Helping mothers open the door to life

Journalism students at Langara College produced eight weekly issues of The Voice newspaper. As a final test of endurance the pressure was ramped up and in the ninth week they produced four daily newspapers. Adam Johnson's submission made the top story in "The Best of the Dailies!"

“A 65-year-old midwife held my foot and she didn't move. Then she would look up and she'd smile. And I thought, obviously things are okay.”

“I just said, I need to do this.”

The deep kindness in her eyes grows determined as Jacquie Munro, 45, describes the day she found her calling. She was inspired by her second birth to share this positive experience with others. That was 18 years ago.

“It altered who I was radically,” she says. “I wanted to change people's lives the way they had changed mine.”

She began working as a childbirth educator, but when her students kept having difficult births, she decided to guide the next batch through the process first-hand. Eventually, it became a fulltime job. While she initially called herself labour support, the word Doula came into use in the early 1990s.

Doula is a traditional Greek word referring to an experienced woman who helps other women through childbirth. In its modern connotation, it is someone who counsels the mother before, during, and after childbirth, without actually birthing, or “catching” the child.

It is a job of simple acts, small gestures, and one hell of a lot of work. “It's often just eyes and hands—and just one word,” she says. “I just say, you are safe.”

On her kitchen table, Munro looks over a huge stack of file folders, each representing one of the 602 lives she has helped into the world. “God, I've been doing this a long time,” she says, smiling at the size of the stack.

She says the most important thing she does is provide continuity of care, by being there for the mother during the entire birthing process.

She says this continuity is sorely lacking in the current health care system, where mothers often deal with overworked health care workers.

Munro acts as an intermediary between the mother and the health care system, arranging the trip to the hospital, consulting with doctors and nurses, and maintaining a safe atmosphere for the mother.

“In births where there isn't anyone looking over the mother, a woman's autonomy can be lost completely,” she says. “You become a patient, which is usually very submissive.”

Munro seeks to create an atmosphere and mindset where a mother can get into the “birth trance,” a state of surrender and acceptance that allows the childbirth to proceed naturally. “It's completely analogous to lovemaking,” she says.“You cannot surrender to the process unless you are safe.”

But Munro insists the labour stage is the least of her concerns, pointing to staffing shortages at hospitals and the limited availability of rooms and medication. She is also concerned with the recent trend towards cesarean sections in place of natural childbirth because of the serious health risks associated with this procedure.

However, when necessary she uses all the tools of modern-day childbirth. “Labour pushes you to the very edge of what you think you can do, but it shouldn't be torture.”

After hundreds of births, Munro still finds profound meaning in the experience.

“When I'm in there with people in birth, it's like the door between life and death is wide open,” she says.

Munro presents a happy and vibrant personality, and demonstrates the limitless patience of someone who spends days massaging backs and easing nerves.

But there is a deep, underlying fatigue associated with work that requires such an emotional commitment.

“Last week I did three births in two days. I had four hours sleep in 64 hours,” she says, smiling. “But it's great.”

by Adam Johnson
Langara Journalism Student (Certificate Program)