Latham Thomas is a doula from Oakland, CA living in Brooklyn, NY. She’s an immensely positive voice in the affirmation of every woman’s right to total maternal health, but more specifically for Black women. There is a tremendous inequity in the birthing experiences and mortality rates of Black, Brown, Latina and Indigenous women in the United States. Black women are four to five times more likely to die during childbirth in the US than white women, and in NYC, they are 12 times more likely.
As the world’s most well-known doula — she’s helped to popularize the word in pop culture — Latham is working for change through her company Mama Glow and the Mama Glow Foundation, their global doula training programs, best-selling books, and outreach programs. Her tremendous sense of purpose is matched by her warmth and ability to create spaces that are safe and inviting, and her personal style is a transcendent reflection of her vision of beauty in childbirth and the creative joy of being a human being. We hope you enjoy this window into her incredible work!
WITH: Tell us about what first called you to start doing this work.
Latham Thomas: I’m moved by an ancestral calling to do this work. I am a mother of a son who is 17 years alive. My son was born July 13th 2003 under a full moon and double rainbow at Elizabeth Seton Childbearing Center at 222 West 14th Street in Chelsea, right next to the famous nightclub Nell’s. My birthing experience was life affirming. I was witnessed in my vulnerability and my strength. I was supported by the midwifery model of care and had a blissful birth where my ancestors appeared and hovered above me. I will never forget how magical it was.
Before the birth of my son, the seeds were also planted during childhood when I was four years alive. My mother was pregnant, along with my great aunt and another aunt. Witnessing them when I was that age helped shape my views of the body and would give rise to this work within me many moons later.
W: Many would say that you are driven or fueled by a passion for what you do, but you’ve described this not as a passion but a necessity. Could you tell us more about this?
L: I do not call this work my passion because passions are fun to pursue. A calling is inconvenient, it disrupts your life, it demands your obedience. I am a servant leader and I am obedient to the work. My Yoga practice helps me in this work because Yoga also asks for our focus, attention and obedience.
W: With all of the changes that need to be made within our faulty systems, why is it that one of the most important tools that you stress expectant mothers and doulas need to be empowered with is the use of their own voice?
L: The voice is one of our most powerful tools. Your voice is tethered to your breath and your breath is your freedom. A big focus of my teaching is reclamation of the voice. The voice is your weapon of consciousness, it is your tool for advocacy. I use vocal mediation and toning as a pathway to helping people become better acquainted with their voices so they can become masters of their nervous systems.
When you sing, chant or tone, the throat chakra is activated in a powerful way. The throat is associated with truth and truth telling. The vagus nerve, which passes through your throat and innervates every single organ in your body, becomes activated through the vocal practice. This creates an internal massage for your organs and soothes your nervous system. It’s a resilience practice and a healing practice. When we are comfortable using our voices, not only can we impact our own lives, we can also help amplify the voices of those we support.
W: If we looked at your work on a surface level it’s obviously about maternal health, but you see the issues surrounding maternal health as an intricate web of social and systematic structures. Can you speak about that a little?
L: The work is not compartmentalized, it’s holistic. The trappings of white supremacist patriarchy and capitalism lead us to disconnect from the whole. But everything is connected. This work is grounded in Reproductive Justice. It’s not just about surviving childbirth, it’s about thriving and leading fully expressed lives. It’s about dismantling forces that are operating against us since before we’re born. It’s about designing a world where we all are free. We all need access to safety, clean air and water, affordable housing and job opportunities, we need access to culturally appropriate and healthy foodstuffs, we need access to excellent education and higher learning opportunities. We need safe, affordable health care.
We need safety in our communities from state-sanctioned violence against Black and Brown People. We need to be able to give birth to our babies and watch them grow up. We can not talk about the Black Maternal Health crisis and separate it from the conversation of police violence. We are talking about systems that have not been designed to serve us, so they are functioning according to design.
W: What do you think we need to learn from the ancestral ways of childbirth?
L: I see it more as a remembering, a collective recall. When we are initiating birth workers at Mama Glow the anchor is our ancestry. The work is imbued with ritual, with reverence for the ethereal and mystical. We are centering our ancestral and primal technologies as the framework from which we approach the work. We are gently guiding people back home to their bodies.
I believe we need to unlearn beliefs we’ve been indoctrinated with that tell us that our bodies are not holy. Birth is sacred. It is a meditation. It is perfectly designed to be a transcendent experience. It is our opportunity to align with the divine. We evolved to be witnessed in this experience, to be supported by our birth village, and that is something we are re-quilting with the people we serve.
W: You have a 17-year-old son. How have you educated him to understand women, childbirth, and the sanctity of the feminine?
L: My son has learned body literacy from an early age. He has watched me work and has been privy to lessons and teachings over the years. I am big on consent so I have conversations with him about body sovereignty and have been having those conversations since he was small. I know he has learned a lot about menses, pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, but he also understands everything I have shared here as it relates to inequities.
We do talk about things happening in the world and that’s when I get to see how his exposure to this work has informed his outlook. I feel like he’s been able to absorb information and I know that when he needs to access it, he has a strong foundation to stand on. I am thankful that he is sensitive, empathic and thoughtful.
W: Birth and death, in what we like to call modern cultures, are two passages of life that are hidden away and made as antiseptic as possible. What are we losing as a culture in shielding ourselves and our children from the entry and exit we have from this world?
L: This is such a beautiful question. How you enter the earth-side and how you transition into the afterlife matter. I have learned that the same tools that I use to support people preparing for childbirth are the same tools I use to support those at the end of their journey on this planet. The obscuring and erasure of the rituals that anchor both birth and death keep us from really addressing the superficial neurosis that we have about our collective existential crises. We need to bear witness to birth, it’s a normal physiologic event, but it is also a highly spiritual event that is sanitized, mechanized, managed, and stripped of its magic and mystery.
W: The same is true for death.
L: Death is also a normal physiologic event, but it is often stripped of the opportunity to lean into the sacred and ritualize the journey. Peak life events are always misplaced in our culture. Think about how we see pleasure and orgasm, it’s also really disconnected. So our work is to return home, to learn how to better listen, to reclaim our bodies as sacred and to expand the lens on these experiences to enrich our lives and inform our outlook.
For more information on Latham’s work please visit MamaGlow.com, where you can begin your doula journey and even sponsor a doula, and MamaGlowFoundation.org, which is committed to advancing reproductive justice and birth equity through education, advocacy and the arts! Additionally, you can check out Love Delivered, a new partnership between Carol’s Daughter and MamaGlow that is supporting the needs of Black birthing people.