Standing in the Gap with Doula Cassandra Thompson

Photo: @seedandcerasee/Instagram

“Am I allowed to smoke? Some people would say, ‘No! Don’t smoke. And don’t swear on my interview.'” I don’t know much about Cassandra Thompson, but I’m highly intrigued at her open ability to offer me her most authentic self right off the bat. I can already tell she’s an old soul with much to share. 

CASSANDRA THOMPSON: “For most people you seem to think that comes with age, not caring about what people think, but not necessarily. Certain experiences will end up bringing you to a space of, ‘I don’t know if I care so much about what people think anymore.’ It always shocks people when they find that I’m a [cannabis] smoker, because you’re a doula, you’re supposed to be holistic at all times, you’re supposed to be so sure of western ideals and standards of professionalism. I remember training with Mama Shafia Monroe, and she used to talk about how in the rural South, particularly post enslavement in super small Black communities, that it was the pre-enslaved Black women who ended up delivering a lot of the massuhs’ wives’ babies, and that’s how the skills came; or they learned from their parents, grandparents or a community member before them. They learned how to use plants as remedies in order to assist anyone who was pregnant which could potentially go wrong or not be ideal, however could encourage labour more quickly. It would be a midwife who would come when your contractions were starting, and they’d be like, ‘Bring your partner into the room and stimulate some oxytocin together. I’m going to sit out here, have some coffee and a cigarette, and you give me a knock knock if anything starts to shift.’ For a lot of birth workers it’s about trusting the body and the process, but always being there just in case. I mean, midwives have smoked and done all kinds of different things that we now determine were terrible and so, I always remember that when I want to smoke and I’m like, mhm, some of the midwives that I admire used to be smokers so fuck that shit.” 

 

Cass automatically triggers early labour memories with my firstborn when my midwife suggested that my partner bring me to orgasm to stimulate extra oxytocin in order to continue dilating my cervix. Knowing how the human body works under pressure is what makes birth workers so extraordinary.

Cassandra is blessed with a supportive partner whose essence paints a sweet fragrance across her social media. Being a diehard romantic, I’m instantly drawn to the healing magic that is their partnership, and I ask Cass to share with us the ways in which their bond influences her experiences as a doula and community worker: 

CASSANDRA: “I would be lying if I said that my partner of five years hasn’t influenced many aspects of myself. Who I was five years ago is completely different from who I am today. Before I met Tee, I wanted to be a midwife, but I think it was more for the honourific thing of it. She’s one of the reasons why I have accepted that doula work is enough and is one of the points in which change can also be made. There has never been something that I wanted to do that she has not been one million thousand percent behind. We wake up everyday and commit to each other just like any real couple. We also work in very different fields, but I think one of the things that it does come down to is that she never says, ‘I think you should do this.’ She will say, ‘I support your decision because I know you’ll make the best decision for yourself, and if you would like my advice I’m here for it.’ And I think that’s how she’s affected me as a doula, because it’s helped me learn how to respect the agency of my clients a lot more. Every relationship I have with people teaches me about my relationship with my clients, because that’s what the work is. In all honesty with you, there are aspects of doula-hood that I remember from when I used to do sex work, which were the emotional bond pieces that really helped me hold space for my clients now; people just want someone to talk to, someone to share this experience with. Our partnership has really helped me feel empowered to do this work. And to respect and understand the agency of others as mine is respected and what that means, and that that’s not a dismissal, rejection or neglect, it’s actually, ‘I respect your own agency to make your own decision for yourself,’ and that’s not something that I’ve always had in my life. And that helps me be a better doula.”

 

When I inquire about whether being a doula influences her desire to create a new baby life with her partner, her shrewd perspective is exactly what needs to also be showcased on the parenthood table:

CASSANDRA: “When you have a partner who’s an amazing caregiver, and especially if you grew up in a solo parent home, the idea of parenthood seems very possible. But quarantine has taught us a lot about the things that we want to do as a unit, so we’ve come to a space where if it doesn’t happen that’s okay. I don’t want to have kids just because it’s annoying to always hear, ‘When are you having a kid?’ I get that all the time in birth work, because here I am showing people how to bathe their babies. And I was adopted, so I’m very intricately aware of the side effects; I know it’s so fucking okay and real to have a baby and not want that baby. It’s also why I think that, because I’m not willing to make that sacrifice, that I must honour those who do. Like thank you so much, and I’ll try my best not to give them too much candy before they go home to you. I think that’s where I’m at with it. People automatically think that if you’re good with children then you should have them, when we actually need more community members who are good with kids.”

 

Our conversation shifts to the one-of-a-kind salves, tinctures and sprays that Cassandra handcrafts with love, intention, and her own two hands:

 CASSANDRA: “My first intro with herbs is partly from my adoptive grandmother, and then an evolution of it was a call and pull to it throughout high school to help me heal from addiction. And from there I just had the blessing of having different teachers show up during my life. But I think that’s also a part of why I make herbs a part of doula care, because, with all the research and education that’s put out there for us to reclaim and know, I want people to feel like they can heal themselves without having to shell out thousands of dollars to go to school for it. The herbal practices that my grandmother showed me were more so on the spiritual and magical side of things. And that’s what brought me to birth work; herbs were definitely there before.”

 

In our day and age, representation for queer and trans births are still minimal, which is why I’m so grateful to have Cass share an insider perspective. Being an advocate for queer and trans rights, I ask her to share with us how the LGBTQ cause, specifically the trans movement, connects to birth work:

CASSANDRA: “There’s a very common and false assumption where although we KNOW that there are people who identify as men having babies, there is still the language that implies that the norm is what is expected, especially in the very gendered birthing industry. And this is where we have that conversation around Black folks being with Black folks while they’re labouring, indigenous folks being with indigenous people, queer people being with queer people, etc. In this, there’s something wonderfully comfortable that does not have to be said. There’s also less fear. That’s something that I think is important in having someone present at your birth who identifies as you do. And it’s hard to explain because as the medical system sits, whether it’s in midwifery or obstetrician care – no shade to them – but we’re all still learning. We’re already just trying to get people to listen to Black womxn where there’s no conversation around gender, language, or biology. Feeding into it that people are dying in labour and being treated according to their socioeconomic status. There’s just so much we still assume. We need to see ourselves in these spaces to also believe that we deserve to be in these spaces having our babies.”

We segue into an excerpt on masculine pregnant persxns, written by King Yaa, a queer and trans centered reproductive health advocate who supports folx of all sexual and gender identities to have the safer and inclusive reproductive healthcare that they need:

#RepresentationMatters. While I am asked what it means that I am a queer birth doula, people generally assume it is because I am queer. While this is true, because we really do not see any image of beings who are not cis-gendered women birthing, many do not even know that there are transgender men and masculine center genderqueer and nonbinary and beings who get pregnant, birth and have abortions. So while we might see pictures of femme presenting lesbian couples being pregnant, there is a complete lack of visual representation of all the beings who require reproductive health care and are family building using their own uterus and ovaries.

CASSANDRA: “King Yaa is a really amazing birth worker in terms of looking at trans birth, specifically. And I don’t want to take away from women who feel very empowered by having a uterus and identify that for themselves as a woman, but we tend to prescribe what works for us upon other people which is problematic. That’s why in birth rooms you put a sign on the door, and it reads, ‘These are my pronouns,’ and people don’t want to admit that they don’t know. Not knowing and being wrong are two things humans run from. And if you’re in that space, accountability is hard to access in terms of the way you interact with others. And I think there’s a little bit of a willful, cis, guilty thing that’s happening which needs to be disposed of in order to make that shift because there are so many queer families who have babies, so we must know. Am I being clear? Because then it’s like, ‘Oh fuck, I have to do MORE work?!’ I have to do work and take accountability every day because I am a cis woman. We have people who want to hide away because they’re pregnant and could very well face criticism and why? No one should have to endure that. This feels like an empowering moment for us, whether we identify as a woman with a uterus or not. And the way that we define our births for ourselves should be upheld, honoured and treated like, ‘That’s legitimate.'”

 

LELU SAMMY: Share a personal message that IBPOC LGBTQ folx need to hear today, not specific to birth work.

CASSANDRA: You are enough. All of it is perfect and good. Your choices are legitimate. Your feelings are valid. You deserve to ask for what you need, but also what you want. I realize that we all need to hear it, especially when I have clients who are older than me and I find that they still need to hear it. I’m reminded that there’s no such thing as growing up into an adult. You just happen to be physically changing, but still the same root on the inside. I need to hear that too.

LELU: When did you know exactly that being a doula was your life’s mission? Can you recall the moments that revealed to you your purpose as well as the personal lessons you’ve collected from doula-hood?

CASSANDRA: I think that’s such an interesting question to ask me right now because I’m starting to really embrace that there are multiple life purposes that feed into each other. Being a doula is now feeding another purpose that I feel is it for me and that’s Ocama Collective which is a whole other thing. But I think that the real moment probably happened this year [2020] when I had someone call me back to be apart of their labour again. They had gone through a loss the first time; one of the things a lot of people don’t realize is that, you don’t necessarily always go home with the baby, because with birth, you’re at the transition space of life and death. So, after birthing their second baby, the moment happened just recently when I started visiting them for their post-partum care, and we were talking about their birthing experiences. And she said, “There’s something about you that makes it feel like everything is going to be okay.” And I think that’s what I needed more than anything else. I realized that, if I make people feel better, I need to hear them say that and accept it. These are a lot of earth teachings. Being a fire sign and having earth in a lot of my placements, I hunted for security and grounding my entire life. And I remember having an elder tell me, “If you just have a baby, you’ll learn the same thing you’re learning in birth work,” which is true. But maybe, the parent that I am going to be are to the individuals in this society that’s been ravaged by colonialism. We have almost lost the ability to receive care from family like we would have done in other parts of the world. It’s not something that just people from the African diaspora know how to do – no, all over the world communities have always taken care of their parents and each other. It was a collective, community effort. We don’t honour that here. Individualism, capitalism and colonialism are strong here and so, that’s where doula-hood has become a stand apart career because we can’t get this care from our families. And if you’re talking about trans folx, so many of us are like, ‘Biological families? What does that even mean?’ And those are the pieces where I see it as being my purpose. I wish I could say that it was this divine moment when I had to deliver a baby that came too quickly, but it’s not necessarily those moments inside of themselves until I’m sitting and reflecting on them afterwards. That’s when it hits. 

LELU: Tell us more about Ocama Collective?

CASSANDRA: Ocama is a space for folks who identify as Black, indigenous, people of colour, people who identify as racialized and are pregnant or postpartum. This space is for anyone seeking support with moving through abortion or around the aftermath of – as I like to call it – ‘self-determined termination’, because there’s a lot attached to the word ‘abortion’ and I like the idea of being self-determined because you are making this decision for yourself and your body. Many don’t always get the right support while moving through self-determined termination, especially not with the emotional pieces it comes with. Just because it’s a decision you make does not mean it’s an easy one. This space is for folks looking for anything around reproductive (justice) support, because even if we can’t help directly, we love to give people the resources that can help. We are doulas, lactation consultants and community workers. We offer free care through the generous funding of community. We enjoy working with families in whom someone identifies as white but is from a mixed-race family [if you identify as white and have a IBPOC partner and/or children we are here for you too]. We’ll do light cleaning; we’ll do some of babe’s laundry which is why I say that we’re really a hired best friend. As doulas who are involved in the world of reproduction on the margins, we do need those extra layers of support. And it’s not like I’m ever going to stop being a doula, but I feel like, further along the individualistic standpoint of me learning about grounding, people want this space. And it’s all because of the five people who sat around thinking about it and then taking incremental steps to make it happen. We’re officially a not-for-profit now, so yeah! It’s cool. I’m terrified. It’s awesome.

LELU: What does being a doula mean to you? There’s no right or wrong answer.

CASSANDRA: There once was a time where I, like a lot of other Black folks that I see moving into this work, came from a saviourship standpoint, and I know that people may hate me saying this, but it’s true. You’re not saving anyone. Yes, we might make someone feel better in a safe space, but we need to approach caregiving work not as if we are the superior ones who are saving them, but with the reality that we are in service to them. And so, being a doula to me means three years of being thrown into a very deep and intimate conversation with water and earth in a very big way, more so than I’ve ever experienced outside of this work. I’m a doula to learn how to be a human with compassion and empathy. *sarcastic air quotations* ‘I want to change the world and -‘ of course that’s fair, of course, you want to change the outcomes for people in your community. But if you’re good at your job then changing the outcomes for people will be an automatic result of your work. Again, that’s just my opinion. I know some people may be looking for a political response. I don’t have that for you.

LELU: No, I’m looking for what’s on your heart. I want the real Cass.

CASSANDRA: This is my deepest truth; the truth truth. Thank you for accepting it.

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