Athena Gabriella Guice Is a Doula on a Mission to “Take Back Birth For the People”

Allan Amirally

Content warning: The following story contains a description of obstetric violence.

There are so many aspects of health that disproportionately affect the Black community, and yet less than six percent of US doctors are Black – a deficit that only further harms public health. Many of the Black folks who work in healthcare have dedicated their careers to combatting inequities. That’s why this Black History Month, PS is crowning our Black Health Heroes: physicians, sexologists, doulas, and more who are advocating for the Black community in their respective fields. Meet them all here.

Athena Gabriella Guice didn’t know she needed a doula until she became one. Guice was studying to become a physician’s assistant when she became pregnant with her first daughter. She then pivoted and began her career in birth work, initially offering lactation support. Now 28, Guice is a full-spectrum doula, doula mentor, and reproductive-justice organizer working across South Florida but primarily based in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

When she became pregnant with her second daughter several years after her first, Guice knew the possibilities available to her. “I find that for a large amount of the people interested in becoming a doula, it’s because they get put in those shoes,” she says.

Through her business Hija Del Sol, Guice helps parents in nearly every step of their journey. Her prenatal care includes guidance on pain management, stress relief, and birth preferences, while her postnatal care helps parents settle in. This might mean preparing a meal, running an herbal bath, or just holding the baby so parents can have a moment to themselves.

Guice speaks about her work with a certain reverence, and she’s passionate about honoring those who came before, namely the Black birth attendants of the 19th and early 20th century commonly referred to as “granny midwives,” many of whom were enslaved or formerly enslaved people. “I stand on the shoulders of traditional birth attendants, and I stand on the legacy of our granny midwives,” Guice says. “I always try to make sure I acknowledge the role that granny midwives had in our country.”

And for those who may still have misconceptions about birth work and what exactly a doula does, Guice has an analogy. “When I go and visit my family in Puerto Rico, there are caves and waterfalls to explore. If I’m by myself, I’m not going to know the path the same way as if I had one of the locals there to be like, ‘Watch out with your foot right there, that rock’s loose. That rock you can use to climb there. Be careful, you could slip there,'” she says. “That’s what my role is.”

Ahead, read more about how Guice felt called to her work, what’s most rewarding about it, and more.

Related: The Black Maternal-Care Gap Continues to Widen Post-Roe. Doulas Are Fighting to Close It.

POPSUGAR: What inspired you to pursue birth work?

Athena Gabriella Guice: I wasn’t really inspired to become a doula. I felt like it was a calling. I was called to the work, and I had a duty to respond and serve that way.

When I got pregnant with my first daughter, I tried to look for resources and support when it came to prenatal care, labor and delivery, postpartum – more specifically, breastfeeding and lactation support postpartum. There were hardly any resources out there, and the resources that were out there had a lot of whitewashing in the space.

I started sharing information in my community about postpartum support and lactation support, and that’s when someone said to me, “I really wish I had you at my birth. I wish you were a doula. You should really think about it.” I was like, “No, yeah, I’m good where I’m at.” I think I really feel like that was God speaking through someone, because I don’t know how else I would have had that seed planted.

We all know about the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] data, but when you see it in action and you see the lack of resources – especially for me as a Black and Puerto Rican woman – and to see other Black and Brown women in the community who wanted to have more prenatal care, more equitable care, more equitable experiences, less traumatizing journeys. There wasn’t really much out there for us. And so somewhere in that year, someone had said that. I don’t know why, but I feel like I just got called, and I was like, “I think it’s time to explore becoming a doula.”

PS: Can you walk me through a typical day for you?

AGG: As a doula, you’re pretty much on call all the time. Typically, a doula will take on anywhere from one to three doula mamas and doula families in a month’s time. Depending on what day it is, I schedule prenatal and postnatal sessions. Those sessions may be either a consultation for a new family who’s looking to hire me, a prenatal care session, or a postnatal care session.

I’ll sit with a family who’s inquiring about hiring me a lot of times because they’ve heard the facts, and they’re scared of potential birth trauma. They want an advocate, they want someone who knows the bureaucracy of birth, [who can] explain it, and they want a certain level of sisterhood. This loose sisterhood forms between me and the doula mama that I’m serving. (I hate to call them clients. I’m very big on the words and the language that I use. It’s helped me with being intentional.) It’s not necessarily that we’re friends, but it’s something deeper than that.

When it comes to labor and birth, that is the most unpredictable thing. After seven years of supporting birth, I’ve been in every single birthing situation, whether it’s in the hospital, in a birth center, home birth, C-section, all of that. Not saying it never happens, but generally I’m getting a heads-up days in advance. The way I run my practice is, from the moment that she requests me there, I have about three to four hours to get my daughters situated and get to her birthing location.

My goal is to support whatever the mom wants for herself. So if that’s in the hospital with an epidural, then that’s what we’re doing. I’m not here to convince you to do something else. I’m here to really support the decision she’s making. It’s really about practicing grace and letting her process this however she’s going to process it.

PS: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work? Is there a particular story that comes to mind?

AGG: What’s so rewarding is realizing that really and truly, this is a feminist site. We live in a system that is undoubtedly a patriarchy, and because of that, we’ve seen such demonization of midwives and doulas.

“It’s truly an investment into the community.”

What’s been so rewarding is being part of this new generation of birth keepers, birth workers, and community servants who are trying to reclaim the narrative and really take back birth for the people. It’s literally work that if I didn’t get paid for it, I know I would be fine, because it’s truly an investment into the community.

A really disheartening story that came to mind and reminds me of why I do this work is actually the very first birth that I supported around 2017. It was a first-time mom, and she was there with her husband. I was sitting there on the side of her bed and she’s laboring. The doctor, her gynecologist, comes in. Typically they want to do a cervical check to see where a mom is at.

I mostly serve Black and Brown women, and a lot of gynecologists are, for the most part, older white men. And it’s an older white man. He comes in, doesn’t really say much. He just goes, “Oh, I’m going to check you,” to the mom, who’s in contractions. You can see how uncomfortable she is. He goes to insert his fingers, and before I even really have a chance to come and hold her hand, he goes, in a very nasty, disgusting tone, “Oh my gosh, why are you so tight? You’re acting like you’re a virgin. You need to loosen up to let me in.”

We have a term for that. We call that birth rape. That moment broke my heart. It was one of my very first experiences that taught me a lot as a doula, and as a woman, about the importance of having an observer around. Because if that’s something you’re willing to do with people around, what do you do when no one’s around?

PS: What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions about birth work?

AGG: A lot of folks think that doulas and midwives are the same thing. I’ve found over the last several years that a lot of times when people come to me as a doula, they sometimes think the doula is the midwife and that I’m going to be the one catching the baby for them. But actually, our focus is on the mother. Your midwife is a healthcare provider, and your doula is there to support and provide continuity of care in a nonmedical perinatal capacity.

PS: Why is it important for Black parents to see themselves represented in the birth care that they seek?

AGG: Speaking from my own experience as a mom, and not just a doula, it’s so important to have that representation, because I don’t know what’s possible until I see it. It’s really sad, but for a very long time, birth, doulas, and midwifery all seemed to be – I hate to say – a “white people thing.” If we don’t see other Black and Brown people in that space, we don’t think that we have access to those resources.

With my first daughter, I had a hospital experience even though I wanted an out-of-hospital experience. I didn’t think that was possible for me. When I had my second daughter years later after serving countless Black and Brown women having babies without medicine and outside of the hospital setting, it was so much easier to see it as a viable option for me.

It’s so important for Black and Brown families to see that representation because, at the end of the day, we are more at risk.

PS: Your work feels especially loaded in the political context of Florida. How does it feel doing what you do in a state where the politics around pregnancy and choice are changing so rapidly?

AGG: It is interconnected. What we’re seeing is very dangerous for the future of reproductive health. What I came to realize in this work is that we don’t have the infrastructure as doulas – not just birth doulas, but abortion doulas, miscarriage doulas, bereavement doulas. There are so many different types of doulas supporting all reproductive-healthcare spaces. When we don’t acknowledge the way these fast-changing bills from the Republican supermajority are impacting us, we’re witnessing them set up a stage for no access to abortion and no access to reproductive healthcare. This is forced birth, basically, what we’re going to be seeing.

PS: Emotional labor seems like a cornerstone of birth work. At the same time, how are you protecting your own peace and recharging? Is that possible?

AGG: In order to serve, I’ve had to become unashamedly committed to my wellness. I’ve gotten to this place where I understand the importance of boundaries in protecting myself in order to serve. It’s very intimate work. That’s why the boundaries are so important. That’s why acknowledging the importance of my wellness is so important, and that’s also why having those very straightforward expectation conversations are important.

Another key thing is making sure I make time for the things that I need to do weekly. I typically go for a morning swim in order to just give myself a second to just float and just feel like there’s no burden. Saltwater is just so good for the soul. I have to have a bowl of pho – there’s something about Vietnamese noodles every week, a beach swim, and literally just some time in the morning. Those few little things have been a game changer.

I don’t have much of it, but a big part in continuing to prioritize my wellness is community – whatever that looks like for anyone. For me, I have a little bit of it, I wish I had more. I’m looking to continue cultivating that community.

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