Moms who have used substances while pregnant are worried about the health of their baby, finding care for their delivery, and are often scared that child services might take their kids away. To these moms, Elephant Circle simply and beautifully says, “We offer unconditional love and support.”
Elephant Circle focuses on providing resources, support, and doula services to marginalized groups – groups no one else is helping, and groups that share intersectional reproductive justice issues. Inspired by elephants who give birth within a circle of support, they envision a world where all people have a circle of support for the entire perinatal period. They explain that birth justice occurs when everyone is equally capable of self-determination during the perinatal period and when their self-determination is supported and amplified. One of the most impactful ways Elephant Circle powers birth justice is through their team of Doulas.
Sarah Lopez is the Community Doula for Elephant Circle. She had always wanted to be a doula, and serving moms with substance use disorder especially tugged at her heart. “Three of my five siblings have struggled with substance use disorders and when my youngest sister became pregnant, she got up the courage to tell her physician that she had been using and said that she wanted to stop,” Sarah said. “But instead of receiving support and encouragement, my sister received a cold reception from her health care team and was told ‘she just needed to quit using.’”
Sarah saw that this pregnancy could serve as a true turning point for her sister, but without connecting her to resources when she reached out, her chance of success was slim. Sarah jumped in to try to find help for her sister and learned it wasn’t easy to navigate.
These moms are dealing with two big things at once – they are pregnant and they are using substances. And for most of them, they simply don’t know what to do next. They need providers to show compassion, not judgment.
Because of all of the stereotypes, moms who are dealing with substance use often don’t know where to turn and their families may not know how to help them either. “Family members love this mom but may not want to enable them anymore or may just need to take a step back and take a break.” Sarah said. “So, as a doula, I jump in and try to be that big sister they need when I can and give them unconditional love during this time when they are so vulnerable.” If the mom is facing losing her child to social services, the team at Elephant Circle helps them navigate the paperwork, understand their options, and not feel overwhelmed by the process.
Finding out they’re pregnant can be the turning point for these moms. Providers need to take advantage of that moment to help guide them to resources.
“I think it all comes down to stereotypes and flipping that switch in the provider's mind,” said Sarah. “It’s fascinating how a mom can be in the throes of substance use, learn they’re pregnant, and suddenly want to be different. It’s not even so much for themselves, but for their unborn baby that they haven't met. I’m so motivated to help them when that moment happens and she is ready to make a change.”
Sarah said she tells moms to interview several doulas and pick the one they feel most comfortable with. “These moms forget that it’s still their body and they still have a choice,” Sarah said. “ I remind them that they are in charge and they can tell caregivers what they need and they can stand up for themselves.” Sarah said her team is often called after doctor's appointments because the mom still has questions and needs help knowing what to ask at their next appointment. Then, from the moment mom goes into labor, an Elephant Circle Doula is there with her – sometimes as their only support person and familiar face.
Sarah says right now there are 15 doulas on their team, and they offer doula services in several languages. Elephant Circle provides two postpartum visits and then services up to two years after birth including connecting moms to their Protecting Pregnant People Funds which can help a mom pay a bill, get diapers, or have a bit of cash if she needs it.
“Our goal is to really just treat them like a pregnant person getting ready to have a baby and we want to give them as much of that normalcy and that healthy experience that we can,” Sarah explained. “If they feel depressed or scared late at night, we are just a call or a text away. We help them create safety plans for themselves and their baby and we empower them to decide the best choices for the health and wellness of both of them.”
What I’d tell providers:
Yes, these moms were out there using drugs and they're pregnant. But now they are here, in front of you, and they're asking you for help. Please just give them that help without judgment and without stigma. I tell moms that they are a healthy body, growing a healthy baby and they deserve to focus on this beautiful moment in their life and get the care and respect that they deserve. If providers just approached them like that, so much fear would disappear and moms would be more open to receiving care. Even if that mom knows she isn’t going to be able to take her baby home, this can be a positive birth experience for her and also a time for her to find her path to her own treatment and health.
One of the benefits of working with us is that we can be a bridge with your medical team. These moms are often afraid of doctors and nurses and we can help them understand that they need to listen to you, follow your advice, and trust that you are there to care for them and their baby.
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