Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, the rapid closures of maternal healthcare facilities, overextended home birth midwives, and a national housing crisis that left us homeless; my husband and I took refuge in natural, home, and unassisted birth in the urban southwest and in the rural southeast. Here’s how.
By Shayla Brown
The National Problem
In April of 2020, many of my counterparts–black and birthing rural women in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi–feared giving birth in hospitals because of the very new and very contagious COVID pandemic that shut down or upturned most businesses and institutions across the country.
Faced with a lack of alternative options, these women opted, we are told in a Stateline article, to “risk it all and have an unassisted home birth”. These same women, the subjects of the article, are referred to as “desperate”, and though the article admits that these women are researching unassisted Homebirth (only after discovering a shortage of midwives and birthing centers) the women are still, somehow, merely entertaining a “very scary” decision that they have no business considering because “it can go left pretty fast.”
While I understand the concern raised at the thought of rural women birthing unassisted at home in Mississippi (the state with the nation’s poorest birthing outcomes), I cannot reconcile completely discouraging any women from making a possibly well-informed choice that they have a right to make. As a woman who has given birth at home—both with midwives and unassisted—I argue that with thoughtful planning and proper support, contrary to fear-stoking beliefs, unassisted birth in rural Mississippi could also go right.
The Road To Unassisted Birth
In 2013 after being married for a year, my husband and I entertained the idea of starting a family so I read the following books to assist our efforts:
- Honoring Our Cycles
- Sacred Woman
- Heal Thyself
- African Holistic Health
At the very beginning of our journey, however, one night I was jolted awake by cramps that wrapped from my lower back to my lower abdomen and I started to bleed. The next day though the cramps had subsided, the bleeding had not, so I cut my full-time workday short to visit a clinic 2 minutes away from my job in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. I couldn’t afford health insurance but I wasn’t sure I qualified for Medicaid so having no insurance at all, the free clinic was my best option.
My husband met me at the clinic and when we both met the nurse-midwife assigned to care for us, she was rude, mean, and attributed the state of my health to chips, cookies, and sodas–none of which I ate. She assumed my husband was my “friend” and scolded me as if I was a foolish and disobedient child. Before coming to this clinic, I had taken a pregnancy test still hopeful that my efforts were fruitful, only to learn that I wasn’t pregnant. My findings were confirmed at the clinic when the nurse-midwife also told me her test revealed I wasn’t pregnant. She mentioned, though that she had detected tissue in my blood, but ignored that detail as if it were irrelevant. Paralyzed by hurt, I didn’t defend myself against her attacks and instead, I left feeling emotionally violated and I was still confused about what my body was going through.
Luckily though, it didn’t take an extensive Google search to find that what I was experiencing was an early miscarriage. After so easily finding my own answers, I realized that navigating my own health wasn’t such a far-fetched idea; especially when my only other option was a medical system notorious for ignoring, misdiagnosing, or altogether mistreating me. That began my journey of figuring out my health for myself.
The Unassisted Birth Decision
Seven years, 3 homebirths, and 1 hospital birth later, my husband and I discovered we were pregnant for the 5th time in February of 2020. Hospitals, which I had experienced as both a birthing mother and as a doula, were definitely not an option at the onset of COVID-19; neither were birth centers since they too are communal spaces where COVID-19 can also spread. I hired a midwife for Homebirth, but she required blood testing by a corporate laboratory, which would expose my baby, my 4 other small children, my husband, and me to the increased risk of contracting COVID-19 so this was not a safe enough alternative for us either. With no better prospect, my husband and I decided on unassisted homebirth.
With its contagion and threat of sickness, the COVID-19 pandemic brought something else: rental inflation exacerbated in our neighborhood by gentrification. Our rent kept rising and though our ability to pay never faltered, our landlord pushed us to leave so he could remodel his duplex to match the new development happening around his property. Twice we received certified mail giving us 30 days to evacuate, and while one notice was halted by a state-mandated eviction ban, the second was situated perfectly between the lift of the ban and its reinstatement; and so we uprooted our family’s life and drove 22 hours from Tempe, Arizona where we lived at the time back home to Columbus, Mississippi while we were 8 ½ months pregnant.
Under these circumstances: in another state with even fewer maternal health resources and alternatives; at the end of a pregnancy when finding and switching providers could be difficult; between insurances; and in the middle of a highly contagious virus; unassisted birth was the absolute best option, and understanding how to navigate it saved us money, time, and undue stress in an already stressful situation.
Consequently, our 5th son was born healthy the next month in his grandparents’ home surrounded by his family and welcomed across social media by a growing birthing community. We were even invited to recount our story as part of the newly released season 2 of NATAL Podcast.
In their retelling, the NATAL Podcast team explains how our story is a part of the larger narrative of black families birthing in places like Mississippi. The rural black family’s seemingly sudden interest in unassisted homebirth is the culmination of a long history of disrespect for black birthing traditions, systematic obstetric abuses, and a long-ago lost power over what happens in and to birthing black bodies. It is also a response to a steadily increasing lack of access to maternal health care in rural areas.
So while some professionals suggest that unassisted Homebirth is unsafe and that the Mississippi Department of Health should “discourage” it because it “isn’t the best option”, the Mississippi Department of Health should instead consider encouraging and supporting families’ efforts because, like it or not, unassisted homebirth is in growing demand across America and a birthing black family in Columbus, Mississippi is an encouraging example and a promising voice leading the conversation.