How we come into this world, how we are ushered in, met, hopefully embraced upon our arrival, impacts the whole of our time on this Earth.
This spring, I shared part of my story and how I ended up working on the birth center at the Black Maternal Health Week event at Tufts University, and I was gently reminded by my advisors to should share it here too, so those of you I haven’t met yet, know a bit about who’s behind the day-to-day work on Neighborhood Birth Center.
I’ll start by saying the original idea for a Boston birth center belongs to midwives, organizers, activists, and leaders who came together in the early 80s in response to the concentration of maternal and infant death in Boston’s Black neighborhoods. These leaders envisioned a community-designed, out-of-hospital option for midwifery care, and while they faced some pushback, their dream of a freestanding birth center in Boston never died. I feel blessed to have come into their path and to be in partnership with them as we rebirth this project.
Beginning with my ancestors
I am the great granddaughter of Octavia, the granddaughter of Simone and Annie, and the daughter of Claudette. My mother and great-grandmother are/were midwives. I was born to a straight white cis woman in Connecticut in 1979. Her whiteness certainly influenced and advantaged her pregnancy experiences and birth outcome. And still she had a terrible experience being othered at that hospital 40 years ago because she was single and poor, and because I was Black. Her birth plan was laughed at, her best friend (a woman) was not allowed in the room initially, and when she begged to keep me by her side postpartum, they brushed her off as tired and wheeled me away, eventually suggesting a psych consult when she couldn’t stop crying.
Seven years later, she gave birth at home to my sister and then two years after that to my brother. The experiences of their births transformed both of us – she became a doula and later a Certified Nurse Midwife, and I, by age 9, had a strong narrative and worldview about pregnancy and birth.
Falling for Boston
When I graduated from Umass Amherst, with a degree in Women’s Studies and Legal Studies, I knew I wasn’t going back to rural CT, but the country mouse in me wasn’t ready for NYC. So, I moved to Boston with a plan to be here for one year then move to California or abroad for grad school. I began working as a women’s health case manager at Brookside Community Health Center in Jamaica Plain on a federally-funded effort called REACH 2010 to address racial health inequities. This was part of the city’s ongoing efforts, like the Fetal Infant Mortality Review of the late 90s, to research and address social factors that contribute to better health outcomes for white residents and poorer health outcomes for Boston’s communities of color. In spite of frequent “threats” to relocate, I spent the next 12 years at the Boston Public Health Commission, during which time, earned a master’s degree from Boston University School of Public Health in maternal and child health and co-founded the Center for Health Equity and Social Justice. Accepting Boston as home, I bought a condo in Dorchester and married a few years later.
Home birth, please.
I always knew I wanted to birth my children at home, but my partner needed some convincing, so we explored important conversations about our experiences, beliefs, and worldviews. And when pregnant in 2012, we began navigating our way in (around? through?) the very white home birth culture in Boston. From my experience in public health, I was painfully clear that women of color have poorer birth outcomes even with “protective factors.” (Meaning, even though I was married (to a man), owned a home, had a graduate degree, and earned a good salary working for the city, none of this would necessarily protect me or baby from a bad outcome.) I also knew that when birth is revered as a sacred process and the pregnant person is centered, the experience has the power to transform and heal individuals, families, and communities.
In the spring of 2013, our daughter was born at home in Dorchester. My midwife did not arrive on time, so my mother caught her granddaughter! There is a bond between those two that can only be attributed to the sacredness of that moment. I think it’s important to talk about miscarriage too, since our society has a practice of isolating pregnant people before 12 weeks as a way of silencing stories of loss. We experienced two miscarriages before each live birth, including a molar pregnancy. In the fall of 2017, our son was born in our current home in Mattapan. At 6am, after only a few hours of labor, we woke our daughter, then 4.5 years old, and she held me while I birthed her brother in the water minutes later.
Just as my mother’s birth experiences shaped my worldview, and my daughter’s birth shaped that of my husband and I, our son’s birth shaped my daughter’s worldview. (Here is her version of the birth story!) I share my birth stories often and anywhere – I recently told a woman at the hair salon while under the dryers – because I want to be part of a shift in the dominant narrative about birth from being scary and painful to liberating and powerful. The more we lift up powerful stories of birth, the more we normalize the expectation that it can be so – and the more we understand the benefits of a freestanding independent birth center in our midst!
In 2014, I asked Dr. JoAnna Rorie, CNM, my friend and former advisor at BU to help me convene a conversation with Catherine Walker, Elmer Freeman, Gene Declerq, Bob Masters, and some of the other original holders of the vision and history of a Roxbury birth center. We agreed that it was time to relaunch this idea of a Boston birth center, armed with more data about safety and healthcare savings data and with the support of and lessons from a growing number of freestanding birth centers across the country.
Now, I don’t want the story of my mom’s hospital experience, my choice of home birth, and my work on the birth center to lead anyone to think I’m anti-hospital. I think it’s important to state that very clearly. What I believe is that people deserve choices about what kind of care to engage in during pregnancy, labor, birth, and the postpartum period. I am grateful that we live among world-renowned hospitals – grateful that my dear friend, who was induced recently at 37 weeks because of preeclampsia, is healthy and thriving with her baby. I’m grateful for the access to high tech and highly skilled care available to pregnant and birthing people in and around Boston who need intervention. I do think hospitals have a lot of work to do to improve outcomes, and also I know that’s not going to happen by simply creating community programs or diversifying hires, so I’m also grateful that some of my most trusted friends and colleagues are working hard from within those systems to advance equity.
Do you see what I see?
When I close my eyes, I can feel the energy of Neighborhood Birth Center – I see a welcoming, joyful place to relax and to connect, a space to be seen and to see each other. I see an organization operationalizing equity in everything from who we contract with, to how the organization is governed, to who entrusts us with their care during the most powerful transformational time of pregnancy and birth. When I listen closely, I can hear children asking questions about bellies and boobies, answered lovingly by caring adults aware of their simultaneous transformation to big sibling and their expanding worldview. I feel a calmness in the space that comes with people experiencing healthcare where our full selves (our bodies, our traumas, our identities, our relationships) are honored and belong.
There’s one thing I have become increasingly clear about as I’ve tinkered away at this over the last few years: a birth center cannot open on the strength of volunteers and good will alone. There’s a powerful circle of people who share this vision with me – a volunteer board of directors and senior advisors, followers on social media, and my husband who is definitely a doula to this project, understanding the never-ending to do list of non-profit start up. We are readying ourselves for the next phase which will require significant investments of time, money, trust, partnership, and many hearts and minds working collaboratively to co-create this most special space. In addition to the 5-10hours a week I try to carve out for the birth center, I work full time doing leadership development and capacity building for Human Impact Partners, a national nonprofit based in Oakland, CA, and I do freelance consulting with public health organizations working to advance racial equity. I’m proud to say that I’m still breastfeeding my 21month old, and that my 6 year old builds LEGO birth centers for snails and barbies alike. And when I get a break, I still retreat to the country – and can be found jumping in a northern New England lake or at the Rhode Island shore with my family.