When Nikki Williams was serving as an Arabic linguist with the U.S. Air Force, she couldn’t have predicted that she would someday turn her experiences into a career of birth and healing.
Now a doula, Williams supports a family “with information, equipment and resources throughout a pregnancy, then accompanies them through their birth and for a while after the baby is born.” When asked what she wished people better understood about her field, Williams said, “Twenty-first century midwifery, whether in home or in hospital, is safe and appropriate for most families. Doulas are for every birth, even C-sections, and there are all kinds of doulas who have different strengths.”
Williams’ strength is photography. As a professional birth photographer, she “strives to maintain a healthy, positive, unobtrusive presence in the birth space.” Williams brings sensitivity to families who need it most, volunteering as a bereavement photographer and Baltimore area coordinator for a volunteer organization called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep (NILMDTS). NILMDTS provides professional bereavement photography, at no cost, to families who experience stillbirth or neonatal death.
Over a decade before she became a doula, Williams served in the Air Force as an Arabic linguist for six years. “I began volunteering with NILMDTS because of my experiences in the Air Force. I saw a lot of death and became almost too comfortable with confronting the reality of (it), and it was one of the things I had a hard time reconciling after separating from the service.”
After serving in the military, Williams became a defense contractor. As a computer forensics engineer, she continued to confront death on a daily basis. She has since left that world behind her.
“When I discovered Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep,” Williams said, “I realized I could turn what I considered to be a lasting negative effect of my military life into a positive, by combining it with my skills in photography and birth. Providing this service to grieving families has helped me heal from my own trauma.
“Bereavement photography is perhaps the most misunderstood of all my roles,” she continued. “It is not morbid, scary, or sad to look at. It is not obvious that the babies have passed, because NILMDTS photographers produce retouched black-and-white images and emphasize connection with family. (The babies) are being posed, cradled, and loved on, like a living or well baby. These babies still have wonderful details like hair, eyelashes, toes and long fingernails to cherish.”
As a regional coordinator, Williams recruits volunteer birth photographers to serve in hospitals throughout Maryland. “When I am recruiting photographers to volunteer,” she said, “… they wonder how they could possibly get through a photo session with a stillborn. In the moment, a photographer is so focused on getting the photos right that there is no time to think about the enormous weight of the moment.”
Williams said that when she was a child in small-town Iowa, she was fascinated by the process of childbearing. “I used to sneak into the reproduction section of the library and read “A Child is Born” by Lennart Nilsson every Sunday. But I was afraid of needles and blood, so I joined the Air Force to be an Arabic linguist instead.”
While defense contracting, Williams was preparing to deploy to Iraq when she learned that she was pregnant. She began preparing for birth instead. She researched water births, which had continued to fascinate her. “When it came time to have my own baby, I chose midwives and was able to have the exact birth I wanted,” she recalled, “and soon realized that (having the exact birth you want) is a pretty rare thing.” Today, Williams provides birth pools for her clients who plan homebirths.
Six months after her daughter Dorothy’s water birth, Williams left defense contracting behind and began “reading and soul-searching.” She started out with birth photography, early in its emergence as a genre of photography; in 2010, she was the first professional birth photographer in her area. She certified as a doula that same year.
Over the past decade, Williams has participated in more than 100 births in three countries: the U.S., Germany and England. While living in Germany for three years, she served “mostly the American military population birthing in German hospitals.” She then moved to Yorkshire, England, for two years, where she apprenticed as a student midwife. Williams worked as a doula in hospitals within the British health care system, National Health Services (NHS), as well as alongside NHS midwives who
were attending homebirths.
“I was actually the first professional birth photographer to work in several hospitals in Germany and England,” Williams said. “(It) was a challenge and an honor to be able to set expectations and start a new trend. … My experience with birthwork in Europe was such an eye-opener to what exactly we can improve here in the USA. Our maternal mortality rate is skyrocketing, especially for black and indigenous women, and it is such a simple fix: access to one or two of the same trained, culturally-competent midwives throughout a pregnancy, (and then) continuous one-on-one care during a birth, followed by more postpartum care.”
Williams advocates for birth plans that meet the wishes of, and are accessible to, each individual family. She hopes for more insurance coverage and “access to training for minorities who want to become midwives to better serve their communities.”
In addition to being certified as a doula with DONA International, Williams is currently studying to become a certified professional midwife via National Midwifery Institute, and is in her last phase of out-of-hospital midwifery apprenticeship at Premier Birth Center in Winchester, Virginia. She is a certified lactation counselor via The Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice, and, continuing to support the military, Williams demos and dispenses breast pumps and other maternity-related equipment to Tricare beneficiaries in Maryland and Northern Virginia, via Tricare Moms. Drawing on her creative side, she is also a placenta arts specialist through Association of Placenta Preparation Arts. She provides care within a 50-mile radius of her Mt. Airy home.
Williams strives to “get families to a place where the confidence comes from within during labor, so they feel like they birthed as a team on their own terms and without anyone’s help or interference. When this happens,” she said, “I see moms and dads drop into their own world. They can totally ignore everything going on around them, and it’s just them and their new baby, safe and complete. I felt that in (the birth of my daughter), and it was the best feeling in the world. It really has a positive effect on the way you parent and how you approach life from that day forward.”
Williams is a Nationally-Registered EMT. She said that her doula and midwifery experience has helped her deal with bodily fluids and keeping patients calm. “But sadly,” she said, “(it) has not helped with the carsickness in the back of an ambulance!”