Shanille Bowens is helping other Black women in Memphis craft their dream birth experience

[By Shanille Bowens, special for High Ground News. Bowens is a mother, birth doula, and founder of Naturally Nurtured Birth Services. The following details her journey through pregnancy, motherhood, loves lost, and finding her calling as a birthworker.]

I have known since my pregnancy with my son 17 years ago that being a birthworker was my calling. A counselor recommended that I seek the support of a doula when I told her I didn’t have anyone who was able to guide me and advocate for me during my labor.

A doula provides physical, emotional, and educational support throughout pregnancy, labor, birth, and postpartum.

My doula’s name was Ora. I am forever grateful for her. Ora turned out to be everything I needed. We met periodically throughout my pregnancy to prepare for his arrival and create my hospital birth plan.

As a 19-year-old, first-time mom, I was able to navigate 17.5 hours of natural labor and give birth to my son safely, comfortably, and free of trauma and worry with Ora’s guidance and support.

In 2005, I relocated to Memphis and met my husband. We decided to start a family but had no idea of the incredible challenges we would face or how they would serve as a guiding light to the way I support families today.

We suffered many miscarriages, including twins at 23 weeks. Doctors refused to perform any life saving measures after my amniotic sac ruptured prematurely around one of the babies. They said, “It wouldn’t do any good anyway.”

Throughout our conception journey, I feel like doctors never took our situation seriously. They never really dug deep into the causes behind our losses. Very little attention was given to our worries and concerns during pregnancy and time after time, we lost babies.

Throughout my own tragedies, I found comfort in supporting family and friends who were successful in conceiving or needed help with breastfeeding. 
After three long years, although he was no longer delivering babies, we finally found a doctor who dug deeper. He helped me find the cause behind my losses and I sustained five healthy pregnancies to term.

But sustaining pregnancies didn't prevent me from having a traumatizing birthing experience with a different doctor in 2015.

My husband suddenly passed in 2017, and I found out I was pregnant with our last child after his death. I was widowed, a mom of five—soon to be six—and grief stricken. I was desperate to celebrate our rainbow after the storm.

This birth had to be magical.

I told myself that my family and I deserved a different experience after everything we had been through. I wanted a more intimate birthing experience at home, surrounded by my children and loved ones in my husband’s absence.

I hired midwives and had a home birth with all of my children by my side. I was forever changed. I had a son who would carry my husband’s namesake and be my final push into a field that had been calling me for so long. 

Birthing a Business
After the birth, my dear friends and midwives Dr. Nikia Grayson and Jodilyn Owen encouraged me to follow my heart and pursue training to become a doula professionally.

Related: “CHOICES' new birth center is making history and reviving Black midwifery in Memphis”

I trained and certified as a birth doula with Doulas of North America then added certifications for lactation counseling, HypnoBirthing, midwife assistantship, and placenta encapsulation.

I founded Naturally Nurtured Birth Services LLC in November 2018 with a focus on the at-risk Black and Brown communities that needed doula support the most. My goal was to prevent as many families as I could from experiencing the loss and pain my family and I endured.

As more and more families reached out and inquired about services, I understood that the need was bigger than what one person could ever do alone.

I thought back on my time training. There were two doulas I connected and bonded with throughout that journey—Rhonda Okoth and Jaqueline Olsen. We decided to partner to stretch our reach and support the needs of birthing families. Rhonda is a nurse with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Jaqueline is a wellness practitioner. We later connected with two more doulas, Abeni Randle and Tamera Stegall. They also brought their skills as a lactation counselor and social worker, respectively.

Together, we make sure families feel informed, surrounded with care, loved, and respected, while also supporting each other.
Shanille Bowens sits at center. Surrounding her, left to right, are: Abeni Randle, Rhonda Okoth, Jacqueline Oselenin, and Tamera Stegall. Their doula collective, Naturally Nurtured Birth Services, focuses on serving families of color. (Ziggy Mack)
Why Focus on Black and Brown Families?
We know that racial inequity begins before we’re even born. Black babies and mothers are at the highest risk for illness, injury, early birth, and death before birth and in their first year.

Tennessee’s preterm birth rate among Black women is 44% higher than the rate among all other women. March of Dimes’ reporting also shows Memphis is among 10 cities with the highest rate of preterm births in the country.

According to the March of Dimes 2020 Report Card, Tennessee received a "D-" grade with an overall preterm birth rate of 11.2%. Shelby County got an "F" with a rate of 12.4%.

Having a doula reduces the risk of preterm birth; one study found that people with doulas lowered their risk by a full 22%.

Studies have also shown that with the support of a doula, women experience 50% fewer C sections, 25% shorter labor, 60% less epidural requests, and 66% report a more positive birthing experience.

We believe that financial restraints should never be a reason why a family is unable to benefit from having a doula. We provide low- or no-cost care to families with financial hardship and free services to teens.

We recognize the importance of welcoming a new baby and want to help make the experience as positive as possible.

It takes a village, and we are working collectively to decrease disparities associated with giving birth in The Bluff City.
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