Mama Tiwa: Proud Black Momma

bxbirthing

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”.

IMG_2327

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!”

12801412_10153412790783803_5309592931490211150_n
Tiwa at 6 months strong

“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.

 

Birthwork in the ‘Hood

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.

stock

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.

Credit: Sedgwick & Cedar x Joe Conzo
Credit: Sedgwick & Cedar x Joe Conzo

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.

11011678_10100687634541940_5847545335809808282_n

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.

hands

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’.