The rate of maternal mortality in the U.S. increased by over 15% in 2019. And according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are still being disproportionately affected, with their rate of 44 deaths per 100,000 in 2019 being 2.5 times the rate for white women. This is one of many reasons why doula and Mama Glow founder Latham Thomas — who recently partnered with Carol’s Daughter to launch their Love Delivered initiative — makes it her mission to raise awareness about the Black maternal health crisis while creating safe spaces for allies to advocate for Black birthing people and their babies.
In addition to being more likely to die before, during and after childbirth than white women, pregnant Black women are also more likely to have traumatic birthing experiences overall. They’re are also twice as likely to experience severe maternal morbidity, which the CDC defines as health conditions caused or worsened by pregnancy, including but not limited to cardiac arrest, extreme blood loss, and sepsis.
“Normal physiologic birth that is healthy, that is sacred, where you end up feeling empowered [is important],” says Thomas. “It is imperative for our community and for our healing when we think about what birth should look like for the future and we think about what we deserve. How you're born into motherhood or parenthood matters, and so the idea that you can just be treated any kind of way is not acceptable. Protecting Black life starts before birth.”
As the Black maternal mortality crisis becomes increasingly urgent, many Black women are turning to doulas as a means of safety. This Mother’s Day, R29Unbothered continues to raise awareness about the dangers Black birthing people face and the people doing the work to provide a more positive future. Below, we talk to Thomas in depth about Love Delivered, doula life, and how doulas are making impactful change throughout their communities.
Unbothered: Tell us about the Mama Glow Foundation’s partnership with Love Delivered. Why is it something you wanted to be a part of?
Latham Thomas: “Mama Glow has been supporting birthing people for over a decade and really working to address maternal health outcomes in this country. We launched a global doula training program, which primarily services people of color who come to really service, support and advocate alongside birthing people — particularly Black folks who are navigating this reproductive health experience, but primarily pregnancy and birth.”
[Carol’s Daughter CEO] Lisa Price is someone I’ve known for a long time and who has been a friend. Carol’s Daughter’s primarily serves Black women with their products, and I think Lisa has seen what we've done over the years and thought, ‘How can I be a part of what you all are doing?’ So we decided to join forces.
It's been a year in the making to give rise to Love Delivered, which is an initiative of the Mama Glow Foundation, and it's one of the first that we've announced this year. We have another that'll come in the summer that we're working on as well. This partnership fits into Mama Glow’s work and allows us to continue to make an impact on our communities, and really drive forward the need for better maternal health outcomes, better information, better advocacy tools, and better health for all of us.”
Last year, R29Unbothered published a reproductive justice piece about how COVID-19 was making issues surrounding childbirth even more difficult for Black birthing people amid the threats we already face within the healthcare system. Have you noticed that there has been an uptick in people requesting doula services during the pandemic?
“There's been more of an interest in hiring doulas for sure, and more of an interest in education and learning what people's [birthing] options are. That's been an interest in our hospital births for sure. But we always see families coming in droves, so it's hard to say.
I think the uptick has been probably in the past few years, not just the pandemic. Black maternal deaths are not new, but I think the media coverage is new. We saw the really big seminal pieces of reporting come out from The New York Times and ProPublica, and those pieces, I think, sent everybody globally into this sort of tailspin where they were like, ‘Wait a minute, this is happening in the United States.’ Ever since then, we've seen the drive for folks who want to do this work uptick. In that regard, we've seen way more doulas of color, typically Black, and [also] white allies who want to study with and under the tutelage of Black individuals who are doing this work so that they can be better equipped to serve everybody.
When we are looking at the systemic racism and its impact on our health outcomes, it's so important to have options. But one of the things I think that's coming up for most people as they explore this is, ‘How do I design this? What would that look like? Who are the people that’ll be a part of my birth village?’ Really taking ownership of that [and that’s just one piece of it]. I've been seeing people finding like midwives and really trying to have a better hand in what the experience can look like, taking much more charge, being much more vocal in the process of really procuring those providers. So that's what it kind of looks like, a little bit more holistic, trying to make sure that we [Black people] feel like we have some semblance of control in that setting where we're going to be vulnerable.”
When you consider the history of reproductive health for Black birthing people in this country, this almost feels like taking our power back.
“Yes, exactly. I love that, and that's that's what we're here to do, right? We're here to reclaim, because our ancestors did this work. This is in our bones. We can do this. It's understanding what the mind and the spirit and the ancestral body actually go through. It’s understanding from a holistic point of view, and also from a highly spiritual point of view what this experience is for people. It is not just having a child. It is the rite of passage. It is a sacred moment. It's holy. And when we can think about birth from a place of reverence and one of divine design, we would not go for what's happening. We would not treat people in these ways if we understood actually what's necessary to have the experience we're designed to have.
When we are having these experiences where we're highly traumatized and people say things like, ‘Oh, well, you know, at least your baby's healthy,’ [these are actually] huge events. Trauma shows up in our tissues. When you look at scans of brains where trauma lights up, it looks like stroke activity. So it's not just about the idea of having a fairytale experience."
Absolutely. One of my questions was going to be “why?” Why do clients typically seek doula services? But I feel like a lot of what you just stated are many of the reasons that they do.
“Yes, exactly. They want to feel seen. They want to have their basic human needs met. And those needs are to be seen, to be heard, to feel a sense of belonging, and to feel that they're safe to take this journey into the unknown. If you don't have it, if you don't feel safe, you can't explore. If you don't feel safe, you can't transcend into an experience. [People] also want somebody who can be a producer for their birth. People want to just not have to think about certain things. They want to have somebody who can help them advocate.”
Speaking of creating that space for advocacy, can you detail like what a typical client/doula relationship looks like? What goes into creating that safe space?
“It typically looks like an interview, usually virtual, just to kind of see if there’s compatibility. It's really vibes, right? Like, ‘If I vibe with you, I'm like, OK, you're my person, let's connect.’ That’s usually the energy base. Once you sign on, you have pretty frequent meetings, whether those are virtual or in-person, where you're learning things about the process, what to expect to prepare you for labor comfort measures. If you have a partner, partners can be active in the pregnancy and birth experience, [so doulas educate] that person as well and make sure that they have the tools they need to help you feel empowered.
There are a couple of visits that you would do ahead [of the birth], including a visit to their doctor with them if they felt comfortable with that. Sometimes I write scripts for my clients. I want to see their doctors. I'm checking in with you. Should they feel comfortable, [I’m] on call for when it's time for the baby to come, and doing some postpartum work with them. It's typically several months of a journey, so you kind of become like family to them.”
You mentioned even going to their doctor's appointments with them. Has that been affected at all during the pandemic?
“Yeah. Depending on where you're located, you cannot go in with them for an appointment. You can do it virtually. What also sometimes happens is that you can also go on a hospital tour with them, but again, there's a couple of restrictions around like what that looks like.”
Are there any misconceptions about being a doula you're often approached with?
“One of the things I think that happens a lot is this conflation of doulas with midwives. People will think that doulas can be a substitute for a clinical care provider, and that's not the case. A doula is a nonclinical care provider that provides emotional support, physical support, education, advocacy tools, partner support — all of the things we just discussed that help people feel grounded, protected and safe — but they don't deliver the baby. The doctor does that and the midwife does that. The doctors and midwives difference is that the obstetricians are skilled. Surgeons are basically like high stakes technicians. They can do vaginal deliveries, but they're really skilled at C-sections. Midwives do everything but surgical delivery. There's a midwifery model of care which is more patient centric, and then the medical model of care, it's around the doctor.
A doula is, I think, really imperative to have in a hospital setting because you need somebody to help you navigate that environment, to design the best experience possible. You can have an incredible experience at the hospital, not to take away from that, but some people don't, so we just have to be honest and try to plan for better outcomes given the circumstances. Having a doula and a midwife is an ideal situation. It's like peanut butter and jelly together. They work really well."