NATAL, Episode 3: “Mikah and Cecilia’s Stories”
Facing unplanned pregnancies in their twenties, Mikah and Cecilia’s hospital births reveal how access to childbirth education, support systems, and the lack of standardization of care shaped their individual journeys to becoming parents for the first time.
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You’re listening to NATAL, a podcast about having a baby while Black
Gabrielle Horton: I’m NATAL co-host Gabrielle Horton. So far this season we’ve talked to parents and practitioners from California, down to New Orleans and up to New York, and they’re all saying the same thing. The current system of care is failing Black birthing parents. But this is a conversation with nuance. There’s some levels to it.
When we started NATAL, we really wanted to share the highs, the lows, and the often complex, messy gray area that doesn’t always make the headlines, doctor’s notes or even conversations with loved ones. Black birthing parents and their stories aren’t monolithic, and the stories you’re going to hear from Mikah Thomas and Cecilia Flores Rodriguez are perfect examples of that.
Our first parent, Mikah, lives in Philadelphia. Cecilia, our second parent, lives in Boston. They both had unplanned pregnancies in their twenties and they were in completely different relationship and socioeconomic situations at the time. But Mikah and Cecilia both chose to have their babies, and they chose hospital births.
Which also isn’t too surprising considering the fact that more than 98% of all US births happen in hospitals. But Mikah in Cecilia had control. They made a lot of similar choices early on in their pregnancies, but they couldn’t control everything.
Mikah Thomas: And I probably would be more aggressive with my nurses now. Um, I would have probably tried to talk to them cause they, they weren’t trying to educate me.
Cecilia Flores Rodriguez: Looking back, I wish I had had a doula to kind of help navigate those decisions. Cause you’re kind of like, in the moment you’re just kind of like, well, I’ll just do what the doctor says because you’re so scared about making a bad decision or something like that. That’s at least how I felt.
Gabrielle: From access to childbirth education, to their support systems, to the lack of standardization of care for birthing parents and hospitals, all of it shaped how Mikah and Cecilia became parents for the first time. Here’s Mikah in their own words.
[Small child chatter]
Mikah: So guess what, Lance? I am actually telling a story about you. That is what I am in here doing. I’m telling the story about you, and about when I found out I was pregnant with you, and when I decided to go to the hospital..
Lance: Yeah yeah, we know that!
Mikah: They don’t know. So that’s why I’m going to tell them.
But, um, hi, my name is Mikah Thomas and I am a single Black parent in Philadelphia. I’m a Black trans parent, and this is my NATAL story. Um. I found out I was pregnant, and I was not ready at all.
Gabrielle: Mikah was raised in Montgomery, Alabama. Back then, they identified as queer, and presented as a woman. Mikah came out to their parents in 2010 and it caused a major rift in their relationship.
Mikah’s parents were completely unsupportive, and so the following year, Mikah decided to move to Philadelphia to start a new life.
Three months after the move, Mikah got pregnant and decided to have an abortion. They weren’t ready to be a parent just yet. Then, a few months later, this really weird thing happened.
Mikah got bit by a spider at work, went to the hospital to get it checked out, and then found out they were pregnant again.
Mikah: I did not go to work for four days because I had to figure out what was going on. I really tried to just blame it on a spider bite and I was kind of in denial for a long time for being pregnant. I found out I was like three months pregnant. Um, and I actually got laid off from my job after I did not show the work for like five days, with my little piece of paper saying I was pregnant.
So I put in my unemployment and I said, you know, we’re gonna file this unemployment. And I waited to tell my family, and when I talked to my mother, and my mother said that I needed to use the government for what I could, um, because this is going to have to be a journey.
And, I went in line to file unemployment. Just picture me, you know, 22 inches of hair, light skin, 5’2″, petite, um, masculine presenting, accent with a Southern drawl, um, trying to tell them that I am pregnant, and that I need WIC, I need welfare benefits, I need medical assistance, food stamps, I need all of that.
It was very scary for me because I was 20 years old experiencing in this. I had only been in Philadelphia for maybe, not even a year. I didn’t know really what to do, but I knew that when I had my abortion the first time with my son’s father, um, Lance’s father, um, when I had that first abortion, it was not really, it was not my choice.
I kind of took it. You know, he didn’t want this. I wasn’t ready. Um, and I never really got to figure out those emotions until I had the procedure done.
Gabrielle: Mikah was unemployed, scared, and unsure of what motherhood had in store financially and otherwise. Growing up, Mikah had always been taken care of by family, but Dame, the father to their unborn child, was not consistently in the picture.
Everything was just so overwhelming, but Mikah wasn’t deterred. They enrolled in Medicaid and signed up for federal nutrition benefits through the WIC program. Ideally, as soon as a person finds out they’re pregnant, they should make an appointment for their first prenatal visit because generally speaking, there’s a strong correlation between getting early prenatal care and having a healthy pregnancy and a full term baby.
But according to the CDC, younger women, and younger Black women are much more likely to experience delayed prenatal care for all the reasons we’ve already talked about. And that was certainly the case for Mikah. They didn’t begin receiving prenatal care until three months into their pregnancy. But when the time came, they chose Lankenau Medical Center, a teaching hospital and research institute outside of Philly.
Lankenau was a tremendous resource hub for Mikah, but it was out in the suburbs. Mikah didn’t have a car, and not to mention the staff and atmosphere, well, it just felt really cold and sterile.
Mikah: Uh, picking Lankenau to be my, where I got my prenatal care was not the wisest decision when it came to like not having a car, and having to catch the G bus and like walk a half a mile to get to the natal unit.
Um, it was very old fashioned in there. You know, they had the uncomfortable chairs, and we waited, and I kind of felt like a burden to them. I felt like I was being judged for a lot of reasons. Um, but I felt like they were kind of like, ER visits now talking about them, you know, it was just a procedure to get done; it was just something to get done.
The visits, I feel like they could have maybe had more resources, about like maybe baby clinics or, um, how to change the diaper or, you know, pushing me to, to, like I said, maybe go to therapy or go to like Lamaze classes or, um, find different things to do.
Gabrielle: And on top of entering their second trimester, Mikah’s home situation with Dame wasn’t doing too great either.
Mikah: I remember one day going to Lankenau without his dad, and I was just able to tell them like, look, there’s bed bugs in the house. You know, his siblings are stealing my money, they’re keying my car. They’re doing this and that to my tires. And like I’m pregnant, like I have the nephew like in, in my stomach.
But I was able to vent to Lankenau’s medical team, um, the prenatal team, and they got me into touch with a social worker and they placed me into Mother’s Home, which is a woman’s shelter in Darby, Pennsylvania. You can be there from the time that you’re pregnant and you enroll, up until the child is six months old. And you don’t got to really pay anything, maybe $10 for the air conditioning. You know, you got your own air conditioner, you got your own, uh, shelves in a shared fridge. You got like two or three ovens to use. And it’s like, it’s a woman’s home. It really is, even though, you know.. and it was in like an old nurse, not a nurse, an old Catholic Church That’s where it was. So, um. It was a nice little convent type of place. But it was the community that I needed to, to be with other mothers, and to see how other mothers interacted.
Like I learned a baby massage class where I learned how to massage babies’ feet. Now I got, I think I got like this foot fetish almost where I’m like, I want to massage anybody’s feet because of all the stresses in our feet and our chest, and then our nasal cavities. So I learned all this cool baby stuff that we forget to do on ourselves.
So I kind of relearned self care for myself.
Gabrielle: Mikah got acclimated to Mother’s Home and to the other housemates. The Mother’s Home community turned out to be safe, supportive, educational, everything Mikah needed going into motherhood.
Mikah: I member that Sunday I was supposed to clean the toilets because I, that was the chore. And, um, long story short, my water broke four-thirty in the morning that day. The day after my birthday, April 2nd, and Lance came. I remember, um, holding a red cup, trying to pack my bag, because I thought that he was coming in two or three weeks. And I packed that bag that I was not prepared to do and I had to call downstairs.
I had to go all the way downstairs to call the, you know, like the residential aid, whoever was sitting at the shelter at night while we was sleeping. I had to tell her, I was like, “Hey, I need to use the phone.” So I called his grandma’s house phone. I was like, “Hey, Grammy, can I talk to Dame?” I’m like, “Dame, my water broke. Come on, come get me.”
My, my care within coming into the emergency room and going to the mothers ward at Lankenau was, uh, it was not what I expected. I thought it was going to be very pleasant. Um, I don’t remember any of the people who were in my delivery team except that nice chocolate Black guy and all these white women.
But they were really helpful. I mean, that one woman, you know, she was wiping my butt the whole time. I’m like, what’s that smell? Can I please get a mirror? I asked for a mirror and they requested a mirror so I could see what was going on. And I was like, I’m so sorry. I was so apologetic.
But, um, it was really brief. I felt like it was, it was kind of kinda like the hospital prenatal visits; they were just procedural. Um. You know, “Oh, you’re only three, three centimeters dilated. Let’s, let’s give you, um, this induce, you induce your labor.”
And then, you know, I’m sitting there, I’m in pain. “Oh the anesthesiologist isn’t here. Um, we gotta wait for the anesthesiologist.” And I’m still screaming that I need help. They’re telling me that I’m scaring the other patients.
This is the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. I did get, um. I did get, induced before I received my epidural. And I was never feeling cramps or you know, pain or, all the other words that you feel when you know, you’re, you’re having a child and you’re giving birth. But as soon as they gave, they induced me, I started feeling all of that and I was yelling for maybe an hour. I was ready to get the epidural. I went into the emergency room about five-thirty and I probably got my epidural around like seven-thirty, eight o’clock, you know. They had to wait for the anesthesiologist to come.
I had Lance at like five o’clock that afternoon, so I was probably in labor for all of like thirty minutes. But just being at the hospital, I was there for the whole day.
Gabrielle: on April 2nd, 2013, a few weeks before his due date, baby Lance made his world debut. But he had to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, for another week so that they could monitor his lungs. Meanwhile, Mikah rested up, waiting to be discharged.
Mikah: I remember being in the hospital for that first night. And then waking up in the morning they’re like, “Hey, we’re going to give you this Depo shot.”
Gabrielle: The drug, Depo-Provera, or the Depo shot Mikah’s talking about, is an injection of the hormone progestin. It provides birth control for about three to six months, but Mikah didn’t know that and it wasn’t explained to them either. Historically, the US government routinely administered Depo to poor Black and Brown women, sterilizing them for no valid medical reason and without their consent.
Mikah: I’m like, well, “What do I need this depo shot for?” They were like, “Well, it’s required.” And I was like, “Okay, all right, I’m not going to fight y’all.” They told me that, um, I needed to get on birth control, and that I kind of really did not have no choice on it. So I was like, “All right, just give me the shot.”
Um, it was not really talked about. It was kind of just told to me. And like, I didn’t know if it was like, oh, is it a law? Like anybody under 21, has to get a Depo shot? So like we are like, like are we managing who can get pregnant? Like, oh, if I’m a single parent, I have to get a Depot? Like, was I a high risk case?
I didn’t even really think too much of it. I kinda just went with what they said. And you know, I did the Depo shot.
Gabrielle: Well, yes, technically Mikah agreed to the shot. Was that truly consent? If they didn’t have all the information, I’m going to have to say no on this one. Temporary sterilization is still sterilization.
The lack of conversation, choice, and agency over in their body, and reproductive self-determination has me worked up! And this happened seven years ago, which also lets you know that it’s more than likely still happening today.
Mikah: You know, they tell you before you get discharged out the hospital, “Oh, you might bleed three to five days.” I bled for six miles. And I did not bleed for six months because I was waiting on my body to heal from having a baby. I bled for six months because my body was on Depo. It was a hormone that my body did not want.
Gabrielle: Baby Lance came out of his NICU, stay healthy and strong.
Mikah: Just navigating how to, to be a parent in a shelter, that was very informative for me.
Gabrielle: Three months postpartum, Mikah and Lance moved out of Mother’s Home and eventually back into Philly proper. Fast forward to April 2018, Mikah began a new chapter. This time, it was the journey to becoming a trans man. And today, Mikah is employed at a nonprofit and leads wraparound services and training for Philly’s trans population.
And as you heard at the beginning of the episode, Lance is now a very vibrant and curious seven-year-old. While Dame and Mikah are no longer together, Mikah realizes that those early days as a new parent really transformed them, both as a parent and as a person.
Mikah: I remember having Lance, I was not prepared for like lullabies or anything. I was singing frosted flakes songs cause I didn’t know. “Hey Tony, I liked the things you do.” You know, that’s the song I was singing because I couldn’t think of lullabies.
I really thought that I was a bad parent because you know, I was living in the shelter. I was 20 years old. I wasn’t ready to be a parent. But I fell in love with this beautiful being. That’s my best friend. I might not have any of the money in the world that I need for him, but for me to have him and for other parents to know, like it doesn’t matter what we look like or who we look like, it’s okay for us to have children.
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Throughout the season, we’re highlighting different podcasts that explore various facets of the Black birthing experience. Birth Stories in Color is a podcast for people of color to share their birthing experiences. It’s a space that celebrates Morin’s with and support folks of color and their transformation through birth.
The show emphasizes the role of storytelling as a way to equip parents. Listen to Birth Stories in Color on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. To join their community, go to birthstoriesincolor.com, and follow them on Instagram and Facebook.
Gabrielle: Next we turn to our second parent, Cecilia Flores Rodriguez. She’s an Afro-Dominican public health professional, chef, and doctoral student. Cecilia and her now husband, Ivannoe, welcomed their daughter, Ivanna, in 2017.
Cecilia: So I always knew that I wanted to be a mom, but I think that the timing of my own transition into motherhood was very unexpected and also very welcomed at the same time.
So I found out that I was pregnant. It was July 12th, the actual day. I actually, um, it was using a LARC, a long-acting reversible contraception. Um, so I definitely was not expecting to get pregnant at all. But I had missed a period, and which is normal for the, for the IUD that I had, it was normal.
But it just, something felt off, I was having these other symptoms too, and so I was just kind of like, well, maybe I should take a pregnancy test. And kind of going back and forth. Then I had a dream that I was pregnant. I took the test and it immediately turned positive. And I called Ivannoe and he was at work.
He was like, “Why didn’t you wait for me?!” But at the same time, he was like so excited. And so he was like, “What do we do now? Like, you know, what do we do?” And so I called my doctor and we rushed over there, and on the way we were taking the train, like so excited and also so scared and so nervous.
I was supposed to start a PhD program and in a little over a month. And so it was just kind of like, oh my God. I knew that I could do it, and at the same time I was like, this is not the right time! You know? Like that… just like really feeling like I didn’t know what was going to happen. Ivannoe and I, we’d been together for close to three years and so we had already had that conversation before, so I knew he was super supportive and super loving and excited to be a parent, although we both were not planning to be.
So I felt supported in that sense. It was just more of, like an internal, like, this wasn’t part of my Virgo, super type A, you know, timeline plan. And so, um, that was definitely kind of flooding through my head.
Gabrielle: Intrauterine devices, or IUDs, come in a lot of different forms. Generally speaking, their effects can last anywhere from three to six years, and in some cases up to twelve years. According to Planned Parenthood, IUDs are known to be more than 99% effective. In other words, each year, less than one out of every 100 people who use them get pregnant.
Cecilia: Uh, at first when they did the ultrasound, they were like, “Oh, well I see two sacs, but no egg.” And so, and I felt my heart drop at that point in time, cause I realized I was really actually excited to be pregnant.
But it turned out that those were two, like cysts on my ovary. So it was, and then they were like, “Oh wait, Nope, there, there the baby is!” And then they saw like, you know, they were able to see her implanted there, and it was just kind of like, we just looked at each other, we started crying. And you know, it’s just like a really beautiful moment.
And so like, even with all the nerves and all the anxiety, there was just so much love already there. And so it was just, it was a really beautiful moment. Something I’ll never forget.
Gabrielle: From the very beginning, she felt like she was in good hands with her medical care team.
Cecilia: I had the same OB GYN, although I actually hadn’t met her. It was one of those things where your insurance is like, you need to pick a doctor, and I looked through profiles and I saw her picture, and her interests and it was like, okay, like we’ll go with this one. But I’ve been with that same, um, organization, Harvard Vanguard, like forever. And so, and I’ve had generally really good experiences there.
And so, although I didn’t know them, you know, I was talking to them on the phone before we went in, like just asking them lots and lots of questions and they had asked me on the phone, if you are pregnant, do you know already if you would like to choose to parent or if you would like to look into other options?
And so I really appreciated that they were very sensitive and supporting and the idea of, I had clearly taken these measures to prevent pregnancy, and so they knew… and they had asked, you know, if I was coming with anybody else and if I had like support and all of that. And so I really appreciated that they kind of made that space.
And even though I had never met with the OB GYN before, just walking in, she was, you know, very supportive, asking how we were feeling, like checked in a lot. And so I didn’t know anybody else anyway, but I decided that because of that really warm interaction, I decided to continue with her. And she actually, at the time, I didn’t, wasn’t really thinking so far in advance in terms of, um, hospitals and, and where I wanted to give birth. And so it turned out in the end that she wasn’t, she didn’t round at the hospital that I decided to give birth at, but that was fine with me. We were able to connect with somebody else there and it was like, what we call in the healthcare world, like a warm handoff. I really liked that.
So I have such really beautiful memories of being pregnant. I think that every trimester, I mean, I feel like in general, the whole pregnancy process, I was like falling more and more in love with Ivannoe, just like, cause we were just creating this life together and it was just such a beautiful and amazing thing.
I was just remembering how we used to like curl up in bed and just like, you know, talk to my belly and like, you know, imagine, cause we also didn’t find out her sex until birth. And so it was just, we were just imagining all these possibilities and like what she would be like or you know, if she would be a boy or a girl or whatever. And it was just really cute. And I think in the first trimester it was just really special because it was like a little secret that we had.
We weren’t telling anybody yet because nobody expected us to be pregnant. And we also, um, especially with the IUD, we knew that there was a chance that I could miscarry. Um, there’s always a chance that, you know, that miscarriage can happen and all of that, but especially because of the IUD and the having to remove it.
Gabrielle: At twelve weeks, Cecilia, and Ivannoe I finally decided to share their secret with their families in Boston and the Dominican Republic. They were having a baby, and everyone was just so excited for them.
Cecilia: It was just really special to share it and really get that back, like get all the excitement and all the love back. And really from that, it was just kind of like everyone checking in like, “How are you doing? How’s the baby? Can you feel the baby moving yet? How many weeks are you?”
And you know, I was very obsessed with the pregnancy tracking apps and like the baby’s as big as a banana, or squash, or whatever the fruit comparison was that week. It was just really special to be able to, um, feel all that love coming back.
And, um, there’s just a very, a really cute Dominican tradition, um, where they say that either something will like, really bad will happen if you don’t consentid, if you don’t like, um, not spoil, but kind of spoil, but if you don’t like do what a pregnant person asks you to do, like something bad will happen. Or if you don’t give into a craving, the baby will have a birthmark that is shaped like the food that you denied the pregnant person.
Um, but yeah, little things like that. And so my uncle, he made me a sancocho and he made pernil, this was obviously pre vegan days.
And my mom made me, like a chicken soup. It was like also during the winter times, a lot of it was like, really hearty, um, and just very, uh, fried, very fried Dominican foods.
Pregnancy can be really isolating, and I’m getting emotional even thinking about it, it can be really isolating for some folks. And I just feel very, um, I never had to worry alone or like never had to be alone. Like they were always like very much checking in on me through this process. Just loving on me.
Gabrielle: Cecelia’s pregnancy progressed well. She, and Ivannoe even signed up for a natural child birthing class, where they learned about vaginal and C-section deliveries, different pain management strategies, how to raise questions to medical professionals and more.
The couple chose Harvard Medical School’s Mount Auburn hospital for the delivery. As the weeks went by, Cecilia stayed busy working, doing things around the house, just living her life. But when she finally started to slow down around the 38-week mark, she decided to take it easy and spend more time at home. Keeping up with the chores and preparing the apartment in advance of the baby was more than enough.
Cecilia: So I had my laundry basket with me and, just coming, kind of coming up the stairs, cause right up until the end I was like, still do, like I wanted to do everything and I wanted, you know, I’m very particular about things. I just wanted to be doing everything.
So I was still like, you know, going up and down the stairs and doing the laundry and all that stuff. And so in our apartment building, the folks that lived across the hall from us, they had left a black tray outside of their door. Um, I don’t know what you call it, but it’s just a place to kind of collect shoes. Like it was the winter time. So it’s a place where you put your shoes so that the snow doesn’t get in the house and doesn’t get everything dirty and all that stuff. And so they had left that in the hallway.
But me with my laundry basket, I knew it was there, you know, subconsciously, I knew it was there, but I guess I just, um, you know, moving quickly and didn’t really realize. And I just tripped and all of a sudden it was like a flash. All of a sudden I was on the ground and it happened so fast, I didn’t even really, it was so hard to process, like all I was just thinking about was like, the baby. And so I called them immediately. They were asking me all these questions like, did you fall on your stomach?
I’m like, I blacked out really quick, like, cause I was just so nervous and scared, I think. And so I don’t even remember. Like I didn’t remember how I fell, like if I fell on my stomach or on my side or anything like that. But they were just like, come in, like we’re just gonna monitor you and see like what’s going on. and all of that.
Gabrielle: I was even surprised to learn that accidents like Cecelia’s are pretty common for expecting parents. Almost a third of women fall during pregnancy, according to a study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. But in the final trimester, especially, OB GYNs are checking the safety of the mother and baby when something like that happens.
A fall could easily separate the placenta from the lining of the uterus, stress the baby out, or even force the parents into early labor. When Cecilia fell, Ivannoe had already left for work, but she called him anyway. She was scared and flustered. Her words were all jumbled up and she just couldn’t get them out. But it didn’t matter because she needed to get to Mount Auburn ASAP.
At the hospital, Cecelia’s doctors were really concerned. The baby’s due date was really soon, and when they took her vitals, they found her blood pressure had spiked and her heartbeat was racing. They kept her under close watch for a couple of hours, but they eventually let her go home. But what she found out at her next prenatal appointment changed everything.
Cecilia: By that point in time, I was 39 weeks and like a day or two, and so they were like, your blood pressure’s not going down. It’s only gonna get worse. Um, we should go ahead and induce. Looking back, I wish I had had a doula to kind of help navigate those decisions cause you’re kind of like in the moment you’re just kind of like, well, I’ll just do what the doctor says because you’re so scared about making a bad decision or something like that. That’s at least how I felt.
Gabrielle: Celia had so many questions that still needed answers that she thought about her initial birth plan. Was her baby’s health at stake? Could she still have a natural vaginal delivery?
Cecilia: In the back of my mind, I was kind of like, well, should we like, should we ask questions? Should we be like, “Let’s give us time?” Like, you know, let’s think about the induction, all that stuff. And at the same time, I was, like feeling very ready to like, meet the baby, not wanting to make the wrong decision, all that stuff. And so I was just kind of like, Ivannoe and I kind of looked at each other like, okay, like, let’s just do this.
Um, a lot, some of the other hospitals in Boston are kind of known for pushing the C-section and kind of, if you’re not advancing at the pace that they want you to advance at, they’ll push for it. And so I knew then, um, I felt really comfortable in their hands. And so, um, going in, I had a birth plan that Ivannoe and I had created together that was very much kind of like, here’s how we would love for things to go. Like, this is our dream of like, you know, the natural child birthing, like these pain management strategies, a bathtub, like all this stuff. And then kind of inserted in there, if it doesn’t go this dream way – which it’s very likely, you know, birth happens all different ways and so it’s very likely that it won’t happen that way – here are the other things, these are the, the order and the preference of the way that we would like for things to go.
Gabrielle: It was all happening so quickly, but Cecelia’s faith in Mount Auburn never wavered.
Cecilia: I think just walking into the hospital, it felt like that’s where we needed to be. We first greeted by this nurse, Jameela, and then we were, when we were in the recovery, she came in and visited us and she was just so attentive and she was, you know, she was just like, she said to me, she was like, “I see your blood pressure’s high.” She was like, you know, “Blood pressure is like really hard for us, Black women.”
And she, it was just like very beautiful and very affirming that she was just kind of like, I see you. I’m like, I see this and, um, I’m here for you. And like, was very kind of caring, and, and throughout that process, she was just like so supportive and amazing, and it was just, it felt really great to be in that space where I felt affirmed, and I felt like they were listening and reading. So it was like, it was really nice in that sense.
Gabrielle: That night, Cecilia was administered Misoprostol, a drug to help her cervix open up and start dilation. Typically, the process to get from the early labor phase to full dilation, or 10 centimeters, can take anywhere from eleven to nineteen hours or more. And as the hours go by, each contraction is growing stronger and longer.
By the next morning, doctors told Cecilia she was ready to dilate. Basically, this baby was coming very soon; but her blood pressure, it was still so, so high and threatening both her and her baby’s health.
Cecilia: They were watching her, watching Ivanna’s, um, heartbeat. And it was very clear that as, as I was having contractions, her heart rate would just, like, dip so low.
And so, um, and I had, by that point in time, I hadn’t even dilated yet. And so the doctor just said, “You know, if you had been eight centimeters dilated, nine centimeters dilated, something like that, I would probably let you go and let you continue and try to deliver vaginally. But at this point in time, it’s very dangerous. You haven’t even dilated yet, and the baby’s already so stressed out because of the labor.”
Again, it was one of those moments where I could really see the concern on her face even though she was like, you know, as, um, emotionless, but still kind of caring as possible. I think that it felt like she wasn’t trying to freak us out.
I felt upset and scared, both because I, like, I had just been visualizing like the whole pregnancy. I had been visualizing like I wanted this, that moment of like, you know, giving birth and, you know, pulling her out and putting her right on my chest. And I had just been visualizing that, like, really special moment of like, the three of us together. And, um I had just, it was something that I wanted so bad, for her and for us and all that stuff.
And just knowing how, uh, complicated C-sections can be and even afterwards, like how difficult it is to, um, manage, because you can only, you can carry the baby or you can carry the car seat, but you can’t carry the baby in the car seat.
You can’t drive, you can’t go up and down the stairs too much. You there are all these things, that you’re limited, and I really didn’t want to have that, those limitations our first few weeks of, of life together as a new family.
Gabrielle: And just like that, Celia and Ivannoe’s plan for a natural childbirth was out the window.
Cecilia: Um, but we knew in that moment that it was the right thing for us. And so we got ready and we went into the OR and I remember it. So Ivannoe, he and I went in separately, they brought me in first to put in the anesthesia. I reacted very poorly to the, uh, anesthesia. I started getting really, really nauseous and the anesthesiologist before, before he put the, um, the epidural in he said, “You know, make sure you communicate with me the whole time. Like, it’s me and you, like, let me know if you’re feeling anything. Like, just like, let me know.”
Gabrielle: On March 3rd, 2017 Cecilia and Ivannoe’s baby girl was born.
Cecilia: The thing that I remember like the clearest is her coming out and I just hear one of the nurses, like yelling, “Look at all that hair!” because she was born with like this, a full pitch Black ahead of hair like, it was just so cute. Um, and just the surprise on Ivannoe’s face! Um, cause again, we didn’t know the sex and we were just kind of trying to focus on the pregnancy and like all that stuff. And she was born, and just for the look on Ivannoe’s face, he was just, it was just, like this awe and amazement.
Gabrielle: After all the waiting, the prenatal checkups, the scare of falling while pregnant, the emotional buildup through the excruciating pains of laboring, Ivanna was finally here. Cecilia was ready to hold her baby for the first time, but that moment was delayed.
Cecilia: It had turned out that she had been completely, like wrapped in her umbilical cord and her umbilical cord was actually kind of starting to detach from her belly button.
And so it was like very both sadness that it had to be that way, but also an affirmation, and like, just knowing that that was the right decision. Um, and so the nurse, Brittany, like was, uh, she wheeled Ivanna past my mom. And so she got to tell my mom that it was a girl, and that she was healthy, and that she was fine. And so I, um, so that was really beautiful and special.
And, and then, um, from there it was just kind of a blur. It felt really fast, but I guess it was like a half an hour later that after like, being stitched up and kind of wheeled into the recovery, then they brought her to me and it was like, I immediately latched. She was like a pro, like she latched herself on basically.
Um, overall I’ve, I had this amazing experience at the hospital with the nurses and all of that, and there were still like a couple of challenges in terms of like… there was one nurse that was like, hell bent on getting Ivanna on, giving Ivanna formula, even though I very much wanted to nurse her.
And she was latching fine, perfectly, and she was like, doing really well. But she, um, because she was so, so small, she was five and a half pounds when she was born, they were really concerned about like, her sugar levels and all of that. And so there was this nurse that was like really, really pushing for her to, to take formula.
And it was like, you know, no, “I really want to breastfeed. I really want to breastfeed.”
Gabrielle: Ivanna’s blood sugar was low. Breast or chest feeding would have been a perfectly natural way to help get those glucose levels up, but the nurse was adamant about giving Ivana formula, something Cecilia did not have in her birth plan. She couldn’t control the rest of the plan, but this nursing, her baby girl Cecilia could do.
Cecilia: She kind of cornered me in this moment where I was by myself. I was just so exhausted from everything. I was like, fine, whatever, you know, just give her the bottle of formula. And so she started to give her the formula and then Ivanna threw up all over her. And so I was kind of like, that’s what you get! I told you no, I ended up acquiescing, but Ivanna, you know, she told her no too.
Gabrielle: Of all the comfort and competence she found in her medical team, it’s unfortunate that Cecelia still had to go back and forth with a nurse about feeding her baby.
The transition from pregnancy to postpartum was also pretty tough. Cecilia and Ivannoe were excited about their new baby girl, but Celia still had some lingering feelings of regret and sadness about not being able to birth her daughter the way she wanted to.
Cecilia: It was really difficult those first few weeks holding like just the immense gratitude of having my baby alive and happy and healthy and all of that, and also holding this kind of sadness and mourning for the process that I really wanted, and didn’t get to have for us.
And that was the challenging part of telling my birth story for a long time. Wanting to have that kind of, I don’t know if it was like validation, I just wanted people to like see that and be able to hold that with me. And a lot of times people would just hold the like, while your baby is alive and healthy and all that.
And I’m like, yes, and I am so grateful for that. And also like, I want to be sad. I want to like, feel these feelings about this process that I’m like, that didn’t get to happen, that I’m mourning. And so I actually participated in this, uh, what’s called a womb closing ceremony, and you know, I got to cry. And also felt seen in that moment of like, you know, it’s okay, it wasn’t that your body failed you, or anything like failed you. It’s just, you know, it’s, it’s okay.
Gabrielle: Cecelia’s story speaks to just how meaningful it is to be seen as soon as you step foot in the hospital. It speaks to the power of knowing that your healthcare providers can empathize with you, without stripping you of your right to make your own decisions.
Mikah’s story shows us that support systems aren’t monolithic either. Mother’s Home, a shelter for pregnant women, was a sanctuary where Mikah was able to ask questions, learn and gain new skills to better care for themselves and their child, free of judgment.
And both stories remind us just how messy birthing while Black can be. Because no matter how comfortable you feel with your birthing team, you can’t ever really let your guard down. You gotta be ready to catch the biases rooted in white, patriarchal medical practices. You’ve got to constantly remind folks that you know your body, you know what you’re feeling better than they do, and you know the kind of care you need and when you need it.
Whew. And even just saying all of that out loud, I get it. It’s a lot y’all. But talking about it out loud and in community with each other is exactly why we created NATAL.
[Cecilia sings a lullaby to Ivanna]
Gabrielle Horton is an executive producer of NATAL. She began her audio production career at NPR member station Michigan Radio and Crooked Media and now works as a producer for such podcasts as Hear to Slay and The Black List. Gabrielle is a graduate of Spelman College and the University of Michigan.
Co-published with You Had Me At Black.