Ever since she was a little girl, Shafia Monroe knew she wanted to care for others.
“I wanted to be an airline stewardess and a veterinarian,” Monroe recalls. “Even in our childhood we’re sometimes being groomed for our life’s work.”
What Monroe is doing today doesn’t stray far from those basic themes of shepherding people and taking care of the vulnerable: She’s a renowned midwife; writer; and the founder, president, and CEO of the International Center for Traditional Childbearing (ICTC).
Monroe got her start working as a nurse’s aide in Boston City Hospital when she was 17. She asked to be put on the labor and delivery floor, but there weren’t any positions available. Instead she was placed on the postpartum floor where she worked for a year and absolutely loved it.
“Back then, in Boston City Hospital, women of color weren’t having natural or empowering birthing experiences,” she says now. “Poverty, lack of choice, and minimal access to culturally competent health care providers made it difficult for many [to do so]. But they were still so strong. I was able to talk to so many mothers at night who were in their room awake with their babies, giving me their life stories. I learned so much about pregnancy and black women’s health by their storytelling.”
While many of the women’s stories were painful, hearing about their struggles only reaffirmed her drive to become a midwife.
Monroe has provided midwifery care to hundreds of women and has taught parenting to even more. She’s launching her own consulting company to increase cultural competency around birth, working on her memoir, shaping health policy, and traveling all over the country to offer doula trainings with ICTC. And somehow, she still finds time to attend three births a year.
Monroe spoke with mater mea about what she has learned along the way, how she achieves work/life balance, and her advice to others aspiring to do birth work.
Can you tell us how you first learned about midwives?
I found out about midwifery when I was 16 years old. My mother had died and I moved in with another family. The mother happened to be pregnant, and I was very interested. She gave me a book called Emergency Childbirth for Fathers. I memorized that book, and she said, “You should be an obstetrician. You are really interested in this work.”
I researched and learned about the black midwives of the South [who] came here and kept people alive during slavery, through Jim Crow, [and] up until the late 1960s. [They] continue this work today in hospital and home settings. I had never heard of all that, and I got so excited. I figured I would become a nurse’s aide in the maternity ward as the first step.
I love being a change agent and a motivator.
After that I got involved with the Massachusetts Midwives Alliance, who were training women to become midwives. At the same time, I wanted to find midwives [who] looked like me, so I kept researching and finally came across midwives from the Congo, Alabama, and Pakistan. Between this collaboration [with] all these midwives of color, I was very blessed and had a very exciting orientation to what midwifery was from a cultural and international perspective.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I am a midwife, but I am also the CEO of an international organization [ICTC]. So my normal day has changed. It’s no longer seeing pregnant patients and running to a birth. Now, I wake up and go to policy meetings that set the agenda on how midwifery will be regulated in this country. My day is spent going to funding meetings, making sure resources come into communities that don’t often have access, and seeing what’s happening [with midwifery] in different states around the country. In between that, I’m training doulas—we’ve trained 1,500 doulas since 2002. I [also] have a couple of moms [who] are due to have babies. I check on them [and] see how far along they are, what their needs are, [and] make home visits. Then [I] get that wonderful phone call and help them deliver their child.
What is your favorite part of the work you do?
I love educating the community. I love seeing their smiles because they’re happy to hear the information we’re providing. I love empowering people so that they can stand on their own, advocate for themselves, and know that they have rights. Then they can use this philosophy not just around birth, but around quality of life in general. If a woman is empowered around her birth, she’s empowered about where she’s going to live, what she’s going to subject herself to, what kind of food she’s going to eat, what schools her children will go to, what relationships she’ll be involved in… I really believe that this is a platform for quality of life. I love being a change agent and a motivator.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your career?
The most challenging is not having the social platform or resources to run a national ad campaign. We work at a grassroots level: going into the city where the people are, going into their communities, training 13-20 women at a time. It’s a slow process. Babies are dying—there’s a high infant mortality rate for women of color. Their babies are born too soon and too small, and we can change that by educating ourselves, using doulas, becoming midwives, and then telling our legislators that we expect more.
The other challenge is the financial piece. We rely heavily on our constituents. How do you get the public to continue to support you? It’s been challenging, trying to get our branding to a place that resonates with everybody, whether you have children or not. There is an African proverb that says “We’re all the village.” You don’t have to have children to care. This is a human rights issue—everyone needs to be involved so we can have a good future. Who comes in today can save us tomorrow.
This is a human rights issue—everyone needs to be involved so we can have a good future.
What advice would you offer someone who wanted to get into birth work?
Look at your childhood dreams, and look at how you’ve been called to this work. Value it, own it, and go forward. Read as much as you can, find a good school that meets your needs, [and] don’t be shy. Let people know what you need. Join an organization: There’s MANA (Midwives Alliance of North America), ICTC, ACNM (American College of Nurse Midwives), there’s so many organizations. Look into organizations that are familiar with black reproductive issues, and our history.
How do you maintain work-life balance?
I work about 80 hours a week, I’m not even kidding. But I have a great family: seven children, nine grandchildren, and an amazing husband.
I grow food, I walk barefoot in my garden on purpose. I go for a walk at least every other day—a long, good hour walk. I journal, I love to write. I eat organic only, I cook meals from scratch, I drink my eight cups of water.
But, I think what balances me most is that I love what I do, and I believe I’m supposed to be doing it.
What’s next on your horizon? What are you looking forward to?
We’re getting ready for our 9th International Black Midwives and Healers Conference in Portland, Oregon next year. People are coming from South Africa, Aborigines from Australia, Afro-Colombians… It’s going to be huge. We’re looking to have a successful conference [and] bring midwives of color together to strategize the future of midwifery and how we’re going to make sure that all women around the world have a safe birth.
I’m looking forward to replacing myself. I’ve spent a lot of time with this organization. By the time I’m 60, I’m hoping I can go back to being a midwife. That’s one of my goals. Just catch babies and write books.