The ending of a thing can often be the beginning of something special. Just ask Tamara Thompson and her business partner Tia Murray.
When the South Madison Health and Family Center-Harambee closed its doors in 2010, the two women decided to establish Harambee Village.
This new village became a community-based doula agency that provides pregnancy, birth and lactation support to mothers in South Central Wisconsin.
“A radical love for ourselves and the community of women that came out of the African American Breast Feeding Alliance inspired us to maintain this African tradition of support for expecting mothers,” says Thompson, a certified lactation counselor and student midwife.
Origins of the word doula trace back to the Greek term meaning “a woman who helps.” However, over the years, the term refers to a woman ꟷ typically without formal obstetric training, who is employed to provide guidance and support to a pregnant woman during labor.
Birth companions are gaining in popularity across the nation.
“A doula is like a labor coach and a midwife is the person who actually catches the baby,” says Thompson as she clarifies the distinct roles doulas and midwives play in prenatal and postpartum maternal care. “Midwives are actually licensed medical professionals who can, in some cases, prescribe medications and actually check and monitor the labs, blood work and biochemistry levels of the mother.”
Thompson received her doula training in Milwaukee from renowned midwife, doula trainer, motivational speaker and cultural competency trainer Shafia Monroe. Monroe educated Thompson on the history of doulas in Africa and African American culture.
“These women were pillars of our community and carried so much esteem and respect,” says Thompson. “And, there skills and services remain relevant today.”
Tehmina Islam is licensed midwife in Madison who provides home birth care, assisting more than 300 children into the world. Her passion for the field began after witnessing the birth of her best friend’s baby while just 16.
“It’s such an honor to be a homebirth midwife and to usher people into that process and accompany them through it,” said Islam, who works at Access Midwifery. “I’m on call 24-hours a day, so I don’t have time for children of my own. But, when people ask, I tell them I have 301.”
Morena Taylor-Benell gave birth to her first daughter naturally in the hospital. It was a costly experience. After doing some research and receiving a recommendation from a friend, she reached out to Islam to have her second daughter at home, in a bathtub in her living room, surrounded by her family and loved ones.
“Tahmina is an angel,” said Taylor-Benell. “I wasn’t raised religiously at all. But, if there are angels, she is one and the only one I’ve ever met. She’s kindhearted and listens to everything you say. She’s extremely resourceful and truly loves my kids.”
A recent report by the Dane County Health Council and the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness reveals that stressors, economic angst and institutional racism are key reason Black babies in Dane County are twice as likely as white babies to be born with low birth weight. This reality plays a role in why Black infants have higher mortality rates, according to the study.
Stressors many expectant mothers are impacted by include: Physical safety. Ironically, the leading cause of death of pregnant women is murder — often at the hands of intimate partner violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“In addition to safety, many women feel dissatisfied with the medical care they are receiving form traditional health care providers,” says Thompson. “Income instability, inadequate housing and nutrition are also concerning. For incarcerated women, the concerns are how being shackled during birth may impact the outcome of labor.
“For transgendered women who want to have a live birth, their concerns are coming off of the male hormones that facilitated their transition ꟷ so many things are impacting all mothers,” she added.
Typical services a doula provides include helping mothers navigate many of the joys and challenges of expecting and working with them after their child is born.
From educating women on prenatal nutrition and healthful self-care practices to guiding women through the breast feeding process and how to cope with the realities of parenthood, doulas are hired to engage in continuous supportive care for the mother before, during and after live births, stillborns and/or miscarriages.
“The biggest misconception about doulas is that we are only for women who choose a natural birth,” says Thompson. ““We are here to follow the plans of the parents and caregivers we serve. We are for every type of birth.”
Costs are relatively affordable. For $1,050 a doula can be contracted through Harambee Village. This fee can be paid over the course of the pregnancy and is inclusive of a deposit to begin services.
Given a doula is on call during the entire pregnancy, in addition to performing three home visits that range in length from 60 to 90 minutes, the fees associated with this customized care is achievable for many working class and well-to-do families.
“Just be sure to select a provider who aligns with your own values,” she said.
Thompson’s work raised her profile in the community, amplifying her voice as an advocate for maternal care.
She was asked to provide testimony at a Wisconsin Legislature hearing at the State Capital regarding Senate Bill 393. SB 393 was co-sponsored by state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), relating to the treatment of pregnant or postpartum women in prison and county jails.
The experience solidified her interest in creating greater public awareness of how women can exert more autonomy over their own bodies and reproductive rights.
“I really want to change the way the Black community thinks about and gives birth,” says Thompson. “I want Black women to seriously consider enlisting the services of a doula and midwife… to operate in the spirit of Sankofa and the notion of us going back into our history and culture to get what we lost.”