BROOKLYN, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)—A few years ago I was working as an instructor in a young adult literacy program run by the city and held in a public library here. It was meant to prepare participants who are out of work and out of high school for courses that confer a high school equivalency degree.
One my students was a young woman expecting a baby; very soon, as it turned out.
I didn’t realize how far along she was until the day when, looking distracted, she asked if she could use the phone. She needed to call her mother because she thought “something might be happening.” After the call she asked to speak with me privately. She had left high school because she felt the conditions at her school were not safe for young expectant mothers. During our screening process she hadn’t revealed how close she was to term because she thought it might bar her from joining the program.
In those moments when I sat with her waiting for her mother to arrive, I wished I had advice that went beyond how to pull up her reading and math scores.
When her mom arrived, I escorted her down the flight of stairs. She ushered her daughter into a waiting car service, speaking softly in Spanish and then thanked me. I called after them to let me know how it all went. I tried to reach her on her cell phone a few times, but all I got was a recording: “the subscriber is not accepting calls at this time.”
I never heard from that student again, but I did not forget her. She was in my mind one day when I picked up a flyer from the Hope and Healing Family Center, a relatively new organization with a mission to increase the number of full term births in Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant, East New York and surrounding communities in Brooklyn.
These are some of New York’s hardest-pressed areas and a good indication of that can be found in city statistics for infant mortality in 2013. Compared to an infant born in some of the wealthiest parts of the city, such as the Upper East Side in Manhattan, the rate at which a baby dies in Bedford Stuyvesant is five times higher. In East New York, it’s seven times higher. In Brownsville, it’s eight times higher.
The city’s rate of infant death is elevated for young mothers of color and highest among young mothers without a high school diploma; the exact group of young women, in other words, who were showing up in my class.
“Supports the birth you want,” the Hope and Healing Family Center flyer said. “Offers physical and emotional health… Can help you deal with the unexpected.” My eyes zoomed in on the word “unexpected.”
By that point I had changed jobs and had been working for a year and a half as a student advisor for Brooklyn Public Library’s Young Adult Literacy Program. My role required me to design workshops for all kinds of realities our participants face: stop-and-frisk policing, alcoholism, urban farming, healthy relationships, HIV/AIDS and the new high school equivalency exam, the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC.
But the challenges of new and unexpected motherhood raised questions that went beyond me. Some of my expectant students were newcomers from other countries. How could they best navigate new motherhood with limited money? What about abusive relatives? Should they stay in those living situations? Where else could they go?
A young woman reared in foster care, now out of the system, but not yet 21, lives in fear of going back. With little in the way of extended family support, she struggles to keep her baby and not repeat the distressing cycle of child removal.
A young woman newly arrived in the United States, navigating a new city, with little knowledge of the health care system and in some cases no basic knowledge of what is happening to her body, is at higher risk of premature birth.
A young mother with a young baby may need parenting classes in child development and someone to guide her into the toddler years to understand how and why reading, active engaged play and preschool benefit her child for a lifetime.
A young woman whose own childhood lacked a support system, who may have lost her own mother at a formative point, knows she is not ready, but does not even know the right questions to ask.
I knew we needed a particular kind of support for these students and my immediate supervisor agreed. We needed a doula.
I called the Hope and Healing Family Center and wound up meeting Suzette Jules-Jack, its Panamanian founder and a doula practitioner. Her center is located on the border of Crown Heights and East New York in Brooklyn. In addition to herself, there is also a caseworker who helps Jules-Jack manage some of the issues that arise with her active clients, who can number as many as 15.
The center offers an 11-week long group course on pregnancy and preparing for childbirth and the arrival of a newborn. The class is only offered in English, but Jules-Jack, a native Spanish speaker herself, said interest in the center is growing in the Spanish speaking community, with young mothers surprised by her fluency.
She added that during her childhood in Panama she experienced plenty of colorism and that can also help her relate to many young mothers in Brooklyn.
After meeting her, we decided that we could steer our expectant students to doula workshops at the center and accept them as credits instead of requiring them to attend our own workshops.
By now, we have referred three young women to Jules-Jack and she has gone to the greatest lengths imaginable for them, including accompanying one to a family court hearing to help her keep her child.
Jules-Jack defines herself as a “community birthing service practitioner,” one who provides emotional, physical and informational support to women who are expecting, in labor or postpartum.
Her services are free, funded by grants from the local community board. Jules-Jack publicizes the center wherever she can: hospital prenatal units, public housing units, local malls, libraries.
“Many young mothers don’t know what a doula is,” Jules-Jack told me. “And upon first approach they often decline the services.” Younger women are not so open to the idea of a doula, she said. “Older women embrace this program more.”
As a doula, Jules-Jack can help a young woman in any number of ways. She can accompany her on prenatal visits, create a birthing plan, provide physical and emotional support during labor and delivery and runs a support group for new moms and dads.
She stays in contact with the mom and her family to provide support well into the toddler years. That means she is advising on child care and helping arrange day care and preschool. She also supports the mom’s academic and career goals and finds services to support those aspirations.
One of the young women we referred to Jules-Jack is Shanice, whose last name I will omit to shield her online privacy. She came to our literacy program when she was 4 months’ pregnant, newly arrived from Jamaica.
Recently she visited me and bought her baby boy, who is now 4 months old. Jayquan is bright eyed and smiley, with a head full of hair the young mom has carefully coiffed into a halo of pony-tail puffs.
Shanice, 19, lives with her mom but decided she could also use the kind of help the doula offers.
As a result, she has learned the pros and cons of circumcision. She is reading to her baby because she knows that is better than letting him sit in front of the television. She is learning how to give him a bath, without any help from her mother, now a doting grandmother.
Shanice told me that Jules-Jack held a meet-and-greet luncheon for her and a few other young women at the center. Two other young women were there with their infants. Another had a newborn. Another was still pregnant.
Gift bags provided by Bath and Body Works, the retailer based in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, were handed out. There was a little raffle and Shanice won a food gift basket.
When I asked her how things are going she smiled brightly and responded in a sing-song lilt, “goooood!” She said she’s been working on a passport for him. They will visit his dad, who’s still in the West Indies and who’s only seen the baby through a video on her phone.
“I don’t know if I could have done this without her,” she said when I ask about the help she’s got from the doula.
She said her mother has helped but the doula has done something else. “She encourages me. When no one else is around, she’s there for me.”