Doula School Alumni: Coffee with Karen
Sometimes you meet someone and it just clicks. It has been my experience that the most professional doulas (and the ones with the largest hearts) are those who embrace each other; fostering a sense of camaraderie and forging long-standing friendships along the way. All of the above can be said of my dear doula friend Karen, who sends me wonderful voice notes from Zimbabwe. I always leave our conversations feeling uplifted and enlightened, so I asked her to share some of her wisdom with the Doula School community. Here’s my “virtual” coffee with Karen – I look forward to the day we can sit down together in-person and drink from the same pot!
Karen, our paths came together during a wonderful birth training course with the Doula School last year. What inspired you to add this training to your repertoire?
Having transitioned from the UK where maternity nursing and newborn care was in high demand, I found the market very different returning to Zimbabwe. The economy and lifestyles here are extremely distinct to any of my previous experiences in this field. In lending a listening ear to several young mums here, I have however come to realize that very few of them get a chance to have their ‘dream’ or planned birthing experience. Sadly, the professionals in this industry are somewhat monopolised by very few competent providers, who it seems are overwhelmed and too busy to take the time to allow for unmedicated, low-intervention deliveries. My passion is working with new parents and their babies, and I feel there is a huge gap in this area. I have had the privilege of consulting with several expectant mothers, guiding them and helping empower them to go for what they know they can do. It has been such an honour to slowly see the doors open in this area, and walk alongside these young mothers. I was able to assist a midwife with a home delivery, which was such a wonderful experience to see how calm and beautiful birth can be. I recently worked with my client in the UK, both through labour and then for four weeks postpartum. I now have many ‘doula’ grandchildren all over the world!
I’ve loved hearing about your own experience as a mother. How do you feel your journey has shaped you in the way you show up for new parents?
In my opinion nothing prepares you for motherhood, like motherhood. My understanding that even my own three children and now four grandchildren are all so very different, and entered this world very differently as well, helps expectant parents to realize that we do our best, but nature will have its way. No two labours or children are the same – each one is incredibly unique! However, our attitude and outlook can shape our outcomes at every point.
With all three of my babies, their first weeks and months were completely different, from dream baby to nightmare colic and silent reflux. So I think having this experience and understanding helps parents realize that there are no ’textbook’ babies or ‘google-informed’ babies. Each one is individual, and needs to be understood in their uniqueness.
You naturally have a gift for postpartum care and I’ve said to you before I would love for you to move in when I have a baby one day! That first month can be so intimate but also challenging at the same time. What is the best advice you can give to a new parent as they enter this sacred time?
Relax. Do your best to put aside all the noise from WhatsApp groups, baby books, and Dr Google: those voices will drown out your own internal instinct as a parent, which is all the baby will be able to relate to and all you have to relate to your baby. Be ok if your little one is different to the ‘social norms’ out there, read your little one’s cues, and learn to enjoy your new normal. I think this might be one of the biggest tragedies I have come across with the more career-orientated parents these days; they are used to having an element of control over their work or life circumstances, but your baby does not come with a control box or manual. Listen to your heart first, then use the best information you feel is at your fingertips should you need to. Evidence-based guidelines can be very helpful, but in most cases will need to be adapted to each family’s uniqueness.
You’re currently looking after twins (expert level). What has been your experience supporting parents with multiples? What’s the best thing about twins?
I have to chuckle a little at this one – working with twins is exhausting to say the least! But the joy of seeing the naturally tight bond between these two little people is incredible. I have watched a couple of the sets of twins I have had the privilege of working with, literally feed off each other, and use each others cries or noises as comfort measures. But there is great satisfaction in being able to bring some very necessary assistance, and draw alongside these families who certainly have a ‘busy’ first couple of years. I think the key thing is to get the little ones to sync as much as possible, which does make life a little easier the long run.
Your life path has seen you fly all over the world, with a rare insight into how different the birth and postpartum experience can look across cultures. Would you share something that you have learned in your travels?
As I ponder your question, I believe one of the greatest things I have gleaned is a new level of ‘respect’. Every culture and family has so much one can learn from, and respecting their culture or simply who they are, the way they are, is so important. I honestly feel enriched personally having had the privilege of working with families at such a sacred and vulnerable time in their journey. It has been interesting to see how different cultures operate at this time in life; for example, in Africa, there seems to be much more of a community-mindedness, where the family (village) steps up to help and be available to support the new family. They tend to make time for this and have different value systems, which again should be fully respected. In my home town of Harare in Zimbabwe, I have not yet come across any doulas. There is a huge gap in this field, and as a result, the doula role is not fully recognized and still to be accepted by much of the professional community. But I’m excited to see that there are many young expectant parents now looking for that support.
What is your greatest strength as a doula?
I would consider my greatest strength may be a calm compassion, and the ability to read the client – whether they want to be alone or need my presence, both are equally important. Also having worked with babies for so long now, I believe I have gained a great ability to read a little one’s needs and cues more efficiently. I had one father say, “You knew Karen was there, and seemed to appear whenever she was needed, but not intrusively.”
There are many people reading this who are feel called to doula work. What piece of advice would you offer to someone just starting out on this path?
Be gentle-spirited with your client, genuinely encourage them and affirm them, and bring positivity into their lives. Also to be very aware of their ‘personal space’, when they want you in that space and when they don’t. I think this goes for both birth doula and postpartum work; you can support them without taking over their space.
Karen trained with The Doula School, and is a much-loved birth & postpartum doula based in Harare, Zimbabwe. You can reach her via her Instagram or email below.