This blog post was contributed by Julianne Parker, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. This is her final post about her experience as a Young Champion, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.
When I first received notice that I was chosen as one of the Young Champions of Maternal Health, I was ecstatic!
Reading a few lines below in the email that I was to be placed in Brazil, (I’m ashamed to say now!) my heart dropped. Brazil? To work in the field of mental health of adolescent moms? I am completely unqualified! I hardly speak Portuguese! All my focus up to that point had been related to helping women in sub-Saharan Africa receive proper physiological carein the pre-natal period and in accessing safe delivery options. The work of Lua Nova, Brazil, Latin America! This all felt totally foreign to me, and to my preconceived notions of what constituted “maternal health.”
So, nine months later I can sum up what I learned in this entirely new environment in one sentence: Maternal health does not end with labor and delivery.
Lua Nova focuses on ensuring that adolescent moms struggling with drug addiction and other extreme issues are capable of forming an attachment to and truly mothering their children. Raquel Barros’ vision is to let motherhood reach it’s transformative potential in these young moms: They learn how to take responsibility, how to manage a household and daily chores, how to lose their dependency on external substances for income or satisfaction, and, ultimately, how to love and give of themselves to their children.
But so little of that comes automatically. Ask any mother how she felt that first week with her first newborn. Such responsibility can be overwhelming, and can be utterly crippling to the health of both mother and child.
Seeing this other side of maternal health has completely altered the vision I have for my work in the future. I now realize that in designing programs that ensure a woman does not incur a debilitating illness or even death during her pregnancy/delivery can also help contribute to all that comes after. If you start in the pregnancy, comforting the mother and helping her prioritize her own health during the gestational period of the infant, she will begin an inevitable cycle of caring for herself and her child, valuing the great task of motherhood in her life, and thus increasing her capacity to be a healthy woman and mother, in body and mind.
Early on in my placement I came across a phrase Raquel had written years earlier: “Motherhood is not a problem, it is a gift.” How beautiful a message. Rather than only helping ameliorate the “problems” of pregnancy, labor, and delivery, I realize that a woman is a mother for life the day she conceives. Helping her achieve her potential in that role is absolutely about ensuring she receives proper physiological care and a skilled delivery, but it’s also about helping her not feel alone and overwhelmed at a 3:00 a.m. feeding of a week-old infant. Giving her the mental tools to confront this great new challenge in her life: Transforming it from being a liability, a problem, a health risk, into a gift, blessing, and actual boon to her health.
This is the great lesson I have taken away from Brazil, and how I hope to alter the field of maternal health in the future: Empowering women as mothers, utilizing the gift of motherhood to literally improve women’s lives, helping them value themselves and prioritize their health and the health of other women around them.