forward & interview by Carolina Meurkens, photography by Joana Meurkens
Pregnancy is always a journey, but being pregnant during a pandemic is no easy task. Despite the world falling apart around me, when I found out I was pregnant in June, I was elated. I never thought I would be starting a family at 25, but I’ve found so much joy in following the direction life takes me in. Pregnancy has been an opportunity to pause, reflect on my relationship with my body and what values I want to pass onto my child. Given the challenges of the pandemic and the dangers facing Black women, I started researching midwifery and doulas and considering other options to birthing in the medical industrial complex. If you are pregnant, plan to have a child one day or not, hearing the stories of birth workers is important for everyone, because we all come from someone and supporting birthing people is essential in creating socially connected and healthy communities. In this series, I’ll be interviewing Black birth workers (doulas and midwives) and shedding light on the importance of bringing the conversation of birth into mainstream narratives. In Part One of Mixed Mag’s Black Birth Worker Interview Series, I talked to NYC based doulas Azuri Jenkins and Blue Andrew. They both opened up to me about how they came into doula work, the spirituality of birth, and more!
Interview with Azuri Jenkins
Can you start off by telling me about yourself, where did you grow up and how did you come into the work you do?
My name’s Azuri Jenkins, I grew up in Harlem but really moved all around uptown. I came into doula work in a couple of ways through my own understanding and my own relationship with my mother. Growing up, I didn’t realize that birth was such a sacred time and process. It’s not like I was taught it in school, you don’t talk about it with your friends or anything. But I grew up in a family that emphasized the importance of health wellness and spiritual fortitude. Especially as a Black Indigenous woman, knowing where I came from, how my ancestors navigated this earth was huge in my home. From a young age, I learned that what I was being taught outside of my home wasn’t always true, which also applied to women’s health and birth work. So I began to learn about my mom’s process and my mom’s birth, and saw how things shifted through generations. Everything was so much more medicalized. I was simultaneously learning about Granny Midwives, and other sacred birthing rites and saw different things. My mom wasn’t really supported and didn’t have the resources that she needed and that affected me pretty deeply. She admitted that if she had the support she wanted or needed during the time tons about the experience would have shifted. Because I saw the ways that my birth trauma was perpetuated through my lived experience, I knew that so many others were probably going through the same thing whether it was conscious or not. Throughout my teens and early 20s, I started to examine the ways trauma is passed down and the way that birth is a portal or a conduit for those traumas if not dealt with properly. And for a while, I realized that I was carrying a lot of that, a lot of my own shit, a lot of my mother’s shit, and a lot of my grandma’s shit. I kept asking myself: what is going on? And I was trying to understand what’s mine and what’s not.
The process of demystifying my own relationship with my body and the wonders of the feminine also drew me to this work. Along with stories I had heard about the ways Indigenous peoples created ritual and ceremony around this sacred time. I was so fascinated! I had always found it wild and simultaneously had a deep fear and reverence for it. I began noticing that the more I honored my body/truth, the calling to the work became clearer. I had been using tools like yoga to understand the body, and my Ifa practice to remind me of how incredibly divine birth is.
Birth work is such important work, but it’s not being spoken about enough, especially in the Black and Brown community. The systemic racism that we are going through in this country is huge, and trying. Especially around birth. If I can assist in any way to lower the outcomes of infant and maternal mortality rates, I want to. If I can plant seeds or shift the ways in which birthing people recognize their power, the ways they can transmit their pain to their children, I want to be able to do so. There is so much healing that our people need.
How do you connect yoga with your doula work? Do you teach prenatal yoga?
I started practicing yoga consistently a little over five years ago. I was pretty lost and found myself searching for a greater understanding of self and peace of mind. I learned well into my practice how to slow down, reflect, observe and face myself. Yoga is a really important part of the birthing process because it prepares you physically, mentally and emotionally for your birth. It allows you to be truly present with what’s coming up through your breath and meditation. Yoga provides the tools to practice post birth and the rest of your life as a mother. When things come up how do you let go, surrender, and show up for yourself? I think these are life long lessons and practices. The prenatal classes I teach are affordable and are centered around using birthing positions within the asanas to prepare the body physically for labor, pain management, and adjusting to the overall woes of a changing body. It’s also an opportunity to get birthing people who may not be physically active regularly to explore their bodies and deepen the connection to their hearts and baby. So that when it comes time for labor, they’re already privied to ways to connect whether it’s through breathing techniques, visualization or movement.
What does your doula work look like? Do you go into hospitals a lot? Do you do home births?
My approach to doula work is one done in a holistic manner. Emphasizing the whole person, being spiritually, physically, emotionally and mentally. Acknowledging their path prior to birth and meeting them where they’re at presently. I have found that on my journey of self discovery, many things like movement, energy work and tapping into the breath really helped me integrate my experiences. So, a lot of what I offer to women are tools such as meditation, visualization, yoga/dance, reiki, and massage. Along with evidence based research to support whatever choices they’d like to make for themselves. Really a conglomeration of things. I’ve seen them all aid women in stepping into their power and trusting their capability to birth. And then caring for them after birth, through encouraging proper nourishment and rest. So that can look like preparing meals, looking after the baby, getting some chores done in the house so that mom doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
As of right now, I’m taking a little hiatus because I am pregnant. But I started off doing work in hospitals, because that’s where the work is really needed. That’s where Black and Brown people really need to be supported and advocated for. Most of those hospital experiences were intense. Many times I felt like my client’s bodyguard, to see women bullied, or coerced into things that aren’t needed is rough. Especially when I am just the doula. But I have also experienced pretty blissful experiences too. I made a decision to stay open to supporting women in hospitals, but I prefer working in birthing centers or homes. Though I haven’t done a home birth yet! It’s deeply rewarding to see women empowering themselves, and choosing to bring their baby’s earthside the way they envision. I believe that all birthing people should be able to have the experience that they desire.
For our readers who aren’t aware, can you briefly explain the difference between a midwife and a doula?
A doula is someone who supports a birthing person physically, emotionally. They are their advocate, but they don’t do anything medically related. So they’re really just a person who holds space for mom and family. This looks different though depending on the type of doula. There are many types of doulas, there are birth doulas, postpartum doulas, death doulas, fertility doulas so on. A midwife is trained in medical support focusing on baby and mom.
With the start rate of Black maternal mortality rates in the U.S, can you speak on the importance of Black midwives and Birth Workers? How do you view your role as a Black birth worker?
Like you said, Black and Brown women are dying at a ridiculous rate in this country. Black midwives and birth workers are super integral in advocating for Black, Brown, and Indigenous women. It’s so important to have someone who will see you, hold space for you and see that you have rights when you are in such a vulnerable space. My role is to just make sure that we feel safe, we are seen, and that women know their bodies and rights. So that they can make informed decisions for themselves. Also as a reminder that we are out here birthing successfully whether we are being written about or not.
Absolutely, which leads into my next question. You spoke a lot about working in birth centers. Do you feel like there’s a stigma around natural birth? And if so, how do you help destigmatize it for your clients and take away the fear for women who are interested in but are skeptical and think it might be unsafe?
Regardless of skin color, here in America we don’t talk about birth. We aren’t taught how to navigate that space. And I know that just in my own family outside of conversations with my mother, there hasn’t been much talk about birthing, really any of the female reproductive health. There’s this feeling that it’s this unspoken thing all women go through and that’s it. So we’re not talking about these things amongst our friends and family, then we’re looking to the media for references and the media is only showing that birth is really painful and really scary. It’s a thing women go through and it just is what it is, you just have to deal with it. So I think that the role of birth workers in general is to keep emphasizing this idea of safety and making sure that a person feels safe and comfortable. And that’s done through giving them the information and facts. When you give someone knowledge a lot of that fear goes away. Because with information, comes power. If you know your options and you know what’s going on with your body, I’ve seen that that takes away some of the fear we’ve been conditioned to have.
Did you face any challenges in terms of becoming a doula? Were there any barriers in your training and like the training?
When I was looking into doula work, it seemed like there would be a financial strain. But I was lucky enough to do two different trainings that were offered to me for free, the first being Ancient Song Doula Services and the second being through DONA. Taking the work from the training and integrating it into real life was jarring. Just because there’s so much information, and I had so many questions! So, having mentorship support would have been helpful when just starting off. It was like, ok I did training and now what? Where do I go from here? I wanted to take this on full time. But I was also in school at the time etc. How do I transition into that? But I really found that the more experience I acquired the less foreign it felt. Also trusting and knowing that for as long there have been people on this planet, women have been birthing. They’ve been supported and they have labored safely. I want to honor that and move with that intention. Remembering as well and honoring the sacred natural process of birth.
Interview with Blue Andrew
Can you tell me about yourself and how you came into birth working?
Ever since I was a little kid, I was really intrigued by bodies and what they do. I’m originally from Detroit and I lived really close to Wayne State University. So on our TV, we’d be able to get the channel that doctors or the residents were watching in medical school. I would see real actual surgeries and one day I saw a birth and I was like, “wait, what! this is amazing.” So that’s where it piqued my interest. I was just always intrigued that a person can create a whole other person. And then when I was in my teenage years, I met a midwife in Detroit. And I was like, “oh, a midwife. Interesting. So you’re not an O.B.” It was a really interesting process learning about midwifery. I really wanted to see a birth in person before I decided whether or not I was going to be a doula. It was really hard to find someone who would let me watch their birth. Until my very, very best friend, years later, who knew that I wanted to be a doula, found out she was pregnant. She called me and I was like, “hey, you’re going to see a birth. I want you to be my doula.” That was the beginning of it all.
That’s such a beautiful story! So when did you start training? Did you have a mentor?
I actually started in a different, nontraditional way. So for my very first birth, I didn’t have any formal training. However, my best friend also had another doula present in the room, which was perfect for me because I learn by doing. I learned everything I could by working alongside this other doula and going to childbirth education classes. But during the birth, I just instinctively knew what to do, we all kind of moved in the same way. And I was living in L.A. at that time, where I did a couple more births in L.A. And they weren’t really hung up on this idea of certification. Then when I moved to New York, I realized that working in the birthsphere here is different from L.A., In the sense that they want certification. So I took a training course and from there, I was looking for community because I’d just moved and that’s how I found an amazing, amazing mentor.
Can you tell me more about your mentor? What was that relationship like? Is it common for people to have mentors as doulas?
I think that everyone should have a mentor if they’re striving to do something in their life, like birth related or not. My mentor Annette has been absolutely amazing and it was really helpful for me, especially coming to New York and not really knowing the politics of the hospital and all of that. She is a person that literally, no matter what time, no matter what question I have, I can call her and have her guide me through whatever particular instance may be happening during a birth, before or after. Why should I have? No matter what I feel like, hey, like do you know about this? It has allowed my confidence to skyrocket, because I know that I have someone supporting me beyond my wildest dreams.
I imagine it’s so important to have someone you can trust to teach you, rather than just like being thrown into it. Can you talk more about what communities you work with? And why are Black birth workers so integral to those communities?
It’s so important to have a birth worker throughout one’s pregnancy journey. One of the important reasons is because I see a lot of times, people just blindly trusting and going along with whatever the O.B. is saying and sometimes they don’t always have your best interest at heart. It could be time or money, there are so many other things that push this machine. When you have a doula, they try to slow that down. We’re not committed to whatever policies and procedures hospitals have, we’re committed to the people that we are helping, supporting, and servicing. We also teach people things that they don’t even know, because they’re getting their stories from other people who’ve had babies who also might not know things about their bodies and what they can say yes or no to. The work of a doula in a way, is about erasing generational trauma and having people be able to create their own stories through their birthing experience.
How do you help birthing people overcome fear in your practice? Are there techniques you teach before birth?
One of the main things that I ask of anybody that I’m going to provide services for, is that they take a childbirth education class. I want them to know what’s going on with their bodies. A lot of people have concerns over pain, because that’s what they’re told from other people who have had babies. One thing that I do is explain the relationship between the mind and pain. When a person gets shot or or injured, their body does things in order to not allow their brain to register pain in the same way, which is why they have to look down in order to realize like, oh, I’m hurt. So if you haven’t had any of that happening, that’s great. That’s just an example of how your mind can protect your body from pain. Another thing that I do is have my clients hold ice. First, I have them hold it for a minute. And then I have them put it down and do grounding breathwork to relax their bodies and get their mind at ease. Then I have them hold it again for a minute. The first time they’ll say it burned and it was super uncomfortable. The second time they feel a noticeable difference in how their body registered the sensation. And they’re always shocked that they held it for a minute both times. It just shows that when you go into something calm, grounded and at ease, pain can register in your mind as more of a sensation than like pain. I do little things like that, to take away the power in the fear of pain. I also explain to them that if you make sure your oxytocin is higher than your adrenaline, then you’ll be so blissed out. You’ll still experience sensations or surges, but it won’t be in the same way they were imagining.
It’s crazy that we’re not taught any of that when it comes to birth. It’s not in mainstream culture at all, you have to find it for yourself or it finds you.
The important thing to remember is that all of this was known and done. Black women were helping people give birth all the time and then one day a white guy was like, I want in on it. That is how all of this knowledge that we knew became criminalized and looked down upon.
It’s so important to reclaim that knowledge for ourselves and our communities. How do you view your role as a Black birth worker?
As a birth worker and as a doula, I just want to be a part of changing people’s experiences. I don’t want people to continue to have experiences where they felt like they lost their power or they couldn’t use their voice or they were forced by fear to make decisions that they didn’t have to make. That also affects the baby. If they say anything that you eat, the baby also eats, then whatever you are experiencing will also affect them. If I can get in the middle of causing trauma to be absorbed by a being within one’s body, then I will continue to do that. Because that can also change how this kid grows up or how they relate to themselves.
I don’t think many people think of birth as a potential contributor of trauma. But it’s really a portal and if you don’t feel that you have power and agency, that can be so traumatizing. How do you help destigmatize natural birth?
When I’m talking to new clients I always ask them, without thinking about other people or your mom or homegirl, what kind of birth would be your perfect birth? And then some of them are like, I just don’t want to feel pain. If pain is the thing, we talk about what I mentioned before. And basically I find out, what is the thing that’s holding them up? People think that doulas only support you during your childbirth. But we’re your therapist, your best friend, we’re more than just the person helping you during your labor. We do a lot of work outside of labor. Oftentimes when I do talk to people, I come to find out that a lot of them want vaginal births without interventions. And once they’ve had childbirth education classes and I’ve begun teaching them about their options, a lot of them change their minds about what they thought they wanted before. We use that time to talk more about that and normalize not having an epidural, normalize long stints of labor. Because when you’re in the hospital, people think that twelve hours of labor is long. But no, that’s normal. They remind themselves that their bodies are built to do this and that they will be more than fine. Also people think that if you labor in the hospital for that long, you have to be strapped to your bed. You don’t, you can get up and walk. I don’t want people to think the only way that they have freedom is at home. You have to be an advocate for yourself continuously but you can also still have those same freedoms, which is why being their advocate is so important.
That’s a good reminder, because I’ve always associated hospital births as an experience with no agency. Even though I’m planning for a home birth with my pregnancy, it’s something to keep in mind.
Having due diligence and figuring out what is the best for you is really important. And even if you don’t have the means to have a home birth, there are still things that you can do to advocate for yourself. And likely if you have a doula, we will be sure to whisper in your ear and be like,”the O.B is saying that you have to push on your back? No, you can get up and push however you want to.” Home births are a lot more relaxed because you’re in your own space and you can actually feel safer there anyway. But you can definitely create another space where you feel safe and comfortable in a hospital setting.
What’s your experience been like working with gender non-confirming birthing people? How do you help advocate for them in situations where you feel they might not be seen or understood?
As a queer woman, it’s really important that I support my community. I do it at the base level first. All of my language is not gender based. I don’t call people moms and dads. I say gestational parent and non-gestational parent, chest-feeding instead of breastfeeding. I even do that with people who are cis, that’s my way of normalizing non-gendered language in the birthing space. Outside of that, I just follow and make sure that I continue to honor whatever their desires are. I had a couple of not gender non-conforming clients and being a queer person, they never had to worry about me slipping up and misgendering them or their baby. We also talked about what they might experience in the hospital, we came up with a plan before we even went in there. And then I just tell them that I see them even when the hospital staff doesn’t see them. In those moments, we created like a bubble where they can still feel really awesome and safe. Because I don’t want someone to be like, I was having a kid and like the entire time I was being misgendered because it’s their story.
How does the work you do build community and honor ancestral lineages in black birth working?
That’s a beautiful question. I believe every pregnancy and birth that I’m a part of, my ancestors are rejoicing, as theirs are as well. Our ancestors are high-fiving, because there is another person who’s made it, which means their family has made it. And not even just made it through the pregnancy or the labor, but it’s like every ounce of energy and love and desire made it, every dream that they had, has literally made it. People often think as long as the gestational person has had the baby, they’re OK. But really you have to make sure they’re OK for an entire year. So I really believe that my angels and my ancestors are rejoicing because I was listening to the messages they were sending me. I know the draw I have to this goes beyond just myself. My favorite moment when birth is happening is when the gestational parent will look at me, our skin and bones disappear and it’s just our souls talking. It happens in almost all the births. In the moments when they’re like, I can’t do this, you feel the energy being called upon to help them through it. At my best friend’s birth, the very first birth that I ever went to, she was very afraid of hospitals. We waited to go to the hospital until the absolute last minute. At the hospital, there was a moment where she was looking at me and searching. And I was like, you can do it, you are surrounded by your angels, these people all have your ancestors on their shoulders right now. And she was like, okay and was totally fine. It’s in these little moments, where I’m clear that this was something that was destined for me to do well before I probably came earthside.