“Flame of the Forest: Mother Love” by Jennifer Mourin.
Tamika Middleton and Laura Perez sat down with Michelle Foy to talk about how they are working to bring alternative birthing options to working class communities of color.
Michelle Foy: What is traditional childbirthing and midwifery? Can you speak about histories of midwifery in your families and communities?
Tamika Middleton: Traditional childbearing and childbirthing means different things to different people. The philosophy of midwifery that I use, historically, is the role of the midwife as a facilitator of birth and as a keeper of birth. She was also the keeper of the processes, safety and health of the family in the period surrounding the birth.
In the Black community, midwives were fundamental. Given rampant poverty and going back to the time of enslavement, there was a need to protect the family in order to ensure that we had healthy babies. What you found especially in the South, but other places as well, was Black midwives doing other things, like making sure you have clean clothes, making sure you have food to eat, making sure you have an environment you can birth inside of. Especially working within low-income communities that are least likely to have midwives, working as doulas, we’re doing a lot of that work as well as providing pro-bono services.
In terms of my own family—my grandmother had seven children, all of them were born at home, except my mom who was born in the hospital. My grandmother was very excited to hear that I was having my baby at home with a midwife.
I’m from the Sea Islands, which were isolated from the colonies of South Carolina. In the 1950s bridges were built which connected St. Helena [one of the Sea Islands] to South Carolina. Until then our folks were cut off from those services and midwifery survived much longer as a result, as did a lot of other traditions, specifically African traditions.
Laura Perez: When I think about traditional midwifery and traditional childbirth—I think about woman-centered care. It’s about women as holders of knowledge, about what it means to be a mother, to raise a child, but really what it means to be someone who is responsible for the community. I’m thinking about curanderas and other Latin American traditions. The curanderas were the folks that someone would come to for counsel—either to get pregnant, potentially to end a pregnancy, to have a healthy pregnancy, or to help with the birth and to help afterwards. The curanderas are connected with the family and the mama. What I love about traditional midwifery care is that the origin is holistic. It’s not just about symptoms, and what can I throw at your symptoms, but finding out what’s going on in your life, in your family, where is your happiness, what are your stressors? What is your state of mind, where’s your attention, what are you pleased about your current situation, or do you have anxiety about it? Parteras and curanderas would take that all of that into account to take care of a mama, to be sure that all the pieces are balanced. They were integral people in the community. It wasn’t just about someone who knows how to birth a baby, but how to keep the whole community healthy.
My personal history—my grandmother was not a midwife, but she knew a lot about plantitas, what they do, and what they’re good for. I am working to get that back in my life now. There’s a respect and knowledge about how we work with what we have, what’s in the backyard, what you want to have nearby to address whatever it is that’s going on, something you don’t have to go to the store for.
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