Images from the outside world told the story of pain, unrest and injustice, but the images taken inside the birth center that night told a story of safety, support and a woman in control of her surroundings.
Anya Jones welcomed her first child, a son, earlier this month at the Gentle Beginnings Birth Center in Hurst, Texas. Photographer Elaine Baca documented the birth experience as other photographers were documenting Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country. Baca’s lens was aimed at the beginning of a Black life while so many other cameras saw authorities taking aim at protesters who want to protect Black lives.
“For me to be birthing another Black man into America right now, I feel privileged,” Anya tells Motherly. “We as a generation have to teach our kids that they do have a voice.”
As a younger mother—and especially as a Black mother—21-year-old Anya was very much at risk for having her voice silenced during her birth experience. Moms under 30 are more likely to report being mistreated or have their concerns ignored by medical providers while in labor, which can lead to deadly consequences. Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die during or after pregnancy or birth compared to white mothers.
That’s why Anya choose to have a midwife supported birth in a birth center. The midwives with My Sister’s Keeper Birth & Midwifery Services, Kennasha Jones and Tereé Fruga, were there to support Anya in a place where she would feel safe and in control of her birth.
“Being able to birth at a birth center and have my support system there for me was a blessing,” says Anya (who has a family connection to My Sister’s Keeper, Kennasha is her step mother).
She continues: “I got to have everyone that I wanted to have there and I felt really blessed because the majority of women now are having to have their babies in the hospital with just one person.”
Anya was able to have not just her partner, but also her midwives and her doula, Ebon’Nae Piggee of Royal La Mere Birth Services, present for her birth. As a first-time mom, she found that having such a strong support system allowed her to feel the control that pregnant people should feel in the delivery room and recommends other moms seek out midwives and doulas. (Those looking for Black birth support workers in their area can check out sistamidwife.com.)
“She walked into motherhood on her own,” says Kennasha, who adds that that’s what midwifery is about, guiding and empowering a woman in her choices. She continues: “And I wanted her to be proud of that and to acknowledge the strengths that was already within her, the wisdom already within her.”
Anya’s midwives want people who look at the images of this birth to understand that there are two dangers impacting Black mothers’ birth experiences right now: The coronavirus and racism. And racism has been more deadly than COVID-19 on maternity wards.
“I truly believe is that every care provider everywhere needs to be subject to a requirement of diversity inclusion and bias training,” explains Fruga. She is worried about the high mortality rates for Black mothers but highlights how system racism doesn’t just impact adults mortality, but the babies’, too.
“Studies show that even in the neonatal care units, that Black babies are less likely to receive timely care measures,” she explains.
A very large body of research proves that Black infants are the most at risk in NICUs, and receive lower quality care. Black infants are more likely to end up in lower-quality NICUs, but they can also receive lower quality care compared to white babies, even in better resourced NICUs.
In an editorial for the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Wanda Barfield, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and her colleagues explains “these findings are not surprising given that clinical care operates in a social context of structural racism and implicit bias,” adding that racist myths about Black infants having better rates of survival need to be addressed. According to Barfield, health care systems need to commit to taking steps toward equity, something that includes better anti-racism training for staff.
Anya’s midwives agree.
“Black babies are 230% more likely to die before their first birthday,” says Fruga. “And you do the research on that and you strip away every varying factor, like economic status, at the root of it is systemic racism. And so until we are diligent about addressing that part—by that addressing systemic racism about putting tools in place and making sure our providers are not only culturally competent, but that they’re providing anti-racist care—we’re gonna continue to have a problem.”
Jones says that racism in birth is a huge issue but that her practice “stands firmly on hope.”
Anya’s midwives note that she walked into motherhood on her own, but they were happy to support her do that and hope to see more women have the kind of empowered birth experience Anya did. One of the final photographs from Baca’s set shows Anya’s family gathered around her. Her father is wearing a T-shirt her midwives created with the Issa Rae quote “I’m rooting for everybody Black” and several of her family members are wearing face masks.
“I did spend the end of my pregnancy in quarantine. I worked from home I really didn’t get to go out. I didn’t get to see my family. I didn’t get to have a baby shower. It was kind of sad at first, but it really allowed me to rest myself and get ready for the birth experience,” Anya explains.
It’s an incredibly powerful image of a family reunited in a world separated by COVID-19 and racism.
“People rarely get to see images of Black birth, and I think in a time when our country is especially racially tense, although it’s always been, this is a really dynamic picture of hope. Because on the outside, you had riots going on, protests going on, you have the fact that Black lives are being taken from us at a rapid rate, but on the inside, in this space, you have Black lives that are being born,” says Fruga.
Fruga continues: “I think that picture is really representative of hope in the midst of tragedy and in the midst of the war of the pandemic that’s going on and not just COVID, but I’m talking about a racial pandemic. So I hope that people seeing that, that picture will have just a little bit of pulp to hold onto that it’ll allow them to take pause in the midst of their grief. And the grief is real.”
Anya’s birth photographs are a celebration of the beginning of her son’s life, but they come after so many cameras have captured the lives of other mothers’ children ending.
“It does worry me, for what the future holds for my own son,” Anya tells Motherly, explaining that she wants to see more progress in making America safer for children like hers—starting from before they are even born.