Interview with Margarita Valbuena, MS ’08, on Providing Support to New Parents in Pandemic

By: Anna Akers-Pecht MS ECE '20, Manager of Annual Fund and Alumni Relations

Anna Akers-Pecht is an Erikson alumna and member of the Institutional Advancement team. This article is part of a series of interviews she’s conducted over the past few months with Erikson alumni exploring how COVID-19 has impacted their work. Read her previous interviews here, here, and here.

Margarita Valbuena, MS Child Development ’08, is the co-founder and Director of Community Programs at Third Coast Birth, a team that balances evidence-based information and nuanced emotional support to support new parents through their birthing journeys. We talked about how Margarita supports clients during the pandemic, as well as the importance of self-care during this time.

Akers-Pecht: What has it been like for Third Coast Birth under quarantine?

Valbuena: I haven’t practiced as a birth doula since 2018—I do mostly administrative stuff. Most of the hospitals in Chicago and across the country are not letting more than one support person in with the birthing parent at a time, so anyone who had hired a doula prior to the outbreak, and was preparing to birth with a doula, had to choose between their doula and their partner, which is an unfathomable choice. As far as client sentiment, people were having all kinds of anxiety. We put together some crash course materials for partners—a video as a kind of crash course for how to doula your partner which is available publicly now. That seemed to help people still feel supported.

Just in general, we’ve been trying to accommodate clients, so they still have support. We’re still able to go to people’s homes—we go there to help them labor before they go to the hospital. We do virtual prenatal meetings—they can still ask their questions and receive the support and knowledge we have for them. The trouble is that people anticipated that physical support, but we’re not allowed to do it in the hospitals. Some clients inquired about transferring to home births, but not everybody is a good candidate for that. We’re doing what we can with what we’re allowed to do. Third Coast put together a set of virtual services we now offer. We created a whole new COVID-19 protocol for postpartum and birth doulas. In-hospital doulas can’t do in-home care ’til after the 14-day quarantine period. We require that doulas wear masks for all in-person client interactions, and we provide masks if needed. Since the doulas are all independent contractors, we leave a lot of the decision making as to who provides services in home up to them, so they have ownership over their exposure risk.

July Update: Some hospitals are now allowing doulas back in! So we have been able to support laboring individuals once again and we are THRILLED.

Akers-Pecht: Your “crash course for being a doula to your partner” reminds me of how many teachers are having to create similar instructions for families, on how to facilitate learning at home.

Valbuena: To be honest, business has been a lot slower. Several—maybe three or four of the people who had contracted us prior to the pandemic asked for refunds. As a small business, that’s really hard. There’s a business side to it that’s tricky because we have our core values and core beliefs—we thrive on community, we’re evidence-based, but we’re also a small business. It’s really hard where we’re not deemed “essential” but we are essential!

Akers-Pecht: What have you been doing to support your employees/team?

Valbuena: We are an LLC partnership—the three owners are the only employees, but we have 21 contractors. We are offering to our doulas if they want to lead workshops or classes. We just trained three new instructors to teach online. Some of our classes include a guide to childbirth, newborn care class, lactation class on breast and chest feeding. (When I asked about this distinction, Margarita explained that chest feeding is more inclusive to trans parents, adding that changing their language at Third Coast Birth has been important as more queer and trans families hire them.)

We now have a Childbirth 101 class–we’ve condensed to four hours from six hours, and even four hours is a lot on a Zoom call! We’ve asked our postpartum doulas if they want to develop workshops around newborn care, postpartum care, or stress management—all the things parents need!

Another doula is moving our formerly in-person postpartum café online so people can drop in, ask questions, and vent. This is all new territory for us, but a lot of our doulas are really online savvy. We’re basically trying to give them as much work as we possibly can within the parameters of keeping them safe.

Akers-Pecht: Has anything from your Erikson education prepared you or supported you during this time?

Valbuena: Yes, having a basic understanding of human interactions and human relationships and how they are formed. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I still don’t know how to say it. Basically, we’re all living in a collective trauma right now, and we have got to get back to basics, essentially. We need to know how to talk to people. We don’t have the benefit of that in-person contact that can diffuse stressful situations. Having learned what I learned at Erikson about how kids develop and the relationship dyad between kids and adults, I think just gives me pause for and maybe a little empathy for people, because everybody is traumatized right now. Having grace for people and for myself included—I’m not so great at that part. Being able to still connect with people is important—clients are texting and emailing me questions. Being able to connect and build off those relationships within the parameters that COVID has created for in-person interaction comes as second nature to me now, having worked with children and families for 20 years now, in large part due to what I learned at Erikson.

“Having learned what I learned at Erikson about how kids develop and the relationship dyad between kids and adults, I think just gives me pause for and maybe a little empathy for people, because everybody is traumatized right now.

Akers-Pecht: What are you doing for yourself? Your family?

Valbuena: I’m not doing a very good job of this, but I’m trying to take everything a little bit slower. At the very beginning when shelter in place was given, I was thinking “This is great! We can take things a little slow,” we were having kids do things around the house, engaging more, being present in the moment. As we’ve been quarantined for longer and longer, my sanity may be compromised; it’s maybe a little harder to implement. My daughter has a really hard time, she’s an anxious kid and I’m an anxious adult, so it’s hard for us to build off each other’s anxiety in the same space for extended periods of time. I’ve been shifting my expectations of her and myself and what we need to do and not do.

“The whole idea of productivity as it used to exist doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s hard! We’re a society that thrives off of schedules. We’re shifting exceptions and slowing down.”

We all need a routine. And when your routine has to all happen in your house, it’s weird! In the beginning, I felt like “I don’t want anybody in my space! This is why I have an office, coffee shops.” We need routines and boundaries, but we have to recreate what that means. If you’re somebody like me who gets anxious when routine is interrupted, this is very stressful!

So many of us were like runaway trains, and now we’re not allowed to [be operating at that pace]. So many people don’t even have jobs. We are forced to stop and be alone with ourselves, and so many people are freaking out.

Akers-Pecht: What has given you hope?

Valbuena: When I had [my firstborn], I had been living overseas—I came back when I was 8 months pregnant. My friends had all moved away, or else they didn’t have kids. I had Victoria, and I was basically on my own. My husband at the time had been unemployed, and it was just the three of us at home. After three months, he went back to work, and it was just me and the baby. I was like, “Now what?” I found my village somehow, miraculously. I have this group of about eight or nine women, and we have been friends since Victoria was about 6 months old in varying capacities. We’ve grown closer; some have drifted away, but this group of women are my people. Our kids all call all of us “The Mamas.”

Now, those are my people. What gives me hope is we’ll text each other, “I’m going to the grocery store, do you need anything?” People are making food and dropping it off, just because. When we each had our kids, we would do meal trains. Every other day, the person who had just had a baby was getting a meal train. I got a meal train with [my second child]! I remember coming to work with Annie [Behrns, MS Child Development ’07] with Erikson’s Academic Success Center. She was like, “Who are these people bringing you food all the time?!”

What gives me hope is people who are taking care of each other. Where I’m sitting, I see people are taking good care of each other—neighbors, friends, strangers even.

“Despite what’s happening in the upper echelon of our country, which is mass chaos and destruction, some of us are still able to take care of each other in the ways we need most.”

Akers-Pecht: What can others do for their communities?

Valbuena: It comes down to similar advice I give to new parents: Make sure you’re OK first! If you take good care of yourself first and make sure you have what you need, you’re able to help everybody else. Even in some of my friends, I’ve seen this need to take care of everybody else. It’s a coping mechanism. I do it too! We dive headfirst into taking care of the neighbor, the friend, the person with the baby, the person who doesn’t have a car. We expend our energy as a coping mechanism, but I really think we’re better suited to take care of each other if we take care of ourselves first. I’m saying to you as much as I’m saying to myself!


“We expend our energy as a coping mechanism, but I really think we’re better suited to take care of each other if we take care of ourselves first.”