This piece was edited from Tasha’s original piece for Birth Mark’s scholarship contest which was selected as this year’s winning essay. Birth Mark is a registered charity that provides free reproductive doula support to folks in Toronto and Hamilton.
I have been on so many winding paths throughout my life, but they all eventually converged into one major decision. I am a mixed media artist and seamstress, who happens to have studied funeral directing, graphic design, and science at Brock University. It is through all these studies — the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had and the lessons I’ve learned — that brought me to birth work and the doula world.
For those who might not know, a doula is a personal support person hired by the expecting parent or parents. This arrangement is only between the parents and the doula. It is for ongoing continuous support, throughout the pregnancy, labour and postpartum periods. A doula’s emotional support, physical support and informational support — as well as their advocacy — is a key reason as to why parents supported by a doula often have better outcomes surrounding birth and the first year of life. Birthing parents, spouses and babies all reap the benefits of doula care.
Support should be non-judgemental and non-standard, focused on the needs of the birthing parent, all of these things help with a successful birth. It is up for debate by some on how much a doula is an advocate for their clients, but the evidence shows that doula’s advocating for their clients, and supporting them wholly, does save lives. It’s hard to argue that a doula is not an advocate in that sense.
The thought that I could be a doula didn’t really nest in my brain until I confided in a friend about my sadness at being rejected from midwifery school twice. However, I now think those rejections happened for a reason. Plus, how many BIPOC queer, non-binary, trauma-informed, anti-racist doulas are there in Canada? I know a few but we always need more.
There aren’t always enough doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers available for everyone. On top of that, there are only so many births that really need to happen in the hospital setting, yet birthing in the hospital is the standard in Canada and the United States. Having trained medical staff for clients who need medical care/emergency cesarean delivery is key to many people’s survival. And that is exactly why we shouldn’t be filling up the hospital beds with people who could birth at home with a midwife and a doula and their family, or in a midwifery birthing centre.
Women, two-spirit, trans, and non-binary peoples — especially those of multiple intersectionalities — have been experiencing the same lack of genuine holistic care by the medical industrial complex since its conception: a lack of access for doctors and carers that look like them. Or at the very least, ones who have addressed their racial bias and realize the medical traumas being inflicted by doctors and nurses in the medical industrial complex. I am not out for any medical professionals either. Medicine is important. It just needs to be unbiased, non-judgemental and accessible for everyone, period.
This is magnified tenfold when you get into the world of pregnancy and reproduction. Obstetrics and gynecology are professions ruled and created by cis-white men who do not have true respect for birthing folks. These medical professionals have not and will not decolonize their idea of medicine and its history, or reflect upon the gruesome experiments on enslaved Black women to further medical research, that most white women now reap the benefits of. The reproductive systems of BIPOC individuals is so policed with such a violent history that there are cases of forced sterilization of Black and Indigenous peoples being sterilized against their will. There are Indigenous youth forced into having non-consensual IUD insertions happening in this country; in this century; in the last couple years.
Doula work is about caring for the birthing individual so they are safe, cared for, and in as little pain as possible. All while providing the care they need and desire during the transitional periods of their parenting journey. This is such a radical and holistic act of love and community compared to the type of care the medical industrial complex is known for. It’s really no wonder why being a doula is kind of a hot topic. Should you be certified or not? Are you an advocate, or not? Should you speak up for your clients? Or are you just there as support?
Too many parents or their partner’s birth experience was not what they wanted nor what they thought it was going to be. Parents should feel cared for and be well-informed. They should be consulted and asked to make decisions surrounding their own care, but because of the way our system works, parents end up feeling like their choices were taken away from them by the medical system and its practitioners. Emergencies do happen and having a medical team to perform a cesarean delivery when absolutely necessary is paramount, but being forced to have a cesarean because of certain expectations or lack of care from your medical team is not okay.
Although the rates of cesarean delivery worldwide have steadily increased over the last 20 years, the mortality rates of people having a cesarean delivery haven’t decreased. The World Health Organization has made statements on the high level of cesarean deliveries occurring in many developed countries. On the opposite end of that scale, where people live in healthcare service deserts have such a lack of resources and availability of medical professionals that this danger swings in the opposite direction, resulting in too few people having access to lifesaving care when they really need it.
Look at the industry that has sprung up to feed our babies. Formula is necessary if a child cannot truly have breast milk. However, can we really say we’d have a booming formula industry if it weren’t for the fact that capitalism doesn’t give parents enough time with their children to breastfeed? It is blaringly obvious to me at every angle; at every new tidbit of information gleaned from research, that labour and pregnancy has become another industry for capitalism to exploit. If you have to go back to work, with no support, breastfeeding doesn’t work out. So many children are going straight to formula, even when breastfeeding is proven to be great for your child.
Births that don’t go as expected can be traumatic for anyone; in addition to this reality, Black, Indigenous, and racialized people are also subjected to sinister and horrific treatment. People are birthing alone in jail cells or are forced into certain positions during labour and tied down; coerced into cervical exams and denied pain medication; people having serious health concerns being ignored. These things are leading to the disproportionate deaths of BIPOC parents and children. Biased doctors, midwives, nurses and even doulas are doing more harm than good with the colonized “care” that they’re providing.
Doula work, at its core, is resistance. It’s about putting your own needs aside, for however long it takes, to attend to vulnerable people in need. I imagine what it will be like to organize a birthing party with family or friends or chosen supporters around, all providing their love and energy to this person who is surrendering to one of the most difficult, natural and beautiful acts of our lives. It is community work, it is art, it is advocacy, it is love, it is so many wonderful things at once.
It’s sad that so many doulas, who have been trained by these largely white organizations, have co-opted this beautiful support framework without the true legacy of what it means to be a doula. It leaves those BIPOC doulas and midwives throughout history behind as an afterthought. We who have birthed, nursed and nannied the children of these first world countries for generations, who have been tortured and mutilated in the name of western “science.” The legacy of Black and Brown women and people of the south birthing the children of their communities because no white doctors would see them, it is all a legacy of community; of radical resistance to racism, sexism, and the beliefs that Black medicine or Indigenous medicine was bad medicine.
When I learned these things — the statistics concerning death rates among BIPOC child bearer’s versus white ones, and the history of midwifery in the American South — it just felt right that this was something that I’d pursue. Training to be a doula and doing that work, no matter the challenges, is worth my efforts because if I can make a difference even in one person’s life, then I have done something truly great.
As a doula, I want to offer care for those in need and that doesn’t just stop at pregnancy, labour and postpartum care. It means caring for those experiencing pregnancy loss or abortion as well as disability support, gender transition and death support. There are so many moments in our lives when we just need someone who is on our side without a doubt. To support with your needs first in mind, working as a team with you and your chosen families, and that’s who I want to be.
I am excited to continue my study of what it means to be a doula, and how the concepts of being a doula can fit and apply in so many areas of life; my life specifically. I am excited to continue to grow myself, my practice, my knowledge, my advocacy, my trauma informed care, my overwhelming passion to see people well cared for in all walks of life. Everyone deserves the care and support they need and want in life.
Natasha Turnbull is a biracial queer artist with heritage from the African diaspora and settlers. Born and raised in Kitchener-Waterloo and living in Quinte West. Seamstress and doula at Nexus Craft Co. and Nexus Community Care respectively. You can find them on Instagram at @nexuscraftco and @nexuscommunitycare for artwork, clothes and for connection. They are all about community and working with others for a better future for all.