My Journey as a Doula
Breathing and swaying with women and massaging them with healing hands through 24+ hours of labour is just one of the ways I have supported families over the past decade. Being a doula is an instinctive part of me, something that chose me; I did not choose it. Working intimately as a caregiver and guide for families with children ages newborn to preadolescence is something I have been doing since I was a pre-teen myself. When I was about 19 years old, a mother of a toddler that I helped occasionally - both of whom I was particularly fond of - looked at me and told me I was a born birth doula. In many ways, I was already fulfilling those roles of a postpartum doula, but birth intrigued me. When she told me how her doula helped her and her husband (in so many ways) through their cesarean delivery, I cried and I felt a spark inside of me that has never since left me.
So when I was 20 I registered for a doula training workshop with CAPPA, instructed by the ever-inspiring Kimberley Healey of the Toronto Doula Group. Kim has been my go-to doula mentor for the past three years and I am so very grateful. Since that training, I’ve attended numerous full-day workshops on birth, fetal positioning, and breastfeeding. My personal and lending library is exploding with books that I probably no longer need - I’ve absorbed every shred of wisdom shared by Ina May Gaskin and I’ve lived the joy and triumph of raising children written in SEARS attachment-parenting books. Let’s not forget “Peaceful Piggy Meditation” by Kerry MacLean. That book has scored me big points with parents for its calming capacities and children are drawn to me for these wellness-inspired books and toys that I share with them. More recently, I've certified as a Childbirth Educator with ProDoula.
My first birth I offered to attend for a measly $150. The mom was skeptical of needing a doula, which made me nervous, and mostly hired me for the assistance I could offer her husband. Her husband called me in the wee hours of the morning and I met them at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga. I took my first steps into a labour and delivery ward and noticed right away the bright lights and rushed staff. I had a knot in my stomach but I was relatively calm. I noticed my clients hunched over sitting on a metal bench, not looking too keen or excited for the journey they were just beginning. I sat down beside my client and immediately she started throwing up. I gave her some peppermint oil on the back of her neck which helped her right away. I looked her in the eye and told her she was ready to do this. I was there. We were doing this. So I helped her get up and go to the bathroom.
This first birth - for me and for the couple - was as textbook-hospital-birth as they come! It was 12 hours and their baby 7lbs 10oz, healthy. I played rainwater music, helped her in the shower, performed light-touch massage and pressed a warm compress onto her lower back. The mother had made it clear to the staff she would not be having an epidural because of the rods in her back, and found it unhelpful when her nurses asked her every couple of hours “if she was sure?” I helped her onto her hands-and-knees to labour which helped her back pain tremendously. We moved gently through her labour until transition came and she tore off her hospital gown, looked herself in the mirror, and demanded that nobody touch her. That’s when I knew we were really doing this. That was a critical moment. I saw the birthing woman's inner goddess shine through for the first time. Cool cloths on her face and back helped her through and she pushed her baby out. She paid me double what we’d agreed on and wrote to me that now she “would never give birth without the help of a doula.”
From there, things have been up and down; slow or steady. Doula business is unpredictable in many ways. Building my website and learning the ins and outs of marketing was just one challenge. I've spent numerous hours fixing the content of my website and figuring out strategies for Instagram posts. One thing I didn’t realize when I became a doula was how physically exhausting and emotionally draining. I feel I have aged more than ever before in these past few years. Or maybe that’s because I’m just coming into myself in my twenties. Either way, I write this story with a wrap around my knee and heating pack on my back as I recover from the three intense births I attended this month. It’s been busy. Being on-call by myself and not in a collective is hard. I’ve learned that I cannot live without a weekly massage, yoga, baths, and the best of the best self-care. I need me-time. I devote myself so wholeheartedly to my clients both during births and afterwards, rocking their babies for hours, that it can be easy to get lost in their lives and forget about my own. I’ve sometimes felt so deeply latched onto by clients - for months or years - that I’ve felt emotionally distraught over needing to help them more than I truly can as an outsider to their families. Being a doula has sometimes also meant being a marriage counselor, a child therapist, a best friend, a sister, a cook, a maid. Being a doula means so much that I cannot sum it up on the pages of my website. Still people are skeptical of this doula business, yet always once families have had a taste of my doula care they never want to let go!
The first cesarean delivery I attended was by far the biggest emotional hurdle for me in my career. This mother came from overseas where she’d had an unnecessary planned c- section. She hired me and devoted herself to her plan for a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean) at St. Michael’s hospital downtown Toronto. I was her only support through her 20 hour labour so we got to know each other quite well. She was a lovely woman. She laboured in the tub, on the birthing ball, on her hands-and-knees, and lying on the bed. I supported her as she received epidural anesthesia and helped her open her pelvis using the squat bar. When she was finally fully dilated, she pushed for two hours before being deemed “failure to progress,” and in need of a cesarean to successfully deliver her baby healthily. Of course that was a huge disappointment for the mother, but my duty as a doula was to keep her calm and positive throughout the whole journey, no matter how the birth would unfold.
Weren’t we surprised when the doctor went in surgically to remove the baby and found that the uterus was already ruptured and the baby was no longer inside! I felt urgency bubbling in the room and I held my client's hand through the whole thing. She was vomiting neon green into a small basket I held up to her lips. She was shaking. Her baby came out and did not breathe for four minutes. We held our breaths. The doctor’s voice was sharp and cold as she asked for more blood. If the uterus would not close she would need to do a hysterectomy. I watched the procedure as she tried again to suture the uterus. I was fascinated by the first surgery I ever watched (not counting countless episodes of Grey's Anatomy). While the baby came to life and we cried, the mom’s eyes glazed over. She wasn’t looking at me anymore. Not until the doctors handed me her baby and I pressed her cheek to her mom’s did I know the mom would be OK. I swear in that moment angels flew! The two melted into each other for a short moment - the baby stretched her hand towards her mom's ear -before the mother was given general anesthesia to remove her uterus and I was asked to take the baby away. They were both fine.
I went up north that night and stayed there for the weekend. I was exhausted. I curled up in bed and I cried. I yelled. I reasoned. I was so deeply upset by this experience. It would take me weeks to recover emotionally from the experience. I felt like I had failed the mother, like our system had failed her. I replayed the whole birth in my head over and over again. I criticized the hospital’s approach to her labour in the first place, how they wouldn't let her walk around, their glares of doubt when my client told them her dream for a vaginal delivery. I went over it all again and again, and it was not until I saw the mother and baby again - healthy and happy together – that I was able to begin my own process of healing.
Being a doula is tiring and emotionally exhausting, but it is also amazing, badass, awesome! I have attended 18 births now, two of which were c-sections. Each birth has ended in a celebration and has unfolded in its own unique way. At home, the Toronto Birth Center, and GTA hospitals, each birth has taught me something. Working with midwives is always a pleasure. I feel like a real team player when working alongside them and they seem to really respect my role. At homebirths, I see midwives in their element and it is so inspiring. At the second successful homebirth I attended, the mother moaned and roared her baby out after four hours of labour. The way the light shone through the window and reflected off her motherly skin was so beautiful. As she waited for her baby to be placed in her arms - as the midwives helped him to breathe - she was radiant and proud, respected and trusting. I see her face when I think of what it means to be brave, to be graceful. There was something so raw about the way she lay, wrapped in her own sheets in the comfort of her own home; the way the midwives showed her the placenta and treated it as a respectable organ. The stillness, the quietness. There were no beeping machines or bright lights. Everything felt soft and warm.
On the other hand, sometimes I notice things that I would have done differently if I were in the shoes of the healthcare providers – such as the time I worked with a nurse who would storm abruptly into our calm, dimly lit birthing space, flick on all the lights and then fail to turn them back off upon exiting. Some things are just unnecessary, like disturbing a labouring woman's rhythm when she is making good progress on her own. Or there was the old midwife who gave the roughest vaginal exams and never smiled. She seemed beat by her job. Or when nurses roll their eyes at me for insisting on using a peanut ball - a device that has proven to shorten labour by keeping the pelvis nice and open. Other times, I have cheered and praised the compassion and kindness of the staff! When medical intervention is truly necessary and it works its wonders, I am so thrilled. I celebrate when medicine and nature can work together effectively! I have learnt so much about physiological birth and science’s compliments that I cannot possibly write it all here.
After the 11th birth that I attended, I was enraged by the way my clients, who did not speak English very well, were disrespected by the staff. It was at this birth that my client and I developed such a rhythm that we were swaying together with the rebozo in the dark. The mom was singing loudly to the music tracks I played. She was moaning, moving her hips side-to-side, totally engrossed in her labour, inward, centered. It seemed like the staff did everything they could to disrupt her. I realized my true calling at that birth. I was tired of being a mediator, someone with no power, someone laughed at by nurses and doctors and mocked in battery commercials (I'm never buying Duracell batteries again after their thoughtless jab at doulas in 2017). I drove home the night of that birth and I yelled in my car, “I am not a doula, I am a midwife!” I never knew before that I was able to handle the medical side of birth, but my experience so far had taught me otherwise. I fell in love with every aspect of being a medical birth professional. And every fiber in my being craved improvements in the birth world. I felt the spark inside of me burst that night. I cried to the sky and declared my future to the universe. I am going to be a midwife so I can have a real impact on women's birth experiences.
That night I parked my car at the end of my street and walked to my house, looking at the sky and whispering goodnight to the cats that live on my street. They were friendly neighbourhood cats who always comforted me on my walk in the dark to my apartment. I felt a bit like a mad woman right then. I had such strong, urgent, intuitive thoughts and feelings in those moments. It felt witchy. I felt powerful and purposeful.
It was not fifty feet from my front door that I was stopped in my tracks. There on the sidewalk in front of me was a perfect pink rose. Freshly cut. I picked it up and laughed because it reminded me of a vagina! This flower must have fallen from the sky, so dark and mystical and scattered with stars. It was in perfect shape, in full blossom - the most beautiful rose I’d ever seen. How could it be that I received such a strong sign on that night? I knew then that birth is my calling and I will one day be a midwife. I sat in the streets, in the dark and calm of the summer night, and pondered my mission in life, writing quietly in my birth journal.
Now I await a response from Ryerson University – please, please, please accept me into your midwifery program! I just attended my 18th birth. The baby came to us early at only 3lbs 15oz. During her labour, the mother told me her intuition was telling her that her cervix would not dilate and she would have to have a c-section. I looked her in the eyes. I knew she could do it. Just like when one of my clients decided to uproot her life to Ottawa so she could have a vaginal breech delivery with Betty Ann Davis. I told her she could do it. She did!
So that is my story of becoming and living the doula life. It has been challenging and it has been wonderful and rewarding. I love my job. I love the connections I've made and the babies I've snuggled. But now I’d rather be a midwife. It feels like it’s what’s right - a natural progression for me. Something I realized is that being a doula is very isolating, at least for me. Running my business all by myself, the youngest doula I know, and nobody else really offering exactly what I offer – I have felt alone a lot of the time. Families welcome me with open arms, but it's a weird kind of relationship and every night I go home to an empty apartment. That part of my life is ending. I hope that community is something midwifery will offer me. It's something I need that doulaing has not given me. I also feel what this society really needs (this society where doulas are not regulated and often not covered by insurance) is not more doulas, which many people cannot afford, but more midwives, doctors, and nurses who have the softness and consideration of a doula. All birth professionals need to be educated on the emotional, physical, and spiritual sides of birth, offering the magical touch of a doula while providing top-notch medical care. I need my clients not to tell me that their healthcare providers “talk to them differently when I’m not in the room.” I need women to feel respected and for community and laughter to be brought back into birth. One day, doulas will be covered by OHIP, but that day is not today (sadly). Today, we need our birth professionals to be better. We need our system to be better so that we can be better. Somehow or another, I know we can do it.