Meet Taylor. A Doula Canada student and world traveller. She took a moment to answer some questions for us about her volunteer experience with St. Bryce Mission in Costa Rica.
What drove you to wanting to be a volunteer doula overseas?
I feel confident in my knowledge and ability to work as a doula for the common Canadian mother. But I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do more and be more. Working with this significantly marginalized, secluded, indigenous population of Costa Rica was attractive to me because the need for support was so high. I think I have grown in my skill set and my knowledge substantially!
Where did you go? What were your responsibilities?
I worked and lived at the Casa San Francisco located in the small town of Turrialba, Costa Rica. Casa San Francisco is a maternity Centre run by a missionary organizations called St Bryce. The centre works exclusively with the indigenous Cabecar women pre and post-natally. These native women live a very secluded lifestyle in the mountains and cloud forests. The hospital by law requires them to birth in a public hospital for their own safety. Before this centre existed when labour began the women would hike down the mountains for sometimes days to get to the hospitals. Many moms and babies wouldn't survive the harsh conditions if their travels. Other mothers would survive the trip to the hospital and would be sent away for not being dilated enough. Forcing them to wait on the streets until they could be accepted. This centre was built to give the moms a place to live at 8+ months and postpartum. They have reduced the mortality of the Indigenous babies by 40% in 5 short years.
My responsibilities included everything from cooking, cleaning, prenatal education, labour & birth Doula support, lactation education/support and any other gaps I could fill at the time. I took an extra initiative to help design and implement a laboring room out of a vacant space in the centre. Further, I developed better living conditions for volunteers and helped build an orientation package for doulas to come in the future. Therefore making their entrance to the centre more comfortable and smooth. I implemented positive activities for the mothers and younger children to participate in. Some of these included therapeutic art activities and self-care workshops. Because the centre had just opened and I was the first doula at the organization for a long period of time. My feedback and ideas were put into place with respect from others within the organization. I felt like I truly made a difference.
What did you find the most difficult?
Being completely immersed not only in Costa Rican culture, but a very secluded indigenous culture was hard to say in the least. The first week i felt complete culture shock. I'm a very high maintenance person, and I wanted to challenge myself....and i was. It was difficult to get used to the cold showers, simple food, traditions, values and most significantly, the languages. I found myself frustrated often at first with the language barrier. And even once I began to better understand and communicate with Spanish. The barrier with the Cabecar's was still immense. Their language is so unique. The woman in the Cabecar culture are soft spoken and of few words. But I persisted to support them and make myself comfortable. By the time I felt fully accepted and comfortable in the culture it was time to leave. I'll be back...but for longer than 3 weeks next time!
What was the most inspiring?
The strength of these women and children. Many have faced adversities beyond my comprehension. Abuse, neglect, poor living conditions etc. Yet they all were so positive about their pregnancy and births. Further, their acceptance of their bodies was amazing. Their lack of exposure to body shaming and western media was so obvious in their everyday mannerisms and daily routines. They were themselves, with no shame. Breastfeeding anywhere anytime..even on a busy hospital or bus. Not once did they appear uncomfortable with who they are and what their feminine bodies are meant to do. This comfortability is something I hope to see many women achieve one day..including myself.
How would you say this experience has changed your perspective on birth?
Almost every birth of these indigenous women is natural. Of the over 1000 deliveries with the support of St Bryce, only 3 have been cesareans. Pain medications are not available at the public hospital. No gas, morphine, or epidural. Doctors aren't present at the births, nurses deliver babies. This means in Turrialba the majority of women here deliver completely naturally. In my education with DTC and Doula communities in general, we talk much about women's ability to birth without interventions. We've all heard something like this before: "Women are made to do this...we've been doing this since the beginning of time without doctors or interventions". I understood this, but to actually be in a culture where natural births are the norm, has made this fact a reality in ways I couldn't comprehend before. As a doula, for my clients who want a natural birth, I can better reinforce this decision knowing this IS a reality for almost all mommies.
What lessons are you taking home with you?
Too many to write! I've grown as a person. I proved to myself and others I could make it through this adventure. Not only did I make it through. I came out stronger than ever. I can't wait to come back. I'm already looking at planning another trip over this upcoming Christmas or next April...or both! The personal lessons are immense, as a social worker and doula I'm taking home better approaches to working with marginalized populations, specifically when there is a language or cultural barrier. I learned the true strength on non-verbal communication and support.
As someone with a high level of education in Canadian Indigenous history, culture, and rights, I enjoyed seeing the commonalities in an indigenous culture from a much different background. Like many native cultures they have been colonized and harmed in the process. They are facing adversities that colonization brought onto them. They are brushed off as insignificant and unable to be changed by the government. They are seen as savages by many...I have seen their true colours. They have passion and love for one another, they are a united community. I loved being a part of the small community of people attempting to improve the Cabecar's quality of life, as opposed to disregarding them as being not worth support.
How will you apply them to life/birthwork going forward?
As I discussed a little bit already, I plan on taking many of my new perspectives on women's ability to birth naturally and implement them into my own doula work. I want to encourage women to birth naturally when that is their goal. I have learned that this is indeed capable for the majority of women aside from the common beliefs in the western medical world. I'll also bring forward my new non-verbal skills and indigenous birth practices to mothers willing to allow me to share them. Anything else you want to share? The information I've gained has been so immense I don't know where to start. I'd encourage anyone with questions about my experience or doulas planning on volunteering with Casa San Francisco: St Bryce to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interested in sharing your thoughts on the Doula Canada page?