In movies and television, birth is terrifying. It’s usually dramatic, always taking place in a hospital with lots of yelling and screaming from the mother.
That colors the way many see birth, including Myla Flores. That is until she was 12 when her sister gave birth to Flores’ nephew. Rather than go to a hospital, her sister chose to go to a birth center lead by midwives. There, Flores saw a side of birth she never knew existed.
“I walked in, and I saw beautiful stuff,” she said. “Just the way the family was engaged, the sounds that were being made, the peace in the room, you know, just that really good vibe. And I was like, ‘Is this what birth is? Holy moly, this is so lovely.’”
After a few college majors, Flores attended some home births as a midwife’s assistant, and then went on her way to becoming a doula — someone who supports pregnant women during pregnancy, labor, and usually for a few weeks after birth. She is the founder of My Loving Doula in Washington Heights.
Now, after more than a decade in the field, Flores is ready to open her own birth center, not unlike the one her sister gave birth in years ago. There is one defining characteristic: The center, set to open next year in Riverdale, would be the first non-hospital birth center in the Bronx.
The borough with the worst health outcomes in the state has been without a facility that could provide education and support to families for years, Flores said, sometimes driving people across boroughs while they look for support.
Bruce McIntyre and his partner, Amber Isaac, were one of those couples. When Isaac got pregnant last fall, the couple initially went to traditional doctors in the Montefiore medical system. Over time, though, they became frustrated with their care, turning to midwife Nubia Martin, hoping Isaac could deliver at a birthing center in Brooklyn.
But when they discovered Isaac was high-risk due to HELLP syndrome — a severe form of the high blood pressure disorder pre-eclampsia — she ultimately was not a candidate for a home birth. Isaac later died giving birth to her son, Elias, during an emergency C-section.
Soon after his partner’s death, McIntyre founded the Save A Rose Foundation, dedicated to spreading awareness of the risks facing mothers of color — especially Black mothers, who are up to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New York City, that number jumps to 12 times as likely.
Through Martin, McIntyre found out about Flores’ plan to open a birth center, and knew he wanted to be part of the project. Even being able to get to the birthing center in Brooklyn was a privilege, McIntyre said. He had a car and could drive across boroughs, but many people who don’t own cars would have to rely on public transportation or ride-hailing services.
“You know, Amber and I were willing enough to pay out-of-pocket for a home birth,” he said. “Her insurance covered most of it, but we were still going to have to pay like four grand out of pocket. And not everyone has that. Not everyone has the luxury of paying four grand.”
The new birth center would offer a scholarship program designed to offset the costs of insurance premiums, he said, giving more people opportunities to take advantage of their services.
Spreading awareness and education has been a comfort to McIntyre, he said, as he copes with losing Isaac.
“It makes me feel better knowing that I can help someone, or I have a voice, or I have a platform that I can share with people that need to be heard,” he said. “We are in a position to save lives.”
Flores found a spot for her center practically by accident, she said. She was chatting with one of her clients who lived in Riverdale as they wrapped up a prenatal visit, and shared with her a desire to open a center in the Bronx — specifically in Riverdale.
“She said, well, I think we should go for a drive,” Flores said. “She explained to me that she had been sitting on a really great location.”
Riverdale is easily accessible, she said, and is close to one of her favorite hospitals to work with, NYC Health+Hospitals/North Central Bronx.
“So then I started connecting with my favorite midwives of color, my favorite Jewish midwives, every midwife,” Flores said. “We just need to be really driven by people of color, Black and Indigenous people of color. That part is what I believe to be the missing link and a big cause of why the disparities are so big. There are not enough brown and Black midwives in the U.S.”
Expanding access to birth alternatives and education is imperative, she said. Some people simply don’t know what their options are regarding birth, but others might be in search of a midwife, doula, or birth center, but can’t find anyone within price range — or in their neighborhood.
Flores, McIntyre, Martin and an additional partner, My Life My Planet Foundation, have raised just over $14,000 in online crowdfunding at tinyurl.com/BirthingPlace, with a goal of $800,000 by next year. In the meantime, McIntyre is planning a “Mother’s March” in the Bronx on Aug. 1, organized to raise awareness about Black maternal mortality.
“What I’m looking to do with the march is I’m looking to, of course, share our story, educate people on what we’re doing,” McIntyre said. “And then make them aware that we are bringing a birthing center to the Bronx.”