Karen Mcwilliam sat on the floor in front of her client, Shalina Khanna, as she and her husband, Jonathan Hunt, sat cozily on their couch. Hunt handed his wife a tissue to wipe the tears from her eyes, as she explained to Mcwilliam why her mother wouldn’t be able to attend the birth of their first child.
“She primarily takes care of my dad who is not well,” Khanna said.
With her mother unable to attend, and having no idea what to expect throughout pregnancy, labour or birth, Khanna began looking for someone with birth experience, someone to support her and her husband through the coming birth.
“It’s a very unfamiliar circumstance. I’ve never had a kid before. I wanted the undivided attention of some sort of coach,” Khanna said.
That’s when Khanna found doula Karen Mcwilliam. After one interview, Khanna was convinced Mcwilliam was the support system she needed.
“I felt comfortable and connected to her right from the beginning,” Khanna said.
Mcwilliam ran a prenatal program for many years in Yukon. Her experience suggested she understood how to help pregnant women through unsatisfying or traumatic birth experiences.
“I’ve witnessed things that in any other circumstance would constitute sexual assault,” Mcwilliam said. “Yet somehow, in a hospital setting it’s perfectly OK to go ahead and ram your hand inside a woman’s vagina without barely a heads up or permission.”
That’s why she became a doula. This meant becoming a part of a woman’s entire birthing journey, which includes pregnancy, labour and newborn care. Mcwilliam has since attended over 300 births. As a doula, she provides physical, emotional and intellectual support.
“It is my job to give them that empowerment and that voice during birth,” Mcwilliam said.
Doulas do not provide any prenatal clinical or medical care. Mcwilliam will often advocate for her clients in a way that does not interfere with medical necessities. She also educates parents about their options. One of Mcwilliam’s former clients, Victoria Wells, is a mother of three. Mcwilliam was Wells’ doula for two of her three pregnancies and births. Wells decided to get a doula after having a horrible first experience with labour and birth.
“There was a lot of medications going through my body. I was sick,” Wells said. “I had the on-call obstetrician and a doctor. (The obstetrician) was terrible. … She was reading my magazines while I was pushing.”
Wells said Mcwilliam was the support she needed at both her births.
“She was like a mother for me,” Wells said. She advocated for me when I was in too much pain and too uncomfortable to think about all the things (I) wanted for (my) birth.”
And although the nurses were not too keen to have Wells go through labour in a birthing tub (a pool filled with warm water), Mcwilliam remembered it was what Wells wanted.
“She made sure I got into the tub and stayed there for as long as they would let me,” Wells said.
Doulas also assist in postpartum care, helping the mother with breastfeeding and answering any questions or concerns parents may have. Wells recalled Mcwilliam going as far as taking on the role of a babysitter.
“With my second baby, he was really fussy and I didn’t sleep for a year,” Wells said. “She came when he was three weeks old. I remember she just held him for two hours while he cried and I slept.”
Every mother or family requires something different of their doula. Each relationship is unique. Mcwilliam meets with her clients twice during pregnancy and twice after. She has optional prenatal birthing classes and is available on-call for any questions the expecting parents may have. Through this process she gets to know her clients intimately.
Khanna and Hunt’s first session with Mcwilliam lasted over three hours. They covered topics such as: medical intervention, fears, birth stories and, of course, what their expectations of Mcwilliam were. Khanna said she questioned her ability to be able to process information from a doctor or nurse in a stressful situation. She feared if something went wrong while in labour, she wouldn’t feel prepared to make logical decisions.
“I’m hoping you’ll help me with … translating that information, slowing it down,” Khanna said.
Mcwilliam assured Khanna that she’d provide that type of support.
“No matter how your labour and birthing unfolds, you (will be) integrated, empowered and involved in the decision-making process,” Mcwilliam said.
Mcwilliam’s ultimate goal is not a perfect birth. It’s to ensure the woman continues to feel respected and in control during this very vulnerable time.