How having a child gave birth to my purpose.
By Shelly Helgeson, Vice President of Partnerships
Five years ago, after giving birth to my daughter, I decided to commit the rest of my life to ensuring that every woman has access to world-class maternal care.
I’ve always known that I wanted to “do good” in the world, but for years I didn’t have a clear understanding of how I could make significant change. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I awoke to the harsh health disparities that exist for mothers. And only then did I realize how, by embracing the power of motherhood, I could make real, meaningful change for thousands of women worldwide.
Shortly after spending some time in Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi on a work trip, I returned home to the United States and became pregnant with my daughter. The people I met in Dzaleka were resilient, gracious, and exceedingly hopeful; they were forging a supportive community from the broken ties of their abandoned homelands. Noémie* and her husband Georges*, both from the Democratic Republic of Congo, were a couple whose desire to do good for others despite their own situation inspired me. We became fast friends and stayed in touch after I went home to the States.
Women go about their day in Dzaleka refugee camp. Dzaleka is 41 kilometers (about 25 miles) from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. The camp hosts more than 52,000 people, despite being initially established to host about 12,000 people.
In keeping up with Noémie and Georges, I learned that they were expecting their first child at the same time as me. Over the next several months, we shared our excitement, exchanging notes as we experienced pregnancy milestones at the same time. Then, when the time came for our children to meet the world, Noémie and I went into labor within one week of each other. That’s where our stories diverge.
My delivery and postpartum period weren’t easy. I suffered from postpartum hemorrhage—excessive bleeding due to obstetric trauma. Postpartum hemorrhage can be a life-threatening complication and is the leading cause of maternal death globally. It left me physically weak and emotionally traumatized for many weeks after my delivery. But, fortunately, there was life-saving treatment that ensured that I would fully recover and live a healthy life.
All Maternal Care Is Not Created Equal
Unlike Noémie, who labored for nearly a week on a pallet bed on a dirt floor in an overcrowded healthcare facility, I recovered in a pristine hospital in San Francisco. In global terms, Noémie’s experience is the common one, not mine.
Thankfully, Noémie gave birth to a healthy baby boy, despite her long and difficult labor.
If I had been in Noémie’s position—with limited access to emergency obstetric care—I likely would have died from my delivery complications. The reality is stark: Where you live can make or break your chance of surviving childbirth.
Delivering a child is a dangerous business. It’s such a common occurrence—everyone is born!—we forget that it’s not all cozy snuggles and adorable onesies. Who wants to admit that they caused their momma pain in the first moments of their life? So much can go wrong. But, all too often, surviving and thriving after childbirth depends on access to quality medical care. I am very much one of the lucky ones.
In impoverished areas, such as a refugee camp, the rate of maternal mortality and morbidity remains staggeringly high. The good news? Most maternal deaths are entirely preventable, as are disabling childbirth injuries like fistula.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), skilled attendance at birth is the most important intervention for ensuring safe motherhood. Highly trained midwives, nurses, and doctors can save women and their babies from suffering. Sadly, in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia—areas that continue to post high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity—these skilled providers are in short supply. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Mothers Helping Mothers
While I was pregnant, and wrestling with the myriad emotions that only bringing life into this world can conjure, my mother-in-law offered some wisdom. She reminded me that I would be joining a strong cadre of women who had gone through childbirth. “Millions of women have given birth before you and millions will continue after you,” she said. That sentiment was remarkably comforting.
Mothers are connected by a shared experience that powerfully influences every generation to come. Women are a strong collective force. We are able to physically and mentally endure a great deal during our child-birthing years, and in our lifetimes. Even during traumatic deliveries, most of us—with good care, and in good time—heal, and carry on. But there are still far too many women who needlessly suffer from childbirth—and, more tragically, far too many children who will never know the woman who gave them the gift of life.
We mothers—as a strong collective force—have a profound ability to look out for all who come after us. We are the embodiment of time and progress. After all, we literally carry the future within us.
As a collective, we need to do better for all women—especially those who don’t possess the life-saving resources that can make the difference of a lifetime, or several lifetimes, in a family tree. When one woman suffers, we all suffer.
Making the World Safe for Motherhood
Today, as a team member at Fistula Foundation, I get to carry out my purpose of improving maternal health outcomes. The organization’s mission is one that I wholeheartedly share. It was built on the belief that no woman should suffer a life of misery and isolation, simply for trying to bring a child into the world.
Every day, our team—along with 69 partners across 27 countries—work to save women from the scourge of a devastating but preventable childbirth injury. Each year, the organization helps thousands of women regain their continence and restart their lives. This is critical work that contributes to improving outcomes for mothers everywhere.
We can—and we must—keep working toward a world where no mother dies in childbirth, and where every woman has the opportunity to be a strong, powerful force for future generations.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
A slightly different form of this post was published by Girls’ Globe on December 28, 2022. This version was posted on December 27, 2022.