Lori Jupiter holds Maryam Autry’s hand in the hospital in 2018, before Autry gives birth to her daughter Hollis. Jupiter is an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge and a doula. Credit: Michael Gilman

As a lawyer, Lori Jupiter understands the power of advocacy and its impact on key moments in the lives of the communities she serves — moments like a court hearing. Or giving birth.

When she got pregnant with her third child, Jupiter, now a New Orleans judge, knew she wanted an advocate on her side, someone there just to see to her needs as she brought new life into the world. That’s when she first found out about doulas, people who provide physical and emotional assistance to women before, during and after childbirth.  Jupiter would go on to use doulas when she gave birth to her three younger children. Then, in 2017, she decided to become a doula herself.

An attorney at the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal by day and a doula by night, the working mother would balance a rising legal career with the “heart work” of birth work, teaching yoga and meditation classes, and raising five kids alongside her husband.

“There’s nothing like being up all night, helping birth the baby at 5:20 a.m. and then showing up at the court at 8:30 a.m. to work,” Jupiter said. “The adrenaline is rushing.”

While doulas are now a more commonly known form of maternal care than they were when Jupiter first used one more than 20 years ago, the need is great, especially in the Black community. In Louisiana, Black maternal mortality rates are four times that of white women, one of the worst in the country. Regionally and nationwide, racial disparities in maternal mortality even endure across class lines and despite physical access to maternity care.

A newly enacted law seeks to help address some of those problems, and it was a conversation with Jupiter that planted the seed for that law. The law will require private insurance companies to cover doula services beginning next year. 

State Representative Matthew Willard (D-Orleans), who authored the bill, spoke with Jupiter during his campaign in 2019 about the positive impact of doulas, documented in this 2023 study published in the medical journal Cureus. Back then, he didn’t know too much about doulas, but the conversation eventually led him to look into doula services as one way to improve the maternal healthcare crisis in the state that particularly harms Black women. Willard’s bill will mandate coverage up to $1,500 for doula services. 

For Jupiter, this bill is much needed. When she became a doula, she had envisioned helping Black mothers like herself. “But that’s not who came to me,” she said. In Jupiter’s experience, the people looking for doulas were primarily white. Of all her clients, only two were Black. 

“It goes back to the affordability,” she said. “I would have loved to have been able to go out and seek some kind of way to assist those who didn’t have the means or the knowledge, but I’m a working mother myself.”

The Jupiter family gathered for the funeral of Jupiter’s father in October 2022. Credit: Tonya Jupiter

Becoming a doula

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Jupiter spent her childhood traveling back to New Orleans, where her parents grew up. She attended Xavier University, where she majored in mass communications, and met her husband, Jerome Jupiter, while in college. After working as a reporter at the Louisiana Weekly and Data News Weekly, she pivoted her career and attended Loyola Law School. The Jupiters now have five children ranging from ages 14 to 27. 

For Jupiter, this landscape of maternal health and a personal desire to help individuals inspired this work. She had delivered her first child by unmedicated birth, naturally. Friends and family thought she was crazy, she recalled, but she believed giving birth was spiritual. Not having medication felt important to her. But Jupiter’s second birth required an epidural, which was fine, she said, but not what she wanted. What she did want was an advocate to help her through the process. So she turned to Google and the word “doula” popped up. 

After further research, Jupiter learned that a doula is a non-medical birth worker who provides educational, emotional, and physical support during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. Twenty years ago, there were hardly any doulas near New Orleans, but she found one: a middle-aged incense-burning, Birkenstocks-wearing, chicken bone-shaking, hairy-armpit donning woman who Jupiter said went by the name “Titi Baby.” 

She was a wonderful person and incredible doula, Jupiter said, but the intimacy of mother and doula working together was unusual to many of the medical staff at the hospital. At the time, it was also an unfamiliar experience for Jupiter. “You have this third party that’s in your world, that’s in this intimate situation,” she said. 

Two more doulas supported her during her fourth and fifth pregnancies, but after the birth of her youngest child, she endured a bout of postpartum depression and anxiety. And this was when she made a promise to herself to pass forward the help that guided her through her own births. So, when her youngest daughter was around two, she completed her doula training through Sista Midwife Productions, a local birth advocacy organization.

As a doula, Judge Lori Jupiter physically and emotionally helped support Maryam Autry throughout the prenatal and childbirth process. Credit: Michael Gilman

A matriculation into motherhood 

While Willard’s new law intends to make doula services available to more families, the issue of inaccessibility — that people who would benefit most from the services can’t afford to pay — can also create a double bind for doulas themselves, who want fair pay for their labor. 

Heidi Duncan was Jupiter’s doula during the judge’s fourth pregnancy. Duncan said she has attended 405 births over the past 25 years. She offers her clients a pay scale ranging from $1500 to $2500, but during the Great Recession, she dropped her rate as low as $200 for some birth-only services. “Two or three clients at $600 is better than zero clients at $800,” she said. 

For Duncan, a pay scale ranging from the minimum she felt comfortable accepting to her “true market value” let her broaden access while maintaining financial dignity. Jupiter also created a pay scale for her services, as well as an additional system that minimized barriers to entry: clients could hire her anytime during their pregnancy. 

“You [could] hire me the minute you find out you’re pregnant or you [could] hire me the day before you’re scheduled to go in,” she said.

Jupiter intentionally never counted the number of clients she’s worked with, but she estimates between 15 and 20. One of her clients, Maryam Autry, was a friend and a co-worker before she became a client. Jupiter and Autry met in 2012 on a legal panel at criminal court, and their paths converged again when Autry began working as an attorney with Jupiter at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. Autry thinks of Jupiter as a mentor. When they were working together, she called Jupiter her “court mom.” 

As Jupiter was training to be a doula, Autry was working through infertility issues. “We were sort of walking these paths together,” she said. When Autry finally got pregnant, she told Jupiter the good news over coffee. Jupiter then offered to be a doula for her court daughter. 

Neither Autry nor her husband had family in New Orleans, so Jupiter’s support felt doubly special. Throughout her pregnancy, Autry had sought the guidance of her dad, an OB-GYN. He was on call in Atlanta when she gave birth, Autry said, but Jupiter arrived at the hospital and coached her through the whole experience.

By the time Autry had her second child, Jupiter was a judge. “Her life had changed and mine had changed, but I was so lucky to have had her by my side,” Autry said. “It was like a matriculation into motherhood.” 

As calm as a courtroom can be 

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Lori Jupiter wears her judicial robe at a wedding she officiated in 2022. Credit: Eddie Marroquin

Wearing a bright sundress inside her office above the court chambers, Jupiter reflected on her experiences as a doula and a parent who used a doula, as well as her hopes of resuming the practice. Jupiter put her doula work on pause three years ago, when she ran for Civil District Court judge following the retirement of Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, for whom she was clerking. She plans to resume birth work when she retires, providing services to anyone who has an interested friend or family member, anyone but her own children, she said.

During her campaign, Jupiter’s manager urged her to highlight her experiences as a doula, as well as her background as a yoga instructor and Zen Buddhist meditation teacher. Jupiter was hesitant. 

“I didn’t necessarily want people to know that I did all these other things, because obviously my career is legal — that is where my head is,” Jupiter said. But she’s glad that she shared the non-attorney parts of herself with her constituents. In some ways, she believes it held her to a high standard. She hopes that with her background, her courtroom can feel a little calmer, or as calm as a courtroom can be. 

“Courtrooms are an intimidating place no matter where you go,” she said, so she strives to make hers more welcoming. 

She thinks the fact that she’s a doula (and yoga teacher and meditation instructor) can create a certain expectation of how she’ll serve on the bench, but Jupiter is no pushover. “You can only hold onto that for so long until people try you in the courtroom, and then you’re just a regular human being,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly referred to Judge Jupiter as a Circuit Court judge. She is an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge. The story has been updated to reflect the correct title.

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Josie Abugov is an undergraduate fellow at Harvard Magazine and the former editor-at-large of The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Abugov has previously interned for the CNN Documentary Unit...