Black women are taking control of the narrative around the Black maternal health crisis.
The numbers are so staggering they’ve made national news many times over. We know them by heartbreak: Black women are 3-4x more likely to die from childbirth and pregnancy-related causes, and Black infants are 2.2x more likely to die than their white counterparts.
We know the problem, but what’s being done about it? Black Mamas Matter Alliance is an organization that’s working to change policy and shift the culture around Black moms and maternal health outcome. There’s the inspiring news that there’s now a Black Maternal Health Caucus (because Black women get things done).
And then there are a group of women who are working with pregnant people in their communities to give them the empowered birth experiences they deserve and that should be their right: I’m talking about Black midwives and doulas.
Now, only “10% of U.S. births involve midwives, far behind other industrialized countries, where midwives participate in half or more of all deliveries,” according to ScienceDaily. But midwifery used to be a part of everyday life for centuries. Women like South Carolinian Maude Callen provided access to healthcare to thousands of people in their communities before the medical community lobbied to make midwifery nearly obsolete.
It’s taken a crisis to bring us back to this ancestral knowledge.
Having access to midwifery care has been linked to improved birth outcomes for Black women and their children. Though “fewer than 2% of midwives in the United States are Black,” journalist Dani McClain writes In her book We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, there is a rise in Black women becoming midwives and that will hopefully boost that number. And there’s a number of state and federal legislation in the works to make midwifery care fall under the services Medicare covers.
Although every birth won’t have a midwife catching the baby, all birthing people can benefit from the call to safe, respectful, and empowered births this group of birth workers is advocating for.
I asked seven Black midwives and midwives-in-training to share how they came to midwifery. Here are their stories.
I was born at home and had been passively exposed to the care that midwives give for pregnancy and birth throughout my childhood, but it was not always my dream. I knew that becoming a doctor was not my calling and did many other things before I was reintroduced to midwifery. I worked in nonprofit housing, studied herbal healing and African spiritualities, and was even a high-school teacher in NYC before I decided to become a midwife.
When a friend was planning a home birth, she introduced me to her midwife who became my mentor. It took many months of research and discussing with other midwives for me to even figure out the whats and hows. I learned that midwives could care for women for a whole range of things, including regular gynecological care, birth control, and some even provide abortion services.
Eventually, I decided that the path of nurse-midwifery was best for my family and me. From a career perspective, I had a longing to be a in a field where I got to do a few specific things: 1) be a guide to women seeking health and wellness; 2) be a voice in support of personal empowerment through the major biological life moments that change our lives; and 3) call upon the deep use of my heart, hands, spirit, and intellect.
I began taking courses to apply for nursing school and became pregnant with my first child during that time. I fell in love with the journey of being a mother, which added another layer of meaning to my studies. I also got to spend time learning about the histories of Black midwifery and nursing in the South, which made me feel a palpable sense of pride. When I was finally in a position to apply for graduate school, I had also made a major pivot in my life and work into advocacy for families with a strong focus on breastfeeding.
My midwifery care is informed by a unshakable belief in the power of women and in an understanding of how intersecting social forces can come to bear on the lives of the families I serve. It is about holding space for women to be heard and remember their power as well as about providing healthcare and being a public advocate. So, this is a long way of saying that I wanted to become a midwife because it feels like a pure expression and practice of creating the world and future I want to see for women.
—Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka // Charlotte, North Carolina
As otherworldly as this may seem, I was first led to midwifery as a newborn and through divination: My parents were told that I was destined to become a midwife.
Over the course of my young life, my family forgot about this specific declaration and midwifery reintroduced itself to me through the work of a family friend. Her journey into the profession sparked my interest. I was able to learn and attend a home birth, which helped to solidify my desire to become a midwife.
I eventually went to nursing school and became a nurse on a labor and delivery unit. After awhile the babies kept birthing themselves under my care and that was when I realized that it was time for me to transition from nurse to midwife.
Although the spiritual undercurrent of midwifery plays a huge factor in my life, midwifery is a practice and concept that I am still learning and building upon every day. The more I expose myself to the work of other birthworkers and scholars, the more my thoughts about midwifery evolve and expand for the better.
For me, there is something innately radical and revolutionary about being a midwife. The humanistic act of listening, being present, and holding space for others seems rather simple but has been proven to have profound effects in the healthcare setting. In a society where specific individuals are marginalized for various reasons, midwifery acts as a buffer saving many from experiencing feelings of neglect, coercion, and abuse by the larger medical system. In an effort to redefine birth, to reclaim the legacy of the traditional black midwife, and to treat others as whole human beings, I embrace the role of the midwife.
—Makeda Rambert // Silver Spring, Maryland
I decided to become a midwife because I think that Black women deserve better.
I am pro-choice, pro-trans and queer people.
My midwifery model is to listen and develop a plan with you. I think that being thorough is a must in a broken health care system. I became a midwife to take time to explore, advocate, and listen to the experiences of people of color. I believe that Black women and their bodies are important. Because their bodies are important, I take time with my patients and their families. As a midwife in the deep South, I believe that people of color’s lives matter. That means, their entire being matters because racism and poverty are real. Their children, housing situation, food, their reproductive desires. It all matters!
I am eternally grateful that the universe choose me to be doing this amazing work.
—Lodz Joseph // Albany, Georgia
I became a midwife because I saw a huge need in our community.
When I was a grad student in my medical anthropology program, I worked on an infant mortality project called Community Voices, which was funded by The March of Dimes. The purpose of the project was to educate Black families about infant mortality. At that time Memphis had the highest infant mortality rates in the country—and they are still the highest in the state.
I worked on the evaluation piece of the Community Voices project and also interviewed families. It broke my heart to hear of all the loss these families had experienced. So I started looking for ways I could help families have better pregnancy outcomes. There were very few midwives in Memphis and none of them were women of color. So becoming a midwife seemed like what I was being called to do.
What I love most about being a midwife is taking care of the wonderful women and families in my community. I love advocating for women and educating women, families, and communities. I love that the women I serve go on to become advocates and a community resource for the community as well. Many of the women I take care of now volunteer with us and provide support for other women and their families.
We are building our own village.
—Nikisha Grayson // Memphis, Tennessee
For me, midwifery is a calling. I feel that my upbringing as third-culture kid living overseas, my experience serving a Somali friend during her pregnancy and birth here in the U.S., and then my own births while living in Guam and Puerto Rico, have made me extremely sensitive to the fact that religious, traditional, and cultural beliefs greatly influence maternal and infant well-being. I feel that my entire life has been molding and ushering me toward this path.
I have a deep desire to be a community midwife that doesn’t simply “deliver babies,” but is a lifelong constant in the life of her clients. I hope to encourage more Black women to choose midwifery care and take charge of the birth they want. I know firsthand that the type of care a woman receives, the connection she feels to her provider, and the outcome of her birth are elements that will stick with her for the rest of her life.
I want to be an active advocate for culturally-sensitive maternity care here in the U.S., and around the globe, by training future midwives in countries [with fewer resources] to be leaders and critical players in reducing maternal and infant mortality in their homeland.
—Anjelica Malone // Seattle, Washington
I am studying to become a midwife at Frontier Nursing University. I’ve wanted to be a midwife since I was a pre-teen, and after years of being a doula/nurse/educator/lactation consultant, it’s finally time. I want to improve the maternal-child health indicators most susceptible to racial disparities in my community, and help ALL birthers have positive experiences!
—Jamilla Walker // Greensboro, North Carolina
I’ll be honest and say that at first I had no intention of becoming a midwife. I was a single mother and as a birth and postpartum Doula, I just could not envision my life as a midwife. But, as a doula, I got tired of seeing and hearing the lies mothers were being told in the normal institutional setting. After my own amazing water birth at home with true midwives, I knew that this was my calling.
The care I received was impartial and completely personalized, which was NOT what I experienced from my care in a large institutional care setting even with midwives. I truly appreciated the personalized care that addressed my background growing up being of mixed race.
The amazing gift of life never ceases to amaze me. I believe that parents are empowered when they come into care with a midwife because she views them as a unique family. Families choosing home birth often feel they are going against the norm. They have to build their confidence in their own body, their goals and desires, and the knowledge that they are the true manager of their care—after all, women know their bodies better than any care provider ever will. My goal is to encourage and support that empowerment. Every family deserves to have great care. The Midwifery Model of Care.