We sat down with doula, Elisa Veenbaas, and chatted about what inspired her to begin her career in birth work at such a young age and what continues to fuel her passion.
“With over 8 years of experience and countless births under my belt, it's safe to say I'm more than just a doula. But rather an official "birth-nerd". Passionate about educating and equipping parents to be, I love what I do!” - Elisa Veenbaas, owner of Sweet Peace Doula
Q: Who is Elisa Veenbaas?
Elisa Veenbaas began her incredible doula career at 19 years old. She felt privileged that her first few clients were incredible young adults who needed additional support. She continued to pursue birth work here and there, until landing in Hawaii, where she attended a 6-month Intro to Midwifery program. This gave her the opportunity to travel to the Philippines in 2017 and volunteer at a birth clinic for two months. She is passionate about mental health and support in the prevention of perinatal mood disorders (PMADs). Her areas of interest and experience are working with clients with previous trauma or birth trauma, breastfeeding support, emotional support, and mental health education.
Q: What inspired Elisa to start a career as a doula?
I’m not gonna lie. I was without a job, still living at home and had just graduated high school. All my friends were at university and that just didn’t feel like the path for me. So like every other 19-year-old, I was binge-watching tv. I came across this show called Call the Midwife and it was everything that I wanted! It was 1940s fashion and romance, but it was also this journey of someone intimately going into people's homes, checking in on how they were, and helping to deliver their babies. And I remember having a conversation with my mom and being like, ‘Mom, I want to do that, I want to be a midwife.’
Birth work is this beautiful marriage between relational work and medicine. I had been sneaking my dad's nursing textbooks from when he had been in college and pouring over them in high school. And I knew I had this fascination for medicine or nursing but it just wasn't the right puzzle piece. So when I found doula work, it was like this instant ‘Aha’ moment because doula work is both the understanding of the human body and how labour and delivery work. But ultimately how a physical experience impacts our mental and emotional health, and thereafter.
Q: How did working in Hawaii and the Philippines impact your view of care?
I studied Midwifery in Hawaiian and I helped deliver babies in the Philippines and ultimately that was because I would love one day to be a midwife. The program itself was really unique because the program director was an active working midwife and pulled colleagues in to teach us. We were taught by real nurses, educators, doulas, and midwives, plus we were able to do hands-on practice. Because birth work is so unique, you're not going to be able to figure it out just by reading a book, you have to kind of get into the mess of it. Studying in Hawaii gave me ultimately the opportunity to go to the Philippines and I knew at that point that birth work was definitely for me.
I flew to the Philippines and I was a student at a clinic where we had women coming and going every day. The thing that I took away from the Philippines is quite simple: women are powerful. Birthing people are powerful because we had a very simple setup, just a tiny cart of all of our tools, birthing rooms were really small and women would come, they would labour, we would deliver their babies, and maybe there would be a hospital transfer here and there.
It wasn't until I came back to Canada and did my first birth as a doula here, that I had reverse culture shock. It wasn't there that I had the culture shock, it was here because I came into a room full of beeping machines and this big moving bed and all these gadgets. It's this unique juxtaposition that in North America, we have parents struggling with decision fatigue. We have so many options, and ultimately that's why I have a job. I have a job because navigating decision-making at the hospital or at-home birth and leading up to it and even postpartum, that's half of the battle. It’s like, ‘Yeah, what do I want? Do I want an epidural? Do I not want an epidural? How am I going to feel in labour?’. Whereas, in the Philippines, the path was kind of laid out for you. I'll never forget that experience. There's this really beautiful kind of like full circle working with other cultures that's a big part of who I am too, so it was definitely a trip of a lifetime for sure.
‘I realized that at the end of the day, for the most part, birth is pretty normal and simple and women are powerful. They're gonna show up no matter how their birth goes.’ - Elisa V.
Q: How have you seen the care and services you provide evolve and grow? What are your goals?
When I started out, I had never had a baby and had never even been around a labouring person; I had a lot of like older people be like, ‘Are you sure? Do you know what you're getting into?’. I knew that I couldn't truly lament with a labouring woman and I needed to be careful not to say things like, ‘Oh, I know how you're feeling’, because no, I don't, but I'm here.
Ultimately, the way that my care has evolved is through the birth of my son. It was a really pinnacle experience. As a doula, I went in with a lot of confidence, I went in putting my money where my mouth was. I did all the things that I tell my clients to do and I still ended up having a wild ride and an unexpected birth emergency. I prided myself on the fact that I was unbiased and then I experienced birth for myself and I was like, ‘Oh no, you needed to be humbled’.
‘One of the ways that my practice has evolved is that my goal for my client has ultimately changed. I used to be really passionate about the birth outcome, now I'm passionate about the birthing person and their experience – not how their birth goes, not if their birth plan is followed, not if they do a or b or c. My goal is to say, ‘How are you doing along this journey?’. If we don't focus our care on the birthing person and their partner, we are lacking the biggest foundation to set them up to be good parents.’
The birth of my son led me to get further education for problem-solving in the birth room because of the complications I experienced and it changed my birth philosophy. My midwife said something really powerful to me when I was processing that moment. She said, ‘Elisa, birth is beautiful because it's hard. It's not beautiful because you do it at home or you avoided a C-section, or all of these things that society would say. Because once you get into the birth world, there are biases, there are people on either side of the fence’. And she said, ‘Birth is beautiful because it's hard and because you endured it’.
Ultimately, I'm really passionate about working with people who have a pre-existing trauma or birth trauma because I think we forget in our North American society that birth is both an emotional and spiritual experience. It's not just physical and by neglecting that part and, and not really focusing on mental health before we give birth and after, we're seeing a rise in perinatal mental mood disorders. Since COVID, numbers have gone from one in six to one in three. My goal is to have a practice that is mental health-focused first and continue to be involved in my community.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to someone starting out in doula work?
Even though doula work is a solo kind of entrepreneurial experience, you can't do doula work without your community. What I mean by that is that I had never experienced a labouring person and had my first birth coming up. I had someone in my life, who was expecting a baby say, ‘You know what, why don't you come over to my house before I go to the hospital? And you can kind of see what it's like.’ Not gonna lie, totally freaked me out. But I had people come with me along the way and point out different resources. What's hard about doula work is we don't get the in like other health professionals do because they get to go to school and do all these different things.
I would really encourage you to seek excess training outside of just doing a certification. That's a great beginner step, but look into other education to grow in your knowledge and look to your community. Who do you have access to? Who can help you build a website? Who do you have access to that could help you get your name out there? Maybe your mom's aunt is a midwife – give her your business cards. Through people you know, that's how you're gonna figure out how to get your business off the ground. And so, some of my first clients were because someone knew someone who then told them about me.
‘Doula work is not for the faint of heart. Often people get into birth work because there is a sense of calling and so that calling needs to be your drive.’ – Elisa V.
There's a reason why I keep coming back to this year after year, even if I haven't booked a client. I care about what I do. It's a great job to come and go from. But you have to fight for it because it's hard. When I started this eight years ago, and I told people, ‘Hey, I'm gonna be a doula.’, they looked at me like I was helping somebody give birth in their backyard, and it was all hippie and weird. The amount of people I had to give a definition to of what a doula was, it was not really in our culture quite yet. But eight years later, here we are. And I tell people I'm a doula and they're like ‘Oh I was thinking of becoming a doula’. So we're going on an uphill trajectory here.