Most doulas seem to come to this work after an epiphany during childbirth.
Something happened, or didn’t happened, that made them want to help other women navigate the entry into motherhood. They come to this work from a deeply personal place.
And in a job that is seen as charity, or ministry rather than a skilled profession, and a place for pan-African sensibilities that just aren’t my own, I’ve struggled with not having that story.
Doulas generally have a reputation for being hippies and among doulas of color, the expectation is that we are working to uplift our communities. As a result, I’ve often talked about how I came to this work through my education, and community based work. I share my drive to end maternal and infant mortality, to bring about social justice to birthing rooms, and to do good work for my people. All of this is true.
But the truth is, it’s not all about statistics and justice, and public health.
I come to this work from a just as deeply personal place as most other doulas, even if I’m not in the habit of wearing a head wrap (except when it’s the quickest way to look cute), and prefer to work in hospitals.
For me, doula work fulfills a need to repay debts that I owe to black women who have sacrificed a great deal for me.
Supporting families is a way that I can ensure that I join the long line of women who have mothered me, and pushed me forward when I could barely see in front of my own face. I became a doula because I want to be a part of the fabric of my community. To lift other women up the way that I have been lifted. To be a member of a beloved sisterhood.
The history of black women in America is often portrayed as one of struggle.
Daily, we face things that remind us that this country wasn’t built to see us thrive. You may be imagining women downtrodden and in poverty, or incarcerated, and that’s definitely true for many African American women.
But, having grown up in DC’s suburbs, the metro area of what was until recently known as “Chocolate City,” the world that I live in is full of successful black women.
We have jobs and homes and careers and nice cars. We’re flyy (yes, with two y’s) and fabulous. We’re middle to upper middle class, or if we’re not, we fake it well. I am surrounded by women who consider themselves at, or on their way to, the top of their game.
Not succeeding was simply not an option for many of us, and so we rise, like the recitation of a Maya Angelou poem tells us we will, and we must.
Yet most of us, if we’re asked, could talk about a thousand daily injustices that seem meant to put us in our place. So we learn early to work twice as hard and expect half as much. We build walls around ourselves, and guard our hearts in mixed company, whether that mix is by race or gender.
We become “strong black women” and wear this armor that began as a coping mechanism with pride.
But in certain spaces, those masks come down. And as I watch black women become mothers, I have the privilege to be in one of those special spaces. As waves of contractions come over women in labor, I see the sudden eruption of joy, of hope, of optimism. I see the fear and anxiety, and the deep sense of pride and accomplishment that rushes in as a baby comes into this world. I witness vulnerability in women that has often been buried, and I hold that sacred.
Motherhood is revered in my community, as in many.
We love our mothers and write songs about it. We have mothers of political movements and church mothers. We imagine that we sprang forth from mythical matriarchal societies in Africa, where all women were queens and inspired by goddesses. We black girls call ourselves magical, and for many women in my community, motherhood is a magical rite of passage. It is critical to how womanhood is defined, and even the most successful, educated and accomplished black woman will often be measured by her children. For better or worse, motherhood is where the strength that we pride ourselves on is tested and proven.
It is truly an honor to sit with women and witness them enter into this society. A veil lifts, and they sashay into a high priestess hood and suddenly they are bestowed with assumed wisdom, grace, dignity and patience.
They become entrusted with our people’s survival and worthy of the title queen, or goddess.
But of course, this is not the whole truth. While motherhood in my community comes with beauty and honor, it also, like any impossibly high pedestal, comes with great sacrifice and responsibility.
Because I see behind the mask, I’m there for the private moments of fear and frustration. Women who have plotted the course of their life, and in some cases achieved things unimaginable to their ancestors become overwhelmed by a job that they can’t manage with a five-year plan or a SMART goal.
They become afraid of how this society will treat their babies. And no matter how much grit and perseverance they show today, tomorrow will test them further. As their doula, I see that too.
I thought I would be a mother by now. It’s fairly cliché, but I imagined myself well on my way to being a DC version of Claire Huxtable. An effortlessly perfect woman with an amazing career, a gorgeous row house, a supportive partner and tiny humans that looked at least partly like me. I thought my life by 30 would include perfectly coiffed hair and children, and I would have taken my place among the other matriarchs.
But in many ways, I am grateful to see beyond the fantasy before living it. I’m able to know the truth- that the pedestal which motherhood is placed by so many is too high, and grows dangerous, much like other portrayals of invincible black womanhood.
While I’ve yet to enter the high priestess hood, I do hold many of its secrets. I’m there to ensure that its members are cared for. That they know that it’s okay to climb down from the pedestal, and that they don’t have to go back behind the mask. Instead, those moments of vulnerability that show through in labor, or when babies won’t stop crying, are an opportunity to become more authentic, and more purposeful.
Rather than being who we are required to be, motherhood is a chance to become who we choose to be.
And in doing so, it’s okay to need a community. In fact, what I’ve witnessed is that sister circles are how we have always maintained. Regardless of how the world has required us to paint a picture of handling it all alone, being powerhouses and superwomen and single handedly carrying the weight of entire generations, or worse, sniping and throwing drinks at each other while competing for men that are scarce, what really has gotten us through is sisterhood.
Sisterhood is at the root of every generation’s survival, and lifting each other up as we lift the children and men with us, is just how we do things.
That’s what it means to mother in my community. Sisterhood. Mothering is foundational to the support systems that allow every generation to move a little further forward, and overcome a few more obstacles. And doula work, the work of mothering mothers, is an extension of that. It’s an opportunity to create community where so many women don’t have one. In a hyper educated, hyper focused area like DC, I’m an important part of the village that it takes to raise not just a child, but a mother.
That’s why I really came to doula work.
So, while I have yet to become a biological mother, I do feel that I’ve joined this precious sisterhood- ensuring that our matriarchs are nurtured even as they are instrumental in building our future. I’m grateful to bear witness each time I see a woman enter this beautiful struggle of sisterhood. And I’m honored to be a member of her community.
Authored by: Samantha Griffin
For more beautiful insight from this amazing author, see her blog.