A doula speaks out on the injustice of Black maternal mortality rates: 'The system was never really set up to support us'

Pregnancy can be a beautiful time, but it can also be filled with uncertainty and anxiety — perhaps, especially, for Black women, who face maternal mortality rates three times higher than those of white women.

To feel more supported, a growing number of Black moms-to-be are enlisting doulas — a professional labor assistant that supports the birthing parent and their partner throughout pregnancy and delivery.

For birth doula and mom of six Chanel Porchia-Albert, founder of Ancient Song Doula Services in New York City, it was discovering doulas and employing one for her first pregnancy 13 years ago that completely changed the course of her life.

“Coming from a place where I lost my mom when I was 14 years-old, I didn’t have anyone to ask questions,” Porchia-Albert tells Yahoo Life. Luckily, she happened upon a natural birth expo and "found a Black midwife and doula there," shocked at the time that they even existed.

“Everything I had seen was from a historical perspective," she recalls. "Black midwives had always centered Black birthing people and their experiences while being enslaved on plantations and really supporting families. I didn't know that we still did this and [the midwife] was like, ‘We’re still here.’”

After her own successful birth, Porchia-Albert felt inspired to learn more about doulas and how they can enhance the birthing experience for others. Then, based on a recommendation from her own birthing team, Porchia-Albert attended a doula training that she says completely altered how she viewed the approach to giving birth.

"It wasn’t just me taking a training. It was me sitting in a moment of ancestral remembrance of who I was, and what it means to have a community of support — that training was completely transformative,” she says.

Back in 2008, Porchia-Albert founded Ancient Song Doula Services, an international doula certifying organization committed to reducing the infant mortality and maternal morbidity rate by helping families to make informed decisions about their care. In addition to training doulas, the organization provides support to expectant parents during pregnancy, delivery and postpartum, even providing aftercare for families who have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth.

During this week — Black Maternal Health Week ( April 11-17) — it's important to remember that even high-profile Black women, like Serena Williams, have had near-death experiences while giving birth because doctors often dismiss their concerns.

“The system was never really set up to support us," says Porchia-Albert, noting that one look no further than the history of inequality in the medical system to understand why some Black women have to take extra steps to feel safe. "Before, we didn’t even have access to go into the hospital. So we think about desegregation and you’re saying now you can go into these spaces, but then the people that were there were never really taught what it means to care for Black bodies."

Chanel Porchia-Albert with her family. (Photo: Instagram @chanel_porchia)
Chanel Porchia-Albert with her family. (Photo: Instagram @chanel_porchia)

“I started to see the way that Black birthing people and Black women were treated during their birthing experience. The ways in which racism played a role in our birth outcome. The ways in which our body wasn't centered or our voice was not heard. I wanted to create that same level of energy and warmth and joy that I felt when I was in the experience. I think a lot of times we are looking for our purpose in life. That was my purpose," says Porchia-Albert, remembering how her own doula listened to her concerns and was innately in tune with the cultural dynamics and experiences that she was bringing into her birth experience as a Black woman.

Now, when she takes on a new client of her own, she ensures that they are heard — taking into account their history, including possible substance abuse issues and past sexual traumas, so she can offer support specifically tailored to the birthing person. She's on a mission to create a safer and more equitable birthing experience for the people she works with — and for her own family.

“I want my children to grow up in a space where they feel like they have the tools that they need that that are necessary to make their own reproductive choices," says Porchia-Albert. "To me that’s just a calling from the ancestors and from the most high."