good enough. But I want her to know that she is the best.” Mama Tiwa spoke to her baby. “You are the queen of this earth so know that, because they’re going to tell you different. That’s why your name is Tiwa.” Her birthing experience made her feel amazing and strong. “For so many months, so many people told me I wasn’t going to be able to birth her naturally without any medicine or without this or without that.”
The doctors kept asking her if she wanted an epidural, completely disregarding her refusal and even coming into the delivery room with it. That was just one of the many ways society undermine the strength and willpower of birthing women. Mama Tiwa felt like everyone wanted to downplay and doubt her ability to birth without medications. “I faced it. I conquered it. And when I pushed her out, it was like so quick. I didn’t even know I could push her out so fast.” Her boyfriend was beyond impressed, praising her to be one of the most powerful and strongest women he has ever known after he witnessed her give birth to their daughter. When she got close to 10 centimeters, Mama Tiwa wanted to know how much longer it would take. She remembers feeling like she needed to have a bowel movement before she decided she wanted to push. The doctor who had just left came back. He instructed her to push while he attempted to break her amniotic sac. The pain was too much for her so she changed her mind. “He told me, “You HAVE to do this.” And I was like, “Yes!” I like strong people like that because sometimes when you’re weak, you need somebody a little stronger. He was like, “You have to. Nobody else is going to do this but you.” When he said, that in my head I thought, “He’s right. I have to deliver this baby. He’s here to assist me but I got to push her out.” And so I pushed and I screamed. And then he was like, “Don’t scream,’ and then I remember what my grandma told me. She said, don’t scream either. She said, “Grab your boyfriend’s hand, and if you break it, then it must break but don’t scream.”
Her grandmother told her to use the force of the screaming downward. Instead of screaming up and away from her body, Mama Tiwa bore down. “The second time I pushed, her head started crowning and they encouraged me to do it again. So I did it again. With that first push, the water just burst, then the second time she started crowning. I think I gave her three or four more pushes and she was out. And it’s like with every push, it felt better. Like, I was releasing something.” Mama Tiwa could barely believe it was a girl. “Somebody should have slapped me because I was just in a daze. It was surreal, that’s the only word I think I could use to describe it because I felt like I was in dreamland. Like at that very moment, nothing felt real. So I’m just looking around, I’m in a daze. They even asked me, “Don’t you want to hold your baby?” because I was stunned! I was so stunned that Isaiah was like, “It’s a girl.” I asked him what is it, he was like, “it’s a girl.” I was like, “A GIRL?! It has a vagina?!” I asked him that. He was like, “Yeah.” I asked him again, “No, it has a vagina?” He was like, “would you stop asking me that? Yes!”
“Can I see?” So, I didn’t believe him so I looked, I gave him a side eye and said, “It IS a girl!” So then, I was like, I wanna hold the baby. I want to hold her. I held her; she’s all slimy and white. And she sat there [on my chest] for I don’t know how long…it felt like a long time but then it felt too short because they were like, “We have to take her to clean her up.” I’m like, “Where? Take her where? I don’t want you to take her.” “We’re going to just clean her.” I was like, Isaiah please go with them. Make sure they ain’t doing nothing crazy. But she came back to me like an hour later, which felt like so long.”
Mama Tiwa’s tone turned into one of disgust. “Oh my god. Just thinking about the labor experience, that was the worst. Giving birth was magical even though I didn’t do the pool or anything like that because I was pushing her out but the labor, being alone for so long on that hospital gurney without my doula, without my friends, without my mom, without my boyfriend?!” Women are usually alone at when in triage, which is why I couldn’t be by her side sooner. Unfortunately the way she was treated at Bronx Lebanon Hospital is not uncommon. She asked me to share the name of the hospital so that other women are aware of what she experienced. Though women across cultures experience subpar treatment during their labor and birth, Black and Latina women suffer the brunt of this abuse. “Yo. That was really wicked how they treated me.” I was on a gurney, throwing up…and they just looked at me, and would continue with their conversation. I called you and was like, “Ynanna, I’m throwing up. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t feel well.” And you’re like, “You’re about to give birth. You’re in transition.” And I will never forget, you was like, “I’m on my way.” I was like, My DOULA!! (pumps fist in the air) That’s how you ended the conversation. You sounded really upset too. And I’m like, “Good. Sheesh!”
She was alone for eight hours with no support. “I’m just disgusted. Like, that was wicked. It’s evil. It’s wicked. And they would sit there and watch me in pain; with you, with Isaiah when I was home, he would massage my back every single contraction. To have that support made it so much easier but to go through it alone? And then to hear other women screaming on each side of you? This is not cool.” Mama Tiwa is a huge advocate for doulas now and recommends them to any she can. Many low-income women do not often have access to doulas because of finances and lack of knowledge about the role they can play in their births.
“It’s being able to have support and dealing with pain, like pain management, because those massages…and those techniques – even like the breathing? When you told me to calm down…I remembered that when I was alone for those eight hours for every single contraction, I would just breathe.” The strength Mama Tiwa had to endure what she did to birth her daughter is the same power every woman on the planet has to do the very same thing. As a Black mother in the United States, it is not the last time she will need to tap into this strength. In the experiences that women of color have with reproductive health care, there is much to be desired. It is my duty to support and bring awareness to both the injustices and the triumphs that happen in my community to women who look like me.
Nothing brings me the kind of joy helping women give birth in the Bronx does. My formal training as a doula began in New Jersey through a fellowship in which I served three low income women in exchange for in-depth education. I remember learning the statistics for African Americans birthing in this country. It enraged me then and it still does, if not more than ever. I knew that the traveling to be educated on pregnancy and childbirth, from New York to Jersey to Texas and back, meant gaining the ability to come home to the Bronx. Bringing my skills to the most financially disenfranchised congressional district in the country became a necessity and an honor. I’ve seen birth in Lincoln Hospital and Bronx Lebanon and have experienced my first homebirths in the Bronx; the sacrifices were well worth it.
I am blessed to have been a doula for a childhood friend during her second pregnancy and birth. To be able to have women like her that I’ve had some kind of bond with come to me for assistance feels special. Often, we are not privy to such intimate moments of our kindred spirits, activist community members; to be invited to see a woman in her rawest form is a huge privilege. It was my first homebirth after graduating from Maternidad La Luz, a midwifery school and birth clinic in El Paso, Texas. I got to see her mother, who knew me as a child too, come after the birth with food and to bond with her new grandbaby. Being able to attend this birth with a sister midwife was also wonderful. It was a beautiful early June morning.
The last birth I attended in 2015 was Tanya Field’s homebirth. I had known her from a few years back during the days I was building connections with social justice organizers. Meeting her was the first time I learn of her work with food justice in the South Bronx. The BLK Projek was created in 2009 when the Bronx activist and mother wanted to take a more proactive approach in her quest for social justice and inclusive economic development. It seeks to address food justice and economic development by harnessing the local, good food movement and creating small business and career opportunities for willfully neglected women and youth of color. Being involved in her prenatal care gave me a glimpse into how we are directly impacted by the disparity in food options available to our community. In the summertime, I’d walk to her at the Libertad Urban Farm, a plot of land in our neighborhood that she and her staff have been cultivating to grow food. I listened to her experiences as a Black mother in the South Bronx.
When the opportunity to collaborate with a licensed midwife on her prenatal care presented itself, I was excited about it. It was perfect that Tanya and I happened to live a 20 minute walk away from each other, so I was close enough to assist in providing her care from her last trimester through 6 weeks postpartum. It made me feel like a community healer serving women of color in my local community. It mattered to me to help her and contribute to her health in such a meaningful way. In our neighborhood near Hunts Point, we don’t often experience being loved in our interactions with physicians. This was something Tanya, my other clients, and I reflected on; it means a lot to us when someone treats us with love, respect, and kindness.
The summer and fall of 2015 blessed me with being able to work with primarily women of color in the Bronx. I was able to be a resource of empathy and personalized maternal care in a culturally relevant way. I remember feeling the weight of birthing while Black in this country when I held space for my clients witnessing the murders of young Black folks over those months while grappling with the effects of systemic racism on their lives. The experience deepened my understanding of how low income women struggle against the bureaucratic, uncompassionate and at times inhumane gatekeepers of their access to quality reproductive health care. I watched how my sisters were treated in the hospitals during their pregnancies and births; just to think of the neglect, wickedness (as one of my clients says of her labor and birth at a Bronx hospital) and abuse I’ve endured with them boils my blood. Being involved with my clients’ process gave me an intimate look at the scarcity of options and resources for low income women of color planning to start and expand their families.
Being a part of the efforts to improve birth outcomes in the Bronx has also given me a rich experience of the strength, beauty, and resiliency Bronx women and their families possess; I am inspired by all the encounters I have had. I was able to assist two of my clients through the Healthy Women Healthy Futures (HWHF) project last year made possible through a grant from New York City Council. The project provides birth and postpartum doula care to women in New York City who otherwise cannot afford the services; I decided to focus primarily in the Bronx. Now in its beginning stages of outreach and impact, the HWHF project is helping to raise awareness about the necessity and benefits of doula care. It was amazing to watch my two clients by way of HWHF become mothers for the first time. They were both courageous and fierce in their own ways as we navigated the hospital system during their labors and births. I would muse with them and Tanya about our respective relationships being mad hood, as recommendations, assessments and life stories were weaved together in our urban vernacular, in our homes, and sometimes wherever we could make it happen. I have memories of having prenatal visits in clients’ cars because home was a little too hectic at those moments. We laughed and enjoyed these times, aware that Black women being able to care for each other in this way is homegrown and not sterile in the way our bodies are often treated by the American medical system.
For Tanya, having had a midwife – assisted delivery in her home a couple of years back, she knew the difficulty navigating the system to have that care. Some women who birth in hospitals do it because homebirth is not a financially viable option for them; Tanya shared with me how the complexities of getting insurance to cover midwifery care can shut out low income women who cannot pay out of pocket for this service. It was such a treat for me then to be a part of her care for this pregnancy. I loved answering the questions her daughters had about what I was doing during my visits at her home. Seeing her be able to surrender to her birthing process was nothing short of amazing as I witnessed her achieve the homebirth she wanted. It felt triumphant to me knowing the things she was going through in her own journey fighting for social justice in her community.
There is something very healing about seeing Black and Latina women birth their children. It comes from having grown up in the Bronx for 17 years and understanding that people that come from where I’m from are not expected to succeed nor be resilient. The Bronx is often remembered as burning, with the era of destruction by fire in the 70s and 80s; but I know my hometown’s story does not end in ashes. I am grounded by being of service to women from my hometown; my experiences here fuel the work I do of framing and contextualizing the lives of women of color. Every woman of color I assist in bringing another person of color into the world makes the genocide of Black and Brown bodies a little less harsh. My work gives me hope. It gives me the reality and potential of our transformation through changing our healthcare, addressing the human rights violations experienced by low income people and folks of color, and supporting the already existing efforts and neighborhoods fighting to grow something beautiful. For me, this work connects me to my roots and that which I am passionate about – the liberation of all people oppressed in this world. Here in the Bronx, I can do my part to make sure it keeps birthin’.
I still remember the night I fully embraced Beyoncé Knowles – Carter. I was in the first quarter of my midwifery school career working yet another long shift at the birth clinic. One of my beloved roommates was also on shift that night of December 13, 2013. She came up the stairs when we were all winding down from a long day of prenatal appointments to put me on. She excitedly turned on her tablet and told me that not only did Beyoncé drop a surprise album that day but that it was a visual album with a series of 17 music videos, something that I have not seen done before. I was beyond impressed at the talent, boldness, innovation, and skill this artist had to pull off a project of this scale in secrecy and execute it flawlessly. As I watched the videos throughout midwifery school and the last few years, it is not just the artistry that has made me take a closer look at Beyoncé. I have felt a catharsis through this particular and ever changing chapter of her journey in womanhood, particularly through her art.
I noticed it immediately. Each video on her album showed her in a light that I have not seen her in before. Beyoncé has always been a sex icon for as long as I can remember but at this time of her life, she embodied that sexuality. She has always been sexy but she, like many of us, has grown into it and is maturing into erotic. She owns it and in turn is continuing to own herself. As the lead singer for Destiny’s Child, she was still a teenager like many pop stars, singing lyrics about things yet to be lived by her. Beyoncé has literally grown into a woman before our eyes. More than the songs and lyrics, I noticed the change in her body. I spend a lot of time observing and studying people’s bodies. I have studied my own body and understand that life experiences can cause us to carry, treat, display and be in our bodies differently.
With pregnancy and childbirth, I have especially noticed the deep effects that women’s reproductive lives have on their psyches and bodies. I have seen women emerge over time as grounded, empowered, traumatized, unrealized, inspired, depressed, and many other states of being after giving birth. I have seen friends and clients become more bold, daring to take leaps of faith for themselves and children, leaving abusive relationships, fulfilling lifelong dreams, be more in their bodies, become deeply reclusive, develop body insecurities, hide their goals behind solely being absorbed by the mother role and more on the spectrum of how birth changes people. In Beyoncé‘s case, I feel like I have been witnessing the stellar emergence of a woman set on fire.
Raw. Uninhibited. Sensual. Unapologetic. Vibrant. Sophisticated. Those are the words I’d use to describe her work. As I watched each of Beyoncé’s more recent videos, I watched how she moved her body and expressed her songs visually. It was watching particularly “Yonce/Partition” several times (one of my favorite videos) and seeing the way she danced that spurred my curiosity. It seemed so different to me that I decided to watch “Dance For You”. Something about her in that video felt girlish and slightly sanitized. Her voice, always strong and powerful, was missing something. A certain depth unnoticeable if there is nothing to compare it to. I took a look at “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and it was the same thing. She had more of a super model feel to her; it was choreographed, youthful and carefree – all appropriate for where she was at that time. I ended up watching as many of her music videos as I could and continued to find a commercialization that reminded me why I previously was not a fan. Beyoncé is a pop star and with that comes certain molds that need to be broken in regards to the consumption of womanhood. I wanted her out of the mold.
I remember watching “Drunk In Love” and the contrast of the dark and light captivated me first, followed by the richness of her voice as she belted out the song. Beyoncé didn’t perform the song; she lived it. She felt it in a way I seldom seen her do in her long career. She was emoting the song and every other successive video. I couldn’t help but be slightly surprised at how brazen “Blow” was. It’s not that sexiness is new to me nor is anything Beyonce sings about conservative in any way. Her body, voice, eyes, pelvic gyrations…her entire being was radiating a power and rawness that was not there before. At best, her previous videos and performances were too perfect. In the essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” by Audre Lorde, it speaks of the difference between something being pornographic and something being erotic. I would not classify her previous work as pornographic but in comparison, it lacked a certain depth and wildness of uncharted feelings that her work is now tapping into. “Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling. The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.”
Beyoncé has become more erotic in the chaos of her tribulations. In my research on her, I watched her documentary “Life is But a Dream”. I learned a couple of things from watching it but two things stuck out for me. Beyoncé suffered a loss in 2011 when she fired her father as her manager. This is pivotal because he had a certain control of her career since she stepped into the public eye and thus, in a way, she was not fully an adult. At the time, Beyoncé must have been about 29 or 30 years old. This is significant because of an astrological event that happens every 28 – 29 years of a person’s life: The Saturn Return. To put it simply, the Saturn Return is an astrological transit that occurs when the planet Saturn returns to the same place in the sky that it occupied at the moment of a person’s birth. While the planet may not reach the exact spot until the person is 29 or 30 years old, the influence of the Saturn return is considered to start in the person’s late twenties, notably the age of 27. Psychologically, the first Saturn return is seen as the time of reaching full adulthood, and being faced, perhaps for the first time, with adult challenges and responsibilities (Wikipedia). Reeling from my own Saturn Return, I can relate to Beyoncé’s growing pains and in the same breath, gain inspiration from seeing what someone just five years older than me is becoming after the trial by fire. Her emergence from such turbulence gives me hope in a much more solid way than “Survivor”, “Run the World (Girls)” or “Diva” could ever provide for me.
Her motherhood has had a huge impact on her life. She describes her pregnancy and feelings in the most genuine and sincere way throughout the documentary. “Life is But a Dream” is the most I have seen about her experiences with becoming a mother. My eyes welled up when she spoke about her miscarriage and I heard the song that came from the very depths I have been speaking about all along. Beyoncé recognizes how deeply birth has transformed her. In an interview, she said, “Her new music “is a lot more sensual . . . empowering.” It celebrates being a wife and a mother, reflecting the obvious changes in her life. “Right now, after giving birth, I really understand the power of my body,” she says. “I just feel my body means something completely different. I feel a lot more confident about it. Even being heavier, thinner, whatever. I feel a lot more like a woman. More feminine, more sensual. And no shame.” For a nullipara (a woman who has never given birth), it is important to hear such a famous woman celebrity talk about birth in this light.
Beyoncé broke the mold that prevented me from connecting her on a visceral level. It has been getting a glimpse of personal transformation, and not the conquering of worldly pursuits like Grammys and Superbowl performances that others give so much value to, that has attracted me to the Beyhive. Reflecting on her artistry, the critiques I’ve had and have of her do not overshadow her achievements. Beyoncé grew up, providing the world with songs that empowered many. She now offers the maturing audience that got bodied with her and declared their independence in her lyrics a woman in beautiful transformation.
Let me just begin by stating a few things that folks must not seem to understand about my position regarding hospitals and birth. My position is first and foremost informed by being an Afro-Latina woman born and raised in the Bronx who has experienced firsthand micro-aggressions and neglect on behalf of the healthcare practitioners that are and have been available to my community. Before transforming into a birthworker, I already had strong feelings about the aspects of the American medical system that now drive me up a wall. What has further driven my rage has been the fact that 99% of the women I have assisted in childbirth and reproductive health matters identify as women of color. I have experienced and seen firsthand the abusive, dismissive, and otherwise neglectful treatment they have received. So, when I am stating my position that explicitly supports and favors midwife managed prenatal care and home birth, it is based on my personal experiences; the statistics, studies, and articles so many of y’all seem to cling to as evidence is just extra to me because y’all still argue what’s best. Also, the argument about safety is null and void because hospitals are not inherently safer. If they were, the maternal mortality rate in the United States wouldn’t be rising. Alright then? Great.
Before getting to the birth, let’s just start with prenatal care. it is common that women who are receiving care from the medical system are unsatisfied by their healthcare providers. The usual length of appointments are about 15 minutes and feel inpersonable, only checking vital signs but having no real time to hold space for the pregnant mother. I’ve come across cases of downright neglect, disrespect and abuse in the stories told to me over the last couple years. In comparison, homebirth midwifery care, hospital-based midwives, and some ob-gyns who practice a holistic model of care have made expectant mothers happier more often than not. As a doula, I have experienced the ability to fill in the void for women that their care providers are leaving. To further compound the issue, the chances of Black and Latina women receiving quality care are slim due to the socioeconomic barriers they often face.
When I was training in the birth clinic over a year ago, I noticed the difference in dynamic between patient and client. For me, when someone is treated as a patient, the healthcare provider assumes authority and absolute knowledge over the sick or care-seeking person. There can be a sense of infantilization that occurs in which the person is treated like a child, experiencing at times condescending attitudes and tones of voice. Whereas, when regarding someone as a client, there is a different feel to it. Combined with the midwifery model of care that places women at the center of their care and assumes the woman is the primary person responsible for her health, treating someone as a client brings the implication that the person is ultimately the accountable one for achieving optimal health. It can be argued that our collective inability to respect birthing women as capable adults stems from our parentalistic and patriarchal society; both ideologies combined imply that women are subservient, infant-like and unable to make sound decisions. Racism also promotes a similar treatment.
I am not surprised but I am deeply concerned not just for the physical experience women are having in hospitals but also for their emotional and mental experiences in prenatal care. Unfortunately, even mothers who are aware of homebirths and midwives have barriers that prevent them from having this care. One barrier is finances. Many mothers are unable to afford homebirths or doulas for hospital births on the budgets they live on or because their insurance doesn’t cover it. Midwives are then faced with the options that come with that: taking substantially lower compensation, serving more clients than they may feel comfortable with to support themselves, dividing their clientele on a sliding scale or turning down clients who just can’t afford it. In addition to finances, mothers face the potential barrier of unsupportive friends and family. Homebirth is still seen as primitive and dangerous. They could be forced to either shroud their birthing plans in secrecy to avoid stress or reluctantly birth in a hospital because they need to avoid being ostracized or losing relationships. For marginalized people, such as recent immigrants, losing relationships may mean a loss of livelihood or stability on some level. In an idealistic society, all mothers and all midwives would find it easy to work with each other without being encumbered by capitalist demands.
There is nothing inherently wrong with medicine and doctors. As I often explain, the art of healing and curing people and their illness is the root of the medical profession. What we understand as the medicinal arts and system today in contemporary society has roots in indigenous methods of healing. Nearly if not all medications have a plant base or hormone that exists in our natural environment or in our internal chemistry; the medicinal properties of plants have long been proven by traditional healers in cultures uncorrupted by imperialism or colonization. Furthermore, the presence of physicians and doctors were documented in Ancient Egypt, as well as the role of medicine men and those skilled in dealing with the supernatural. The presence of midwifery is also found in antiquity, sometimes the professions being interchangeable. I bring this up to say that my rage is not against the medical profession but rather the abuse of human rights and of technology and interventions. My rage is directed at the patriarchal and parentalistic attitudes that permeate the medical system, and how women and those most vulnerable bear the brunt of these ideologies.
In “Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her”, it speaks at length about how man has separated themselves from nature and by default women. What struck me most is how the hate and disrespect women stems from a mistrust and fear of nature and because women are close to nature in ways men are not (i.e heightened intuition, knowledge of plants, ability to birth, etc), we are subjugated and objectified in the same way our natural environment is. Women are constantly denied the wisdom of their bodies throughout their lifetimes and particularly when it comes to their reproductive health. Midwives are denied the respect of their worthy professions because its essence is antagonistic to a technocratic model of care in birth. Steps to rectify the severe imbalances include a dismantling of patriarchy, a reevaluation of patriarchal attitudes in the medical system and a return to trusting our natural environments and nature. We remain at a crossroads with our reproductive and maternal health where we are experiencing high rates of maternal and infant mortality and a host of other grievances. It is our work to restore the respect that mothers and midwives deserve in this country and world.
She was finishing up pumping breast milk for her son Talib. Then she dimmed the lights and lit a little bit of sage. Her wall had a print of the map of the continent of Africa, with African fabric and a picture of Sankofa accentuating it. “Sankofa” in the Akan language means that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. She had other images that echoed things, people and places that were a part of her. Suddenly, her office became a sanctuary and intimate setting to share her life with me in it. Dr. Griselda Rodriguez is the director of International Studies Program at the City College of New York (CCNY); that title is just the tip of the iceberg for what this first generation Dominican woman encompasses. She began our conversation by describing how she came to be. Griselda and her identical twin, Miguelina, were born at Bellevue Hospital to their immigrant Dominican mother. They lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan until they were around 5 months old. “She’s undocumented, she’s been in this country for less than two years and couldn’t really cope with raising two young children on her own, so she sent us to the Dominican Republic.”
That separation from her mother had a profound effect on her. It’s been years of healing to recover from that impact on her formative years. From her studies in Kundalini Yoga and birth work, Griselda learned the spiritual and biological significance of the mother-child connection. “Birth to 3 years old is, in yogic philosophy, when my electromagnetic field [and] my aura were being developed and it’s best to be around the mother so that I’m basically reinforced by her. And then psychologically, birth to 5 years is when neurological development happens and having both parents, but especially the mother, is ideal…and I didn’t grow up with my mom in those formative years. My eldest aunt, who I call Mama Cilila, who passed away two years ago: she was my mom. We’re raised by this woman who, in our minds and hearts, is our mother until we’re almost four, and then our biological mother comes and rips us away from who we thought was our mother, and then we had to get adjusted to living with this woman.”
There is an understanding on Griselda’s part of why such a separation had to occur. The harsh realities that immigrants face, in terms of financial stability and adjustment, don’t make Griselda and her sister the first nor last children to go through this. After her mother picked them up from the Dominican Republic, they spent the rest of their lives in Brooklyn. “So we’re one of those rare Dominicans that are not from the Heights. We grew up in the hood of 90s Bedstuy-Brownsville but I always say I grew up in the hood but my house was never hood. We grew up in a very traditional Dominican house without a father, which I kind of appreciate now because I didn’t really experience that very patriarchal oppressive male figure at home.” Her home was a sanctuary with her twin sister and mother. Griselda describes her mother as a wonderful provider, with home-cooked meals, all utilities and bills paid, and special attention to her daughters’ academic success. Her mother’s hard work also afforded Griselda and her sister’s annual trips back to their homeland. “I have a very close tie to Dominican Republic because in addition to living there, my mother made it her business to work really hard during the cold months so that we could spend our summers in DR. So from the time I was five until I was maybe 14, every single summer we spent in Dominican Republic.”
Griselda and her sister went to SUNY Binghamton. Being the first generation to get to the undergraduate level was “an interesting roller-coaster ride,” she mused with a smile remembering what it was like to navigate the U.S college experience. “I always tell this story: My sister and I both went to EOP [Education Opportunity Program] programs through SUNY and she had to do a six week summer program and I only had to a weekend program, so we both ended up being in Binghamton at the same time but my sister had already been there for three weeks.” Miguelina had a list of things for her mother to buy, including a shower caddy. “You know, the little canasta that you put the shampoo [and toiletries] if you walk from your room down the hall to the bathroom. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, of course my mother didn’t know. We didn’t have people in our family that went to college. So my mother bought her a beach bucket. Oh my god. Literally like one of those little plastic beach buckets with a little pail and she sends me with it, y que sabia yo? I’m just like, she wants a bucket, I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about.” Needless to say, Griselda’s sister was embarrassed but that was just one small example of what it was like to go to college without having had any point of reference.
She went on to Syracuse University and got her Ph.D in Sociology. She completed it in 2010 and has been in the CUNY system since. Her collegiate career taught her many things but some that stand out from her story were her journey into her Black consciousness, and her dissertation work in Dominican Republic. She took a senior African American studies seminar in her undergrad. “The professor suggested I do work on the African presence in the Dominican Republic, and I remember how baffled I was because I didn’t understand that there was that connection. Then I went to Senegal, West Africa to study abroad and that’s when it really hit me like, holy shit, I’m Black.” She became immersed in research about Haiti and the Dominican Republic, citing her focus on the significant role that the island played in forming Black identity on this side of the world. “I started looking at my family and looking about our ways and understanding that there was a little element about who I was and who my family was that was always missing and that I felt like wow, I finally found that little piece of the puzzle that I didn’t understand with regards to my family and it was the fact that they were denied that they were African.”
Griselda did her graduate research in the Dominican Republic from about 2005 to 2009, spending every summer there and deepening her connection. Griselda went into Syracuse wanting to do education and nearly left after a year. One of her mentors inspired her to change course. “I took her class on Black women and domestic workers and then on sex tourism. She saw something in me. She said, ‘you have a really interesting insight, especially being Dominican, you should get a Ph.D in Sociology,’ she encouraged me, I applied. She was one of the ones who helped me understand that as a Black Dominican woman, it was my duty to do work to enhance my and other people’s understanding of what that is.” Through this experience, Griselda realized how her identity as a Black woman was a shared one around the world. Her dissertation was rooted in understanding how being Black shapes the experiences of Dominican women within the labor market. “What I found was that being Black and being a woman in DR often means that you’re going to be the bottom of the barrel. It’s intentional. Most Black Dominican women do very similar things in the service sector. You clean other people’s houses, take care of other people’s children, sleep with men or women, clean the streets, serve coffee in corporations…” Her specific work looked at how aid from the United States and the World Bank comes into the Dominican Republic and pimps these structures that exploit Black Dominican women. She interviewed women and went all over the eastern part of the island by public transportation, shocking her family and breaking the mold of what a woman was thought to be able to do. “I saw my younger cousins paying attention to that as well.”
As faculty and staff at CCNY, Griselda continues to be a role model for younger people of the Diaspora. “I didn’t set out to be a role model but apparently based on what my colleagues tell me and seeing that students take me really seriously, I don’t take that lightly. I’m very humbled by it.” She is blessed to be able to see the effects of her work manifest in her students. “I just saw a student randomly in the back stair case last week. She was picking up her tickets for graduation. She was in my class two years ago and she said, ‘Doctor G, your class really had an impact on me.’” Griselda works now with a more diverse student body as the director of International Studies; she remembers what it was like to have mostly Dominican students when she taught a Dominican Heritage class. “I found that either students loved me or they hated me. They loved me because they appreciated the teachings I was presenting to them. They brought them new insight about themselves, their family and their world. In other cases, students didn’t really vibe with me because I was challenging their very existence. I found that a little bit more with students that were fresher from DR – those that still had those engrained doctrines of what it means to be Dominican. I would challenge them and they would just not want to associate themselves anymore with my class.” She is steadily planting these seeds nonetheless and knows her work is important.
With her training in Kundalini, Griselda’s connection to her spirit sustains her transformative work. She also embraces West African-derived traditions and is no stranger to its presence, growing up with her mother practicing Las 21 Divisiones. “How we make sense of that connection depends on where we were raised, what country we come from, what experiences we’ve had, but I think the most important thing I respect in people is just that honoring that we’re all God and that we should be treated as that. Of course my family and other people think that yo lo que hago es brujeria. Sometimes I dress in all white. It’s so powerful because people are either like, ‘wow!’ or people are like, ‘what are you doing?!’; it really scares people. I feel very powerful when I wear all white and I feel like I take that wherever I go. I feel like these [institutions of higher learning] can make us feel disempowered and crazy; [this is] the only way I can avoid feeling that way.”
Another extension of her identity is her journey in birth work. Griselda began her certification as a doula in 2012. “I feel like I’m one of those people that can say that I was born to do this type of work. I can’t tell you why or how but it just comes so instinctively and naturally.” She has a chapter coming out in a book by Black Women Birthing Justice in October. In the chapter she wrote about her first experience with birth at eight years old. “My godmother’s daughter was having a baby. They didn’t speak English and we were next door neighbors so they [told me to] call the ambulance. She’s there in active labor, I’m looking at her paralyzed and my godmother is [instructing me], ‘Dile que ella esta…’ I feel like that left something in my psyche [because] I had never seen a woman like that before. Especially being Dominican we’re always like, ‘don’t make too much noise…’ and to see her electric and wild in her power while she was laboring, it did something to me. I mostly have worked with first generation Dominican women having babies. That’s been very important for me and interesting because I see how easy we’ve been conditioned to give our power away so I’m glad that I’m a doula.”
Her Black consciousness came into conflict with her mother due to Griselda’s partner being African-American. “My mother cried the day after or a few days later. She said, ‘porque tu me eta haciendo esto? Tu ere una muchacha preparada, tu ere tan bonita, tu te puede conseguir el hombre que tu quiera.’ You’ve seen my mom. Not that it would make it any better but I think psychologically if my mom were like phenotypically White or even lighter skinned, I’d be like, all right… you’ve been positioned in society a certain way that makes you feel above but… she [has dark skin] and she has this complex.” At the time when her mother met her partner, Griselda was diving into this work and understanding the African presence in DR so she understood the legacy that she was coming from. “It was rough. I mean, I would say, I brought him around the family starting about 2002, and it took like a good three to four years for me to feel really comfortable when he was around my family. My sister always jokes with me, she’s like, ‘You kinda got the ball rolling’ ‘cause now several of my cousins are with other Afro-descendant men or women. My family has already been through the ringer with me that now it’s okay. Now in family gatherings, you have the old school family and then the newer generation. We’re like the United Nations, but it’s mostly Black, it’s mostly African, because then my sister was dating a Dominican who was [phenotypically dark] and my mother was just like, ‘You girls are going to drive me crazy.’”
Griselda and her partner, Idris, welcomed their son Talib into the world last August. Her pregnancy and birth have left a tremendous impact on her. “A woman who is allowed to give birth the way she wants to can go into a level of herself that nothing else could let her reach. I loved being pregnant. I feel like we live in such an anti-woman, woman hating, sex-hating, pregnant hating, mother hating culture that a lot of times I [expressed] that, and especially women [responded], ‘you crazy!’ I loved being pregnant. I loved seeing my body change, I loved feeling my breasts getting bigger, him getting bigger, kicking me, my feet swelling and being in tune.” Griselda made up her mind that she was going to carry this baby very differently from how she and her sister were carried. “My mother cried a lot when she carried us. It was a traumatic birth. She had to be hospitalized a month before because my sister had a heart murmur. We were identical so we were in one sack but we were in a way where I was perpendicular; I was over my sister and I was compressing her umbilical cord. Her oxygen level was low so they had to monitor my mother for a month.” Her mother had to have a C-section. Griselda decided to do it differently. She described herself as a happy warrior, determined to be at peace and in tune throughout her pregnancy. “I was very vigilant about the thoughts I carried, the things I said, the people I was around, even the stuff I ate. At first I wanted to have a midwife in a hospital, and then a birth center. Then I went to a birth center and thought it was still medicalized. Then I met Ina May Gaskin last year and she said, why don’t you just have a home birth?”
“It was amazing. It was my husband, my twin sister, my comadre, my sorority sister, the midwife and two doulas. One of the [doulas] was your traditional doula, the other one was a spiritual doula. We had a birth altar. She was in front of the birth altar praying and meditating. I was one of those women: I was a day short of 42 weeks and I had the baby at home.” Her mother wasn’t very thrilled about the idea of giving birth at home because she, like many women, understands that birth is when the veil between life and death is very thin. “My mother had seen a lot of causalities in el campo, with women dying or the baby dying because there was no access to medical care and she had that vision of home birth. But when I told her, una partera comes in with her supplies, she was a little more at ease.” Griselda’s mother opted to not go to the birth but gave amazing support from the moment Griselda was postpartum. “He was born at around 3:30am and my mom was there before 5 o’clock con una olla de sopa de gallina.” Griselda’s family made sure she had what is called la cuarentena. Cuarentena is a period of approximately 40 days, or six weeks, during which the new mom is solely dedicated to breastfeeding, bonding with and taking care of her baby and herself. During this time, other members of the family pitch in to cook, clean, and take care of other children, if there are any.
“For those 40 days, I was home. If I went outside for whatever, my head was wrapped. I didn’t wash my hair, I didn’t paint my nails, I didn’t wash dishes, I didn’t sweep, I didn’t do anything. My sister, my mother, the spiritual doula…somebody was always there. Somebody was always there cooking and cleaning.” Griselda’s home birth experience made her an even more passionate advocate for natural birth than before. The chapter of motherhood in her life has also had an impact on her personality. “I’m more patient. In one I can say I’m more patient because I see [a person], I [remember] a woman labored to bring [them] here – whether it’s C-section, medicated, at home or hospital. Because, if I hurt your feelings, how would your mother feel?” On the other end, she has very little patience for other things. Having a new human being she is now responsible for makes her understand there’s a lot of love and light in this world to worry about those who don’t support that. “Motherhood is amazing. I just feel I’ve been initiated into this tribe of [mothers]. I did something that humans need to live. I produced another human being and I feel with always having been a feminist, I have really low tolerance for [patriarchal] bullshit. How are you going to disrespect me, a woman, when you need us?”
With all her experiences from being a first generation Dominican in the Diaspora to the journey she has embarked on as a mother, Griselda has strived to just be herself. Her closing words to other folks in the Dominican Diaspora on how to navigate this experience: “You just have to be sincere with yourself. As new age, first generation U.S born and bred Dominican youth, that level of self-sincerity is going to be very different from what their parents expect them. And I feel like too many people are dying, physically or metaphysically, because we’re just all trying to fit into these boxes that weren’t made for us at all.” Griselda embodies the concept of Sankofa, having gone back in her personal and professional work to get knowledge that is rightfully hers to share with the world.