I was secretly overjoyed when Natalya Wheeler, fresh off giving birth to her first child no less than a week prior, agreed to be interviewed for this article. She showed up promptly to our virtual conversation rocking a fresh white sherpa, flawless bronzed face still aglow with those coveted pregnancy hormones that leave your skin naturally slayed to the gods, and single braids stylishly composed in a messy pineapple atop her head that every black mom knows are a vital, post birthing time saver. Natalya’s journey to doula-hood started out like many of our own: working odd jobs in the customer service field for 15 years until she discovered her personal calling for coaching expecting mothers. Natalya retraced her steps from retail, being an exchange student in Spain, working at the CN Tower, to finally landing a job at a spa where she was presented with the bright dawning of her own doula light.
NATALYA WHEELER: “I really got to know and love every single client at that spa, and there was this one specific client who walked in with some news. Right before I tell this story, let me just rewind for a second. I had a conversation with my mom and she randomly said to me, ‘Natalya, I know you don’t want to have children,’ because this was still a prominent thing. My boyfriend and I have been dating for 11 years, so at the six, seven year mark my mom was wondering when it was going to happen, and I just wasn’t interested. My mom asked me, ‘Hey, why are you fearful of having a baby?’ And I said, ‘I’m not necessarily fearful of having the child, I can be a mother, that’s not the problem. I just don’t want to have it myself; I’ll sign up for a surrogate if I have to.’ I just didn’t want to have a baby myself since it was a really big fear of mine. So now this client who I previously mentioned, she walked into the spa one day and said, ‘Natalya, I’m so happy because I quit my job today!’ She was an executive assistant downtown, and I guess she was hating it. And I said, ‘What are you going to do now?’ And she goes, ‘I’m going to become a doula!’ And I was like, ‘What on earth is a doula?’ And to put it shortly she answered, ‘It’s a birthing coach; I help people deliver babies.’ And I said, ‘That’s a job?!’ I was so genuinely curious! And then all those lightbulbs in my head turned on, and I just started deep diving into this rabbit hole of childbirth, midwives and doula research, and I realized that this is a physical aspect of customer service where I can provide knowledge to ease someone’s fears. And if I was going to ease someone’s fears of something that I was terrified of, then that is the job I wanted to do, and it just felt so right! That was four years ago, and I haven’t looked back since. I LOVE what I do! It’s just where I’m supposed to be.”
Natalya’s skillfulness in truly honing her ability to listen to her intuition after a broad history of applying herself to so many other companies’ visions deeply stood out, because we often underestimate how important this step is: giving ourselves yet another chance to rediscover the abundance of purpose that is available to us even after we’re inside adulthood. We went on to discuss how being a doula enabled Natalya to calm her own fears and eventually find peace in her ability to give birth.
NATALYA: “I knew that women are strong, but we really don’t learn much about the physical body during pregnancy in elementary school or high school. Learning all this information just made things easier, as well as being with many of my clients while they were going through their various birthing experiences. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but being that person to be able to calm their fears, and seeing them behave differently when I even approached and entered the room was that little thing that I needed to see in order to believe in myself, and to know that I could do it too.”
In order to help us understand more about the technical services Natalya provides her clients, I asked her to share the roles she plays in her clients’ pregnancies leading up to their births.
NATALYA: “To start off: a doula is a birth worker. The Greek term doula means ‘birth servant’, so having someone to serve you during your birth. If you think about a midwife or an OBGYN, they’re there to make sure that that baby comes out of you alive and well, and that is their primary job. So, I find that a doula is more so a mother to the mother. I am there to hold your hand, guide you, map out what your birth plan is, tell you where things could go awry, but also to get you informationally ready for your big day. Every client that I’ve had has patterns of, ‘I’m terrified; I do not want the pain,’ or, ‘I don’t necessarily have the best relationship with my mother, so I want someone with me, but not necessarily my mom because we butt heads, or she passed away.’ Whatever their circumstances, they want that nurturing, feminine energy present which is very interesting. And the third most common reason for my services is, ‘I had my first baby and it was a disaster,’ or, ‘My first birthing experience was a very traumatic event, and I’m not necessarily fearful, but wanting to have a better experience this time.’ Those are usually my clients in a nutshell. We book that consultation and dive deeper into what exactly it is that they want. Right now I’m currently extending the virtual package, and they can choose the level of support that they’d like to have, mainly for the labour side of things initially and sometimes it moves on to postpartum. The first prenatal appointment is helping you understand what a birth plan is, and the second part gets deeper into postpartum and how your partner and I can help you in your labour and delivery. I find with the second prenatal we get more of that emotional connection, because it’s just that one and then straight to the birth. We are still going to develop a relationship that is intimate, but I find that the second prenatal breaks down a few more barriers, and they get more comfortable with me, so I always love when they choose the second option just to build that relationship. Then I attend births whenever people are comfortable; it’s usually at their house. I get them into a better headspace because if you’re alone, you don’t realize that your breathing is not as controlled as it should be. We create a safe space for that client to make them feel very comfortable and supported, and then we take that safe space from home and bring it to the hospital, or, until the midwives get there for the home birth. Some things I do to create that space are breathing, a little bit of water or tea to give you more energy, we’ll do some essential oils, I might start on a massage, and I’ve braided hair if they just want that softness on their scalp. I have gone for walks at three in the morning with my clients while holding their hand. And going to the hospital with them to create that same atmosphere over there so that they feel as supported as possible even in the hospital’s facility which is very important.’
Our conversation shifts towards our knowledge of birthing complications for Black women in various parts of the world. Canada does not document race-based statistics regarding birthing complications whereas the USA and the UK do. In the United States alone, approximately 700 Black women die from birthing complications per year, and in the UK, one in every four pregnancies end in loss during the carrying period or childbirth. Natalya relayed to me her knowledge of African American women historically being said to have a higher pain tolerance making them automatic guinea pigs for the medical industry when vaginal instruments were being invented and tested on Black women in the 1920s. It brings a small semblance of relief that we can freely discuss collective pain on behalf of the ancestors who were never able to raise their own voices in defense of their bodies. The liberating way in which we conversed on how white supremacy degraded and sabotaged the Black woman’s body over time led us to a place of exploration around our current capacity to safeguard and advocate for our own bodies. I zeroed in on Natalya’s experiences with advocating for her clients and asked her to tell us more about what that might look like.
NATALYA: “So to start off, the hospital atmosphere is totally different from the home environment. I love the home environment because we can do whatever the client feels comfortable with. There tends to be more interventions at hospitals because mama is being constantly monitored which means that she won’t be able to get up and move as she was at home. If I had a client in labour who wanted to get into a tub, knowing the nurse would leave which they do every half hour to go back to the desk and report back, I’d suggest to my client, ‘Do you want to get into the tub like you said? It was part of your birth plan.’ It’s just a matter of advocating because if I wasn’t there, I usually find that nurses can insist on an epidural, because then you’re suddenly calm and sleeping more, and they can do their job without holding your hand because that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to monitor baby and go back to their station and report. So, I think there is a lot of pressure for women to take the epidural so that it’s a quieter room than someone who was going through childbirth without assistance from medication. My clients and I have plan A, B, C, and D, and we’ll try to go for it, but they don’t care about that unfortunately so it’s about using your voice, and reminding the hospital staff, ‘No, I wanted to pull her out. I wanted to delay clamping. I don’t want baby to get erythromycin (liquid that goes into the baby’s eyes post birth).’ I like to remind the husband/partner during our consultation, ‘You are going to be the one who firstly reminds her/them and promotes conversation. I am never going to make the decision; I am just going to remind you.’”
Popular stories around mothers having birthing experiences that they didn’t sign up for or didn’t even feel like they had a say in are heartbreaking to hear and read. I applaud Natalya’s ability to assist mothers and parents during such a vulnerable experience, and to witness her fulfilling her life’s purpose in giving many the births they desire. To this she responds, “Exactly. I love what I do, and it’s so needed but so undervalued because people don’t realize it’s an investment. I mean, you’re paying almost a quarter of the price for newborn photos, so why don’t you invest in a full, well-rounded birthing experience. It’s still one of those works in progress. People are still just finding out about it now. It’s that birthing education that we were never taught because everyone naturally goes to a doctor. It just needs to be talked about more, this whole entire conversation.” Durham Region Doulas covers the Durham region, however, Natalya services many Toronto clients, and has traveled as far as Mississauga and to towns north of Oshawa. She’s thinking of expanding as far as Guelph and Milton with an additional travel fee as there is a need for doulas in those parts. She is very open to going wherever she is needed, and no wonder; the empowering knowledge and support she imparts on her clients is truly an immeasurable gift.