Traver Riggins is playing with her toddler Charlie at home in Oakland. Riggins works as a server at a restaurant on the weekends; during the week she takes care of her daughter. She’s also a recently-trained doula.
“When I became pregnant I became very interested in natural childbirth, and I stumbled across the word ‘doula’ and I was like, ‘What’s that?’” Riggins recalls.
The word "doula" goes back to ancient Greece. Its meaning translates literally to “a woman who serves”. But it wasn’t until the '60s when the term became more widely known in English, as a woman who helps another woman through the process of childbirth. Riggins says when she learned about how a doula could help, she wanted to hire one, but financially it seemed impossible.
“The going rate for doulas was about $1,500,” she says. “And there was no way we could afford this and taking care of a baby and keeping a roof over our head.”
She found that for many women, having a doula was considered a luxury item. Studies have shown that having a doula present at birth can decrease the use of medications and Cesarean sections, but most insurance companies don’t cover the expense. This difficulty is what led Riggins to want to become a doula herself.
“It almost became an obsession: ‘I need to do this, I need to do this immediately.’ I wanted it to be a service to the community.”
She says becoming a doula was also about representing women of color, like her.
“Now looking back," Riggins says, "I was looking for more of a sisterhood. When you research doulas, anything you find online are white middle class women. I was curious to see, ‘Are there others? Am I going to be an only? Where is my space in it?’”
In downtown Oakland, Riggins discovered Black Women Birthing Justice and the Birth Justice Project. Both programs were collaborating to offer doula training for women of color and formerly incarcerated women.
Linda Jones is one of the coordinators, and a doula herself. She’s helped birth more than 1,000 babies. Jones says there’s often a surprised reaction when she mentions her job to other black women.
“They go, ‘People pay for that?’ And they say, ‘I’m gonna have my mom or sister’,” she laughs.
Although Jones has been able to laugh about some of the reactions, she also recognizes a major health care disparity. Black Women Birthing Justice found that black women are rarely educated about using doulas and midwives. They’re also least likely to access prenatal care, and more likely to deliver by Cesarean section and to suffer untreated postpartum depression. Jones says having the support of a doula can decrease some of these risks for black mothers.
“Having a baby without medication is about letting your body relax, and not fighting your body,” says Jones.
She says feeling fear and pain can make a person physically tighten up.
“If they can relax then labor is better, because you aren’t fighting your uterus. The uterus is a muscle that is trying to open up. If you tighten your body, then you are tightening the uterus.”
A major part of a doula’s job is to help a laboring woman relax, and for some women of color, having a doula who looks more like them can be reassuring. But Jones says it’s also just about personal preference.
“I’m not that kind of hippie granola kind of doula,” she says. “I tell them that you know, if you want a hippie granola then maybe you should get one of those young white girls because I don’t carry a bag of stuff with me, with herbs and potions. I just don’t do that.”
Newly-trained doula Traver Riggins is parked in front of a shelter, meeting a client who didn’t want her name on the air. She’s seven months pregnant and homeless.
“I want a natural birth without medication,” the pregnant client says. “I’m sure I’ll be able to do it because a lot of women have.”
With her daughter in the backseat, Riggins leads her client through some relaxation exercises. They breathe side-by-side in the car.
They have a couple of stops to make today. First, to the hospital to meet the client’s doctor, then to a resource center called Homeless Prenatal Program. Before being connected with Riggins there, the client said she had never even heard of a doula.
“It’s just disappointing that a lot of low-income families don’t know about doulas and midwives,” says Riggins’ client.
Next week the two will work on a birthing plan, and when the baby is born Riggins will support her client’s recovery and aid her in caring for her newborn. Riggins is not getting paid for any of this yet, but for now she’s okay with it.
“This is not something that I can do that is sustainable, but it’s something I must do,” Riggins says. “It’s not that I don’t want to serve the community that can pay me, that’s just not who I think needs me. There’s a community of birthers that need me because I’m willing to be there for them.”
Although she never had a doula by her side, she’s now determined to be that support for the women who may need her most.
To learn more about the Birth Justice Project click here.
To learn more about Black Women Birthing Justice click here.
This piece first aired on August 10, 2015.