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Meet The Doulas Creating An Empowering Pregnancy Journey For Black Families

Kristine Thomason
mbg Health & Fitness Director
By Kristine Thomason
mbg Health & Fitness Director
Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen.
Image by mbg creative / Chicago Birthworks
March 11, 2022
In honor and recognition of Women's History Month, this March we're highlighting the voices of leading women in the well-being space. Each week, look out for the latest Follow Her Lead installments, where you'll find inspiring stories, ways you can help, and of course, new faces of women worth following.
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Little by little, the silence surrounding fertility challenges, pregnancy loss, and maternal health is breaking. Experts and advocates are becoming more vocal and transparent on public platforms about this complex journey, helping to slowly de-stigmatize and shed light on the experience in all its forms. Here, we chat with Toni Taylor and Tayo Mbande, the mother-daughter duo who founded Chicago Birthworks, a doula collective that provides full-circle care for Black women, birthing people, and their families. They share the nuance of the pregnancy and birth journey for Black individuals and how they're working to create sustainable, long-lasting change for communities of color through better maternal outcomes.

What is your mission, and how are you working toward it at the moment?

Toni: I would say that our mission is to provide doula services for women of color, bodies of color in the Chicago area, and expanding into other states. We're currently in the process of expanding and trying to reach as many women as possible with the brand that we've already created. And in the future hoping to offer home birth services, in addition to the pampering and doula services that we offer.

Tayo: We're a global collective, and our mission is really to provide some culturally congruent care, throughout pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Culturally congruent means that we are trying to make sure that the people who care for you don't just look like you, they also understand you, and they align with your cultural values. We're trying to make sure that we are giving folks the opportunity to curate their own journey and not just use what is provided to them or available to them. We want to create an empowering experience around pregnancy and postpartum and parenthood.

We're working toward that by constantly developing our style of doula care. We're living in a time where we see that doulas aren't limited to a little bit of hip squeezes and basic comfort measures. There's so much more that we have to do.

We're trying to be extremely innovative in how we're showing up to support these families. That involves finding new services, creating programs, and also partnering. The reason why we operate in the collective is because we recognize we can do this work long term if we are literally working together. There's an African proverb that says "many hands make light work": That is the heart of our collective. None of our doulas are supporting their clients individually; all of our doulas have a collective of other doulas—and that alone allows us to do some pretty unique stuff. We're working to think outside the box and see how can we make sure that Black families are better taken care of by better supporting the people who support them.

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What inspires you most about the work you're doing?

Toni: What inspires me is to have a hand in the actual inception of a family, to play a role in the development and the groundwork that is laid when you're bringing up a person into the world. We're able to equip you with individuals who've gone through this journey and have come out successful. That's really big for me, being able to touch a family while it's becoming a family.

I say a lot during the pregnancy because I wanted it to stay with you. Not to go too far down the rabbit hole, but there are a lot of specific and unique layers to bringing a child into this world being a Black woman or a Black body.

Tayo: What inspires me is, having gone through my own pregnancy journey, seeing myself in all the families that I support. I'm inspired by myself. I'm inspired by the amount of work that I've done. And then the outcomes that I've seen.

I have four children, and I would see over and over again. Each time, I would think: Wow, Tayo, you're growing as a mother, you're learning things, you're speaking up for yourself, you are putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, you're being brave, and you are being patient. And I want that for everyone. I want them to have the opportunity to do those things. Everything that I've been through, everything that I've learned—all of the emotional, cognitive, social, tactical skills that I've mastered—I want to be able to support folks in their journey. I think every woman, every pregnant person, needs to experience this type of confidence and this type of power.

If you had one piece of advice for readers, what would it be?

Toni: The piece of advice that I would give for someone who's on this journey is to surround yourself with people who support your goals. Sit with yourself, meditate or reflect, and think about what the pregnancy is actually bringing you, what is it requiring of you so that you can prepare yourself for the journey that is pregnancy or parenthood.

And for the people who are supporting, understand the statistics that Black and brown bodies face parenting and birthing, then try your best to fill in the gaps with action and not just words. So talk less and do more.

Tayo: My advice would be get to know yourself and do all of the work that you would hope anyone who was supporting you externally to contribute, contribute that time for yourself. So be very adamant about self-reflections but also self-edification for finding important ways to build yourself up—and be the example of how that can be done. If you expect your provider or your partner or your extended family or your friends or your community to show up for you, show up for yourself that way. You have to be very invested in yourself on this journey so that folks can have an example or some type of standards. When you find yourself in a position where other folks are supporting you more than you support yourself, it creates a sort of dependency that stands in the way of you really accumulating power for yourself and being able to self-determine.

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What advice do you have for other women starting out in your area of impact? 

Tayo: In this field of work, you cannot be here to make money. One of our values is valuing humans over money and impact over income. So we've had a lot of success because we've reimagined the idea of success. We've reimagined the models in the system that has, for a long time, caused barriers and oppression to the people that want to support women and Black people, Black women. If you're gonna start a business in birth work, any type of maternal care, or caring for pregnant folks and building families, reimagine this model of care and reimagine ideas of success.

I do believe that businesses like ours can thrive that have a serious social impact. But you have to know that you're not going to use the same tools that a large business or a tech company is going to use. Don't be afraid to use different types of models and be innovative in how you create your business. Then the pillars that hold your business up value the humans that are going to hold your business up, value their intellectual capital and their intellectual resources. Those are, I think, some of the biggest assets that you can overlook.

I appreciate the fact that I come from [a] good line of strong, compassionate, resourceful, brave, loving, smart women.

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Toni: My advice would be to any woman or any person starting off in this career is to protect yourself, to be aware that moral injury exists, and you are going to be overly exposed to it. You have to have some sort of way of removing the residue and the weight of what we're going through. You're literally caring for a person for a 10-month period, and then this delivery can last you days. It's days of exposure to all the things happening to your client through your eyes. And it's hard; it actually weighs and pulls on your heartstrings. Because you feel like you could have done more, and you should have done more. But you can't beat yourself up because showing up is enough. Being genuine and loving and kind and helpful is enough.

You definitely also need to mind your own mental care. The field that we're in can be really sad; we're exposed to some really challenging things. When you see these statistics play out with your clients, it's really hurtful. It's really hard. And there's a lot of stuff that people just don't talk about and a lot of dirty work. That's why it's so important to rebuild and reflect after a birth and create your own rituals to cleanse yourself and to heal yourself after each delivery because we give a lot. But it's so needed, to make sure that Black moms and brown bodies and their babies are safe.

Who is one woman in your life who never fails to inspire you?

Tayo: Easy, my mom. I am watching myself turn into her. I think there are so many beautiful things she planted in me. Now that I'm going through motherhood myself, there's a lot of symbolic water that's falling on me, and these plants are blossoming. It was my mom who taught me how to plan, how to strategize, and how to not just dream but really meticulously manifest what you need and what you want. It was my mom who taught me to not be ashamed in any way for wanting everything.

All of those things I'm learning from her support my own motherhood journey. As an adult woman, I'm constantly looking right back at my mom like, wow, I get this. I get it. I'm also seeing her live many of the things that I'm trying to master. And it's really encouraging for me to know that she taught me these things, but it wasn't because she mastered them herself. She is actively working at them every day. So I see that I might not get this right now, but I still will be OK. And I can keep working at it for the rest of my life. And it'll work out for me.

Toni: If I could only choose one woman, it would have to be my grandma. I lost my mom when I was in my early 20s, and my grandma has been the person who has helped me understand the things that my mom deposited in me. No matter what's going on with my grandma, or how often I talk to her, she always makes time for me. She always made space for me to grow. And even in my growth, she's always still planting things—or watering things or pruning things. I feel really grateful and blessed that she attended all my births—it made me feel safe and secure.

I love how she springs into action at a moment's notice. I love how she barely sleeps. She can just be ready to go for anything that I need. You know, she helped me over a lot of obstacles in my parenting by just being supportive of whatever I was doing at the time.

I appreciate the strength of the women that are in my family, and that all comes from my grandma. Because if she was a crumbly cookie, we would be crumbly cookies, but she's not. I appreciate the fact that I come from [a] good line of strong, compassionate, resourceful, brave, loving, smart women.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Kristine Thomason
Kristine Thomason
mbg Health & Fitness Director

Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen. Kristine is a New York University graduate with a degree in journalism and psychology, and also a NASM-certified personal trainer. She has spent her editorial career focused on health and well-being, and formerly worked for Women’s Health and Health. Her byline has also appeared in Men’s Health, Greatist, Refinery29, HGTV, and more. In her current role she oversees, edits, and writes for the health, food, and movement sections of mindbodygreen.