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What is a Family-Building Doula?

We sat down with doula, Laine Halpern Zisman, to learn more about her work in family-building in the 2SLGBTQ+ space and how her past experiences have helped her grow both personally and in her career.

Hi, my name is Laine Halpern Zisman. I use She/Her pronouns. I am a full spectrum doula and most of my work is actually in family-building. I am located in Tkaronto, also known as Toronto. This land has been the home and hunting place to many people including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit, Métis, and all peoples recorded and unrecorded, acknowledged and unacknowledged who've cared for and continue to tend to this land. I think when we're talking about birth work and we're talking about care, it's really important that we acknowledge the Indigenous peoples that are continuing to do the important work and that our disproportionately disadvantaged and experience violence and oppression in the areas of care and birth work.

When you are a doula, there are so many different avenues you can take. There are menopause doulas, birth doulas, postpartum doulas, abortion doulas, and more. My work primarily focuses on pre-family building – pre-conception, pre-adoption, and pre-surrogacy. When you're just starting to plan on building your family – that's where my passion lies. I have my own business called Queer Conceptions, but I also work with a few organizations in this space.

  1. Birthmark, which is in Toronto and in Hamilton, provides access to doula care for folks who otherwise wouldn't be able to access it.

  2. Perinatal Wellbeing Ontario provides emotional mental and health support for folks at all stages of their perinatal journeys.

Outside of this work, I have a Ph.D. in theatre and sexual diversity studies and I am a post-doctoral fellow currently doing research at the University of Victoria in the School of Public Health and Social Policy. I have so many different things going on, and I think all of these really inform the doula work that I do and how I interact with folks.

What made you choose doula work as a career?

I think my career is so many things and I think that is the wonderful thing about being a doula. It often comes with other kinds of job descriptions and roles. Before becoming a doula, I was starting to discuss family-building with my wife and there wasn't a lot of information out there on how to navigate the process. I've come to find that that is a common experience for many people and it really is hard to figure out where to start. When you're trying to build your family and you don't have sperm and egg and a uterus readily available, it can be really hard to know the first steps to take and it can feel very lonely.

When I experienced that in my family's journey, the academic in me was like, “I need to learn more. I need more information.” So I began asking questions and started enrolling in training sessions to become certified as a doula – which brought me to where I am now; my knowledge continues to grow and I continue to learn.

You have a Ph.D. in Theatre and Sexual Diversity, do you think that has shaped your doula work?

I think a lot of us have that experience of starting somewhere and ending somewhere totally different. For me, having a background in performance studies and sexual diversity studies really goes along with the work that I do. Performance studies move beyond just thinking about the stage and about analyzing a theatre production; really what we do in performance studies is talk about identity and talk about the performance of everyday life and the performance of gender and identity. Those things inform my doula work because I think constantly about how our communities are shaped by the politics surrounding us, the media surrounding us, our societies, and the cultures that we are exposed to.

When I start working with a client, I try not to make any assumptions about who they are but I do recognize all that they bring into the room. I start with questions like what influences them, what inspires them, what scares them and where they see themselves represented. All of those things are going to influence and inform their own journeys and their expectations. So I do think that my Ph.D. taught me to ask questions and taught me to look beyond the surface of everyone I encounter.

You previously co-edited and published a collection called Queerly Canadian. Did that experience help you in the doula world?

Yeah, I recently published and co-edited a collection called Queerly Canadian and prior to that, I published a collection called Women and Pop Culture in Canada. This may be surprising but those experiences really informed my work as a doula more specifically in Queerly Canadian. We're looking specifically at the landscape in Canada and how queer lives and experiences are influenced by society, politics, and pop culture. There are chapters about family building and the history of family building for 2SLGBTQ+ people, there are chapters about unconventional or non-normative family structures. The content of the book really does relate to the work that I do as a doula and even more broadly. Just this ability to bring together different voices and think about the complexity of queer lives has been really influential in my doula work.

You are working on a book? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

I'm currently working on another collective volume. This one is really exciting because it's bringing together my academic work in equity and inclusion and my work as a doula where I'm working primarily with 2SLGBTQ+ people who are trying to build their families.

This new book, being published by Fernwood Publishing, is specifically on family building for 2SLGBTQ+ people in Canada. There are some new books that are really exciting that have come out recently on LGBTQ conception and family building, but those primarily are made in the States and don't speak to the specific landscape of Canada – which is something that we do need. One of the things that the book does that's different from other books is that instead of just being a how-to, it talks about the intersections of oppression and the intersections of identity that influence our family-building journeys.

I've brought into this book, a bunch of incredible, doulas and social workers, and people working in birth work to talk about those issues from both their own experiences and from their work in this space. I think folks who are looking for gametes, sperm or eggs and are from Indigenous communities or are People of the Global Majority need space to talk about these specific experiences. The people in the book do bring those experiences front-facing and it’s a really exciting thing to be able to access.

If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before you started doing the work, what would it be?

I would tell myself that doula work is about community and that it is not something that you do on your own. I would tell myself that not every doula is the right doula for every client. You're a better doula when you have networks of other doulas and networks of other care practitioners. Having that community and having a network to be able to bring people in and help someone build their perfect team is something that I have learned and I'm so grateful for that.

What’s one thing you want listeners to really take away?

One thing I really want to share is that at the very beginning of your family-building journey, think about your preferences. I think one of the things that doulas can do is help people in identifying what their preferences are at each stage of their journey. We don't always do that at the beginning. We don't always ask ourselves, “What is it that I'm looking for? Where do I want to start? What are the strategies that will help me and my family cope with change?”

In Birthmark’s Seed and Sprout family building group I always joke that we need to “Expect the unexpected”, because so much along this journey is unexpected. You think ‘Okay, that's what is going to happen this month’ and then BOOM! There's a surprise and you need to pivot. So, we have to expect the unexpected, but part of that process is setting up support networks for yourself so that you can find ways to navigate those unexpected things.

Early on in your journey, it is important to consider what your family-building preferences are and what strategies might be useful to support your mental health. If your original preferences can't be met, what is your next step? I think that applies, both to family building and also to other aspects of your pregnancy and postpartum because changes and challenges are going to keep coming up. Obstacles come up during pregnancy and during parenting. I think it's really important for you, your partner, and your family to brainstorm tools and identify strategies that help you all to address the unexpected things that might pop up throughout these journeys.

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