by Cassandra Thompson
Our collaboration is our survival. It always has been. We are beings that require community and it’s support, to do all that we seek to achieve and create; from the seemingly minor tasks to major life-changing events. Turtle Island continues to be plagued by colonial oppression and conquest, the divisive techniques and tactics that our colonists have used to perpetuate a false survival structure of ‘individualism’, attempt to root themselves deeper in this land’s soil and in its peoples consciousness. We remember, however, in our soul memory, the need for a loved ones touch, the necessity for another’s helping hand and the urge for a compassionate vibration from folx in search of togetherness.
Illustration by Amir Khadar
We see the support of the community centered concept of ‘togetherness’ evidenced in the birthing structures that predated European settler regulations of midwifery in the 19th Century. We see it in the Grand “Granny” Midwives who used the resources they had been given access to, to create a safe, clean and relaxed birthing environment for whoever they were working with, black and white. These remarkable black womyn of the rural southern United States, would deliver the majority of the babies in their communities, many having delivered almost 90% of the babies in their communities before the regulation of midwifery, and subsequent erasure of the Granny Midwife tradition. These old-knowledge midwives took great pride in being able to support folx thru the process of carrying their children’s spirits through the veil to this life, otherwise known as, birth.
Birth was a process that rarely had access to a hospital in the rural South, so these black womyn who dedicated a major chunk of their lives to this work, had intervention and prevention techniques that consulted earth medicine for support, and trusted spirit to guide their hands. They respected the body’s inherent ability to give birth and knew the pregnant person would be more connected to that birth, if their agency and self-directed needs were respected and met. Doula work, or birth companion work, seeks to carry on this same tradition that our grandmothers laid out for our inheritance; including community in the birthing process.
The word ‘doula’ is a difficult word to claim, as it derives from a Greek word meaning ‘female slave,’ but is the most common term used for a ‘birth companion;’ a title that many more are claiming, who feel called to the work of supporting folx through birth. Trained in offering prenatal, birth and postpartum care, full circle birth companions are there to support you where a midwife is not able or allowed. Midwives are extensively trained to support all types of births, and see the pregnant person’s physical health & safety, and that of their baby, as the main priority. Though many IBPOC midwives recognize that emotional, mental and spiritual health will impact the physical state of a pregnant person, many are stretched too thin to be the sole resource for up to 40 pregnant individuals per year. That’s where birth companions come in. Guided strongly by intuition, spirit, earth medicine and compassion, birth companions can act as a support resource, not only for the pregnant person, but for the midwife, as well.
A birth companion’s main priority is creating a relaxed and affirming experience of birth and early parenting, for the pregnant person and their baby. This will often include discussion around spiritual experience, because birth is one of the biggest ones! As resistance to the currently regulated and colonial institution of birth that encourages ‘being told how to birth’ as opposed to ‘allowing the body to birth,’ birth companions will act as a support for basic needs that can lead to a more satisfied mental and emotional state for the pregnant person; for a lot of folx in Indigenous and black communities, we have an array of social impacts that are proven to decrease our access to safe, healthy and culturally relevant birth, in addition to shorter life expectancies after birth than non-black or non-Indigenous folx. These pieces, and the ways in which to mitigate them, need to be considered and acknowledged when supporting IBPOC folx at this right of passage. Birth companion’s of colour are often trained to do just that; bringing ancestral or old knowledge; evidence based, scientific information; an advocate’s voice and an intuitive sense that has been long respected by the teachings in our lineages as IBPOC folx.
Birth companion’s hold to the traditional experience of birthing, that included our family’s generations, our sistren, our closest friends and our community. Recognizing that although one’s body inherently knows how to birth, birth is not solely about birth. It is about death. It is about change. It is about confrontation of one’s Self. It is about the continuation of an ancestral herstory. It is about joy. It is about understanding pain. It is about healing. We cannot heal in isolation and we should not have to birth alone. We deserve to uphold the rituals of our ancestors and evolve them for our communities today. A major part of reproductive justice is having a birthing experience that self-directed, culturally relevant and inclusive of the community that will be present in the raising of that child.
Here are some supports that community can offer to support a pregnant individual who may not have access to a birth companion:
- A healthy blood pressure level is considered less than 120 systolic and less than 80 diastolic; many black folx are reported as having a high blood pressure due to the systemic, institutional and individual effects of racism, therefore a blood pressure cuff is key in monitoring blood pressure to reduce chance of miscarriage, heart attack and stroke
- A fetoscope is key in the late 1st and subsequent trimesters to monitor the heart rate of the baby when access to an ultrasound is limited
Prenatal vitamins can be accessed over-the-counter, but here are some ways to incorporate into your diet:
- Protein: beans, legumes, lean meat, fish, poultry, egg whites, nuts and tempeh
- Carbs: rice, whole grain breads, vegetables, potatoes
- Calcium: salmon or sardines with the bones, sorrel, okra, onion leaves, spinach, yogurt, milk, cheese
- Iron: mustard greens, moringa, kale, spinach, lean red meat, blue green algaes
- Vit A: carrots, butternut squash, yam, cod liver oil, sweet potatoe.
- Vit C: citrus fruit, broccoli, tomatoes, green peppers
- Vit B6: bananas, whole grains, chicken and nutritional yeast
- Vit B12: nutritional yeast, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, meat, fish and poultry
- Vit D: sunshine, dairy, whole grains, cereals
- Folic acid: collards, swiss chard, callaloo, dark yellow fruits, beans, peas and nuts
- Fat: olive oil, coconut oil, whole-milk products, nuts, meats
When supporting someone with plant based remedies, it is necessary to have a non-judgemental perspective of an individual’s medicinal care choices to support their body. Included in this, is ensuring that the medicines you are offering do not interfere negatively with their established medicinal care routine and their body’s needs. If you wish to offer these medicines forward, be sure you are someone who has been offered this individual’s care and medicine routine.
Brew Instructions for teas:
- steep ½ tsp of each medicine, per 1 cup serving, in boiling water for 15 mins and serve
- Bay leaf is an ideal support medicine for those who have diabetes; use as seasoning in cooking.
- Ginger, chamomile and peppermint tea will help reduce nausea, while the anti-inflammatory properties in ginger will reduce cramping; use ginger in cooking, as well as tea.
- Lemon Balm tea will help to calm the nervous system and mind.
- Blessed thistle, fennel seed, red clover and borage tea will aid in milk production for those who wish to chestfeed.
- Red raspberry, cerasee vine leaf and nettle tea will help clear and tone the uterus, allowing for more ease with contractions and a less painful labor and help the uterus cleanse after birth. This are also useful in clearing the body after a miscarriage or the birth of a sleeping baby.
- Blue cohosh tea can stimulate contractions and can clear the uterus when combined with burdock, after a miscarriage or the birth of a sleeping baby.
- Lemon balm tea with rose, lavender, motherwort, verain, kava kava and st. john’s wort can help support someone experiencing postpartum depression; st. john’s wort is a contraindication for someone taking antidepressants and someone who is on T; for these folx, passionflower is a lovely alternative to offer.
- Isolation is a major influencing factor on folx experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, postpartum depression; be present with the parents of the newborn – hang out, help out, ki-ki, and get on! Community is care.
- If a sleeping baby is born, erecting an ancestor altar for them is a way for the family to continue recognizing and showing appreciation for their entrance into the parent(s) life, even if momentarily.
- Calendula, shepherd’s purse (stops hemorrhaging), plantain leaf (all suitable for wound care), st. john’s wort and comfrey leaf ( both suitable for joint pains, external uterine massage, and in a hot, 6-weeks-postpartum bath) are key topical poultices, teas or oils to use for healing the perineum; shepherd’s purse, nettle and cerasee vine leaf teas are also key for decreasing postpartum bleeding.
- Epazote or wormseed oil is wonderful for postpartum, full body massage on the person who just gave birth, while an olive oil infused with calendula, safflower or lavender can be ideal for maintaining the healthy vermix on baby’s newborn skin, while ensuring they can get clean. This can be combined with castile soap or black soap at 48 hours postpartum.
- Keep sitting postures with the back straight, legs widened and on firm surfaces, to reduce back labor; if back labor occurs, having the pregnant person get on four legs and pressing in and down on the space where the tailbone is found, can assist with reducing pain
- Dancing through birth can help reduce pain; bust a wine or work a twerk to bring baby into this world with less pain and definitely more fun
- When baby starts to crown, if the pregnant person would like, guide their hand to their perineum to touch baby’s head, this way they can see just how close they are to meeting the new human they brought into this life!
Cassandra is a queer medicine womxn & full circle birth companion/doula, and the founder of Crystal Root & Conjure. Her writing has been published in Illustrated Impact, Briarpatch Magazine and The Peak’s Medicine Issue, along with being a regular contributor to Wear Your Voice Magazine’s ‘Healing & Magick’ column.
Amir Khadar is a non-binary West African multidisciplinary artist from Minneapolis Minnesota. For them, art is a space to rationalize their feelings as a marginalized individual, and ultimately facilitate healing from systematic oppression. Their artwork examines historical and contemporary issues facing the black community, as well as the nuances and beauty inside of being black.