Milwaukee birth worker embraces the unknown unknowns, especially during global pandemic

In March, just before COVID hit Milwaukee, Wis. Evelyn Rhodes completed her doula training with Doulaing the Doula. Since then, COVID hasn’t slowed her down. If anything, it’s motivated her more to serve families as they’re challenged by the pandemic.

“If you want to be a birth worker, do it now,” she advises.  “Don’t wait for the pandemic to be over. Birthing people need you now. If you have a passion, then you’ll find your place within this work!” 

In only a few months, Rhodes has completed CAPPA training to become a Childbirth Educator through Well Pregnancy and started working with the African American Breastfeeding Network (AABN) through its WeRise doula program. As an Accessing the Milky Way scholarship recipient, Rhodes is well into her Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) material too. 

“It is going really well,” she reports. “I like the set-up and the check-ins to ensure you are learning and retain the information. The videos are very detailed and offer a lot of information, so it is nice to have the quizzes after each section…. It is also helpful that they have live office hours where you can talk to a person if you have any questions.

Rhodes adds, “I’m really learning about how our social dynamic, cultural norms and legislation all impact the ability for women to be successful in breastfeeding.” 

Rhodes calls the scholarship an amazing opportunity to equip people with the knowledge and skills to help others and really make an impact. 

“That is why it is so important that if you have a passion for this, you take the responsibility to do something about it and make a difference in someone’s birthing or breastfeeding story,” she says. 

Since she was a teenager, Rhodes has been interested in working with pregnant people and babies.

“But my passion really erupted when I had my own kids with a lot of complex issues,” she says. 

Over time, she learned that her story was not as isolated as she thought.

“Complications that I experienced… were more the norm than the exception for birthing people who looked like me,” she explains. “I learned about the statistics for women of color and it is scary, especially for women here in Milwaukee. I really wanted to be a part of changing people’s birthing stories and outcomes to be more positive.

Rhodes developed preeclampsia in her first pregnancy. 

“I knew something was wrong but my doctor just kept brushing me off,” she remembers. 

Rhodes took matters into her own hands and moved from Duluth, Minn. to the Twin Cities in search of different care. During her first and only appointment with a perinatologist,  Rhodes’s oldest daughter was born via C-section at 29 weeks.  Although it was a challenging start, Rhodes provided breastmilk for her baby. 

She went on to exclusively pump for her second daughter who was born with a cleft palate and a heart condition that required surgery at three months. When her third baby was born, she managed the challenges of her baby’s tongue tie that was revised, but she did not receive proper aftercare education, which caused another layer of breastfeeding challenges. 

Despite it all, Rhodes says that breastfeeding her babies was an amazing bonding experience. 

She says, “It creates this connection with your child in that ‘I’m the only person that can give you exactly what you need’. Research tells us that when we smell our babies, our breasts like magic respond to that and produce whatever it is that our baby needs. It’s a gift that makes you feel like a Goddess. It makes you feel good when your baby is crying and you’re like,  ‘Awe, you just need your Mama and these boobs with my liquid gold.’” 

At the same time, Rhodes acknowledges the responsibility and stress that can be coupled with that joy. 

“In my work… I try to make sure that moms know if anything is wrong or making breastfeeding difficult, to seek help,” she says. 

The tenacity that guided Rhodes through sometimes challenging birth and breastfeeding experiences has helped her persevere professionally through the environment that COVID has shaped.  

“…Our kids are with us all day everyday so we no longer have the privilege of someone else caring for our children while we work, study or complete training,” she explains. “I’ve had to do training while tending to my kids or set the kids up with snacks, toys and a movie and lock myself in my room to be able to focus on my training taking breaks to check on them, refill their water, and put on a new TV show to keep them occupied. Sometimes my husband and I both have places we need to be virtually. We even went out and bought our kids new LOL surprise dolls, you know the ones that you have to open 50 different tiny things, because we knew we’d be occupied all day.”  

Reflecting further on her professional life, Rhodes says her work with WeRise has been the most challenging. 

“The work we do is very intimate and in order to take precautions to keep everyone safe, we’ve had to interact in less intimate ways than we normally would,” she explains. “For example we’ve held meetings in public places and practiced social distancing and utilized virtual platforms like Zoom and even FaceTime to conduct prenatal meetings and get to know each other whereas we normally would have done this face-to-face and in the privacy of their homes.” 

“Because of the pandemic, our pregnant mothers are dealing with more stress which as we all know can cause more complications with pregnancy, delivery and even developmental issues once the baby is here. So my work has been a lot more emotional support and finding resources for the mother and the family throughout the pregnancy,” she continues. 

In the face of COVID, certain maternity care facilities are limiting the number of support people present during births, so Rhodes and other doulas are forced to find creative ways to offer support.  

With one client in mind, Rhodes explains, “We are going over a birth plan to help her advocate for certain things, practicing positioning and when certain positions will be most helpful and ensuring that we can be set up virtually if mom desires that interaction during labor.” 

The work that Rhodes, other birth workers and maternal child health advocates are doing is making a difference. 

“I have no choice but to be optimistic about the future of maternal child health,” Rhodes says.  “I think at this point, we have no way to go but up.”

She adds, “…Everyone has to continue to be advocates for themselves as well as others. If we know something, we have a responsibility to our community to share that knowledge because there are so many unknown unknowns. Sometimes we know something doesn’t feel right but we don’t know why. Explore that feeling, ask questions, ask for more information. Share your story and your outcomes positive and negative. Someone might learn from it!”

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