Maria the Doula on Black Maternal Health

Black women are over 3 times more likely to die from maternal causes than White women. These disparities have been reported on for over 20 years but there has been very little action to address them. April 11-17th is Black Maternal Health Week. To help raise awareness of maternal mortality, we spoke to Maria Mariscal, a doula, on her experiences of pregnancy as a Black woman and her pathway to wanting to help others. * TW: Miscarriage*

On the lack of support

My journey towards becoming a doula was highlighted through my own personal experience of pregnancy. I experienced a miscarriage, which was incredibly painful, and I felt there was a lack of support that all women faced during these harrowing times, where support is ever more necessary to see through the pain and turn it into strength. It was this lack of support that ultimately made me want to pursue this vocation.

I felt very lonely and a lot of shame. I felt confused. I had maintained good physical health until this point, yet the miscarriage had exposed my struggles to cope mentally, something I was forced to combat. It wasn’t easy, yet understandable. How do you know how to handle something that you’ve never experienced before? Up until this point, I thought I had maintained an optimum healthy lifestyle, through exercise, tracking my cycle, implementing vitamins and through my diet, which I thought were all the necessary precautions. I felt so little and sad. I felt let down by my own body. And the picture I had of myself was destroyed. I was destroyed. I wanted so much to speak openly about it all, and yet I felt a sense of rejection and that it was something I just had to get over and put on a seemingly happy face again. I felt the pressure to heal quicker than it took me to register all the pain I was experiencing. And now, I feel so utterly grateful for the resilience I have gained. I feel very humbled indeed.

‘It happens to so many, so you are not special’.

These are the words I heard without anyone saying them to me. So, I became silenced by my own mind. I couldn’t speak about it out loud for the fear of embarrassment I carried. For fear of failure in my ability to carry my baby, and so many other feelings of fear. I felt genuinely bad for myself. And because miscarriages are common in our society, I found myself silenced even more, hiding my pain and carrying on as normal as could be perceived.

‘Because, I mean, I am not special.’

As I told myself these words, I found myself speaking very briefly or brushing it off as if it didn’t matter. But it did matter. I found I had to be more compassionate to myself, something that wasn’t easy.

On finding peace

It took me ten months to find peace. Through this understanding of self, I decided to start my doula training as I knew I wanted to help others along their journey of peace. I found support through learning; and reading about other people's experiences who had lost a child, some of whom had many miscarriages. I also found support through my own strength, through my openness and kindness, and my heart. I found support through community, in knowing that I was not alone. I found support in telling myself a different narrative where I was not to blame.

On becoming a Doula

Becoming a doula has changed me. I view my trauma as something I should honour rather than be ashamed of. I have discovered myself through my training. I realise how much this pathway needed to find me to unlock my ultimate potential and just how much I have to give. I am here to help, to soothe, support, and be the backbone or a shoulder to whoever, or whomever, may go through an experience, whatever it may be. I feel so much more open, paradoxically, through my own trauma, where I was more closed off than ever because of this lack of support. The training, in hindsight has allowed me to heal, although the decision was initially a selfless one. I have a fresh set of eyes and, with that, an understanding of the health sector, of pain, subjectively, but also objectively. I want to go even deeper towards understanding how I can be the pillar of support.

I am a proud Black woman who wants to assist others as to how you go about supporting your womb. I feel very passionate about my race and in providing support for other Black women who are so often neglected because systematic racism is also rooted in the health system. Although it makes me feel uncomfortable to face the truth about the healthcare system, it is something I must acknowledge to help tackle the issues that I and so many others are facing. I have personal experiences of the differences in my treatment because of my skin colour.

On experiences in hospital

I sadly had to stay in hospital for two nights in Sweden whilst visiting my parents during my miscarriage. The hospital was empty, and yet I was there for two days, waiting for someone to come and help me. I was already feeling very vulnerable and in a low state, given what I was facing. I didn’t just want to be brushed aside and given a load of pills. I left the hospital after two nights without any help, from a place where I should be allowed to ask for help. I felt neglected, and it made me feel very empty inside. I immediately thought of my mother, who had been through a similar experience. I remember my mother returning home without any support and dealing with it similarly to the way I did. I want to break this cycle that often happens to repeat itself.

Ultimately, I want to help all women whilst also focusing on providing a safe space for Black women so that they can feel seen and heard, to remind them that their voice matters, that they matter, and their feelings are warranted, so that they can speak openly, and boldly. I advocate for equality, and I feel strongly about this being ever more essential regarding healthcare. I feel a need to become the voice for those who aren’t given one. I want them to know that I see and feel them all, their pain, and their strength through their survival. I am glad and proud of where my journey has led me; though the deepest, most painful time in my life, I opened myself and deepened my understanding of Black health and the effects this has on mental health so that I can be more equipped to help others along this journey too.  

Written by Maria Mariscal, a Doula based in South London. She works with clients to guide them through a more peaceful mindset towards their pregnancies/birth and to help educate them on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle with food whilst pregnant or trying to conceive. 

Working with a Black doula can help protect Black women from the stress and isolation of navigating primarily White spaces. For more information on Black Maternal Health, we recommend reading the U.K Women and Equalities Committee report. You can check it out here

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