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birthing while black

After a bad birth experience, Black moms become advocates

Nubia Martin, who has an MS in Midwifery, at her home office in Yonkers July 30, 2020. Tania Savayan/The Journal News

The day after Nicole Amoako gave birth, a pediatrician, a white woman giving Amoako’s son a checkup, called him a monkey.

The incident left her speechless.

“I was just postpartum, just gave birth, naturally, vaginally, and a white doctor calls my Black child a monkey,” she said.

Amoako said that the doctor left the room and came back. Amoako thinks the Black resident accompanying the pediatrician must have said something because the doctor began apologizing profusely, saying that “monkey” is a term of endearment in her family.

“I’m like, 'Yeah, but we’re not your family and you should know that’s extremely offensive,'” she said. “It just really got me — the lack of cultural competency and personal competency. The last thing I expected was for my 1-day-old child to have to experience being called a racial slur by a doctor and (he) hadn’t even been on the Earth a full day.”

She said that she and her husband did not seek any restitution for the incident. They didn’t even notify the head nurse or any other officials.

That wouldn't be the case today. Amoako has become a doula, and she helps advocate for other women.

She's part of growing number of Black women who, after experiencing racism and bias from medical professionals, help other Black women navigate the health care profession.

“Now, if a client told me that story, I would say, ‘Let's report this doctor.’ But I didn’t. I only shared my experience a full year later. … I had really kept it to myself because I was just really glad to have my baby,” she said.

Amoako thinks that that her experience is one that a lot of mothers can relate to — they are so grateful to have their child that they don’t speak out against racist, traumatic or otherwise troubling experiences they faced.

“From other women, especially other women that were Black and identify as women of color … I recognized that their birth experiences were all very similar,” Amoako said. “Providers often were not listening to their concerns, (they) really undermined things like their own experiences with their bodies and their expressions of pain.”

Nubia Martin, who has an MS in Midwifery, gives her daughter Persephone Martin, 4, a chance to listen with the fetal stethoscope during an appointment with patient Kaia Ross-Duggan of Brooklyn. Martin cites one instance where a mother, just minutes after giving birth, turned to her and said, “Oh my God, I want to do what you just did for me for other women.”
Nubia Martin, who has an MS in Midwifery, gives her daughter Persephone Martin, 4, a chance to listen with the fetal stethoscope during an appointment... Nubia Martin, who has an MS in Midwifery, gives her daughter Persephone Martin, 4, a chance to listen with the fetal stethoscope during an appointment with patient Kaia Ross-Duggan of Brooklyn. Martin cites one instance where a mother, just minutes after giving birth, turned to her and said, “Oh my God, I want to do what you just did for me for other women.”
Tania Savayan/The Journal News

Though she cannot overhaul the system herself, Amoako can help expectant mothers with language and resources to advocate for themselves. 

Nathalie Riobè-Taylor was motivated to do the same after she was denied pain medication during her two labors.

"You start to see there are some trends with women of color," she said. "They tend to have very traumatic issues, and not being heard, not being supported. You don’t want to believe that it’s because they’re of color but it’s almost like it’s the only common thread between these women is that they’re color or non-color."

Nubia Martin
You start to see there are some trends with women of color. They tend to have very traumatic issues, and not being heard, not being supported. You don’t want to believe that it’s because they’re of color but it’s almost like it’s the only common thread between these women is that they’re color or non-color.

She also felt marginalized after her twins were born premature via C-section at Nyack Hospital. They had to be transferred to the neonatal intensive unit at White Plains Hospital.

Doctors told her her older twin was touch-and-go, and might not make it through the next few hours. She desperately wanted to be with her children — she hadn't even held them after giving birth — but doctors would not sign off on her release. A nurse told her if she ripped out her tubes and left, insurance would not pay for her procedure — and how could she afford that? 

"She said: 'Let the doctors do what they need to do,'" Riobes-Taylor said. "'You're not going to be able to pay for this.'"

She did not go. Her sisters went to be with the boys. 

Black maternity stories shared
Women and doctors share their stories of Black maternity

"I had to just hold my breath and pray," she said. 

Today, she is an advocate for moms with children in the NICU at White Plains Hospital.

“It’s so important for people to have an advocate because sometimes you just don’t know,” she said. “And it’s unfortunate that the health system should be able to give you the support systems so that (moms) can know how to be able to get what they need.”

Meredith LeJuene, 37, has 6-year-old twins and a 3-month-old little girl. After noticing a difference in her care between her first doctor, a Black OB-GYN, and her second doctor, a white one, she decided to become a doula.

"I think this is a very special time for any woman’s life so you want to make sure that things are being done right," said LeJeune, who lives in Garnerville, New York. "I want to be that advocate for women, particularly Black women, but all women. There are a lot of things that we just don't know and we don’t know to ask. It helps to have someone there who can do that work for you." 

While she was expecting, Amoako took birthing classes and hired a midwife who was in Brooklyn, an hour away from where she lived.

Still, even with her preparation, Amoako’s wishes and plans were not adhered to, and she dealt with racist comments from staff when it was time for her to give birth.

She specifically selected a hospital that had a birthing center in the facility so that she would be able to give birth in a birthing pool, which would help alleviate pains during birth. Prior to her delivery, she even toured the facility.

“It wasn’t until I was there (to give birth) that they told me that my BMI [body mass index] was too high, or indicating that I was too large, too physically large to be in the birthing pool,” Amoako said.

She said that, in referring to her size, one of the nurses called her “fluffy.”

“That was really hard to hear because you’re in the throes of labor at this point and you hear someone calling you a name,” she said.

Nicole Amoako
You think maybe it’s an issue of poverty or maybe it’s an issue of access, but here I am having access, having all of the education, but still having poor experiences and (that are) very clearly because of the color of my skin.

“You think maybe it’s an issue of poverty or maybe it’s an issue of access, but here I am having access, having all of the education, but still having poor experiences and (that are) very clearly because of the color of my skin,” she said. “Once I learned that, once I found that out, I said, 'There needs to be more of us that are sharing, more of us that are advocating for each other' and that really led me into this sort of work.”

Amoako completed a doula training program with Nubia Martin of Birth from the Earth in Yonkers. The training is a holistic program that teaches students the importance of postpartum experience and understanding cultural and historical traditions. Through the course, she also had to attend one of the new mom groups that Birth from the Earth offers. A lot of Amoako’s first clients were her friends.

Martin cites one instance where a mother, just minutes after giving birth, turned to her and said, “Oh my God, I want to do what you just did for me for other women.” The woman completed training through Birth from the Earth as soon as her postpartum period was over.

Birth from the Earth also trains people to become birth assistants. In that course, people are able to help home birth midwives because they are trained in CPR and neonatal resuscitation. The organization also offers training to become a childbirth educator.

“I think that’s the cornerstone of the work that we do — education and awareness and advocacy work," said Martin. "So many of our volunteers, interns, those on our board, are people who had a positive experience personally and then went on to professionally want to engage with their community."

Adria R. Walker covers public education for the Democrat and Chronicle in partnership with Report for America. Follow her on Twitter at @adriawalkr or send her an email at arwalker@gannett.com. This reporting is made possible by readers like you. Thank you for signing up today for a digital subscription.



The team behind this story

REPORTING: Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy, Adria Walker, Ashley Biviano

PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEOGRAPHY: Tania Savayan, Anne Marie Caruso, Joe Lamberti

PHOTO EDITORS: Carrie Yale, Sean Oates, Magdeline Bassett

EDITORS: Liz Johnson, Dan Sforza

DIGITAL PRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: Spencer Holladay, Maddi Ference, Phil Strum, Annette Meade

PRINT PRODUCTION: Scott Muller, Michael Babin