Story by NyShayla Williams
As told to Diana Whitney
Before I became a birth doula, I worked as a middle school teacher. I’m a queer woman, and I saw that my students who identified as part of the LGTBQ community didn’t necessarily have adults they could trust or turn to for support. So when I decided to leave the classroom and become a doula, that stayed with me. There are people in the world who don’t have access to the support they need, and I wanted to offer that.
When I discovered Rainbow Doula DC, it seemed like a good fit for me, a place where I could be expressive and be myself. Traditional doula training doesn’t always include gender-inclusive language or acknowledge LGBTQ families. Before joining Rainbow Doula DC, I’d shadowed other doulas and noticed that they might not be able to facilitate a safe space or advocate for a client who is queer.
One of the biggest things I love about being a birth doula is the ability to empower my clients — before, after and during childbirth.
I trained with a doula agency in Brooklyn, NY, where there’s an incredibly high maternal mortality rate. Because of that experience, I lean toward natural, holistic practices that I can embed in any way with my clients. Depending on what works for them, I might use different essential oils and affirmations. I love to decorate the birthing room, creating a space that feels safe and right.
Within the Black community here in DC, I haven’t seen many Black queer doulas. The maternal mortality crisis is also huge here, and I take time to educate my clients as much as I can. I build a strong relationship with them so that when we’re in the hospital — if they choose a hospital birth — we can be in sync and have a family-oriented groove going on.
If there’s a partner present, I make sure that partner is as involved as they’re comfortable being, during the birth in particular. I’ve learned that many partners aren’t included because no one is really seeing them — often, the providers just see the person who is carrying.
So I’ll suggest, “Hey, do you want to try this comfort measure with your partner?” It could be massage, a hot shower, different positioning or deep stretching to open up the pelvis. I want to empower both people to be a part of the birthing process.
I encourage expecting parents to labor at home as long as they can. Many bodies get tense when they get to the hospital, because it’s not the most comfortable environment. If my clients want a natural birth, I have many tools in my toolbox we can use — yoga balls, peanut balls, moving around as much as possible. Using a rebozo (a traditional Mexican cloth) during labor for pain relief is really effective.
Advocating for my clients is one of the most important things I do, especially in a hospital setting. I talk to the nurses, make sure they’re not slamming the door when they’re coming in and out, for example, which might be triggering for someone having intense contractions. I’m constantly supporting the birthing person, so they’re getting everything they want and need.
I’ve had clients who’ve had a previous birth without a doula, and then they worked with me and could tell the difference. They felt capable of doing this powerful thing, because someone was telling them that they could. I use a trauma-informed approach and talk with my clients about loss. Everyone comes in with their own experience. People may be holding trauma they don’t feel comfortable sharing with their families. When a doula acknowledges that loss — whether it’s grief, abuse, a car accident, or another trauma — they feel even more supported.
Especially in the hospital, providers might not have a queer-friendly manner. I watched one doctor walk into the birthing room and immediately say, “Oh, where’s the husband?”
The other partner was literally standing there, wiping her partner’s face. Luckily my clients found it to be humorous. They were gracious and willing to educate the doctor in the moment, which I found so powerful and generous. As a doula, I can be a leveling agent. I talked to my clients about that interaction, asking if there was anything I could do to support them and unpack it afterward.
Other doulas describe similar experiences dealing with bias. Some providers may never have seen a same-sex couple coming in or had a patient who uses alternate pronouns. Once I pulled the nurse to the side and said, “Hey, my client uses they/them pronouns.”
Right away, she said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” She just didn’t realize. Sometimes you have to give grace to people and teach them.
When I was a teacher, one of the best parts was being of service to the community.
I’m also a jewelry designer, and, to give back, I donate 15% of my profits to Mama Magic DC, which provides financial assistance to people of color. There are so many Black womxn who have poor experiences in the hospital. I know that doula access isn’t possible for many womxn of color, and I want to shift that as much as I can, because people who use doulas report lower stress during labor and higher satisfaction with their overall birth experience.
The maternal mortality crisis among Black working folks is insane. Across the country, Black womxn are dying at three times the rate of white womxn from birth-related deaths. And the statistics worsen with age: Black womxn over 30 are four to five times more likely to die in childbirth. I used to be afraid to have children myself because of this. But the more I learn about doula-assisted births, the more confident I feel about taking that step when I’m ready.
Being a doula is more than just physical work, it’s heart work. Birth is such a beautiful experience. When I get the call, the thrill is so fresh for me, every single time.
NyShayla Williams’ life’s work is to unlock the magic in everyone. She is a Mama Glow trained birth doula and joins Rainbow Doula DC on the journey of supporting all birthing people. NyShayla also owns and operates Abcrete & Co, a company whose mission is lowering the maternal mortality rate of Black womxn in DC. https://www.rainbowdouladc.com