There are longstanding and deepening health disparities in birthing outcomes for black women. As a group, African American women are at least three to four times more likely to die during or after pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 60 percent of maternal deaths in the U.S. are preventable. Black women are also more at a higher risk for other pregnancy and birth complications. Negative health outcomes for moms are tied to negative outcomes for infants, such as pre-term birth and low-birth weight.
For Ana Rodney, this experience is not just about statistics, it is personal. She had her own health crisis while navigating the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) after the birth of her son in 2014. “I nearly died three times,” she says.
When her son finally came home after six months in the NICU, Rodney gave herself some space to get used to having her child at home. She eventually decided she wanted to start a healing circle for other moms with a similar experience, and MOMCares was born. MOMCares provides postpartum doula support to black mothers with a NICU experience.
Rodney has a degree in anthropology and sociology from Morgan State University. She had been a part-time doula since college, but usually considered it a thing she did for friends and family. She started as a doula early in undergrad, when a friend of hers became pregnant and Rodney wanted to help support her.
When she started MOMCares, she committed to being a doula full-time. Doulas work with mothers during and after pregnancy to provide emotional support and education about pregnancy. They also serve as advocates for mothers in the birthing room. Post-partum doulas help new mothers ease into motherhood by providing advice on infant care and taking care of the baby or light housework so the new mother can sleep.
But, the NICU experience is different and can be difficult to navigate for new mothers. “We help moms feel connected to and active in the parenting process, while their child’s care is being driven by the medical professionals in the NICU,” says Rodney. “We also help moms develop an emotional connection to their child, because the things that happen once you take your baby home don’t typically happen in the NICU. Moms in the NICU often have to ask to hold their babies.”
MOMCares gives NICU moms voice recorders, so they can leave messages for their babies for when they aren’t there. This also eases the anxiety of leaving a child in the hospital, so the moms can take care of themselves. Rodney and her team of volunteer doulas will also help the moms prioritize self-care, whether that’s going to a doctor’s appointment or taking a nap. They also offer mindfulness, meditation, and light yoga to help mothers develop coping strategies. The program has recently expanded to support young black mothers and black mothers with high-risk pregnancies.
When she decided to start the program, Rodney fully committed to making MOMCares happen. “I didn’t always have the personal or professional resources I needed, but I always pushed the work forward,” she says. “The OSI Community Fellowship changes the game. I can do this work and move it forward, without having to compromise my own personal resources.”
“This is not a black issue, this is a public health issue,” says Rodney. “These mothers make up a crucial part of our society. These babies will be your kids’ classmates, friends, at their birthday parties. Everybody should care.”