Bringing life on Earth.
By Shradha Aswani
When I was invited over to Bumpsy Daisy café on an otherwise uneventful Friday morning, I was expecting neatly-lined tables and coffee. What I walked into instead was a room filled women, surrounded by newborns and toddlers of varying ages. My wonder increased multifold when I discovered that Bumpsy Daisy was in fact a community space built to support new parents and parents-to-be in their childbirth and child-care journey.
This one-of-a-kind parenting café formed the perfect setting for my conversation with Rasee Govindani, a first-generation Thai-Indian and a practicing doula for over 10 years. She tells me how she’d always dreamt of being either a writer or a teacher, so even when the economic crisis in Thailand led her family to migrate back to Pune in India, where she explored the idea of studying medicine and rejected it, she’d never thought that she would make a career out of birth support.
Following her college education, her brief stint as an English teacher, and her many freelance gigs as a writer, she went to the US in 2003, on a cultural exchange programme, where she worked in a summer camp for kids and adults with special needs. This was her first encounter with service.
Serving others was a desire that stayed in her for years after, and this was only cemented after a year-long stretch as a full-time writer with Agoda. While figuring out the best way to answer her calling, Rasee received an email from the Bangkok Network of Women, which had a small pop-up inviting people to come and train as a doula, and support women in birth. “I had no idea what a doula was. I was not sure if I even cared about birth; I was in that phase of life where I felt unproductive, and in limbo, but there was something about that ad that spoke to me,” she says, her eyes wide and excited.
“I thought, ‘this has to be the craziest thing I’ve done so far.’ I entered my first session, which was led by an Australian doula, Denise Love, and there were four women there, out of whom I was the only one who hadn’t had a child. But when I heard Denise talk, I just knew that it was what I wanted to do, and I have not looked back since.”
In a cosy corner of the community space, Rasee opened up about the privilege of supporting families in their parenting journeys, and how South Asian communities take to doulas.
What does a doula really mean? How is it different from a midwife, if at all?
The word doula comes from a Greek word which means servant or maid; but somewhere along the line it has come to mean a knowledgeable professional who supports child-bearers during birth. It is different from a midwife because midwives deliver babies, and they are equivalent to OB-GYNs in the countries where you have them.
I am not a medical professional at all, and we take extra precautions to ensure that all medical questions are directed to the right medical professionals. But I am there to support a family during their pregnancy by answering their questions and helping them prepare for what they want their birthing experience to be. The bulk of what I do is being with them when they go into labour. It is like having a guide or best friend while you are giving birth, whose primary responsibility is to ensure that you have a positive birthing experience, while the doctors take charge of the medical care.
What kind of training did you go through to become a doula?
There is no regulation or formal training that you need to be a practicing doula. The workshops I took with Denise spanned over three months. We spoke about all kinds of things that were birth-related, and while I was learning about supporting parents, I was preparing to move back to the States to get married. I was sure that I wanted to do this professionally, so I figured that it would it be to my benefit to be certified. The largest certifying organisation that certified doulas at that time was DONA International.
The certification required me to attend a workshop, observe child-birth classes, and attend births. The first two were easy, but the third was difficult since as a new doula it is hard for people to trust you with their most intimate experience. I got lucky since I volunteered with a women’s shelter and that is where I got to attend my first ten or so births that led me to be certified as a birth doula.
What steered your move back to Bangkok? How did you find/form the birthing community here?
I used to come to Bangkok every year, and at that time the concept of a doula was non-existent. No one local knew what it meant, but there were a lot of expats and foreigners who were looking for doulas, since this was
essentially a foreign idea. That is when I identified that there was a need for what I did here, and the fact that I was Thai-speaking was also an advantage that I could offer. Moreover, I was 30 at the time, thinking about having a child, and I didn’t want to have it away from my family. Hence, I moved back to Bangkok in April 2011.
I started working as a doula immediately, conceived my child in August of the same year, taught childbirth classes in Bumrungrad International Hospital and attended births all through my pregnancy. I’ve been on my feet as a professional in birth support ever since then.
Like you rightly mentioned, childbirth is one of the most intimate experiences of someone’s life. How does being a part of it, for your clients, fulfil you? How does it alter the birthing experience for your clients?
The doula profession is more known now. There is a lot of evidence now that having continuous support, having someone with you through labour, improves your birth satisfaction. It can have a lot of positive impact
on the mother and the baby, and it reduces the need for medication if you are planning an unmedicated birth.
For me, I’ve always been the kind of person who has a strong stomach for the entire human experience. I am not someone who gets uncomfortable easily. Especially after my encounter with people of special needs, I have become extremely comfortable with taking care of the human body, in its adult shape, so that transition was easy.
What I am aware of though is that I am part of a life-changing moment and that it is a very sacred experience for the ones experiencing it, so I can’t bring my baggage into the birthing room. We call being a doula work of the heart – my job is to love each family through this experience and help them feel safe and confident.
South Asian communities usually have their families closely involved with the birth of a child. How do they respond to the presence of a doula in the process?
Honestly, I’ve made a career out of supporting mostly European and American families. Even today, most of my clients are essentially expats who have moved here for work. What they seek from me then is the support that substitutes the presence of a family, considering they usually have none here in Bangkok. However, over the past few years, I have had quite a few Indian clients.
In South-Asian cultures, the role of the mother’s parents and in-laws comes in before the birth or after the birth. The birth experience itself is still very private in our cultures. It is not shared with anyone, so I am not in the same lane as them.
The natural birth movement is gaining immense popularity, especially in young and aware families. How do you see the community here taking to it?
One of the things that I tell families when I first meet them is that I don’t care how you give birth, I am here for you. The family should make the decision that feels right to them, whether it is an unmedicated birth, or using pain relief or epidurals, or a C-section, which is fairly common in Bangkok.
If you ask me if one way of giving birth is better than another, I would say that the human body knows how to make and birth babies when left alone with no interference. I don’t want to tell people what to do, but it is important to say that the birth process is heavily medicalised all over the world. Traditionally, women used
to give birth amongst other women, and were collectively a part of each other’s experience.
But then over time, when obstetricians came into practice, they started telling women that the sensations that they have during birth are bad. And there is a lot of literature that supports the fact that it was male doctors and OB-GYNs, who when they saw women birthing ‘primitively,’ standing up, sitting down, or on their fours, told them that they should give birth at hospitals, in cleaner and safer ways. That is how we became convinced that medical births are safer births, and giving birth vaginally became almost like a lost art.
It is only of late that there has been science and research to support that interfering with the birthing process increases the risks instead of reducing them. It’s also been proven that for a birthing person, giving birth changes you, and in a good way. So, a lot of people now are choosing to go through the whole birthing experience non-invasively.
What is your take on the birthing process? What would you recommend?
Birth is not something to be scared of. It is important that mothers are not scared into making a decision about how they want to give birth. If a woman does their research, informs herself, and decides that she wants to get an epidural, or a C-section, then that is what we do. Choosing how to give birth is a power that rests with women who are birthing, and I believe in giving it back to them.
If they want a natural birth, then we talk about how we are we going to get through labour – do they like a lot of encouragement, or would they rather be left alone, while knowing that someone is around. Do they like to be distracted, by friends, or music, or anything else? And then we bring the coping style into the birthing experience. We may play music and dance through labour.
Labour is hard work, sure; but people do hard things all the time. People run 42km in a marathon or sit in a chair for 14 hours to get a tattoo. Those are not comfortable experiences, but we go through with them because we know it’s going to be worth it. It’s the same with birth – I would never presume to tell them this, but most families I work with will tell you that it is worth it.
Finally, as a witness to one of the most life-changing experiences in the world, what is the one piece of advice you would like to give to the community, especially young couples who are pregnant or planning a family?
One should own their experience; don’t let the experiences of those around you define your own. Especially in our community, where people feel entitled to the experiences of others, it is important not to let the noise get
to you. Take the time to sit down, read, find out what your feelings are, and then choose what you want for yourself and your baby. You only get to make the decision of your birth experience with each baby once, so make sure you take your time and choose what feels right for you.