Documentary: Catching Babies

This weekend I had the pleasure of seeing the new documentary Catching Babies. Claudia Booker of Birthing Hands DC organized the viewing.

The film is about a midwifery school in El Paso Texas called Maternidad La Luz. It’s a unique place–an intensive midwifery program that trains non-nurse midwives in a 13 month program that is extremely hands on. Two of the student midwives in the film describe catching their first babies just months after arriving at the school.  Students who complete the program can work as out-of-hospital midwives across the country, depending on the laws in their state governing non-nurse midwives.

I actually visited the school in 2007, did an overnight where I shadowed students and midwives as they did their visits and attended births. I went because at the time I was still planning on becoming a midwife, and I was excited by the possibility of attending a school that almost entirely catered to the Latina community.

Because the school is based in El Paso, steps from the border with Juarez, Mexico (the two cities are actually contiguous, the only thing separating them a bridge that represents the border) the vast majority of the women who birth at Maternidad La Luz (it is a free-standing birth center, as well as a school) are Mexican and Spanish-speaking. Many are not US citizens, but living on the border are allowed to travel back and forth with a certain area on what are called “radial visas.”

The film is really well done. The filmmakers are both women of color, which comes across clearly in their perspective and in who they choose to focus on as subjects of the film. We see one African-American student midwife, another who identifies as indigenous Mexica and grew up in El Paso, along with two other student midwives as they take their journey to midwifery. Throughout their stories is the birth stories of the women they support during pregnancy and birth, all of whom are Spanish-speaking women of color.

This focus of the film stood in stark contrast to my own experience when I visited the clinic in 2007.

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Pro-choice pregnancy and the politics of language

I was inspired to write my latest column for RH Reality Check because of a number of emails I’ve gotten over the years with various questions about the issue of the language we use to talk about pregnancy and it’s impact on pro-choice politics.

From the column:

As a blogger and a doula, I think about this question of language a lot. What language to use when talking with people I’m supporting during their abortions? What about when supporting someone with a miscarriage? Should I use different language in one scenario over the other? How about when I write about these issues? If we call it a baby at only eight weeks, does that compromise our right to access abortion?

For me the answer is no. The reason that abortion is a decision best left to individuals who are pregnant is because it’s a complicated ethical and personal choice that one can only make for themselves. While there may be a lot of science regarding fetal development, when hearts beat and nervous systems are developed, there is no right answer when it comes to when life begins. It’s a question and a choice that every individual person has to grapple with for themselves. The same is true for the language of pregnancy and birth.

I do my best to mirror the language of the people I’m working with. If they call it a baby, I’ll call it a baby. If they call it a pregnancy, or a fetus, or a itty-bitty bundle of joy, I’ll do the same. Nothing about these language choices denotes anything about what choices should be available to pregnant people—it simply denotes how that individual person sees themselves and their pregnancy.

Read the full piece here.

Birth work and disability justice

Disability and disability justice, as it intersects with broader social justice movements and particularly birth work, is something I have been thinking about for a while now, inspired by some amazing disability justice activists that I have come across. (h/t Mia Mingus, for example).

For those of us in the birthwork world (or reproductive justice more broadly) it’s extremely important to keep issues of disability in mind and as part of our practice as doulas. There are many types of disabilities which might impact what kind of birth a person has access to. For example I received an email not too long ago from a person with a mental health issue that required a type of medication.

Because of that mental health issue (and resultant medication) she was finding that she couldn’t go to the local birth center, because simply taking that medication to deal with her mental health issues ruled her out.

One could think of similar issues around access to certain types of birth settings (and even types of birth) for those who have physical disabilities that restrict their movement, or simply just make midwives or birth centers too afraid to provide care for them (because of liability, or ableism, or whatever the reason might be).

We all know that a fundamental problem with birth care today is that only the person with the “healthiest” most “ideal” pregnancy can have access to alternative birth settings and providers.

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Back in the saddle

I’m excited to report that I’ve started volunteering again, with pregnant Latina women. Not a full blown doula work, but related. It’s been a while (longer than I would have liked) since I’ve worked with pregnant women. Over the last three years, while I was working as a full-time reproductive rights organizer, I didn’t have time or the ability to commit to doula work.

One of my motivations for leaving my full-time work was to re-integrate doula work (or some related health and healing work) into my life.

Last Friday I did my first stint as a volunteer with a midwife at a local clinic. The setting is a familiar one–older white midwife who works in a clinic setting with mostly Latina immigrant women. This is may be the third clinic setting of that type I’ve worked in. In all three, the midwives were older and white, in all three language and cultural competency were issues.

I’m excited to be working with pregnant women again. I’m excited to be speaking Spanish, to be working with women from the community, to be using some of my skills as a doula. I’ll be working as an interpreter and volunteer, helping the midwife out and working with the women who attend the clinic.

Probably more blogging to come inspired by this volunteer work.

Lost in translation

My inspiration for this post.

I’m bilingual. I spoke Spanish before I spoke English because I grew up with two Cuban immigrant parents. My mom likes to joke about how she dropped me off at my preschool in my mostly White Southern town and handed the teacher a Spanish/English dictionary so she could communicate with me.

Being bilingual gives you an interesting lens on the world. Mine is particularly interesting because although I am Latina, you wouldn’t necessarily know by looking at me. I pass, most of the time, as white. That means a lot of things, some of which I may some day tackle here, but in this context it means I get to hear things, in both languages, that other people don’t.

As a doula this was particularly enlightening/challenging because I got to hear and understand everything a doctor was saying but not communicating to their patient when she didn’t speak English. I got to witness the jokes between doctors, the decisions about care that were being made without consultation, the idle chatter and conversation that they carried on in her presence. Then I had to make a decision. Do I tell her what they are saying?

I was taught that a doula shouldn’t be a translator. My doula trainer explained, with the best of intentions, that those roles should be separate. Just like a doula doesn’t replace a partner, they can’t replace a translator.

That’s great in an ideal world, where everyone has exactly what they need. But let’s remember where we live: planet not so ideal. On this planet, translators are only brought in when there is paperwork to be signed. On this planet, doctors/medical students/nurses with a working knowlege of Spanish get to communicate with the patient when and if they want to. On this planet, a Spanish speaking doula may be the only thing helping a Spanish speaking mom/family/partner feel safe.

So I had to make decisions. Constantly. Decisions about when to translate, what to translate, how to translate. Having to be a filter never felt good, even when I felt like I was protecting her from hearing something she wouldn’t want to hear.  I didn’t want to be the only one in the room who could communicate her needs/questions/concerns to her providers. I didn’t want that power.

What would my ideal world look like? Well, first of all, women would get treated exactly the same regardless of what language they spoke. Doctors/nurses/people wouldn’t talk about a patient in a language she didn’t understand in front of her. They would get consent for everything they did, before they did, and explain every step along the way. 

And that’s just the beginning.