I was in 8th grade when I became an Auntie, that is also when I was born as doula. Auntie doula is what I would be for the next few years until I became a mother myself. It was with my sister’s first birth that my curiosity around reproductive life began. I recall her telling us she was pregnant after graduating high school. I immediately wondered what would have to be done next. I remember having the thought of “how will she get this baby out?” and questions around how it got in, but then my mind quickly raced through the many times my father gave us “the talk” in a jokingly but lovingly and informative way. He found unique ways to teach us to abstain from sex by providing sex education through things like opening up a conversation with my sister in the car on the way to middle school about why do we think TLC wears those things on their eye? Oh those are called condoms! My dad would exclaim and tell us how if a man doesn’t use that a woman will become pregnant and if reminded us of the religious reasons of why we should abstain from sex until marriage. Although we were highly encouraged to abstain, we were empowered in that we grew up comfortable having these discussions which is why it was quite easy for the rest of the story to unfold.
So, my sister got pregnant and my parents took care of her while she was pregnant. It was here that I learned how to mother the mother. I distinctly remember just before she went into labor we had her baby shower, it was fun and I loved seeing her be showered with gifts. I watched them make sure she was fed, at doctor’s appointments and had plenty of rest. I knew I wanted to be a mom too, lol I love gifts! I don’t recall her having any issues or concerns with this pregnancy. She was able to go about things normally, working and going to college. She was an inspiration as a mother figure for me, not just a big sister anymore.
The day she went into labor I was at school and my granny came to get me and my cousin. I dropped off my backpack, combed my hair, put on my cutest “Mya” hat, I was very into Mya the singer at the time, my high rise skechers and skinny flare jeans, I thought I was looking my best for my “auntie” role. I think I was trying to look like a little adult because becoming an aunt made me feel mature. I arrived at the hospital with my granny and my mother and father were in the waiting room to greet us. After sitting and waiting, waiting, waiting, I asked my granny how long does this take?! She said, “I don’t know baby, it can be a long time ok” I wondered what was going on in there, I wanna see. I asked my dad if I could go in, he took me in there with his camcorder(consent was granted), he took that thing everywhere, original instagram lol. I saw my sister all hooked up with IV’s and such and remember thinking, she isn’t sick so why are they treating her like she’s a patient, it felt odd but I also knew this is just what people did. I saw her go through it all, hours and hours of active labor with much bodily fluids, yet I was not grossed out at any point, I was only more curious as to what was going on with her body trying to help the baby out. As she began to crown and it was pushing time, I remember them counting and everyone telling her how good she was doing. So I did the same, cheering her along and holding the little pink kidney shaped bucket for her as needed.
My family recorded it for a VHS to be labeled “Lyric’s Birth” and left it in the sleeve as a keepsake memory. I did not know about the placenta delivery because I was rushed out of the room soon after, now knowing that was for her to enjoy skin to skin time. I went down to the gift shop and purchased a gift. It was hard to find a balloon that didn’t say Happy Valentine’s day as it was just the day before. We went home a few hours after taking her some flowers, a bear and some balloons. The day she came home with the baby felt like the longest night ever and it was then that I realized having the baby was the easy part. The postpartum was intense, she was also trying to get back to a sense of normalcy, going back to work and school, plus being a young mom. I recall waking up to the baby crying all through the night, my parents and I had a little routine of getting up to help her with the baby throughout the night.
The thought that comes to mind when remembering this time was breastmilk! Oh she had a lot of it and I remember helping my mom put it into little bags in the freezer. I remember watching her breastfeed and thinking how calming it looked and no one said anything negative to her about it and she would nursely freely without a cover in the home at least. My mom and I took the baby everywhere as she got older and my sister returned to work. I was proud to be her aunt and as I watched her first steps and crawling around chasing my maltese princess or going up the stairs. My fondest memory of that time was watching her go from newborn to a tiny human with the ability to walk, talk and play. I knew I wanted to be a mom or work with babies. Even as a child, I was obsessed with playing barbies and making sure those Barbies had families and I would often watch in fascinated curiosity with anything on television or movies about birth. My most fond memory of birth on TV was an episode of Saved by the Bell in which Zack Morris delivers the baby of Mr. Belding's wife in an elevator. I still geek out when they show depictions of birth and breastfeeding when it normalizes it. I will say my most recent experience watching a show on Netflix called Human Resources, about hormones, has been incredibly accurate on pregnancy, birth and postpartum and I love it!
I started a babysitting business at 13, I am my parents' child, they have both always been entrepreneurs. It was a successful neighborhood business. I watched all the kids in the neighborhood as their parents went on date night or watched the kids in the back of the church as their parents had bible study. I watched my dad’s clients as well, he was the owner of a construction company and a general contractor, former Army as well as a deacon in the church and youth group leader, whew! I see where I get it from now lol, I like my dad, wear many hats and have traveled many moons. I had a very diverse clientele, mostly wealthy folks with more than 2 children. Some of my babysitting work lends to my past and current work in K-8 education on the board of education and my work as a cross age tutor and special needs students peer helper. I would babysit children as young as 6 months or so and this was due to my experience of helping care for my niece, what a resume builder! I had two families that stand out to me in my memory, one who had a baby who would bite his crib bars and I had to find soothing techniques to calm him at night. I had a baby who was about 10 months old and he had a heart condition (hole in heart) that required special needs. His parents were physicians and left me with instructions on how to care for him in case of an emergency. All the numbers were there and I learned CPR. They knew they would only be gone for an hour or so but left me with enough money for 3 hours which showed how much they trusted me. It felt good to care for these babies and kids and further confirmed my desire to be a mother.
After about three years into high school, my sister had a second child. I was literally sitting in an English class when they called over the loudspeaker, “Charda Bell, you need to come to the office, your sister is having a baby!” I was dropped off to the hospital by my high school sweetheart in his beloved pickup truck, Lacrosse stick in the back rattling with the ball. I arrived with a cute summer dress, denim jacket and wrap around the ankle high heels, you see I was also being voted best dressed that day and clearly thought I was Mariah Carey accepting an award lol.
So, I came in my hair fresh pressed and curled, makeup on. I thought I was looking like a real auntie doula now! They called me because no one else had arrived yet, it was rush hour traffic time and she had given them my name and whereabouts on a list. The nurse and doctor told me I could “scrub in” if I didn’t want to get my clothes dirty. I immediately had flashbacks of the bodily fluids before and so I grabbed a little blue smock to wear and some booties. I gave her a cold wet rag for her forehead and followed the instructions of the nurse as she told me what things to do to help my sister. I was hoping my family would arrive soon, we couldn’t do this alone! Second babies come a lot faster they say and it was true, baby girl number two was on the way with no slowing in sight. As she got prepared to push, I realized we were definitely doing this alone, and I did the best I could, not knowing I was a doula but that’s what I was and the rest of the village arrived shortly after the birth. This time around she was living on her own so her postpartum journey was not one I was able to witness. The third baby was several years later and that pregnancy was more complicated. I had just become a mother myself so I had a much better understanding of the complications involved such as GD (gestational diabetes) and I learned how she had to change her diet and it wasn’t fun. I remember thinking why and how it could have been so different, what’s changed, she was even in a better environment and situation than previous pregnancies. She had her baby and I took my two year old to the hospital with me to meet his new cousin. The moment was bittersweet as I sat there looking at her baby with my baby and thinking how all her times got me through my own times and I was thankful for her bravery and experiences.
I was an auntie doula but I wanted to be so much more, I wanted to do this and live this as my life work but I didn’t quite know what that meant or how to achieve it. I let those feelings go and focused on my life as a model, casting director, and new mom. Once a Hollywood production I was working on–I had to work through my entire pregnancy with my business because I was a one woman show.--The producers contacted me while in the middle of my labor to find a replacement for a role that was in the middle of filming. After that, I knew I needed a career change but with an incomplete college degree (not by choice, by system design flaw) I wasn’t sure what I could do to be successful for my new growing family. I began helping my friends and family having babies by going to the hospital to check in and help them adjust to motherhood, it was then that I realized being a lactation consultant was what I wanted to do after watching them help, or not help, a mama. I had two lactation consultants come to my own hospital room to help me, so I knew if someone was getting all the care or not. One of my friends was put in basically a broom closet after her birth and advocated for her to be in a real room post surgical birth, she was Black and they didn't care about her at all, it showed. I asked for a lactation consultant to help her and they said she needed to wait until discharge, I knew this couldn't be right. I needed to be able to help her, I wanted to know how to help. So I got on the lactation pathway after asking my OBGYN nurse practitioner, Lisa Clarke NP, some questions about it. She was a trusted source for me over my early reproductive journey and childbearing years. I was sad when she retired but I took everything she taught me like how to do a self breast exam, directed me to bedsider.org for birth control options when I asked for more information and she even told me how to reduce my blood pressure when I arrived at the office by sitting down for a few mins to relax but, NP's are more gracious with their time in my opinion.
They call me mommy
I had my first baby in 2008, and the pregnancy was cake, I loved it. I enjoyed being pregnant but what I didn’t love were the doctor’s visits because those always made me nervous for some reason. However, I always had someone go with me and only then would I feel safe and protected. I felt unsafe and unworthy if I was dressed less than perfectly to receive adequate care. Thus I had to put on the armor of God and a pretty “face” of makeup, hair perfectly balanced, not too bright, not too short or too long, can’t be too anything or else you will be in danger was my mindset. So I had to protect me and my unborn child through appearances and charisma in a broken system only to end up with preeclampsia anyway. Perhaps all the stress of getting ready to go to these appointments, being rushed, waiting endless amounts of time that I needed to be resting and being ordered around in their atmosphere wasn’t the best for my blood pressure. I did a lot in order to attempt to avoid these microaggressions, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint this then and it showed itself in the end. After a pleasant 9 month pregnancy, a grand baby shower thrown by my aunt and family, just as big as I remember my sisters being, alast I was a mom being showered with gifts too.
I was walking around Marshalls with my granny and my cousin, we stayed in there for what felt like hours as I walked around feeling quite heavy and just not myself. I tried to shop for baby clothes but my belly just kept getting hard and my breath was becoming shorter, baby felt lower and I just thought it was something I ate. I went home and laid down, watched some TV, did normal things to get ready for bed. Craved a cheesequake blizzard from Dairy queen, ate that and had insomnia so bad I watched City of Angels and just as the credits rolled and I dozed off to dreamland, I was awakened by a small jolt and amniotic fluid everywhere. This was definitely like a movie but at the childbirth class they said it wouldn’t be like the movies, I was confused. I called my granny and told her I was scared and she told me she would go with us. We stopped to pick her up and drop off my eldest bonus daughter, headed to the hospital and then the story really began. My pregnancy went perfectly I thought as I sat in the triage getting my blood pressure checked repeatedly, hearing the beep and that cuff inflate drove me nuts. I begged the nurse to turn the beep off but she wouldn’t because she said she wouldn’t be able to know if it was working, I didn’t believe that but no time to argue. My blood pressure was 200/100 and I had protein in my urine, preeclampsia. They yelled, “Get a room!” and off I went, rushed to this sterile environment certainly didn’t help. I laid there on a cold hard bed, scared and wondering what’s next, for this is not how my sister's birth went. There were some helpful people in the situation who advocated for me to have my trial of labor versus an emergency c-section. I was put on a magnesium drip with IV fluids and blood pressure meds and it lowered a great deal.
My granny was there immediately after my own birth, she even named me, so I thought she would be the best person to support me even over my spouse at that time and I was right, and she knew just what to do, what to rub and when I needed a rest or something to drink or just to sit on the toilet humming and beautiful birth song. I got around the room well and labored with much assistance from her, “baby you want a cold rag on your head”, “yes please” and that’s all I could say I was going into transition. My granny was tired, she was in her late 60’s, she went home for rest and shortly after the not so helpful providers came in offering me epidurals and other narcotics of which I declined until one bad nurse kept trying to blame me for my preeclampsia, the audacity and said if I don’t get an epidural my baby and I might not have a good chance through this and if I become in more pain my blood pressure would go up and I was then threatened with a cesarean, therefore I took the epidural around 8cm and about an hour or two later it was time to push. My labor at the hospital was a total of 12 hours and I believe I labored at home a lot longer. My doctor on call was a male named Dr. Diamond, he came in shortly before pushing and introduced himself. He was encouraging without being annoying and he had a warm spirit about him so I felt ok with it. He also gave me some tips to prevent tearing and performed a perineum massage with guided breath pushing. It started rough but it ended well, my baby boy was here and I knew what love at first sight was, seeing your baby.
My blood pressure remained a bit high postpartum and I was quite frustrated with them not doing more to help me so I could go home, I felt like a prisoner, I discharged myself against doctor’s orders after being there for more days than I needed to be, my primary OB wasn’t happy about it and noted it in my chart. I went for my postpartum visit at her office a few days later for a BP check and she freaked me out saying I needed to go to the ER right away. I had a new baby, who was breastfeeding, and I didn’t know what to do. I asked why the ER, she said because if not I would die. Scared into care once more, I went to the ER and had to be separated from my baby for a few hours sitting on an IV drip and high dose cocktail of blood pressure meds, hoping they were safe for my milk. I begged them to confirm it. My granny and cousin helped with the baby and helped get my expressed milk to him while I was in there because they wouldn’t allow my newborn in there. The ER doctor came in after several hours and said “postpartum hypertension is common, I’m sorry your doctor scared you, I will give you some medication to continue and you will be on your way.” I went through the rest of my postpartum period relatively normal and became a kick ass stay at home mom. My career as a professional mom began! I researched becoming a lactation consultant and realized I couldn’t afford it, but I had planned to start saving to attend UCSD for it but that never came to fruition for me.
My second child was on the horizon at this time, and this time my blood pressure was elevated from the beginning of the pregnancy. I had great health insurance and got prenatal care early but still apparently not soon enough. I blame my OB at the time for not being more diligent in educating me on this elevated risk at one of my well woman exams that I attended annually. I hate that she joked "You must be allergic to being pregnant" and started asking me about birth control. I could have been told to go on a baby aspirin when she knew I went off my birth control, leaving me open to high risk pregnancy which could have potentially prevented what happened next. As a result of the hypertension, I had to go to routine weekly NST (non stress test) and a plethora of other high risk pregnancy procedures including being sent to a high risk specialist who convinced me to get an amniocentesis (big needle to the belly, goes through the sac to collect information on your baby and their environment in utero) after they told me my baby possibly had down's syndrome and I would need genetic testing. After discovering nothing was wrong at all, I went for a routine NST and they sent me to a high risk specialist because my fluid was too low. The specialist, Dr. Stanko had a rough bedside manner but I knew when she was a bit more caring at this visit that she was serious and she made a good call. She predicted that my baby was measuring too small and was not getting proper blood flow through the cord from the placenta.
I needed to deliver immediately, she said “You need to go over to the hospital to be induced” I had no idea what this was and I was frightened. I didn’t think my baby would survive, I was 36 weeks and 4 days but I had gone to 38 weeks before and I just kept thinking it’s too soon. Nothing packed, I went to the hospital, which was at least conveniently located across the street. I was given IV fluids and a medicine, pitocin, no one explained what it was but I knew after a while I didn’t want it, it didn’t feel natural like my first birth contractions. These were more intense coming more quickly, the strength and timing of these contractions were insane. My second baby boy was born healthy and strong at 4lbs 15oz just 6 hours later, with 20 people in the room ready to whisk him away through the tunnel to the NICU at Rady’s Children’s hospital next door. They told me he wouldn’t be able to breathe on his own, they had all kinds of equipment ready. My baby stayed ready, his APGAR score was perfect and he was so tiny and precious, he’s still the same 8 years later. I was very thankful that he came quickly and that my body had the experience of giving birth before, therefore it knew what to do and it did. I enjoyed being a mom, but that joy was turned to sorrow as the trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin took place as I was pregnant with my second Black son. My only thought was I must now make it my job and focus to protect my boys by any means necessary because they out here hunting our babies. One of those means for me was becoming super involved and getting them involved and exposed to all the good I could. I decided to do a few things to begin this journey for them, I enrolled and finished lactation school at UCSD in 2017, then in 2018 I was approached to run for public office and I won a seat on the Board of Education for the La Mesa Spring Valley School district. That was a strange leap of faith and things have not been fun! I did this after being highly involved with my children’s education as I wasn’t satisfied with public schooling, I did preschool for both of them at home and I was damn good at it, so much so that one day I plan to open a school for babies! Additionally, I was in a toxic marriage that has since ended, but joining the PTA, school site council, district advisory and other committees was one of the ways I stayed away from home when things were too toxic. I used my learning, connections and bad marriage to catapult myself to a more positive space physically, emotionally and mentally.
Professional Birth Worker
Summer of 2019 I had been on the board of education for a year and built a lot of political and personal networks. I used my CLEC credential to volunteer at La Leche League a few times a week and run community based breastfeeding support groups over the next few years, that was the extent of it and no real paid work for me was in sight but I did see and work with maybe a hundred or more families with this experience. I had a mom friend who worked on my campaign and later asked if I could help a friend who had a Haitian refugee seeking asylum and was having breastfeeding issues and no one to help. I agreed and grabbed my tools and supplies and off I went. I met Maggie, who was an amazing human being, she was a volunteer that worked with the Rapid Response Team at the border. She had picked Hilda up from the border and dumped in the street on the U.S. side of the border pregnant in labor and alone. ICE called and told them to come get her or they wouldn’t save her if she died. They went to the hospital and had the baby and 3 days later I met them at Starbucks. She and I both used broken Spanish to communicate with her because she caught onto some by living in Tijuana so long, Haitian Creole on google translate just isn’t happening.
I became a volunteer postpartum doula for this woman and her baby. I purchased things for her with my own money or asked others to help support with donations. I was able to get her and the baby back and forth to doctor appointments and help with feeding, clothing, baby care. Every day for about 3 months. They became more self-sufficient but it was hard to get out and about on the run from the authorities trying to deport you from your baby. One night she frantically called and ICE had tried to bang her door down, they served her with papers that she couldn’t read. I looked over them and realized it was saying she needed to go to immigration court to request asylum. I explained as best I could and as I took her to court, with my mom and her and her baby boy, we waited and she asked me to take her baby for her to raise him if she is taken. Heavy weight but I accepted it, at least in the interim, and we listened on as the judge “granted” more time to stay here. She moved several times just to stay safe and we stayed in touch until the baby’s first birthday. I went to their home for a first birthday party and we celebrated their success!
After this experience, I went to the women’s march in San Diego where I was allowed to go backstage due to my connections with the event organizers and being an elected official. There, I was invited by a few women at to sit at their table at a Roe v. Wade Reproductive Justice brunch, hosted by Planned Parenthood. I arrived and mingled with many prestigious folks and other community pioneers. One of those community leaders was Vernita Guttierez, was receiving an award, she was the director of Planned Parenthood Pacific Southwest. I gave her my business card, praised her for her work and asked if she could possibly help me get engaged with the Black Infant Health program. I told her I was a Certified Lactation Educator and Counselor and I needed work, not to mention I needed help with Hilda. She graciously offered to meet with me for coffee where she changed my life for the better! At our meeting she got me connected to serve on the advisory board for Black Infant Health and introduced me to a Black doula named Sabia Wade, who met me at my kids school to donate supplies and offers of volunteer support to help me with Hilda. After explaining the situation and my background to Sabia, she asked if I ever thought about being a doula. I had not heard this term before but discovered that's what I’ve been all along, she then helped me with the transition to become a professional birth worker. As I started going to volunteer doula meetings at Sabia’s apartment, I felt like I had found my true calling, being a birth worker, which encompassed both my experience as an “auntie doula” and my expertise and credentials as a lactation counselor and educator. I did a good chunk of volunteer doula work after being trained by Maude and Sabia. Eventually, her organization was made into a non-profit and she secured grant funds to provide doula support to another non-profit called Project Concern International which led a Healthy Start initiative to improve birth outcomes for Black families. I was quite intrigued and they said they were hiring and Sabia encouraged me to apply for the position due to my work with Hilda, and then I met Darynee, a Black midwife also being contracted to provide support for clinical work. Upon applying to the job and securing it, 3.5 years later I’m a Senior Perinatal Health Navigator and Doula Training Coordinator, I work with a caseload of about 50 families per month, annually. I provide care coordination and connections to resources to help decrease disparities and increase access.
Building for Liberation
As I just completed all of my studies and am now a candidate to sit for the IBLCE exam this fall of 22, I will God willing pass my exam and be an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant with the ability to treat clinical lactation concerns. I plan to open private practice and cater to serving marginalized communities, in particular with a focus on Southeast San Diego where I was raised and lived the majority of my life. As a well experienced doula, always mentoring, I decided I will open a community doula school for aspiring birth workers to help pave the way for them to do this much needed work and continue to build capacity within our own communities to improve our outcomes. I’m not just doing this for me, I’m doing this for all of us. It wasn’t until several babies later, my own and others, did I realize that Black Maternal Health was under attack. I found out there was only one Black lactation consultant in my whole county (she is now my mentor, Jarrah Foster, IBCLC) and I knew it needed to change, no wonder our breastfeeding rates are so low, there is not enough competent support, nor are we told were to find it. I made it my mission from experience both lived and shared, to ensure access to adequate and affordable support for Black families throughout their perinatal journey which is why I started Melanin Milk SD doula and lactation support. This encompasses preconception health, loss, pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and beyond. The theme for this year’s Black Maternal Health Week is Building for Liberation: Centering Black mamas, families and Black systems of care. This sums up the exact mission for my business, my purpose and my drive. We have to continue to build towards liberation if we ever want to find true peace within our birth experiences, no longer robbed from us or invalidated. We must continue to highlight and uplift Black motherhood and their families, and center the folks who are in here doing the work to do so. I’m talking to you fellow birth workers, and aspiring ones! So, this week I want to say Thank you for your assistance in strengthening and empowering these Black mamas, because these streets are not good for us. Black mamas, we will continue to fight for you and you must advocate for each other too, we are in this together and we all rise by lifting one another. Let’s end this crisis but this week let’s also focus on joy, reflection and intention as we sit with these hard truths and work that needs to be done.