Maybelline Valenti has always been the go-to friend who knows about a pregnancy before the partner does. Valenti is also aware of the disinformation around childbirth within the Latino community. As a young mother she moved away from her family in Venezuela to start a new life in Lee County, Fla., and understands the experience of feeling alone while adjusting to motherhood. “It’s hard to navigate—dealing with the family [aspect] and dealing with new systems,” she said.
Her new home also has an additional challenge: hurricanes. Storms are a recurring reality in Maybelline’s hometown of Cape Coral, Southwest Florida. Expecting and new parents have to learn how to navigate the—at times faulty—health care and disaster response systems under the stress of climate disasters.
Valenti trained to become a doula and, since 2020, has been equipping her clients and birthing people with self advocacy skills and knowledge–including hosting Naturalmente Mamá, a resource blog and Spanish-language podcast focusing on evidence-based information on pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum process. Her goal is to help people make informed decisions when a storm approaches and when it clears.
Southerly Community Reporting Fellow Kayla Alamilla interviewed Valenti. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Kayla Alamilla, Southerly: On your website, you mentioned you were also a journalist in your past life. Can you tell me a little bit more about your background and journey to becoming a doula in Southwest Florida?
Maybelline Valenti: I went to college to become a journalist, and I loved it. I graduated, but I didn’t pursue it because [when] I did my internship and I applied for a job–it was a friend of mine, he was male, and myself–we both auditioned for a TV reporter role. And the feedback was ‘we loved you and you were great, but we went with him because he has an easy thing to fix. He has only a white trail in his hair–an easy thing to fix.’
And I was overweight. Mind you, I was 120 pounds. It was a very nasty world out there.
So that brought me here. I had kids and I’ve worked many things as a Latina. When 2020 [and the pandemic] hit, I was like, ‘I need to do something that really fulfills me and has a purpose.’ So, I remembered how alone I was because I didn’t have any family here, it was just my husband.
That’s a reality of a lot of Latinos—they’re navigating this new system. Things are different here. And they tell you things that don’t really match up with your reality. In Mexico, they do it this way. And in Venezuela, they have this weapon at hand. So you know, it’s really hard to navigate, dealing with a family and with the system. So I pursued becoming a doula. I’ve been working as a doula officially since 2020. But unofficially, I have always been that person that, you know, people reach out to when they’re expecting. I’m the one who always knows firsthand, even before the partners know. I have always been that go to person. And I really enjoy it.
Southerly: A lot of your work is dedicated to Spanish-speaking and Latina women–for example, your podcast, Naturalmente Mama, and its blog, are entirely in Spanish. As a Central American person living in Naples, I know how hard it is to access local Spanish-oriented resources. How do you think our community can empower and support Latina mothers and Latine pregnant people here in Southwest Florida, especially for those who face barriers in the wake of disaster?
MV: My husband works in construction, and he comes home every single day, heartbroken with the stories of things that have happened [due to Hurricane Ian]—especially to people who live close to the coastline. They’re experiencing four to five feet of water inside their homes. It’s really heartbreaking. A lot of people lost everything. But I think we tend to discount what happened to us and how it has affected us.
Just because your house didn’t wash away, it doesn’t mean the hurricane didn’t affect you. We lost power, maybe you had damage [to your home], maybe your roof [was damaged]. Now you have to deal with repairs, with expenses that you did not account for, or maybe you were not prepared for. Now you have to deal with contractors and with people in and out of your house. And that takes a toll on you. It’s true, there were a lot of people worse than us, and there’s a silver lining there. But let’s not discount that. [Accept] this is hard and I need time for myself. Just saying, ‘How are you? How are you doing?’ can make somebody’s day and can really help an expecting family.
Southerly: I was wondering if you have any thoughts on how medical racism and the realities of environmental disasters disproportionately affect poor communities, immigrant communities, communities of color–how these issues are impacting mothers and birthing people here in Southwest Florida?
MV: There’s this mentality that the doctor always knows better… I think we, as women, need to crank up our intuition. We need to advocate for ourselves because we know what’s wrong with our bodies. It’s like, ‘I know what I want, I know what’s right. I’ve been living in this body for years, and this is not something I’m used to, please look into that.’ Whether you’re pregnant or not, [self-advocacy] serves women. And by this, I don’t want to sound like I’m against doctors because I’m not. You don’t spend twenty years of your life going to school and going into debt to hurt people. But your intuition is always there to help you check [in with your body] along the way and notice when something shifts… The self-advocacy is so important. When things don’t look right, and they don’t feel right––they’re probably not right.
Southerly: As a doula, you’re emotionally and physically supporting mothers and advocating for self-advocacy. Those skills are very useful under stressful times like a hurricane, especially when there’s not a doctor around, or conditional access to hospitals during a storm.
MV: We all know babies can come anytime. But let’s say that your pregnancy has no issues, you’re close to your due date, and you’re gonna go to the hospital; the first thing any person needs to do is reach out to their provider. [Find out] what’s the plan? What should I do? Where do I go?
With Ian, there were not safe conditions [to travel] for a period of time. So, the concern is being unable to cross the bridge or get on I-75 to get to the hospital. So, what happens then? Most hospitals will allow people who are close to giving birth to stay in a hallway or a conference room [during a hurricane]. They’ll have to provide their own belongings, such as sleeping material, food, drinks––any essentials they will need, and they’ll pretty much camp out in a hallway. Unless they need medical attention, they won’t become a patient. This is especially important [information] for people who are overdue or close to giving birth or have been experiencing contractions for a while because during a storm the roads are not accessible for emergency services. High-risk patients should definitely talk to their provider to prepare for that.
Southerly: How do you prepare your clients for an incoming disaster?
MV: It goes back to self-advocacy. I always tell [my clients] this: you call the shots. What you want and what you need––you call the shots. I can’t read minds, your partner can’t read your mind, your doctor can’t read your mind––so let’s talk it through. What is going through your mind? I mostly offer emotional support and listening ears when they need to vent.
I had a client during Hurricane Ian, she had about nine more weeks until her due date, but she was a high risk patient. The first thing I told her was that she needed to reach out to her doctor, so she did. She had an appointment prior to the hurricane and I was able to help her figure out the questions she wanted to ask. So, she knew where to go from there.
Southerly: What is the process if someone who is pregnant wants to evacuate out of state?
MV: It really depends on their provider. If they are my client, I will absolutely stay in touch with them and will provide support throughout even if they deliver somewhere else and I’m not able to attend. Knowing you have somebody like a doula, it’s kind of like calling a friend on that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire program, I don’t remember what it’s called––
Southerly: Lifelines, right?
MV: Yes! Sometimes just knowing that you can reach out to that person to bounce ideas is all you need. I’ve had clients who haven’t even called me because they felt so ready and prepared because they have the tools and knowledge to navigate that situation.
Southerly: What are some ways you think Collier and Lee Counties can better the experiences and positive outcomes of birthing people during hurricanes and disasters?
MV: I think [processes] should be more clear. As soon as April or May come around, you go to the supermarket, and there’s a guide on preparing for emergencies and hurricanes––that would be helpful. In general, there’s nothing for pregnancy and childbirth. And like I said, babies come at any time. What if you’re not anywhere near your due date and you start having symptoms?
One of my clients was going to deliver [during Hurricane Ian], and she didn’t have an emergency phone number to call. She said they told her to just go to triage. So I think it would be helpful to have an emergency number you can call and someone who can check your chart over the phone with you––that’s really important.
Southerly: Is there anything that we haven’t touched upon that you’d like people to know about regarding doulas, pregnancy, parenthood, and disaster prep and recovery?
MV: Unfortunately, we live in a country where there’s no paid maternal leave. So, the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. One of the things I cannot stress enough is to prepare financially because you’re going to need time to recover not only from the birth, but the nine months of pregnancy as well.
So let’s say you make $400 a week. You need it for rent and other expenses. Well, once the baby comes––you won’t be able to work, and you shouldn’t work. Even if you can go back to work, I don’t recommend it because it will affect your health in the long run. So, I always tell people to do the math: 12 weeks [worth of pay]––how much is that? Then set aside a little bit every week or every two weeks depending on how often you are paid. So, when the due date comes, that money will be there. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that I did that from the beginning as soon as I found out I was pregnant because I can take my 12 weeks without any problem, especially with the expenses of our recent hurricane––I’m not stressing because I know that money is there for me.
If you throw a baby shower, you can ask people to bring diapers and other expenses that add up in the long run. There are two baby registry websites [Baby List and Be Her Village] that lets your family and friends donate funds. You can even sign up and ask funds specifically for a doula, childbirth classes, yoga classes. As for getting a doula, there are sometimes payment plans that can help you.
So it’s really important we don’t turn a blind eye to the money side of things because you will need it.