Pregnancy and childbirth can be a roller coaster of emotions for anyone, but the experience can be especially daunting for Black, Indigenous, Latine, and other birthing people of color. We don’t have to go through the numbers again: it seems like everyone is acknowledging this country’s maternal health crisis but not doing nearly enough to stop it.
But Open Arms is. Our mission to improve maternal and infant health outcomes is fueled, in part, by our staff’s lived experiences. Many of us know first-hand the difference culturally matched care, education, and advocacy for birthing people can make. In some cases, it can be the difference between life and death.
Finding Open Arms
“I used to hear about doulas in the community,” said Qadra, now one of our Community-based Outreach Doulas for the Somali community. “My nieces are nurses, and their hospital had some doula services. When I was pregnant with Bilal, I had a lot of anxiety about the birth and heard about Hawa (Egal, one of Open Arms’ Community-based Outreach Doulas) through word of mouth in the community. I got her number and reached out. I didn’t know if I qualified for Open Arms’ services or if would get in. I didn’t really think I needed it, but somehow, I sensed maybe I did. I was just going through a lot at the time.”
Her anxiety was understandably exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which created unprecedented uncertainty and fears around pregnancy and childbirth for parents. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the general sense of anxiety was the biggest difference in anxieties between this birth and my other births,” she said.
Thankfully, Qadra found Open Arms and received the support she needed. But what if she didn’t? “I wish I knew I qualified before,” she says. “I was working so I didn’t even try. I wish I contacted just to see even if my insurance would cover a doula. I don’t think insurance [companies] are telling people about these services. I think the long-term benefits of being enrolled in the Community-based Outreach Doula program for myself and my baby are priceless.”
In Qadra’s previous birth, she felt a tremendous lack of empathy after a traumatic experience with her baby’s heart monitor. She was alone and anxious, putting the blame on herself for not “being stronger.” She expressed that if she had a doula then, her experience would have been different. Having someone there to advocate for her and her baby would have made all the difference.
Culturally Matched Care
Qadra’s experience with Open Arms was “incredible.” “My doula, Hawa, was educated and caring,” she says. “She helped me improve my childbirth experience by explaining what a birthing plan is and creating one with me. She asked me a lot of questions that I never thought about before. The position I wanted to be in when I have my baby; I didn’t even think standing or crouching position was an option for me. She explained that I can have the Quran playing in the background. One word I would use is magical because of all the rights I had during my birth that I didn’t know about before.”
As someone who speaks Somali as her first language, Qadra emphasizes the importance of culturally matched care. “Having someone that understands my culture and speaks Somali was important to me because even though my English is good, there are medical terms that I don’t understand,” she said.
Qadra received the emotional support she needed during a challenging time for any family but having a doula should not be a luxury. “It was good to have someone who understood the medical system and she was advocating for me,” she said. “I feel like if I didn’t have Hawa I would have been too anxious and nervous, it may have caused me to have medical issues.”
Recruiting Community Health Workers
Qadra’s positive experience with Open Arms inspired her to become a Community-based Outreach Doula herself. “I had Bilal in February and a few months later, I felt like I got a lot of support that was needed from Open Arms and felt that I wanted to give back to the community,” she said. “I felt like I could do it too, so I decided to take the doula training with Open Arms.”
As Open Arms has grown in recent years, we have been committed to investing resources into developing a trained workforce of birthworkers of color. Shafia Monroe is one of the valuable partners we have worked with to provide free training to community members who are interested in pursuing a career as a doula, lactation peer counselor, or childbirth educator. The birthworker industry is overwhelmingly White, highlighting an urgent need to invest in making the field more diverse so that pregnant people have the option to receive care from someone who can relate to their lived experiences.
Recruiting and training doulas like Qadra plays a crucial role in Open Arms’ strategy to improve maternal health outcomes in the communities we serve, but we know that work shouldn’t encompass everything in a person’s life. “Working here is also magical because I see how close-knit everyone is. Everyone seems to really care about each other’s well-being,” said Qadra.
“I worked for 17 years at my previous job, always working more than 8 hours a day. It is stressful to feel like nothing is ever done. There was no type of reflective support or getting what I needed for work-life balance. I love having the flexibility of working at Open Arms. That is what led to me leaving my job before. I wasn’t planning to work because I knew they weren’t going to give me the flexibility I needed. Now, I can work the hours I’m available to do my work. It feels like a huge weight was lifted.”