Informal but Essential, Herbalists and Birth Workers Fill Gaps in Community Care | Link TV
Informal but Essential, Herbalists and Birth Workers Fill Gaps in Community Care
It’s a warm summer day in South Central when Panquetzani, a healer and birth worker, opens the door of her client’s house; the light surrounds her silhouette as she waltzes in, an otherworldly apparition wearing a purple cotton dress and a large necklace of intricately beaded flowers. Her hair is curly and free, and on one arm she carries a woven basket of freshly-picked flowers and herbs.
Her two apprentices are already in the kitchen preparing a bone broth soup and atole, a hot corn beverage with origins in Mesoamerica. Avocado leaves, mugwort, yarrow, mint, and bougainvillea flowers, all from Panquetzani’s garden, were to be made into a large pot of tea and a vaginal steam, a remedy meant to ease pain, bloating, and cleanse the uterus by squatting over herb-infused steam.
This was the last postpartum visit for Kat Cardenas, the mother of a five-week-old baby who was finishing her cuarentena, a Mexican tradition where new mothers quarantine for 40 days following birth, while cared for by women and family members. Panquetzani and her apprentices made four visits to Cardenas’s home, encouraging physical and emotional healing by supporting her with herbal remedies, massages, and performing a closing of the hips by tying a rebozo around her pelvis and slowly tightening it. The program is meant to create a space for self-care and ease the stress of being a new mother.
Click the arrows on the images below to see how Panquetzani cares for new mothers during the quarentena.
Panquetzani works informally, which allows her to set her own schedule, work from home, and charge fair rates, but it’s not without challenges. As an informal worker, she is not provided with safety nets like health insurance, maternity leave, or unemployment benefits, which means she has to be vigilant about saving money in case there’s a dip in business or she has to take time off. Even then, being autonomous and providing care outside of the medical industrial complex is worth it for her.
“There are always things to celebrate about spaces that communities have created for themselves, but we should not allow those spaces to continue to be insecure, precarious, and undervalued,” says Veena Dubal, an associate professor of law at UC Hastings College of the Law, whose research focuses on labor law and precarious work. “We need to disentangle social safety net protections from employment.”
Panquetzani, along with fellow herbalists, healers, birth and postpartum doulas — who provide mothers with emotional and educational support after childbirth — are helping to fill a gap in the U.S. healthcare system by providing holistic care that increases health outcomes, creates community, and offers a more inclusive way to look at self-care.
Through massages, knowledge sharing, emotional support and herbal remedies, these workers are providing services outside of the formal economy, and in turn creating new ways of caring for each other while still supporting themselves financially.
For Panquetzani, postpartum care is a crucial part of the birthing process and a form of community care that is lacking within mainstream healthcare systems. “It's overwhelming because you're recovering from nine months of pregnancy. You're recovering from labor. You're sleep deprived, which slows down healing. And then you're probably trying to establish breastfeeding and your emotions are everywhere because of your hormones,” says Panquetzani. “Why would you try to do anything else but get better? But we’re told that our value is in what we produce. We’re not valued during that time of our lives.”
Despite mounting evidence that ongoing postpartum care, rather than an isolated visit, leads to greater health outcomes for both mother and child, the U.S. medical system provides insufficient care for new mothers, which is why Cardenas sought out the postpartum services of Panquetzani.
“Our society doesn’t really promote postpartum health,” says Cardenas, who points out that in other first-world countries doctors visit a mother’s home two weeks after birth, while in the United States she has to wait six weeks for a check-up at her doctor’s office. “There’s no way I would be as emotionally stable as I am now, if it wasn’t for her [Panquetzani].”
During the visit, Panquetzani listens patiently to any concerns Cardenas might be having, quelling any anxieties about emotional and physical changes. While performing a cleansing with copal tree resin used as incense, she encourages Cardenas to set intentions for the remainder of her cuarentena. When it’s time for the herbal bath, the women gather around the tub infused with rose and calendula, brush her body with mint, mallow, elderberry and mugwort and meditate together. After the bath, Cardenas lays down next to her baby, while Panquetzani massages her legs and feet to ease any remaining tension. The three women then surround Cardenas, tie a rebozo around her hips and slowly apply pressure to close her hips.
Panquetzani’s affinity for herbs goes back to her childhood, watching her two abuelas use ancestral remedies they learned in Mexico. As a teenager, she learned to grow herbs and devoured books on healing from the Echo Park Public Library. But it wasn’t until 2008, when she gave birth to her first son, that she began to take the work more seriously.
During her postpartum process, Panquetzani followed her family’s holistic traditions, which she saw as the norm: herbal slap baths like the one Cardenas received during her final session, vaginal steams, and the cuarentena. Her birth process was so successful that friends and community members started asking questions. Soon enough, she says, her house became a community center; people dropped in for classes, body work, herbal remedies and birth advice, all free of charge.
More on informal labor and herbal medicine
One evening after a full day of cooking for community members, healing and teaching, there was nothing left to eat. Her children were tired and crying. Panquetzani felt depleted. This was a wake-up call. She could no longer do this work for free. At first, she only charged $25 per session, but when she did the math, it was less than minimum wage. “I felt like I was exploiting myself,” she says. “I was forced to reclaim my autonomy and value my worth as a healer.”
When she started charging a living wage, her relationship to the work changed. “It was a whole vibrational shift for me,” she says. “The work that I'm giving you and the emotional labor, the love, the texts, the e-mails, the foods that I'm bringing in, the hierbas that I'm preparing for months in advance for you, I feel like it’s an equal exchange.”
Today, Panquetzani makes a living as an herbalist, postpartum doula and healer. Her Instagram account Indigemama has over 20,000 followers, and in addition to one-on-one consultations, she’s taught over 100 workshops across the country. “I never thought that I would be living off of womb money.”
Loba, a gardener, seed saver and herbalist, sits on a grassy patch surrounded by corn stalks, basil and mint plants as they gingerly remove kernels from an ear of corn. It would be easy to forget you’re in the middle of Los Angeles if it wasn’t for the sounds of traffic nearby. Jars of dried herbs and homemade tinctures to treat everything from menstrual pain to anemia fill Loba’s bungalow in East Hollywood.
Growing up between Chile and Peru, Loba was exposed to herbal medicines through their grandmothers who mostly relied on ancestral remedies, which Loba refers to as ‘abuelita knowledge.’ After graduating from college in the United States, Loba struggled to find jobs in the formal economy. They decided to deepen their knowledge around the healing remedies of their native lands.
For Loba, it was important to provide a way for youth of color to connect to their ancestral knowledge of plants with a particular emphasis on corn. Through workshops around gardening, seed saving and herbalism, Loba provides ways for community members to re-establish their relationship to plants. “Who has access to healthy foods? Who has access to their traditional foods?” Loba asks. “I think in the U.S. there’s a lot of disconnect from where we come from.”
In addition to their work with plants, Loba also teaches workshops on radical menstruation (which includes using products that aren’t harmful to the environment) and womb care from a queer perspective, encouraging attendees to challenge the ways they frame reproductive health. They see themselves filling a gap for people who feel left out by resources that are woman-focused. “There are people that do womb-centered care that very much falls into cis hetero wording using words like ‘womb-an,’” Loba says. “Which is super transphobic because not all women have wombs.”
Atendees feel comfortable knowing Loba isn’t going to misgender them or frame things in a heteronormative way, they explain.
While Loba feels fulfilled in their work, it’s not always easy being self-employed. They rely heavily on social media to book workshops or speaking engagements. Patreon, an online platform that allows content creators to have their own subscription model, has been a main source of income. But even with these tools, Loba often finds themselves chasing down payments. “I think a lot of it has to start with people understanding that, even if you’re paying a community member, you still have to pay on time.”
Despite the challenges of being their own boss, Loba wouldn’t have it any other way. The formal economy doesn’t align with their politics, values or lifestyle. It’s important for them to reimagine ways of caring for each other outside of government systems. “I’m interested in figuring out autonomous health models that don’t necessarily depend on the medical industrial complex,” Loba says.
Christian Beckley understands this all too well. As a doula specializing in care for Black mothers, it’s a matter of life and death. In the United States, Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die due to pregnancy complications than white mothers. Their babies are over two times more likely to die in their first year than white babies. Studies show that having a doula present throughout a pregnancy can decrease the likelihood of having a cesarean birth, a low weight baby, and birth complications.
Beckley always felt a connection to caretaking. During her teenage years she helped her mother through a pregnancy and attended her friends’ births. When Beckley had difficulties breastfeeding following the birth of her daughter, she began training as a lactation consultant. This work eventually led to becoming a certified doula through The Birthing People Foundation, which specializes in culturally competent training. “It was important for me to be able to help the people in my community, the people that look like me,” Beckley says.
As a doula, Beckley has experienced racial bias firsthand. “Sometimes you can go in the hospital, and it's a very hostile environment, because the doctors and nurses are too pushy, and they're not listening to the person that is birthing,” says Beckley. “They think we’re lying or that we have a high pain tolerance. It’s just racism.”
Recently, she says, one of her pregnant clients went in for a routine check-up and the doctor kept mentioning the wrong due date. The expectant mother was concerned that the doctor was confusing patients. “How do you trust that person is going to take care of you when it’s time to give life?” asks Beckley, which is why it’s particularly important for Beckley to focus her care on Black mothers who need an advocate and someone who understands them.
“I empower them to be able to talk to their doctors and medical providers and feel confident,” says Beckley.
For Beckley, being a doula means home visits to build trust, creating a birthing plan together, answering questions, and when it’s time to give birth, being present to soothe the mother through massage, essential oils and encouragement. “I just hold space for them. My job is to make sure there is no stress,” she explains.
But the work often goes above and beyond massages and answering questions. Beckley explains that she often has to be an advocate at hospitals when nurses and doctors start touching patients without first asking for consent, an experience that can be traumatizing and stressful, especially if a mother has a history of sexual abuse. “They just walk in and they start doing whatever like you’re not a human being,” she says. “That’s a lot to go through when you’re giving birth. So just learning how to do a hip squeeze is not enough.”
This means Beckley has to be equipped to refer mothers to other services, like culturally competent therapists.
While Beckley feels a duty to provide this support to Black mothers, it can often take a toll on her emotionally. That's why it can be frustrating when organizations that are now realizing the value of doulas ask for free labor. “Yes, [expectant mothers] need doulas. But I cannot work for free,” explains Beckley. “I have a daughter. I have to pay bills. To ask people to do this work for free is kind of crazy.”
On a December afternoon, Beckley sat in her Leimert Park home with Lashay Mallory, a 19-year-old expectant mother who was past her due date. Because Christmas was close, her doctor wanted to induce birth before the holiday. Beckley informed Mallory that this might not be the best choice given that she is healthy and inducing birth can lead to a higher risk of having a C-section, something Mallory did not want.
Mallory, who was referred to Beckley through the Child Guidance Center, wasn’t sure if she wanted to work with Beckley, who she suspected might be white. When they finally met at 13 weeks of pregnancy, Mallory was relieved. “She's like, ‘Oh, my God, I'm so glad that you're Black,’” Beckley recalls. “I think that was like a really good weight off of her shoulders, that she could trust me.”
During the visit, Beckley takes out a piece of paper and asks Mallory to write down the stages of labor.
Mallory writes, “vagina is crying for help” as one of the stages. When Beckley reads it, she laughs out loud. “You are insane!” she tells her jokingly, but admits that during active labor it might feel that way.
“She knows that I’m her sister,” Beckley says of her bond with Mallory. “I’m not someone who is going to exert power over her. We’re equals. We don’t have to code switch.”
The two go through the various stages of labor, and what bodily changes she can expect. They finalize Mallory’s birth plan with a to-do list of all the things she should bring with her to the hospital: a bar of soap, washcloth, toothbrush, toothpaste, a pair of pajamas.
Beckley then warms up a plate of lasagna for Mallory and calls her an Uber home. The next time they see each other will be in the hospital room.
“Doulas are not a luxury, they’re necessary,” adds Beckley. “Because women go into the hospital and don’t come back out.”
Two days later, Mallory went into labor naturally and gave birth to a healthy baby named McKenzie Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. Beckley was at her side the entire time.
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