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    Embracing the Joy

    For too many Black women, what should be one of the most joyful experiences—bringing new life into the world—is overshadowed by fear. According to a 2021 study, they are three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than other groups in the population.

    That shocking disparity fuels the work of Mama Glow, the New York City-based global maternal health company that trains a workforce of doulas, supportive birth workers who provide everything but medical care through pregnancy, delivery and afterward. Singer Alicia Keys says that Mama Glow “helps show us just how empowered we can be all the way throughout this glorious time in our lives.”

    Health literacy

    Established almost 10 years ago by activist Latham Thomas, the Mama Glow Foundation is the largest provider of pro bono doula services in NYC, part of a drive to counter the notion it’s only for the wealthy. In addition, this fall the foundation is due to launch an initiative to help ensure moms-to-be who may be at risk of violence are aware of the help doulas can offer—which is linked to lower rates of caesarean delivery and postpartum depression. The project in conjunction with the Bronx Health Collective is being funded by a $2 million government Health Services and Resources Administration grant.

    Pregnancy is “a very sensitive and very special time, but certainly a time where people are fraught with anxiety and afraid of what could happen,” Thomas says. In response, doulas can help build expectant mothers’ self-trust and confidence, and “embrace the joy and the beauty of a process like this.

    White people are not going to bed thinking about if they’re going to die in childbirth.

    LATHAM THOMAS

    “I think that Black-birthing people are owed that. We are owed joy,” Thomas says. “We need to relish in the beauty and sanctity of this process and not have our entire focus, the whole pregnancy, be on anxiety about what our birth outcome could be, whether or not we survive. This is not what should be preoccupying our minds, because I promise you white people are not going to bed thinking about if they’re going to die in childbirth.”

    Among the topics doulas discuss with their clients, the best place to give birth: home, hospital or a birthing center? “Not everybody is a candidate for a home birth,” says Thomas. “Not everybody is low-risk. Not everybody is also comfortable at home; not everybody has a home that’s a safe place, right?”

    Thomas’ mission got its name from the time she bumped into a friend after having her son, Fulano, 20 years ago, who told her, “You’ve got that mama glow!” Thomas knew immediately that phrase captured “this abundant radiant energy that comes from inside of all of us and belongs to all of us.” Among Mama Glow’s programs is a six-week online training course for new doulas and an annual Doula Expo by Mama Glow, hosted this year at New York’s Hudson Yards.

    Health literacy

    A graduate of Columbia University who dual-majored in visual arts and environmental science, “thinking through solutions and possibilities,” Thomas traces the women’s health focus of her work back to being a girl of four. Her mother, aunt and great-aunt were all pregnant at the same time as each other, igniting her interest.

    Watching a PBS special, My Mom’s Having a Baby, helped “prepare me for becoming a big sibling,” as did a Grey’s Anatomy coloring book. “I used it to learn anatomy,” Thomas recalls, correcting adults when they told her that her mommy had a baby in her tummy. “I said, ‘No, my mother has a baby in her uterus and it’s going to come out of her vagina.’”

    While Mama Glow encourages an earthy knowledge of pregnancy and birth in helping clients understand their journey, there is also an emphasis on the spiritual dimension of childbirth. Health literacy also involves educating “people who did not know their body as sacred and also their body as an arbiter of safety, their body as home,” says Thomas.

    With that in mind, she sees Mama Glow’s work as “decolonizing the body… [and] practices that have been siphoned [off] and sanitized and rebranded that actually belong to us… reclaiming our magic and our wisdom, traditions, in birthing, in health care, in self-care, to move forward in a different way of navigating the life course.”

    Thomas tells of having dragged her feet in pursuing what she felt was God’s call to become a doula for years (“I’m a Taurus; we do come to everything through resistance.”) before finally surrendering to that sense of direction.

    “But I have to say that the universe does reward courage, and even though I did not know what the path would look like, I continued the course, even though there was not a substantial understanding culturally of what a doula does and what they are.”

    Rethinking medicine

    Rethinking medicine

    Since last year, Thomas has served as a Visiting Professor of the Practice of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where Mama Glow offers its doula training program as a course, along with a federal work-study program that provides an opportunity to work at the Mama Glow Foundation.

    Thomas is glad for the opportunity to help shape the training of future medical professionals. “The main thing for me is… how we use this opportunity at the institutional level to levy change and impact.”

    Part of that involves helping students understand “the psychological and psych-emotional journey” they take when “leave behind, in many ways, aspects of themselves and their values and the things that are important to them to participate in, uplift, and really like, collude, with white supremacy.”

    In medical school, “you anchor in a particular type of educational framework that is rooted in white supremacist patriarchy. There are certain things that happen to you and it’s important to have safe spaces to process it all.”

    Thomas sees her role not so much about pushing change as helping students examine what they have been taught, and having “their own awakening that takes them on a journey. That’s really what I’m here to do more than proselytize; I’m here to really help people open up to possibility.”

    One thing Thomas has learned through her years championing doulaship is that it takes time to effect change, and it’s important to stay the course.

    Keep in mind that “wherever we focus our energy, fruit is born,” she says. “Focusing my energy here was about designing something different… a different way to express ourselves in this work that could lead to positive outcomes.”

    Wherever we focus our energy, fruit is born.

    Latham Thomas

    LATHAM THOMAS: MY WAYMAKERS

    I have a friend who is a civil rights attorney, Lawanna Kimbro, and she’s amazing. She’s one of the people who has been a really powerful listening ear for me. She has a counseling background and so she brings a lot of therapeutic pathways to our conversations that help me ground myself when maybe I don’t feel 1,000%. When I was on the verge of forging some new path or doing something where I wasn’t feeling certain or I was nervous, [she] was just like a really powerful voice reminding me of who I am and being that cheerleader I feel like we all need.

    In an earlier part of my life, my mom planted the seeds for the work that I do… the way in which she raised me with these ideas, this information, opened a door, whether it was intentional or not; she made a way. Those breadcrumbs that I see now, these little stars along the way that form a constellation of my life, my mom has looped in on that. My grandmother, who’s since passed on, who’s supporting me now from heaven, is the same type of person who just through prayer and good counsel was helping me to make a way on a spiritual side.

    From an interview with Nia Batts

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