Monday, June 8, 2015

The Village Prenatal

A couple weeks ago, I was in Seattle and spent time with a Native woman who had made a good life for herself.  She had a lovely family and home, a satisfying career and is well respected by her peers. She is a good deal younger than me and very accomplished.  When we were alone together, I asked her a very personal question, one I was dying to hear her answer too.  "Why didn't you get pregnant?" "What set you apart from me and many of your own peers whose life plans were altered by an unplanned pregnancy?"  Despite having married the guy she dated in high school they did not have children until many years into their marriage.  I really wanted to know what made the difference.  I have her permission to share her answer.  She told me, without hesitation, that it was two things: excellent school-based sex education, and a supportive parent willing to have the birth control conversation without freaking out.  Wow.  For the price of those two things, the world gets an accomplished individual who is making a positive difference in the world and in her community. Now, I'm not saying that an unplanned pregnancy ruins you- after all I had TWO kids when I walked across the stage at my high school graduation.  But I spent most of my life catching up from that and only now have the productivity in my fifties that I longed for in my thirties.  I was so entranced by this woman's story that it made me angry.  Angry, that I live/work in two states that will only allow 'abstinence only' education in the public schools.  Angry, that I see young women everyday who have little to no access to the knowledge and the birth control that would give them a fighting chance in life.  Angry, that our state lawmakers have not expanded Medicaid.  Angry, that our society can't wait to condemn unplanned pregnancy, but keeps effective birth control out of reach.  Angry, that we set women up to bear the brunt of consequences from unplanned pregnancies.  Angry, that we can't have simple conversations with our daughters and sons about basic physiologic functions.  Angry, that we don't want women to have abortions, but we don't want them to use birth control either.  Angry, that contraceptives aren't free and available to any and everyone who seeks them. Angry, that an unplanned pregnancy can send a family into a financial and emotional tailspin from which it may take years to recover.  Angry, that we compromise our children's future by keeping them clothed in ignorance as if it were a virtue.

Interconception care (care BETWEEN pregnancies) is designed to get you healthy BEFORE you get pregnant and to help you space your pregnancies out.  This is a luxury ideology when you don't have healthcare coverage BETWEEN pregnancies as our current system of Medicaid ensures.  About half of pregnancies are unplanned (either due to a lack of use of contraceptives, or contraceptive failure). It varies from state to state from a little under half to a  little over half, but here about half of pregnancies are covered by Medicaid.   Medicaid does little to nothing to prevent or delay the next pregnancy, since women are promptly dropped from insurance at six weeks postpartum.(Just in time to resume sexual activity.)  It will cover birth control obtained up to that six week mark but not thereafter.   Providers don't help with their contraceptive bullying techniques (bullying women to get the shot or implant because its convenient for the provider- never mind what it does to milk supply or that it is not compatible with her goals or lifestyle). There is little about this system that actually serves women- especially women of color.  It is designed to control and subjugate but not to facilitate health and wellness and informed choice.

I propose a new course.  A way to circumvent an educational system and healthcare system that seeks to keep us uninformed  and ignorant.  Let's educate ourselves about birth and breastfeeding and contraception.  Instead of approaching our births with drugs, fear and ignorance, lets teach ourselves what we need to know.  Let's go door to door, house to house, community to community reclaiming our right to understand how our bodies work.  Let's teach one another rather than depend on those who don't have our best interest or the best interest of our communities at heart.  I propose that we start connecting through 'learning parties' that center around learning about our bodies, pregnancy and birth control. But it isn't just about learning new knowledge, its also about nurturing the pregnant person.  This idea was created by my mentor, Sr. Morningstar.  She calls them Village Prenatals. They bear no resemblance to clinical prenatals and there are no clinical activities.  A pregnant person or persons is simply surrounded by their community in an intimate setting.  A number of activities take place.  First of all there should be good nourishing food and drink.  There should be someone to take the lead.  There should be a comfortable space for the pregnant person or persons to lie down. There may be drumming, singing bowls or other instrumentation. There may be incense or flowers.  The rest of the party should form a circle around the person leading the Village Prenatal and the pregnant person. I have developed a 5 point itinerary that is specific for my community that can be followed or modified to your own needs:

Village Prenatal Template
1.An acknowledgement of past failures or harms.  (Infant and maternal mortality) I like to start with an acknowledgement of past harms or an honoring of lives already lost- I might do this with a pouring libation, a moment of silence or a guided meditation)
2. Replace the fear with knowledge. (Knowledge is power) (the pregnant person is asked to give voice to their concerns first then their joys.  I address those fears with knowledge (this is where teaching occurs) and we stand in agreement in any joys or rejoicing
3. Our bodies are amazing- restore trust in that.  (Understand how your body works) (Next we celebrate the body with some sort of body work; body painting, or a belly or foot massage, or belly casting or necklace beading or waist bead making or some other way to honor the body)
4. We are what we need-sisters supporting sisters. (we can be one another's best support) (the next part allows the group or circle to interact by each gifting their own word of wisdom, or presentation of a gift, or participating in some way to honor the individual who is the focus.)
5. Restore community through conscious healing (focus on our corporate good) (I like to end with a closing circle in which everyone offers parting words or wisdom- they can say what they learned, they can offer a thought to the pregnant person.  It can end with a song, or with dancing or as it began with drumming or other instrumentation. 
This is my template and you may modify if for your own use, and it may be used even if there is not a pregnant person being focused upon.  Here is a template for doing a Village Prenatal with a group of teen girls:
1. Acknowledgement of the past: Begin with foot washing.  A bowl is brought forth with water, essential oils, herbs, flowers, and there is a ceremonial washing of feet by the elder women of the younger women
2. Replacing fear with knowledge: As the young women sit in an inner circle and the older women in an outer circle around them, teaching can be shared on menstruation, pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, motherhood, whatever the selected topic is. 
3. Our bodies are amazing: The girls can be led in creating menstruation bracelets or waist beads or body painting.
4. We are what we need: share songs or drumming together.  Elder women can weave a thread from girl to woman as they share their own stories of initiating menstruation.
5. Restore community: Each elder commits to support a young woman in her journey, to become a source of support and encouragement.  Each young woman commits cultivate self love and trust.
Here is a template for a gathering of pre-pregnant young adult college or career age individuals:
1. Acknowledgement of the past- Participants can write notes to their mothers stating what they are most grateful for about her mothering.
2. Replacing fear with knowledge- The education can be on the topic of "What you need to know about pregnancy and birth"
3. Our bodies are amazing - The group can watch a birth video of a natural homebirth with explanations of what they are seeing
4. We are what we need- There could be a round robin on how what they have learned will shape their birth experiences or how they will support one another
5. Restore community- Participants can make care packages to donate to a women's shelter as their closing activity.

Those are a few ideas off the top of my head for gatherings.  They can be done in homes, churches, clubs, civic groups,  schools, or just a gathering of friends.  The theme is birth, breastfeeding or sexual health.  I am committed to leading five of these over the course of the summer to kick them off in my community.  You must be a woman of color.  Contact me, I'll help you plan it, and then come to your location (in my city) and help execute it. You must be willing to have photos and videos taken to upload on a community page I'm going to create called Village Prenatals so that we can all see and learn from other's examples.  If this resonates with you, you are a woman of color, and you live in the Kansas City area, please contact me in the comments section of this post or by email at

I believe we can change our community by educating and nurturing in this way.  If you think so too, contact me and we'll talk.  I hope you will try this in your own community, whoever and wherever you are.  Let's start a revolution.