It is so hard to know what to say on Mother’s Day this year, as it has taken a form we have never seen before. We can only pray and or remember what it means to be near those we call our mothers, or those who have sheltered us from storms or been our life-guardians and caretakers, who may have birthed us or stood in for another.

What I do know is that many doulas are conflicted, as executive orders change every other day – the right to have a birth partner, which is essential, is toggled back and forth between life and death itself. Skin-to-skin contact between babies and their mothers is debated by the CDC and WHO, and yet we know breastfeeding can offset the virus or early signs of it.

As many women have died in labor, childbirth, and post-partum over the course of the past 50+ days, what I hear from their doulas and birth partners and midwives is lament in tandem with rage.

I know that for many, protecting themselves can often be a hard but deliberate choice, when needing to be by the side of a laboring person who may be left alone during one of the most sacred – and yet, now, with COVID-19, dangerous times of exposure.

It is with much trepidation and caution that many doulas are moving forward. It is also with fierce and unwavering commitment (and deep prayer) that many press on. Some are ripping off N95 masks and offering the warm hand, counterpressure, and safe birth that we deem absolutely necessary. No birth worker feels the same, but collectively, the keepers of birth are ultimately navigating the spellbinding panic that comes with holding much responsibility, and much compassion, and much love for the rights and wholeness of every laboring person in this moment.

The death of Amber Isaac at Montefiore Hospital (in the Bronx) this past week has been a nightmare. The continuous news and visual of birthing women surrounded by medical personnel in masks will forever change all of us.

The Sexual Abuse to Maternal Mortality Pipeline Book
Sevonna Brown is author of The Sexual Abuse to Maternal Mortality Pipeline, which looks at issues including traumatization within maternal health care.

National and international doula agencies have created toolkits for doulas, WHO has created tons of graphics to normalize birth in these times. All of it is ever-shifting and changing in these times.

Local doula organizations are working day in and out to train doulas in virtual care and train nurses in compassionate models of care during COVID, especially to center and labor alongside communities of color.

Every survivor giving birth in these dark hours, deserves the support of the tools, the individuals, and the wisdoms she trust most to get her from this stage of her life to the next.

What I will say is this: women still deserve and absolutely need choice, whether that is who IS or who is NOT in the room, delayed cord clamping, skin-to-skin contact, nursing or feeding, vitamin K or not, etc., etc., etc. Doulas are essential – and they can be supportive in person or virtually or by a lit candle or another way.

Keeping us all safe during this time is absolutely necessary.  But this moment not only calls each of us to not only radically imagine, but to strategize – to be wise, to move with our grandmother’s hands, to respond with intuition and care, and deep listening and observation – to advocate through petitions and call the hospitals to demand what all women truly need and deserve.

As New York State launches the COVID-19 Maternal Mortality Task Force, women are now navigating policies, hospital by hospital. And doulas are doing the same.

What we know is that women will continue to give birth, that the cracks in the system are exposed, that the safety and dignity required for birth will take more than doulas and midwives, and that the culture of health has to completely change, not just due to COVID, but due to all of the women who, day in and out, deserve more, deserve to experience their full power in healthy and safe environments, and deserve birth without fear.

This pandemic is exacerbating existing issues, like the shutting down of clinics and maternity wards and the crisis that already is maternal mortality in communities across the country and the globe. What we can do is to continue to carry the frontline workers through this crisis. Keep demanding the structural and institutional change that we have been calling for, for decades.

We can push for hope and look to the doulas, birth workers, and midwives who are the lighthouses in these times, not just as they go to individual births, but as they call for the dignity and justice every woman deserves when birthing or crossing through the life cycle continuum. We can continue to tap into what knowledge we are holding with our ear to the ground, as our doula and midwife sistren dispatch and deploy each night and early morning.

Sevonna Brown, is an author, doula educator, and Associate Executive Director of Black Women’s Blueprint, an organization centered on ending violence against women and girls.

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