Accessing comprehensive and caring perinatal services can be difficult. In the time leading up to and following the birth of a baby, mothers face a wide host of potential obstacles that are easier navigated with active support from others.
In many places, however, an active and accessible support network for expecting and new families has yet to be established. A new business called Fern + Foster will open in September in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood to fill that gap.
“There’s a huge need for postpartum care and postpartum community in Tacoma,” said Danielle Schell, a doula who moved to the city from Colorado last August and immediately noticed the lack of structured systems of support in Tacoma. “I feel like my breastfeeding success was contingent on support groups I had gone to (in Colorado). It was hard to see that lacking Tacoma because I was like, ‘How are people doing this?’”
Through a Facebook group, Schell met Emily Ager, a lactation consultant who had also recently moved to Tacoma from California, where she worked at a birth center that hosted classes, support groups, yoga, and more. Over coffee, Schell and Ager discussed bringing something similar to Tacoma. At first, it was just ideas and brainstorming. Then, with the addition of midwife Olivia Arakawa to the team, the women applied for the Spaceworks’ 12-week Business Planning Cohort, and got in.
Since graduating from the program in May, the team has been slowly rolling out elements of their business that will all be available come the grand opening on Sept. 14. This includes workshops on pelvic health; yoga for pregnant women and women with new babies; a lactation lounge where women pay what they can for drop-in peer support facilitated by a lactation consultant; and a story hour led by a drag queen that normalizes gender diversity for young kids.
“We want to create a diverse and open space, and offer services that are accessible to everyone,” said Ager, referencing why Fern + Foster hosts the drag queen story hour and offers pay-what-you-can options. The three women also are focusing on building a business that feels safe and welcoming to families of color, and is doing so by bringing on providers and teachers of color and working with organizations like the Tacoma Urban League.
“We’ve been able to meet and collaborate with a lot of people and be present at the meetings of the organizations that are doing really good work on the group on the Hilltop,” Ager said. “We try to stay connected to that. We don’t want to be this exclusive experience. We’re not a fancy boutique — we want to be in the community, know what’s going on, where the holes are, and be clear that we are offering services that other organizations can benefit from.”
Fern + Foster’s ability to reach out to, welcome, and support new and expecting mothers of all races and financial backgrounds is a community necessity: Research shows that black women in the U.S. are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and that only about half of first-time mothers on Medicaid take a childbirth education class.
“The system is not working for anyone,” Schell said, acknowledging that even she, as a native English speaker and white woman, has experienced difficulty and frustration accessing perinatal services. “I don’t know that solutions are going to come from within the system. So, it feels good to be trying to demonstrate an alternate model of care. We want to think about what care looks like to us — what’s meaningful to the people that we want to be serving.”
Currently, Schell and Ager said, the only place in Tacoma an overwhelmed mother can go and ask someone to just hold her baby for a while so she can have a moment to herself is Pearl Place. This, they believe, is insufficient, especially given the high rates of postpartum depression and the months-long waiting lists that women are often greeted with when they try to seek help.
“Sometimes what you need is to just get out the house and be in a place where someone can help rock your baby to sleep,” Schell said. “And once you’re here, it’s a one-stop-shop for all your perinatal needs. Everything is just here at your fingertips.”
Like many people opening small businesses in the city, the women behind Fern + Foster have fallen in love with the Tacoma community and want to help fill the gaps that exist in a place so long lost in Seattle’s shadow.
“I feel really strongly that Tacoma is a really special place and it has really special things going on, and it’s not adequate to tell families to drive to Seattle for these services,” Schell said. “I think both Emily and I had a real desire to invest in our local community. We were like, if not us, then who? We can’t keep looking for it because no one is going to do it but us.”
Fern + Foster officially opens on Sept. 14 — an event they envision as a big block party to alert people in the community that they are there and open and welcoming to everyone. On top of the expertise each of them brings to the table, Fern + Foster will serve as home to a pelvic floor physical therapist, a massage therapist, an acupuncturist, yoga instructors, and leaders of support groups and mental health services.