At 1 a.m. Feb. 1, Canton resident Dajia McClain awoke to contractions.
She waited about two hours, then called her midwife, Jasmine Wagster, who told her to keep an eye on the timing between contractions and how painful they were.
At 6:40 that morning, the contractions were getting closer together and more painful. As she was texting her midwife, McClain’s water broke. Wagster hurried to the McClains’ home to assist in the birth of the couple’s first child.
McClain’s son, Bryson, was born at 11 a.m.
“It was nice because I could move around, like I started in the bathroom, in the tub, and then I moved to the bed where it was comfortable,” McClain said.
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Even before she was pregnant, McClain knew she wanted to work with a midwife and give birth at home if possible.
“I’ll never give birth in the hospital, like I would always do it in the comfort of my own home, as long as there’s no complications,” McClain said. “I was able to eat right after, like literally right after my husband brought me a plate of pancakes.”
McClain and Wagster are part of a growing number of women re-evaluating the approach to birth.
Wagster, who opened Labor in Love Midwifery in Canton last fall, also is part of an effort to connect and train more Black birth workers in the region. Until recently, she said she was the only Black midwife in Stark County.
“I just think it’s about bringing birthing people’s power back,” Wagster said.
Midwife-attended births are on the rise in the United States
In the United States, nearly 88% of births are overseen by a physician. But since 2009, the percentage of midwife-attended births has risen from 8% to more than 11% in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics Reports. Among Black women, the trend is similar, increasing from 7% in 2009 to more than 9% in 2020.
The midwife field varies by state; in Ohio, most midwifery falls under the purview of hospitals, where certified nurse midwives who are registered nurses with advanced training in pregnancy and maternal care are employed. Unlike obstetricians, midwives cannot perform cesarean sections or certain medical interventions that may be necessary with pregnancy complications.
Typically, midwives work with low-risk pregnancies and provide pre- and post-partum care, with an emphasis on nutrition. They usually hold a more holistic philosophy of birth aimed at reducing the need for medical interventions. Home births are typically less expensive than hospital births, but insurance coverage for midwife care can vary, meaning most costs are out-of-pocket.
Most births take place in hospitals, but home births are on the rise. In 2020, 1.26% of all births took place at home, compared to 2009’s rate of 0.7%. Some of that was influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, but home births were increasing in popularity even years prior, according to CDC data.
Home births are often overseen by either a certified professional midwife, who has met national standards, or a traditional midwife, who learned through apprenticeship.
“Of course, home birth is not for every pregnant person,” Sherveriria Harris, a doula and lactation consultant in North Canton, said. “But if I can have a home birth, this is a more natural environment. I can be in my home, I can have my baby, take a shower, get in bed and all my care is coming to me. I’m not going out to the hospitals and different appointments.”
Northeast Ohio Black birth workers come together to support parents
Harris works with Wagster and Marlene Morris, a doula based in Cleveland, as part of an effort to connect more Black birth workers in Stark County.
Lots of birth work operates through word-of-mouth, so when Wagster opened Labor in Love Midwifery, she included information about the other doulas, lactation consultants, wellness coaches and more in her network.
“We all have the same goal, just making sure each client is treated with love and they’re cared for, no matter what stage of pregnancy that they’re going through,” Wagster said.
Many of the women she works with are doulas, who provide emotional, physical, nutritional and other types of support throughout a pregnancy but not medical oversight. Wagster is currently a traditional midwife but is in the process of becoming a certified professional midwife.
She said that until recently, she was the only Black midwife in Stark County, but has seen an explosion of interest in the field recently. She organized a meetup of midwives in the area and is starting to offer mock training for those interested in becoming midwife assistants.
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By building a community of birth workers, she said, parents can have options and the providers themselves can help support each other.
“Why would you want to do this by yourself? I don’t,” Wagster said. “That was my push on it because I feel like, I need help, so I know, you guys need help.”
Morris said in her experience some Black women are more inclined to find Black providers.
“When you have someone that looks like you, I think there’s a level of comfort, and feeling like, ‘OK, this person understands me, so I don’t have to necessarily explain all the extra things,’” Morris said. “And then there’s less microaggressions coming from the other side as well.”
Birth workers aim to support women’s choices, in and out of the home
That inclination is part of what led Akron-area doula Jazmine Thomas into birth work.
When she had her first child at 19, she felt alone and underinformed by her doctors as she went through the pregnancy. With her second child a few years later, she felt judged for the request she made that her daughter stay in the room with her for things like the first bath and testing.
She was already a massage therapist after her second child was born and decided to take courses in doula work to support women going through the process. When she first opened her business, Birth Your Way, she found that her clients skewed wealthy and white, and while she had great experiences, she wasn’t reaching the women who were going through what she had gone through.
So, she made her services free.
“I noticed that the majority of the women who were in need of services – I cater to teen moms also – just weren’t able to afford the services,” she said.
She’s attended 40 births in her three years, and many of those in hospital settings. As a doula, she provides support rather than medical assistance.
One of the biggest misconceptions, she said, is women assuming that if they aren’t having a natural birth or home birth, they don’t need a doula. She’s routinely supported birthing parents in hospital settings, through C-sections and with epidurals.
“Pretty much any way you would like to birth your child, I’m on board,” Thomas said.
In fact, she said one of the best hospitals she’s worked in as a doula is the same one where she had her own negative birth experiences. While some birth workers have faced tension in traditional medical settings, Thomas said, she’s felt mostly mutual respect.
“I think that through the years, nurses and doctors are starting to see the benefits of having doulas themselves,” Thomas said. “And they now come in the room now and say, ‘Oh, you’ve got a doula? That’s great,’ where it didn’t use to be that way.”
Sam Zern can be reached at [email protected] or 330-580-8322. You can also find her on Twitter at @sam_zern.