BLACK & GIVING LIFE with Tayo Mbande of Chicago Birthworks
Updated: Feb 2, 2020
When I met Tayo Mbande, her name was Temikia Terin Taylor. I was a freshman at Howard University. She was the literal embodiment of Black queenliness. She served as Miss Howard University 2013-2014 and was (fun fact) one of the only Howard campus queens to reign with locks. When I checked in with her years later, I found that her name had changed to Tayo Mbande and that she was raising a beautiful family and running a doula practice called The Chicago Birthworks Collective. I got the chance to catch up with Tayo in October 2019:
THE JOURNEY FROM MISS HOWARD TO MOTHERHOOD:
AB: I met you as Tamekia-Terin Taylor and then I checked in a few years later on Instagram, and I was like, “Wow! She has this beautiful family and she's started a doula practice". What was your journey from having a crown as Miss Howard to life now?
TM: I got a whole new name! A lot of folks are like “Who is Tayo Mbande?”. I definitely am a whole new person - lots of the same person too. I was Miss Howard 2013-2014 in my junior year. In my senior year, I thought I could lay low and have this experience that I did not ever have because of my commitments as a student leader. I thought about becoming a cheerleader. I thought about joining different dance teams because I finally had all this time. Then, I got pregnant.
So that changed real quick. I’m not about to be a pregnant cheerleader, I’ll tell you that [laughter]. I was a resident assistant and that was a lot for me. But I had tons of support from my mom and from my husband, who was my boyfriend then. He would come down from graduate school every week to go to my prenatal visits to support me.
When I graduated, we had to relocate and figure out what the next move was gonna be. Both of us are from California. We also each have a parent who was born and raised in Chicago. When you decide to have children, you have to start thinking about where you're going to get the most support. So we decided to go to the Chicago area, to be near my mom where I would get the most support. We were just trying to figure out what to do with ourselves, living in this little city, Hammond, Indiana. It felt so strange but having my mom there felt like home. It took my husband and me some time to create something with each other.
We got married at the start of 2016 and we kind of started from scratch, trying to build our little family together. And then I got pregnant at the end of 2016. I gave birth to my son in 2017and in 2018, I got pregnant again. And then I gave birth to this little girl just this past June. So, since I was pregnant with my daughter in 2014, I have been pregnant every. single. year. It’s finally hitting me like “You’re crazy!”...but I have always wanted to be a mother. When I became a mom, I was like, activated. I was like “this is so fun! We should do this again!”. And now I’m like “Dang, we gotta stop cause I’m tired” [laughter].
ON MOTHERING AND IDENTITY:
AB: As we speak, Black Twitter is in the middle of censuring Fantasia Barrino for her comments on women’s submission in marriage. Broadly, we’re in the middle of a time where families are redefining what it means to be a family. On the subject of roles and families, how does being a mother tie into your overall identity and sense of purpose?
TM: So many things in my life have been unarticulateable (I totally made that word up). But the way that being a mom has kind of given light to all of these things that didn't know I wanted to do but should be doing was one of the things I couldn't even articulate it before I was a mom.
Becoming a mom was one of those divine steps that was organized for me to take that I knew in my gut that I wanted, but that I wasn't in my conscious mind pursuing. I don't think my conscious mind was saying how “you're going to become a mom at 21. And yes, you're still in college and this is a good time for you to get pregnant” but my subconscious mind knew that once you experience this journey called pregnancy and motherhood, that’s gonna lead you to whatever else you're supposed to be doing.
When I was in my senior year of college, I had no clear idea of what the heck what I was gonna do after I graduated. I was so scared. I kept telling myself I was going to go to graduate school to pursue my PhD in Behavioral Psychology but I knew deep down that’s not what I wanted to do. Once I became a mom, so much of my womanhood informed my humanhood. I was trying to exist as just a human. I didn’t really focus on how much of a woman I was and how that impacted the type of human I was and how that impacted things that I wanted to do and the things I was going to be able to do.
I had just spit a baby out of my vagina then weeks after (weeks!!!) I was trying to find a new job. The same struggle to find a job that most folks have after they graduate college, I was having that. But also, the first two years after I had my daughter, I struggled figuring out how to value myself, like “Is it valuable that I'm a mom? or should I be embarrassed that I just graduated from college and now I'm at home with my baby? Should I be proud?” I didn’t really know how to make sense of that. But having a child made me sit back and realize that you have some soft parts that are not that tough and that are not supposed to be tough. You have to do work to keep those parts soft and to not just try to burst out into the world and be super durable and work these twelve-hour shifts and do all the things that are not in alignment with you being a human being.
Now, I have three children and have been out of college for going on four years. So many friends have quit their jobs and don't know what they want to do next. They feel like they’ve spent the last four years giving their time, energy, and health to these large corporations. My pregnancy is what caused me to pay attention to the reality of being a human.
It’s like being a pedestrian versus driving a car. When you're in a car, you feel safe. You got this very firm structure around you. You can drive fast and dip in and out of lanes, and you feel protected. But as a pedestrian, you would never do that stuff. You would never go weaving through traffic because you know you don't have that type of protection. It causes you to navigate the world a little differently. That's what becoming a mother was for me -- learning you cannot go for 15-16 hours without nourishing yourself or taking a break. You can't do that. This is your life. And this is the way your life should be.
ON DOULA WORK AND FOUNDING THE CHICAGO BIRTHWORKS COLLECTIVE:
AB: That’s such a wonderful metaphor. You moved to Chicago to be near your mom and then you founded Chicago Birthworks Collective, this doula collective, with her. How did that come to be?
TM: I recognized very early that I needed my mother so much, especially in my journey to becoming a mom. We grew closer together going from a mother-daughter relationship to a parent-to-parent one. When I started to build relationships with other moms and women, I realized that they did not have the same strong relationships with their mothers. I met people who said they would not want their mother in the room with them when they gave birth. My mom and I recognized that what we have is not common and that there are tons of factors as to why mother-daughter relationships may not develop in a healthy way. When we started looking at the big things that impact the way that we birth, we found that mother-daughter relationships were a huge part.
I started to talk about this collective project with my mom right after I gave birth to my son. She was a huge part of caring for me and helping me to manage my labor and supporting me and holding space for me. So essentially, I was like, “Why can’t I just rent my mom out to people?” [laughter] My mom was wonderful to me and everybody deserves to experience that at their births. So we started doing a little research and learned that that was what was called being a doula.
We started this journey off thinking “We're going to help all these Black moms in Chicago heal their relationships with their mothers!”. But most of our work today has nothing directly to do with women's relationships with their moms but helping them to heal themselves and pursue whatever type of healing they need. If that is healing their relationship with their moms, great! If that’s healing relationships with themselves and their sisters or whoever, that’s great. We help them to pursue their own healing and recognize the way that that’s going to impact their pregnancy and their birth outcomes.
We did not start our doula collective so that we could increase the outcomes for Black women in terms of maternal and infant mortality. That was not on our minds. We’re all being bombarded by these statistics and this information but that’s been happening since forever. When my mother gave birth to my sisters 25+ years ago, she was having these issues. She was being abused in the hospital by the providers. We were really focused on helping Black women to create healing around their pregnancies and around motherhood.
The work that we do is not emphasizing the fact that Black women are dying at the hands of medical professionals during childbirth. It's emphasizing the fact that we have been our own healers. We have been taking care of each other. Chicago Birthworks Collective is really a reflection of an outside-of-our-bodies living manifestation of this woman-to-woman relationship that my mom and I had. It wasn’t us saying “Hey we’re gonna stop Black women and babies from dying in childbirth.” That stuff we knew was going to happen because we were committed to helping folks heal themselves.
We started off with just my mom and I as doulas just establishing partnerships with other folks in the community that were healers and health practitioners. Now, we have twelve doulas -- six community doulas, and seven other folks who are either doulas or part of our administrative staff. They provide what we call “traditional doula care” (one-to-one, my doula comes to my house, she helps me create a birth plan, she’s present throughout my birth…). Then, we have our “community doula care”, which is a kind of group doula care where you join a community of moms and have a group of doulas who help you do pregnancy at all stages. In both ways, we’re emphasizing that powerful relationship with Black women.
AB: It's easy for us to forget, as Black women, that it is okay and healthy to start from a place of healing and community and wholeness and not from the points of our trauma. I was prepared with follow-up questions on how this work ties into the greater narrative of the Black maternal health crisis...
TM: It’s a common thought though! But we would be fools to think this is a new crisis. You don’t have to do the research if you think about, practically, how might modern, Western obstetrics, the practice of white folks learning about reproduction, have come to pass? You need some kind of starting place. Do you think white obstetricians would have started experimenting with white women’s bodies or with Black women's bodies or what? So this is not new. It’s newly publicized.
ON A LEGACY OF BIRTHWORK:
AB: As I was prepared to talk with you about where your work fits into this legacy of Black birthwork, I read up on Black traditions of midwifery. I learned about legendary granny midwife ancestors like Margaret Charles (whose name and story I didn’t previously know). Who were the people that you looked up to in this field? Who gave you the tools and the technical skills to get started as a doula?
TM: I have to tell you that I didn’t learn about Margaret Charles until after I became a doula. The first person to introduce me to granny midwifery was Shafia Monroe. Shafia Monroe herself is a legend in Black midwifery today, in Black birthwork. She is a Black midwife today who practices in the Black granny midwife tradition-- she is keeping many of those practices alive. Things you’ve never heard of like herbs to manage what folks in hospitals are still trying to figure out.
She was the first person to kind of open up this world of Black women healers--Black women healing each other, especially around birth. That's when I started to kind of peek into granny midwifery. Probably every Black person can look back in their own family and if they just keep digging, they’ll probably find the midwife in their family. We know the names of some of these huge granny midwives but we don't know, the names of the hundreds of others. Their stories were never published, they never became licensed and they weren’t ever recognized.
It was just maybe two weeks ago, that my great aunt was in town and she told me that my great grandmother, and my great grandfather, were delivered by the same person who was my great grandfather’s aunt. And they couldn't remember her name, but she had delivered all of the babies in their county. I really realized we’ve been doing this work. And just because we haven’t had white folks to acknowledge it, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened.
What people don’t realize about the work that we do is its not “Oh, you just like working with moms!”. No, I like to see Black families continue on. This is the work of preserving Black families and making sure we see another hundred years. Helping Black mothers heal themselves and have healthy babies is the literal sense of nation building - preserving our people and our culture and our families. If we’re doing that now, you have to think somebody was doing that before us, right? Those are the places that I start from--the women in my own ancestral line that I know were doing this exact same work. Supporting each other, helping each other to heal, helping our families to stay intact.
ON RAISING A PLANT-BASED FAMILY:
AB: On a more personal note, something that I’ve followed on your Instagram has been your journey to raise a family on a plant-based diet. What are your reasons for leaving a plant-based lifestyle and raising a family on plant foods?
TM: Before I got pregnant, my husband and I were college students and were going through this period of wanting to be healthy--we were healing ourselves emotionally and from cultural traumas, and genealogical traumas, so eating a plant-based diet felt like the next step. There wasn’t a huge philosophical change that we experienced.
While I was in my senior year at Howard, just before I got pregnant, I found out that I had a brain tumor that was very small but it was still the scariest thing that I had ever experienced at that time. My doctors were committed to convincing me that it was going to grow if I got pregnant and the medication to shrink it is contraindicated in pregnancy. When I moved to Chicago, it took me a while to get all the necessary referrals to check the size of the tumor. It wasn’t until January 2016 that I got another MRI. That was 4 months after I had given birth and I was sure that the tumor had gotten larger. When I got the MRI, it wasn’t there - they couldn’t even see it. That was the moment when I said “this tumor could have disappeared because I made these small changes. That was when I said I’m never going to have meat again. I don’t like to categorize myself as “I only eat plant-based”. I just eat healthy. If you guys have cheesecake and I feel like eating cheesecake today, I am with it.
I am more rigid with my children. I want them to have options but I need to get them into a place where they understand what they’re putting into their bodies, where it came from, and the experience of how it can impact them. I tell people that if they choose to eat meat when they’re older, they can. But while I'm in control of what they eat, no. I just hope that they hold themselves accountable in the same way that I held myself accountable-- to be able to recognize that what I put in my body is gonna impact how I feel, how I am, and that it also impacts the ecosystem around me.
AB: That’s an amazing way of framing it all. As we close, I want to say that StrongBlackWoman becomes a compounded cliche phrase. You are so obviously strong but you are also so, so magical. You are life-giving in more than a literal sense. I can't thank you enough for your time.
TM: You’re an exceptional human. That’s very meaningful and I really appreciate you.
BOOKS AND FURTHER READING: