Brittany Bright posted a video of her nighttime routine, which includes a postpartum night doula, to Twitter on Nov. 18. The video shows Bright getting her newborn ready for bed and prepping bottles of breast milk for the doula to feed the baby before retreating to her bedroom from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. to rest.
Soon after tweeting the video, the responses started rolling in. Many celebrated this mom’s use of a doula and her willingness to prioritize her well-being (“This. Is. What. I. Need,” said one excited respondent). But for many, many others, this was a video about financial privilege (“The amount of young mothers I know would maintain healthier lives if they could afford this”), luxury (“doula care from a reproductive/birth justice framework is NOT supposed to be luxurious”), and health care access (“Imagine [if] all mothers had access to services like this”). Bright, a social media strategist, eventually made a second video to respond to those who scolded her for prioritizing her own sleep and any number of other things, arguing that “motherhood is not rooted in struggle.” But the original tweet had already grown into a conversation beyond Bright’s control.
In order to make better sense of the whole viral controversy, I called Samantha Griffin, a certified labor and postpartum doula and the owner of DC Metro Maternity, who has been practicing since 2013. Griffin and I chatted about perceptions of Black motherhood (Bright is Black), the importance of rest, and whether doulas count in the understanding that it takes a village to raise kids. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Julia Craven: When I reached out to you, you mentioned over email that Bright’s video sparked a conversation within the doula industry. What have y’all been talking about?
Samantha Griffin: Some of the industry conversations were around this very specific difference between a postpartum doula, a nighttime nanny, and a newborn care specialist. It revolved around this idea that mom prepares bottles and then hands the baby over, shuts herself in what looks like a gorgeous bathroom, and then gets that time completely to herself, versus the other ways to get postpartum doula support, where, say, she’s still getting up to nurse every few hours and maybe there’s more conversation with the doula.
There’s this desire for doula work to still directly physically involve the birthing parent, which is often a mother, and I think that ties into the luxury conversation and these expectations, particularly of Black women around breastfeeding. I don’t know how familiar you are with Black breastfeeding rates.
Oh, they’re very low.
Yes, exactly! I think because there is this sense that breastfeeding is optimal for babies, and our breastfeeding rates are so low, the conversation was, “Is this what postpartum doula work should look like? Shouldn’t we be showing parents how to do what we do?” But what’s the difference other than the exchange of payment? What’s the difference between someone’s mother or grandmother coming in and saying, “Hey, baby, this is how we do things?” Or “I’ll take the baby for this many hours so that you can get some rest.”
There are multiple ways that we can support people, and having to physically sacrifice your sleep does not always have to be a part of the equation. You know, one of the conversations that we like to have with clients is, what are your goals? Is nursing directly most important to you? Is protecting your breast milk supply most important to you? Is it important to you to be a part of nighttime parenting?
I have my own thoughts about this video and the responses from people who aren’t doulas—mainly that when it comes to Black moms, we expect them to suffer in order to prove that they’re a loving, caring parent. Is this part of the reason why it’s less common for Black families to seek help?
There are two sets of expectations to think about. The white dominant culture has this sense that Black families are less stable. Black mothers are less loving. And so there is this external pressure sometimes to prove that you’re a good mother. And how do we prove we’re a good mother? Regardless of race, in the U.S. we prove we’re a good mother by martyring ourselves and by suffering. That’s one narrative. Then, within Black families, I think there’s this sense that strength is a sign of good motherhood along with the sense that we can do it all. Or we’re the backbone of our families.
But, it is not actually common, in many cultures, for people to raise infants entirely in isolation with just one parent or even just two parents. Depending on what context you’re thinking about, we can always look at the impact of slavery on Black family systems. Once you are forcibly separated from your loved ones, then of course there’s going to be this type of narrative around independence and this ability to thrive in spite of.
Sometimes I hear from postpartum, overnight clients that they’ve gotten feedback from people saying, “If you have a baby, why didn’t you want to take care of it?” And the underlying assumption is that if you’re not up every two hours for the first several weeks, you’re not taking care of your baby, which is a completely unreasonable expectation. Everyone needs sleep, everyone needs rest—particularly breastfeeding parents.
Do you think that people may be conflating luxury and privilege?
I do think so. There’s a certain amount of economic privilege in order to hire, but I don’t know that I believe that support is a luxury. I just think that there’s different ways to get this support. When I’m talking about what I think parents deserve, I think that they deserve safe births. If they’re creating families, I think that they deserve help. And I think that as a country, we could create a world in which everyone has a certain baseline of support and safety.
Honestly, I found the video very beautiful. I don’t have children. But I think about my mom, my family, and how I was not raised by a singular person. I was raised by multiple people. So to see a Black woman subvert this narrative that she has to struggle alone in order to raise her children was quite lovely.
I felt the same way. One of the things that I was really glad about in that video was that a new mom got the opportunity to sleep. My initial thought when people are hiring for overnight care is always, oh, good for you getting past the judgment around it! That judgment plays into this conversation about whether having a night doula is a luxury or not. There are a lot of sentiments in U.S. culture that say if you have a baby, then don’t expect to sleep for the first year—or five years, depending on who you talk to. And what I saw in the video was a new mom who had made a decision to do something different and actually get some rest.
I think she said, once the doula comes over, she gets about 10 hours of kid-free time, which is a premium for mothers especially in the context of the last year and a half with the pandemic and people spending more time at home.
As a Black doula who mostly serves Black families, I was really excited to see this. I’ve been doing a lot of postpartum doula work since 2016, and, in my experience, it is more unusual for Black families to hire for overnight care than white families and other families of color. This mom putting out there what she’s doing for her self-care was really brave.
Black mothers deserve all the luxury. You just brought a baby into the world. If she did it in a hospital, then she’s dealing with all of the challenges that come with giving birth as a Black woman in a hospital in America in 2021. She’s raising kids during the pandemic. Let that lady get some sleep. I don’t think that we should be focused on whether this is a luxury or if everyone can afford this. That’s a different conversation. Let’s talk about how we can make it so that all parents have access to support.
I was actually going to ask you, what should this conversation be about? My sense is also that it’s less about this one woman and her access to a postpartum doula and more about the fact that postpartum help isn’t available to everyone.
For parents, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, this is not a country where we make it easy to parent. But how do we make it so that everyone has some form of support? How do we make it so that everyone has some form of rest? And immediately my thought always goes to paid parental leave. Other developed nations have it. We found a way to provide stimulus checks—certainly not enough to live off of for months, but still. We could find a way to support people the same way that we give other benefits. It’s doable.