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On the Ground Mothering in the Era of a Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, those kinds of strategies that may be seen as “hippy” or “crunchy” like breastfeeding and cloth diapering, can make the difference in survival for under-resourced families.
by 
Jamarah Amani
photo credit:  

April 16, 2020

A 15-year-old mother stands in her front yard with a sweet brown baby bouncing on her hip. She has been waiting for me when I pull up, spray my hands with hand sanitizer, grab a clipboard and get out of the car.

"Hey, mama!" I say. "How are you doing?"

“Good. Okay.”

“How’s the family?”

“Everybody’s good.”

At a stance of at least three feet away, being mindful of social distancing, I hand the high school sophomore my clipboard. After filling out and signing a form with questions such as, “Are you a mother/parent?” “Do you live in South Florida?”and “What do you need?”(groceries, diapers, health services, etc), she returns the clipboard and I give her a $50 gift card. After a thank you wave and “Bye. See you next week!”, the encounter ends.

This was a simple exchange, but a vital and routine one. In the last few weeks, the parenting landscape has changed for families across South Florida neighborhoods, and everywhere in the US. Southern Birth Justice Network is a Florida-based non-profit organization that focuses on birth justice and access to doulas and midwives. The education and services we have provided in South Florida for almost a decade, have become even more crucial in this time of expanded need. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those kinds of strategies that may be seen as “hippy” or “crunchy” like breastfeeding and cloth diapering, can make the difference in survival for under-resourced families. The drastic shifts in resources and support networks are a threat to the most vulnerable like the families that we serve.

At the Southern Birth Justice Network (SBJN), we are providing one-on-one virtual doula support as hospital policies shift away from allowing doulas to accompany birthing mothers in person. We are also continuing prenatal and parenting support circles online for primarily Black families with pregnant or postpartum mothers in their teens. New moms need the opportunity to connect to mutual aid — whether that's diapers or to share information and ask questions.

Teenage parents are facing unique problems and constraints during this pandemic.They are often doing the double duty of navigating virtual learning during school hours with babies on their laps. At the Miami Dade County Public School where SBJN houses our pregnancy and parenting programs, day care is provided, as well as many other resources. Those networks of support were obliterated by COVID-19.

The peer to peer exchanges are the most meaningful and critical ones. One 17-year-old mom shared that she was used to getting diapers and menstrual products through social networks at school when she ran out. She usually asks her friends, other young moms who have extra and whose babies wear a similar size diaper. Of course, she said, she always pays them back, whenever she buys a pack of diapers herself.

Southern Birth Justice Network has introduced cloth diapering to this community of middle and high school age moms over the last few years, not just because it’s great for the environment, but also because it fills a critical gap when people run out of disposable diapers. In Miami, this lack of resources is often on people’s minds because some of the same supply issues can come up during natural disasters. In 2017, after Hurricane Irma, SBJN also delivered diapers (including reusable cloth diapers), water and grocery gift cards to over two dozen people who contacted the organization.

Not just diapers

Since the beginning of school closures on March 16 due to COVID-19, social support networks have been disrupted for many students. Building community is important for information sharing and critical response. There is so much you don’t know when you go home with a baby. Illnesses, even mild ones, can be terrifying. Advice from doctors is not always available, accessible or trusted. “How do I treat a fever at home? What’s the best way to feed my baby? What do I do when my baby won’t stop crying?”

Parenting is a social experience. Isolation can be dangerous, leading to higher rates of postpartum depression. Black mothers in particular are often told in many ways (program cuts, negative media portrayals, rising mortality, etc) that the society that they live in doesn’t value them. However, research shows that new parents thrive with social support during the postpartum period and beyond.

With school closures, these vital networks are disrupted. The social distancing mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us a lot about how we thrive as humans, particularly the most vulnerable among us who may rely on social contact for something as simple as getting a question answered, or a ride to the store to get diapers. These invisible, unstructured webs of survival are an organic strategy for resiliency that must be supported during this crisis.

I asked SBJN program participant, Lanieyah, a breastfeeding mother, what advice she would give to other young Black moms. Her response was: “If you're thinking about a doula, get one. If you're questioning anything about your birth or pregnancy, don't be afraid to ask! There are people in the community near you who care.”

The value of breastfeeding

There is conflicting information about what breastfeeding parents should do. In extreme cases, some hospitals are enforcing or at least recommending separating mothers from newborns at birth. There have been many misconceptions about lactation during times of illness such as flu/cold in general and during coronavirus specifically. We often hear stories of physicians telling lactating parents to stop breastfeeding if they are sick.

However, the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance on breastfeeding and COVID-19 states that “the virus has not been detected in breast milk” and that lactating mothers should continue to breastfeed or pump milk (practicing strict hand and face hygiene).

“A mother with confirmed COVID-19 or who is a symptomatic PUI should take all possible precautions to avoid spreading the virus to her infant, including washing her hands before touching the infant and wearing a face mask, if possible, while feeding at the breast.” (from CDC website.

The World Health Organization takes it a step farther, stating in a tweet from March 20th, “If someone who is #breastfeeding becomes ill with #COVID19, it is important to continue breastfeeding. The baby who has already been exposed to the #coronavirus by the mother and/or family will benefit most from continued direct breastfeeding”

In light of this information which is in conflict with what some doctors are telling people, it’s important to get the word out to communities. An 18-year-old shared anecdotally that she stopped breastfeeding “just in case” she had the virus when she recently developed a sniffle, which turned out to be a common cold when she eventually got a diagnosis. However by that time her milk had dried up and now she is in the struggle to re-lactate. Countless research studies show that human milk is life saving so it is vital that those who can and who want to breastfeed know how to do so safely.

Southern Birth Justice Network facilitates pregnancy, lactation, parenting and leadership development classes. So part of the organization’s work over the last few weeks has been about correcting misinformation. Breastfeeding is not a mandate for program participation but the young moms in this program tend to breastfeed at a 50% higher rate than their peers and for longer periods of time. This can be really crucial at a time when there are shortages of formula and water, and store closures are common. In the class, breastfeeding is taught not just as “breast is best” but as a powerful survival tool in times of disaster and crisis that has helped humans thrive since the beginning of time.

I asked SBJN program participant, Lanieyah, a breastfeeding mother, what advice she would give to other young Black moms. Her response was: “If you're thinking about a doula, get one. If you're questioning anything about your birth or pregnancy, don't be afraid to ask! There are people in the community near you who care.”

We know that most people will get their information from sources they trust. That is why organizations like SBJN are still hitting the streets and knocking on doors because beyond diapers and basic needs, these communities of mothering do matter for health and social outcomes.

By Jamarah Amani | She/Her/Hers | @southernbirthjustice

Jamarah Amani is a community midwife who believes in the transformative and healing power of birth and that every baby has a human right to human milk. Her mission is to do her part to build a movement for Birth Justice locally, nationally, and globally.

As a birth worker and advocate, Jamarah has been tackling the epidemics of Black maternal and infant morbidity and mortality for over fifteen years. She is currently the director of Southern Birth Justice Network, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization working to expand the Birth Justice movement and to make midwifery and doula care accessible to all. She is also the founder of the National Black Midwives Alliance, the only national professional association specifically for midwives of African descent.

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