"Black Women, Birth, and Anti-Racist Doulas with Jennifer Reynoso Ng" Transcript
[An acoustic guitar softly plays six notes, the first three ascending and the last three descending — F#, B, F#, E, D#, B — with a keyboard pad playing the note B in the background. Both fade out as Jonathan Walton says “This is a KTF Press podcast.”]
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Nehemiah has to do this task, right? He has to approach the king. He's scared. So he feels the fear, but he does it anyway. And I think that has stuck with me in the last few years, a lot. There's a lot of fear surrounding births, a lot of fear surrounding the unknown, but it's okay to feel the fear and you can do it anyway.
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake the Dust: Leaving Colonized Faith for the Kingdom of God. I am Jonathan Walton.
Sy Hoekstra: I'm Sy Hoekstra.
Gabrielle Apollon: And I'm Gabrielle Apollon.
Sy Hoekstra: Whaaaat? There's a third person? Yes, there's a third person. We have a guest host today. It's Gabrielle Apollon. She has been on the show before once on a regular episode, once on a bonus episode. I will briefly introduce her and then we'll get into the episode. She is a human rights attorney working at NYU Law mostly on issues of migration of people from her family's home country of Haiti. She used to be an immigration attorney before that. She is among many other things and all that, my wife [laughs]. And part of the reason that she's on the show today, aside from the fact that this whole episode was her idea, is that Gabrielle and I used to be clients of our guest, and we will get to her in a minute. We are going to be talking today about Black women and maternal health and giving birth. Gabrielle, thank you for coming up with this idea for this episode, and for being here today.
Gabrielle Apollon: You're welcome.
Sy Hoekstra: But Jonathan, before Gabrielle introduces our guest, could you do the honors, please?
Jonathan Walton: Absolutely. Please remember friends, you can support this show by going to KTFPress.com and becoming a paid subscriber. That gets you the bonus episodes of this show and our weekly newsletter where we curate media to help you in your discipleship and political education. It also gets you full access to the archives of our podcast, newsletters and articles, and it supports everything we do here at KTF Press. And remember, if you just want to try it out, you can get that subscription with a free month at the beginning by going to KTFPress.com/freemonth. All right, Gabrielle, who do we have on the show today?
Gabrielle Apollon: Okay. We have Jennifer Reynoso Ng. She's a birth and postpartum doula who provides emotional, physical, spiritual, and educational support to her clients. And as Sy mentioned we were lucky enough to be her clients. She was drawn to doula work because of her desire to support families, particularly those our system leaves behind, give them the knowledge to make informed choices about their birth experience, and ensure that they have access to the quality care that they deserve. Jenn, thanks so much for being here. And before I jump in with my first question, I also want to thank you all for making the space for this episode. I think one of the reasons I really wanted to have this conversation, not only because I just had a baby a few months ago and experienced this all too viscerally, but this is an issue that affects Black women so significantly and so seriously.
And I've gone to church my entire life, and I have never ever heard this issue talked about in that space, which I think says a lot. Meanwhile, my friends and I have been talking about this like so much, and I know with you Jenn and with a lot of other Black women, and so wanted to open this space up and talk about this issue, and we're so thankful you're here, Jennifer. So let's start with the basics. For people who don't know, what role does a doula play in the birthing and postpartum process?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Hi, thanks for having me. So for people who don't know, a doula is a non-medically trained community worker who provides physical, emotional, informational, and sometimes spiritual support to a birthing person and their family throughout their pregnancy and postpartum period. This can look a lot of different ways. There's doulas who specialize in the birth period while others focus on postpartum. There are some who do both. There are also some doulas who are full spectrum, meaning that they support clients throughout the entire spectrum of reproduction. So that can include fertility, abortion, and/or loss, in addition to pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. For me, I mostly support clients through birth and postpartum.
What that can look like is when I start to work with clients, usually in their second trimester, though sometimes first, if they reach out really early [laughs]. We usually have scheduled meetings throughout our time where we can go over the client's preferences and what their vision for their birth is. We talk about how I can support them through it and practice some comfort measures for labor or ways to cope with the contractions. In our second meeting, we review all this and also start talking about how to plan for the postpartum period. What to expect, who will be there for support, where are the gaps that they can fill in. So that's all prenatally. Once a client is in labor, I provide phone support throughout the early stages of their labor, giving support and advice for different positions to try, advice on when to start heading to the hospital, when to join them.
And then I provide in-person support once they're in the active portion of their labor, and I stay with them throughout their whole labor, however long that might be until they give birth. Also provide a few hours of support postpartum just to make sure that they're transitioning well. And that postpartum period is also really critical too, in terms of the health of the mom and baby. So looking at, making sure that everything is transitioning well.
Sy Hoekstra: And if I remember right kind of helping Gabrielle process the birth experience and talk through it and all that was another, I think, important thing you did postpartum that helped us a lot.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Absolutely. Yeah. So in addition to staying like a few hours after the baby is born wherever that is, if it's the hospital or at home, I also provide a postpartum visit at the client's home, usually anywhere between three and ten days after the birth to do exactly that. Just to check in on them, process the birth, answer any questions, and so on.
Gabrielle Apollon: Well, Sy, I don't know what you were going to say, but I think not recognizing ahead of time how much it would feel like such a whirlwind and not having the space to process as it's happening, that space really was incredibly valuable to be like, “Wait, what just happened?”[laughter] and making space for that.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. Right. Because you're in it and it's just hard to know. One, it's hard to remember everything, right? Because one, it can happen so fast and you're on low sleep and all these things are happening. So yeah, a lot of that conversation is like, okay, this is a timeline of what happened [laughs]. And usually people are surprised. They're like, “What?...
Gabrielle Apollon: Yes.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: …I thought that was like two minutes and it was really two hours.” Whatever it is.
Sy Hoekstra: I actually remember that specifically being helpful. You like writing down a timeline. You were taking notes during the whole birth, and then just like seeing those notes and being like, oh, interesting. That's when that happened. [laughter]. Because nobody was asleep and, Gabrielle wasn't, But a lot of people are on a lot of drugs [laughter] at the time too, so it's helpful.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah.
Jonathan Walton: So now that we know what a doula is, we would love to know one, why did you decide to become a doula? And like, as you were talking about all these things, how does your faith and spiritual practices influence the work that you do as a doula?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah, that's a really good question. So I knew nothing about birth and pregnancy and postpartum until I got pregnant [laughs]. Absolutely nothing.
Gabrielle Apollon: Same [laughter].
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah, and I think that's the case for most people. So there was a huge learning curve in the beginning for me. I did have some friends who had babies, and they recommended taking a childbirth ed class, so I did that. And with that I felt, okay, I have more knowledge, I feel more empowered, I kind of have a sense of what's to expect. And so with that, me and my husband Evan, we felt good with okay, we know kind of what to expect, we're prepared, all that stuff. Fast forward kind of to the later periods of my pregnancy, I just had a few run-ins with some of the providers that I had that didn't sit well with me. They made me feel like I was making the wrong choices and things like that. And I was like, “Where is all this coming from?” Because up until that point, everything was fine.
And so it wasn't until those later weeks that I was like, you know what, maybe we should get a doula [laughs]. We had learned about them in our class, but I didn't necessarily think much of it. Also, a lot of the doulas that I saw in the class were mostly White, and I was like, “I don't know what this thing is that White people are doing.” [laughter] I was like, “That's not for me, I guess. I don't know.” But anyway, fast forward, I did get connected to a few doulas of color, they exist. And yeah, I decided to have one for my birth, and I think that really made a huge difference in our support. My birth wasn't necessarily traumatic or anything, but it was long and there was a lot that happened. So just what I described earlier, being able to have that other perspective in the room to kind of check in with, to guide us when we had to make decisions, and also just to give my partner a break, it just made the experience a lot smoother.
And I remember specifically after the birth, it’s common after the birth to kind of get chills and kind of shake a lot just because of the different hormone changes that are happening in your body. And I remember feeling like, “What is happening to me?” And I distinctly remember my doula placing her hand on me and being like, “This is okay, this is normal.” And just that reassurance is so… it just made me feel back in my body, like, okay, like I am present. This is okay. So, yeah, just, it's hard to put a value on that kind of support. So it was just really yeah, helpful to have. Anyway, so that experience and also knowing that we were pretty privileged to be able to pay for a doula last minute and have them at our birth.
When I was a couple months postpartum, I couldn't stop learning about everything birth.
And so I took my first training at that point with Ancient Song because they did have an emphasis on equity and working with marginalized communities, and that's something that I wanted to incorporate it in my work if I was to become a doula. So yeah, that's where I started.
Gabrielle Apollon: The whole thing about just actually having no idea of what is going to happen because you've never done this before, and having someone in the room who has not only done it before sometimes, but also has been to so many other births was like deeply reassuring.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. One thing that happened with us is we were really early on and Gabrielle was hooked up to all of the monitoring machines. We were supposed to have wireless monitoring at our hospital, but the hospital was so full that night that we had to be hooked up to machines. And Gabrielle was just like, “I need to go to the bathroom.” And I was like, “Well, how do we do that? Because you're hooked up to all these machines. I guess we gotta call the nurse.” And before I could do anything, Jenn is just like, “Okay,” and just unplugs her from all the machines and was like, “Let's go.” I was like, “We can do that?”
Sy Hoekstra: But yes, you can totally do that. Of course you can. Now I know that’s no problem at all. But just like Gabrielle said, having somebody there who has been through this and knows what they're doing and knows all the boundaries and whatever is incredibly helpful.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. So in regards to my faith, my faith impacts my work deeply because it's a big part of who I am. There's so much unknown and so much to know in this work that I find myself relying heavily on my relationship with God and discernment to prepare myself before I meet with someone, whether that's a prenatal meeting or postpartum or at the birth. Or as I think about what questions I need to ask them, or even what to say in the moment. This work is a gift of service. Actually, the word doula means a woman who serves in Greek. Actually, some people say slave, and so that's why I have some trouble saying the word doula sometimes. But anyway, to make sure that I'm not serving from an empty place, I have to be filling myself up regularly.
Gabrielle Apollon: And I think that, for me as someone of faith too, having a doula who I knew was praying for me and who, even these, you gave me these like little cards with scriptures on them, but women of color, and I don't know why, but those, I just like clung to at various… I mean, I do know why, but you know what I mean? Just seeing that and having that type of encouragement too, really did mean a lot. And I know we'll talk about this further and later on, but I really struggled with a lot of fear and anxiety about childbirth. And by fear, I mean like terror [laughs]. And I don't know, I think that that part was critical for me to know that one, and in large part because of what we're talking about today, right? The role of racism and the treatment of Black women in these spaces.
And so one, to be able to delve into that with you, but two, to also be like, yeah, this isn't only up to us and I really need Jesus to come through because I, just wrestling with all those things. So, yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: Could you, Jenn, give us kind of an overview, speaking of what Gabrielle just said, of some of the issues that we see when we're looking at disparities for Black women and birthing people in the healthcare system, and then maybe an idea of some of what you actually see, because you are serving obviously clients of all races at the same hospitals in New York City. So can you give us an idea of kind of the differences that you see between your White and BIPOC clients?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. So I think most people you read the headlines and you see, and you know that Black mothers tend to have the worst outcomes in regards to pregnancy out of all groups, even when you take into account income. There's a New York Times article that came out earlier this year that really went in depth into that. To me, that suggests that the problems are pervasive and structural in the system of healthcare. It's not necessarily just one part, but it's also a reflection of our larger society as well. For example, I've heard countless stories of women receiving microaggressions when they're getting cared for, adding to an already stressful period as Gabrielle mentioned. Now you have people questioning your competence, your identity and that's not something that people need to be dealing with when they are about to bring a new life into this world.
Gabrielle Apollon: I mean, I think I appreciate you bringing up that article because I think some of the things that shock me are the realities that Black women are three to four times more likely to die from complications surrounding pregnancy and childbirth than White women, and as you mentioned, even if you control for income or education. So I think in that article there was a recent study in California and they followed, I think it was like a decade of births, and they still found that the richest Black mothers and babies were twice as likely to die from childbirth as the richest White mothers and babies. Which is staggering to me for all sorts of reasons. We've seen in the news, we've heard about Beyoncé, Serena Williams, literally the most famous Black women kind of on earth [laughs] or at least in America, having these issues and being, having to fight for their concerns to be heard.
And so I think, again, we'll go into this, but just the realities, if you're bringing all of that information into your own experience of trying to get ready to have a baby, yeah, they're terrifying.
Jonathan Walton: Yeah. Also too, we just had an Olympian pass away from, Tori Bowie, like shedding another lens. It's like, it's not about if you're athletic, it's not about if you're wealthy, we actually need to address racism. I think it's really helpful that more articles are coming out because to debunk the automatic myth that we would already would automatically like come up. It's like, it must have been this, it must have been this, it must have been that. Like, no, like it's actually about White supremacy and anti-Blackness.
Sy Hoekstra: Since that New York Times article was kind of the spark for Gabrielle's inspiration for this episode, I will put that in the show notes if anyone wants to read it. It is sad, but very good.
Gabrielle Apollon: I think the last thing I'll say about the article, but one of the reasons why it did spark this is because I think sometimes we do hear about Black maternal health outcomes. And so we're talking about unfortunately deaths of the mother or the baby or c-section rates. But it's not often captured what you were mentioning earlier, Jenn, like the microaggressions that, not even micro a lot of times, but just the aggressions that occur to women, Black women and women of color when they're experiencing labor or delivery that aren't captured anywhere. So I'm just going to give an example because, and it was helpful for me, Jenn, and feel free to share if you have additional thoughts, but it was helpful for me when you were like, “I've never seen anybody do this before.”
And I'll share what happened. So during my birth, I had no idea how long I was pushing for. But as I was starting to push, oftentimes you have people hold your legs so that you can focus on pushing. And one of the nurses who, to be fair, I don't know…. I think I'm not the only one who sometimes you just kind of have a Spidey-sense when it comes to racism. Somebody walked in the door and I was like, “I don't know why, but I don't love that person and I would love for her to leave.” But I'm literally giving birth. So I'm like, “alright, I guess I have other things I should focus on.” So I just let it be until I'm pushing or I'm about to push. And she moves Sy out of the way, she says he needs to go to the other side. And so then that leg is like, no one's there to hold it.
So I think I asked her, I said, “Can somebody hold my legs or something?” She was standing right there and she said, “I don't hold legs.” And so at that point I had to hold my own leg. And I was like, I mean, I've never done this before, but this seems weird. So, but the kind of aggression and the animosity with which she said it, I was like, “Yep, my Spidey-sense was right. I don't know why, but this just doesn't feel right.” So after the fact I talked about this with Jenn and Jenn was like, “Yeah, I've never seen that before.” I don't know if you have additional thoughts, but that was just one experience where I was like, yeah. Ah [laughs].
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah, I had said that I'd never seen that before. Because usually it is kind of part of the process. Particularly in a hospital, you don't necessarily need somebody to hold your legs, but in a hospital setting when you're on your back, like that is what they do. And for the most part, nurses just do that. That's just part of their job. Usually I'm on one side, nurse is on the other, the partners by the head if there's a partner, right? That's just kind of the deal that happens in hospitals. And so like Gabrielle said, it was just her unwillingness and then just the animosity in which she said it was very, very strange. Luckily, she, I think left or was just like doing some charts, but yeah, that was really unfortunate and I'm sorry that that happened to you.
Gabrielle Apollon: Thank you. I guess a question, and I think this was a question that Jonathan mentioned before. Are there any other differences that you sometimes see in the treatment of your White and or Black clients? Because I think for us sometimes we're like, “is this in my head?”
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah, absolutely.
Gabrielle Apollon: A lot of times you're wondering, but I know you've been there in the same facilities seeing different clients be treated. So just curious about that.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: I think the thing that comes to mind the most for me is that when someone questions something or has a problem or makes requests, if they're a person of color that is automatically seen as a more aggressive statement or it's met with a lot more resistance as opposed to my White clients. For example, I remember this particular hospital, I remember the first time I was at a birth with a White client, and she made all these requests, all the nurses were super happy to serve her all these things. And it was like, there were no problems. I was like, “Wow, this is an experience.” Because I think I was there I think not even two weeks ago at the same hospital with a Black client and it was night and day. She had to repeatedly ask for what she needed, she wasn't listened to.
And so when that happened, I was like, “Yeah, you can't deny this.” And it's not in your head [laughs]. It's not in your head, we see it.
Jonathan Walton: In those moments, what does advocacy look like with all of that in mind? What does it look to advocate for your clients?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: For me, advocacy and my clients, it starts before we get into the room because we have to prepare for that. One, it's like knowing that this is a reality and what you might face. So that starts with clients taking their childbirth education classes and us talking about it in our prenatal meetings and practicing things to say if these situations arise. In the hospital, I tell clients that they are to speak for themselves. I don't necessarily speak for on their behalf unless like it's absolutely needed and, or after repeated requests are not listened to, but making sure that they have the time to one, decide what it is that they want, and then communicate those desires to their doctor. Say for example, the doctor comes in and they want to break the client's water, which is a very common intervention that is offered and let’s say you want to wait. So asking for more time.
If the doctor's resistant, I usually tell clients, Hey, can they have a moment to think about it, just so you have time to discuss it with your partner without the doctor present. Because that also, there's a power dynamic there. You can't openly discuss your concerns and feelings when you know this person is just sitting there waiting on you to make a decision that you know that they want you to make. And so asking for that space I think is important, so then you can then go back and ask and make that request for more time if you need it.
Sy Hoekstra: Regroup and do it more maybe forcefully.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yes.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.
Gabrielle Apollon: And it's just helpful to know that that's an option. Because everything feels so urgent in hospital settings that you're like, “Okay, I must do this now.” And then someone's like, “Hold on, you might be here for like legitimately 28 hours,” AKA my birth [laughter].
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah, that a, yeah.
Gabrielle Apollon: Yeah, Go ahead.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: No, no, I was going to say that's a good point because yeah, the urgency piece. And I think that's why people just kind of be like, “Yeah, yeah.” Because of course nobody wants to put themselves in harm or their baby in harm's way. But they throw that at you like that's something that you want to do, and it's a fear tactic, but…
Sy Hoekstra: Like not listening to them is equivalent to putting your baby in harm's way. So if you're questioning them or anything, then you're going to get hit with that thought from them. And then that thought just comes, it's like racism makes the pathway for that thought a lot smoother, right?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: It's like you don't care. You're less caring or less, I don't know, maternal or less thoughtful or whatever because you're one of our Black patients.
Gabrielle Apollon: I was going to say, I think one of the things… we keep talking about this article, so everyone should read it, but one of the things that it mentioned was because you're constantly thinking you have to think about the racism, you have to think about your child's health, you have to think about all these things, even when you do want to advocate or you do want to ask more questions, you are thinking about how you're going to be perceived, like Jenn, you were mentioning. So you're thinking, okay, is this going to make me seem, and I felt like this practically every time I had to encounter somebody who was not my OB because I did pick an OB who was a Black woman who I really like thanks to Jenn's recommendations.
But there are lots of other people that you have to navigate and interface with. But I'm thinking, okay, is this one question too much? Is this going to make them dislike me? Is this going to make them, like, is this going to perpetuate stereotypes that will make me have worse care? And those are all questions that you're like, oh my gosh, this is overwhelming.
Sy Hoekstra: Along those lines, Gabrielle, one of the things then that I think that Jenn did that was super helpful was like, this isn't, maybe not directly advocating, but like all the stuff that she did to make you comfortable. Like puts you in a position where it makes it easier for you to, like when some of your needs are already taken care of, or like when you have people there who are going to back you up or whatever. For instance, the moment we got into the room, Jenn just went to work. Like opening all the cupboards, figuring out where the hot packs are, you know what I mean? Doing a bunch of things to get us in a position to just focus on you and what you need and not have to rummage around or ask more questions of the nurses and doctors.
Just taking a bunch of that burden off of you, I think is another way that then allows you to do the advocacy that she has already prepared you to do. Would you say that that makes sense?
Gabrielle Apollon: Totally.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. A big part of what I tell people is, yes, you can have a doula at your birth, but if you don't trust your doctor, there's only so much that we can do as doulas. And so that is really the number one priority, finding a provider that you feel comfortable with, that you feel heard and seen with. I can tell…So I had a client once who, I had that conversation with her. We were discussing her doctor, and she was like, “I don't love her.” And I was like, “Well, you don't have to stay with her. You can always change.” But this particular client had a particular condition where she was seeing other specialists, and because of her insurance, it was just too hard to change doctors. And I get that. And so I said, okay, that's fine. We will just, we'll do the best that we can.
And sure enough, the feelings that this client had about this doctor played out in labor, where she was progressing beautifully, her contractions were coming, she was completely without any interventions, and we get to the hospital. She was doing fine and things were progressing and the doctor asked to break her water. And we were like, “Oh, we're progressing and things are fine. We'll just wait. Let's just wait.” And she did give us more time, but then she came back again in an hour or two and was more insistent about wanting to break her water. And we were like, “There's nothing wrong.” But even having to have that interaction with her doctor completely stopped her labor. Like her labor just stopped because she was put under unnecessary stress.
When your body is in stress or fight or flight mode, that will stop your labor because your labor, in order to give birth, you need to feel calm, you need to feel safe, you need to feel secure. And that is the opposite of how this person made her feel. And so that was just one of like a really unfortunate example of how much these small interactions and things can really impact a person's labor.
Gabrielle Apollon: Yeah. I mean, I'm very grateful for the recommendation you gave me. And even to be fair, from the beginning I was like, “I'm going to find myself a Black woman, an OB,” and I had found one, and I actually asked the question, this was prior to your recommendation. I had asked the question how do you deal with the reality of Black maternal health outcomes? And she was kind of like, “Well…” didn't really respond openly, it felt like, or at least validated my concern. And I was like, this is interesting because you're a Black woman, and I don't know why that was such a weird interaction. And I was like, I'm not trying to have somebody who hasn't thought through this stuff, because that's constantly on my mind.
So I'm sure…I've heard good things, I'm sure she was totally fine, but that didn't sit right with me. And when I went to see the person that you recommended, she was just like, spot on ready, had done all this work, and I was like, okay, this makes me feel better. Because that doctor is also the one that's going to have to advocate for you when the other doctors are on call, have questions, when the nurses, et cetera. So I think that it really matters how are people actually equipped to deal with this particular issue? That being said, because it's in the news a lot more these days, people also… I was concerned when I was thinking about the other people that were going to provide me support. I was like, all right, how do I know if they're just going to be like, “Oh yeah, this is an issue,” but like, not actually have really grappled with it or whatnot.
And so I think I asked you this question or a combination or a version of this question. But my question for you is how can a Black woman determine that a doula is aware of and knows how to advocate for their Black clients as opposed to just providing lip service and saying, “Oh yeah, we know this is an issue?”
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: By asking them like you did and like you did with that doctor. And I think, that it's a really good point that just because a person is a person of color doesn't necessarily mean that they have thought through this for themselves and are aware of it. And that there's a variety of reasons for that. And going back to what you said earlier when you shared your experience in the hospital about having a Spidey-sense. When you interview a doula or you're interviewing your doctor or anybody, you can ask them outright and see how they respond. Does it make them uncomfortable or are they comfortable talking about it? Have they thought it through? That'll give you a good sense of whether this doula is the right fit for you and will also give your doula a good idea if they're the right one for you too.
I think you can get a lot from those initial interviews when you speak to a doula, and again, just kind of, you're kind of looking to just connect and look for someone who you can trust, so relying on your intuition, your Spidey-sense if you will. Other questions you can ask about, you can ask about where they trained or why they took the training they took or why they got into this work. Those are great questions to ask when you're interviewing someone.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. It sounds a little bit like just being unafraid to ask those questions. Like just be straightforward with what you need and see what the response is. I think that's good advice.
I want to talk about how partners can be helpful. And I should be clear that when I say partners, I don't just mean husbands because A, you could have a queer couple, but B, you could also just have anybody with you at the hospital. It could be your cousin or sibling or mom or whoever. How can partners be helpful as advocates? And a question for me in particular, White partners, how can we be helpful as advocates when we are trying to help out birthing people of color? And I'll just say briefly, I think this question's important because not everybody has access to a doula or not everybody has, someone like that they can bring in. So what's your advice for us?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah, I think partners are key because you know your partner best. Be clear on what your partner's needs and desires are, and don't hesitate to communicate that to your doula or your providers or whoever is on the birth team, whoever you select to be on your team. And that goes with if a person is birthing either by themselves, thinking through who is a friend or a family member that you can kind of bring along with you on this journey if hiring a doula is not feasible. The good thing is that in New York City now, they are paying more attention to this and there are quite a few programs that are providing access to doula care for certain people who live in certain neighborhoods. That's an option too. So different community organizations like Healthy Start in Brooklyn, the Bronx Health Link.
And now there's a whole citywide doula initiative that has partnered with a bunch of doula agencies across the city to be able to provide free or low cost doula services to clients of color in particular neighborhoods. So yeah, tapping into those community resources. I would also say educating yourself on the process as much as you can. And remembering that also you're going through your own process with this life change. So being mindful of that and getting the support for yourself too, whether it's another family member or a friend. Making sure that you are at your best so that you can support your partner too.
Sy Hoekstra: The education thing is key, like getting a good comprehensive probably multi-part birthing class. Boy, I learned a lot [laughter]. And there are lots of birthing classes that get offered to you that are just like two and a half hours at a hospital. No, not enough [laughter]. There's so much stuff to learn about just the labor and delivery process. Forget the actually taking care of the baby process [laughs].
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. And the thing about the hospital classes is that they just teach you how to be a good patient at the hospital. It's not comprehensive as you said. So there's lots of really great community organizations that offer that more comprehensive education.
Gabrielle Apollon: And I will say, especially in the, but those comprehensive classes, there's so much information that gets thrown at you that I was like, okay, thank goodness I'm not the only one that has to try to remember everything. Sy thankfully has a better memory than me and there were things he'd be like, “Ah, yes, they said this in the birth class.” And I was like, “Phhew, glad you remember that because I definitely don't.”
Gabrielle Apollon: So having someone go through that with you was really helpful. So we've mentioned just these statistics, these articles, just the fact that, I think for good reason Black maternal health outcomes are being discussed more. But that being said, that does bring a lot of fear and anxiety and trepidation to the people who as like me, who are the “subjects” of those stats and whatnot that you're like, oh, the stats and the outlook is kind of terrifying. And as I mentioned before, I had a lot of fear and anxiety and my mom had some childbirth complications. So you're coming into this experience that's supposed to be beautiful and amazing and whatnot with a lot of and I would say probably justified fear.
So I'd love to know Jenn, how do you balance kind of talking or thinking about these issues with your Black clients and the reality that confronting these things and addressing these can create stress, which as you said, you don't really want as you're going through this process. And how do you do that without taking away from the joy and the happiness component that is supposed to also accompany this process of having a child?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. I find that I usually don't have to bring it up. Because most people, especially if they are a person of color and they're looking for a doula, they know the statistics and they know the headlines. They know the stories that their friends have told them or things that they've witnessed themselves if they've ever attended a friend's or a family member's birth. So I make it my job just to make space to hear their particular concerns or worries and just try to be present with them through it. Obviously it's not something that we can solve in a day, but being able to attempt to make people feel seen, known, and loved is my goal in these conversations. I'm human so I don't get it right a hundred percent of the time, but that's what the standard should be in any type of care.
It's what Jesus says, it's how people feel when they meet with him. So being able to meet someone in their place of fear and anxiety of just being present with them and walking through it I think is how I just try to walk with them through it. And along with that, I think we have to intentionally center joy. The theme of this year's Black Maternal Health Week was, “our bodies belong to us: restoring Black autonomy and joy.” You have to make it a choice to center joy. Especially as followers of Jesus, we have access to this joy even if our lives are falling apart and the world is on fire as it often is, we still have access to this joy. And I don't mean this in a toxic positivity way, [laughter] you know what I mean? Like it could be, I don't know.
These past few years were really hard, and I feel like I've personally just started to understand what it means to have joy in every circumstance. So trying to remind clients to stay present. I like to open my prenatals with clients making or just saying what they're grateful for that day and centering joy without dismissing the pain. Because I think that's often what happens in church. We just try to pretend the pain isn't there, but it is. But we can have joy too.
Jonathan Walton: Absolutely. And so like Gabrielle was just talking about how the fear is very real and she said earlier that she'd never been in a church setting where this was brought up at all. So how do you think the church can support Black women on this journey of motherhood beyond just talking about it [laughs]? Are there concrete steps that church and spiritual leaders can take?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: [exhales] Yeah. This is a hard question.
Jonathan Walton: Big sigh [laughter]. No worries; go ahead.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Well, I think partly because it depends on the church. But I think one, in recognizing that microaggressions and aggressions exist in churches too. So I think it all starts with being mindful of your biases and actually listening to people, listening for what they need instead of assuming for them. I don't know. I need help with this question Gabrielle.
Gabrielle Apollon: Oh, I have thoughts.
Gabrielle Apollon: Well, I think one of the things I was thinking about and the reason I was like, oh, wow, I've literally never heard this talked about. And I think we should probably say like, I have gone, I did grow up going to Black churches as a kid and then was mostly at I mean predominantly White churches. And I think about some of the things that we've more recently started to talk about related to motherhood, right? So I think we hear a little more about infertility, adoption, fostering, things like that, which I think are wonderful that we're expanding the scope of what it means to grapple with this journey of either motherhood or parenting. But the fact that I have never heard [laughs] anybody acknowledging the differences, and I think the intersectionalities in terms of motherhood and race and all of those things, I think speaks volumes.
And I think it especially speaks volumes after people have had these experiences, but might not have the spaces to talk about it. I think back to what you were, I think Sy mentioned earlier about Jenn giving me the space to talk about this, including what happened with this nurse and whatnot and making… I think one of the things that could be useful is one, for pastors and staff to really understand these realities. To understand that this is what various members of your congregation might be experiencing or grappling with as you ask how they can pray for you, as you ask how things went after, et cetera. But making room for that. And I'm going to leave maybe some more space for Jonathan as one of these kind of spiritual leaders to maybe share as well. But I think that's a big part.
But also I think that as we know, a lot of churches need to step up and do more related to social justice and speak out against these things. So I don't think that it should just be doula's work to fight and advocate for, or even doctors to fight and advocate for change in these practices. I think you should be discipling the doctors in your congregation, the people in your congregation about these realities and including in conversations about structural racism and things like that.
Jonathan Walton: Yeah, I think what's interesting about this question is the reality that it isn't just Black maternal health. It's we live in a downstream of a spirituality that has divorced the embodiment of our faith. So we could replace Black maternity with a lot of issues, just slot in the injustice. And I actually think one of our listeners, Pastor in Residence Mercedes Buchanan, when she brought up the Black maternity article from New York Times from the pulpit, she actually said, “I have never heard this mentioned before, and I am mentioning it.” And we had a segment for our service that was dedicated to thinking through and praying for Black mothers. And that is an outlier among outliers, right? So I think the minimum is mentioning, but when we do mention, hopefully that creates this space for someone to share an honest prayer request, not a filtered prayer request for the people that…I know they're going to receive that and not be as opposed to actually sharing what's going on. And so prayerfully after that space is created, the genuine space is created, then folks will step into that. Not just Black moms, but the door would open wider for people to bring their real burdens to one another in community as Jesus invites us to do.
Sy Hoekstra: To be way less spiritual and way more how I think, you could pay for stuff. Churches could…
Gabrielle Apollon: Boom [laughs].
Jonathan Walton: This is also true.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. Pay for somebody's doula. Pay for somebody's birth education class. Help them get all the diapers and the eight million things you have to buy while you're eight months pregnant.
Jonathan Walton: Yeah, canceling medical debt is a real easy thing.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, uh huh, yeah.
Gabrielle Apollon: Well, and I've seen Jenn, like you and other birth workers will sometimes do GoFundMe’s for clients who are in real need, and what would it look like for churches to come alongside and help support a birthing collective so that people can get these advocates that they really do need.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah.
Jonathan Walton: Amen to that.
Sy Hoekstra: Okay. So something that I think Gabrielle and I learned a ton about during this whole process was there's a sort of hierarchy among birth workers with OBs and other doctors at the top. And then there's kind of midwives who's, especially like their home birth work is sort of looked down upon. And then you have doulas who most of the time are not even covered by insurance [laughs]. And I'm wondering what places you see for more movement and collaboration among birth workers, both to just support individual clients or programs in hospitals, but also for systemic advocacy. Have you seen any of that, or do you see a place where that could happen?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. So yes, this artificial hierarchy does exist. But I think in order for there to be collaboration, it can't be a hierarchy. That's the issue. And I think because of the way that birth has been medicalized over the last century or so and particularly how Black midwives in the South were intentionally erased from the picture, even though they were the ones who trained doctors back in the day. That's where the knowledge came from. Now, the way that to be an OB obviously, you have to go through college, through med school, through residency. There's this whole process and they're very highly educated and they're very highly trained, and they're very, very valuable. Their contribution and knowledge is so needed. But they also, they're a specialty.
They're a part of the picture. They focus on complications, they focus on high-risk births. And that is needed for the people who need that type of care. But somehow we got to the point in our society now that everybody is being viewed through this lens and everybody doesn't need to. For the most part, most pregnant people are healthy. Pregnancy isn't necessarily a sickness, it's just a life event. It's a transition, it's a life stage change, and that's just not the way that it's seen in the healthcare system. The healthcare system is for people who are sick. So now we have this factory approach where everyone is being treated as if they're high risk. And that is part of the reason why we see all of these poor outcomes because it's creating all of this unnecessary stress.
So where I see room for collaboration, it has to start with a mindset change of doctors. Yes, they have their knowledge, but the person who is giving birth has their knowledge too. They're an expert on themselves. So there has to be more of a partnership as opposed to, “Hey, this is what you need to do,” and that's it. Like of being able to walk with people through their care and taking them into account as an individual person. That is the midwifery model of care. And there are midwives who work in the hospital too, but again, they are working within the system so there are constraints.
Sy Hoekstra: Just because this is not something that I knew before I got into learning about this stuff, when you say everyone's being treated like they're high risk, what you kind of mean is just everyone's in a hospital. You don't go to a hospital otherwise unless you have problems. And birth in and of itself is not a problem [laughs].
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Right.
Sy Hoekstra: Is that that kind of what you're getting at? Like a lot of people give birth at home and then they just give birth at home and everything's fine and there's no doctors involved.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. So like I said, OBs are trained in the high risk complications of birth. Again, knowledge that is needed. Midwives are trained in the normal part of birth, in the normal development of birth in a person who is otherwise healthy and has no other complications. A person like that does not necessarily need to be seen by an OB in high-risk care. But because there's so much fear surrounding birth in our society and the narrative that is talked about, people think that they need to be seen by an OB for the myriad of reasons of things that can go wrong. And while yes, things can go wrong, but your midwives are also well equipped to be able to catch those things and refer you to other care if you need it.
I think one of the big difference between the different models of care, if you're OB, you have like five minutes appointment once a month and it's like you barely really have time to kind of answer questions. A lot of times and oftentimes they work in really big practices and you're not sure who's going to be delivering your baby on the day of. But in midwifery care, whether you're getting that at the hospital or at home you often have more time with your midwife. Those appointments last about an hour, and they just go into more in depth of what's happening and just care for you in a more holistic manner. Because again, this isn't just a medical event, it's a life change. It's a transition. They're supporting you emotionally, physically and looking at you as a whole person as opposed to just this one narrow view.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.
Gabrielle Apollon: So I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't explicitly say again, how amazing of a doula you were and how much you transformed, I think, my experience. And so thank you again. But because you were such an amazing doula, I want to know kind of who your mentors were, are, who your teachers are in this work and kind of why you chose to follow their lead in particular.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. So as I mentioned earlier, I did my first training with Ancient Song Birth Services. They’re a birth justice organization in Brooklyn led by Chanel Porchia. And yeah, I was drawn to that training because like I said, after my birth experience and having a doula, I was like, how do other people give birth without doulas, and how is this not accessible to everybody? So they really focused their training on working with those in marginalized communities and centering them. That's what drew me to the work there because I knew, again, if I was going to be a doula, that was going to be my focus and where my heart was. I also did a mentorship program with Manhattan Birth and that's led by Tanya Wills and she's a home birth midwife here in New York City.
I don't know if you know guys know this, but most doula trainings are like a weekend [laughs]. And then they're like, “Go be a doula.” And I was like, “I need more training and support.”
Gabrielle Apollon: [laughs] What?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: And so Tanya offers a year-long mentorship program for doulas and it's amazing. In that program you also get paired with a different mentor and you're just taught more of the nitty gritty logistics and just more comprehensive. Because again, even experienced doulas say this, every birth teaches you something new. Because no birth is the same, no person is the same. Even if it's someone's first, second, or third birth, each birth is different, each experience is different. So it's humbling in that way, and also I think awesome. But yeah, you're always constantly learning.
So they have that approach there in Manhattan Birth, and I really appreciate that. And the mentor that I was paired with while I was at Manhattan Birth is Emilie Rodriguez, and she is the founder of Ashé Birthing Services, and that's one of the collectives I'm a part of today. Emilie has a really big heart for community, and she also taught me a lot about self-care and honoring boundaries for sustainability in this work. And I think definitely without her guidance, I would have burned out by now. But since we mentioned churches giving money, Ashé has a community fund that we use to fund clients who can't pay for services. So if you're feeling moved, you can check out the website and donate there.
Sy Hoekstra: What's the website?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Oh, ashebirthingservices.com. I also did a mentorship program called Conscious Birth Collective. And that was specifically for doulas of color to be mentored by other doulas of color. That was also really a crucial part of my training and shaping of my work. My mentor there was Nicole JeanBaptiste, who runs SéséBirthingFreedom, and I think Gabrielle took some of her classes.
Gabrielle Apollon: I'm going to shout out culturally competent prenatal things, because I don't love exercise in general, and when I was pregnant Zumba was my primary form of exercise, and it gets a little, at least my Zumba class got a little intense. And then I found out that the Sésé collective did prenatal dance classes and apparently winding is very good for birthing exercises [laughter], and I...
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Oh yeah, it opens up the hips.
Gabrielle Apollon: There you go. So, pro tip [laughter]. But I wouldn't have, I wasn't interested in prenatal yoga. I did have a great Pilates instructor. I'm going to shout her out, Erica. But I will say that those prenatal dance classes were it, and so, highly recommend. I'll stop there.
Jonathan Walton: Jenn, you've given so much, so much great information, and I know that there are more than what I'm about to ask you. But if an expecting mom could do three things to prepare for motherhood and for birth, what are just three pro tips that you would recommend?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: I would say hire a doula [laughter]. But if that's not possible finding someone who can accompany you on this journey, even if they don't attend the birth in person. Someone who can kind of take a child birth ed class with you, or just sit with you and talk through some of these things that you're feeling, and someone who you feel safe with and can hold space for you. I'd say that's number one, identifying who that person is in your life. Two, I would say spend time with yourself. And what I mean by this is spend time journaling with your thoughts, spend time thinking about your dreams. For some reason, pregnant people tend to dream a lot. Just take notice of the things that are coming up for you and take the time to sit with maybe things that you've been pushing away.
Because chances are that they're going to come up for you at some point throughout the pregnancy or birth. Again, this is a transition and so transitions offer opportunity for us to reflect, to let go of things that are not serving us anymore and to make room for new things. And the last thing I'd say is remember your power. You know yourself better than anyone. You don't need anyone to tell you what to do, and you know what's best for you. And just start trusting yourself again. This is going to be crucial in your journey as a parent too.
Sy Hoekstra: Those are…
Gabrielle Apollon: I have this question, but I…
Sy Hoekstra: No, I was going to end us. You go.
Gabrielle Apollon: I just didn't know if there was anything else. Sy told me I wasn't allowed to ask more questions, but I…
Sy Hoekstra: Wasn’t allowed to, is that what I said?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: We’ve got 15 minutes.
Gabrielle Apollon: I snuck one into the chat. Exactly. So I snuck one into the chat, but it's okay. You kind of answered it in the last question. But because these conversations can be so much about fear or anxiety I do want to know if you have any words of encouragement for Black women who are either pregnant or entering the stage soon.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: I don't know why this is what's coming to mind, but I've been reading through the book of Nehemiah several times this year for some reason. But in there Nehemiah has to do this task. He has to approach the king, he's scared. So he feels the fear, but he does it anyway. And I think that has stuck with me in the last few years a lot. And when I've had things that I was afraid of doing, like even honestly becoming a doula, and now I'm starting the path to midwifery school, like I was afraid to do it. There's a lot of fear surrounding births, a lot of fear surrounding the unknown, childbirth, all these things. But it's okay to feel the fear and you can do it anyway. Particularly for people who follow Jesus, he is with you throughout every step of the way, and to remember that. Yeah, feel the fear, do it anyway and center joy.
Gabrielle Apollon: Actually, I love that you mentioned that. And the verse that comes to mind in light of what you shared is that Nehemiah 8:10, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” What does that mean to bring that into this. Thank you.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: Amen.
Jonathan Walton: Amen.
Sy Hoekstra: Jenn, where can people find you or your work online?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah. So my website is waterlilybirthing.com. That's my doula page, and you can contact me if you're there. I'm starting a blog and will hopefully pay more attention to that soon [laughs]. So that'll be a space that I will just write about birth and my experiences and stories going forward. And you can also find me on Instagram at Jenn with two n’s Reynoso Ng.
Sy Hoekstra: Will the blog be on Waterlily Birthing?
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yep.
Sy Hoekstra: Cool. This has been fantastic. Thank you so much, Gabrielle, for co-hosting and for coming up with this idea. And thank you so much Jenn for being here. We really appreciate it.
Jennifer Reynoso Ng: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Gabrielle Apollon: Thank you for the work you do, Jenn.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. Thank you all so much for listening today. Just as a reminder like Jonathan said at the top, go to KTFPress.com/freemonth to subscribe to our Substack and get a free month at the beginning of it. You get our weekly newsletter with highlights for your discipleship and political education. You get the bonus episodes of this show and you support everything we do at KTF Press, trying to center and elevate marginalized voices as we leave colonized faith for the kingdom of God. As always, our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast Art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you all in two weeks.
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
Sy Hoekstra: Look, Emma, I'm editing my podcast. [bumping noises from Emma touching the mic] Oh, that's the microphone.
Gabrielle Apollon: Can you say hi?
Sy Hoekstra: Say hi.
Emma: [a baby takes a deep breath and shouts] Hi!
Sy Hoekstra: Good job! Yeah!
Gabrielle Apollon: Say, “Welcome to KTF Press.”
Sy Hoekstra: That’s not the name of the show, but yeah.
Gabrielle Apollon: Okay. “Welcome to Shake the Dust. This is a KTF podcast something, something, something.”
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, Emma, say that!
Gabrielle Apollon: [laughs] Can you say bye?
Sy Hoekstra: Say bye-bye.
Emma: [shouting] Bye!