The term doula comes from the Greek word doulē, which translates to “female slave.” Ray McAllister, 42, isn’t a slave and he isn’t female. He’s a trailblazer of a sort who received free training at Michigan’s Institute of Somatic Therapy in exchange for creating a version of its program for blind students. McAllister is America’s first blind doula, but he’s hopeful that he won’t be the last.
McAllister’s belief that the future is bright for blind doulas is neither self-serving nor whimsical. Many visually impaired people, including McAllister, find work as massage therapists. Many massage therapists become doulas. McAllister is effectively betting on the transitive property. But creating a professional pipeline takes time and requires convincing other that a decision made for personal reasons will also make sense for others.
For his part, McAllister decided, at the age of 40, to become a doula because he wanted to experience the “miracle of birth.” McAllister didn’t have any kids of his own. Now, two years and six births later, he’s comfortable in a delivery room and eager to convince other members of the blind community to follow his lead. He admits that he’s unlikely to make a career of being a doula, but explained to Fatherly why that doesn’t dissuade him at all.
What were some of the reactions you initially got when you decided to become a doula? Did anyone doubt that a blind man would be useful in that role?
My wife was totally open to the idea. She read about it to me on the internet, and she’s the one that had to get up at 2 a.m. to drive me to my first birth. We support each other. A lot of people, well most people’s attitudes were, ‘Hey that’s a really cool idea… for somebody else.’ There was one woman in the church who was completely livid. I basically said, ‘This is what I decided to do. If you don’t like it, go to hell.’ That has always been my attitude.
Still, it had to be hard, at least at first, to find women to help. How’d you do that?
The hardest thing was finding women who’d let me attend their births. I checked around the area churches and no one would. I got two women agree to a pregnancy massage without any problem, but I couldn’t find anybody who would let me assist in a birth. Then I thought of the homeless shelter.
When I was in massage school, I needed to do some infant massage and had to get a whole bunch of women to do that. I needed to find two more so I called the area’s homeless shelter and set up an infant massage lab. So, I just went to the homeless shelter and said, ‘Look, do you got any women who are ready to have a baby in a couple months?’ I ended up with three births in six weeks.
How did not being able to see change your experience of birth?
I mean, right away, I’ve got that joke about how ‘I’m not peeking.’
That’s a great line, but it does have to make a real difference.
I grew up with eye problems. I have a birth defect known as Peter’s Anomaly. I had my left eye removed when I was 5 and my right eye removed when I was 25. I may have an inside knowledge of pain that’s not exactly the same as labor, but I mean, pain is pain. I think that might give me a certain empathy.
Not everything in life is a matter of being so good that you’re a total master professional at it and make lots of money at it. I never made any money at all being a blind male doula. It’s all just for people that are needy and less fortunate. I usually make the analogy, you know, sometimes you don’t need a concert pianist. Sometimes what you need is someone to play the piano for Sunday School.
That’s very modest.
I believe I’m good, and if someone wants to pay me to do it, I’ll do it. I have what it takes, but sometimes people just need something quite really simple.
What kind of assistance did you need, if any, during the births?
My wife drops me off, kind of orients me to the room, and stays long enough to make sure I’m situated. Once I’m oriented, we don’t need more people in the room.
No guide dog?
No, I don’t have a guide dog. The idea of taking a dog for a walk in the snow just doesn’t appeal to me.
Sight aside, what has being a doula taught you about being a man?
If you want to throw away the stereotypes you have to throw away the stereotypes. Women can be presidents and doctors. Men can be doulas and midwives.
Based on your experience, how important is it for men to be a part of the birth process?
A lot of men aren’t very mature when it comes to female body and reproduction. I wonder how much that is totally men or is that society not exposing men enough to those topics. I am really a strong believer in men being part of birth. And not even necessarily even for their own partners, but I mean, even at a younger age. I love to find a way of getting a kid to participate in a birth somehow without totally ruining the situation. I bet that would cut down on teen pregnancy.
Most people think male involvement is getting the woman pregnant. Hey, that’s the easy part. You know, I mean, anybody can do that, that doesn’t prove anything. That doesn’t prove you’re a man. That just proves you’ve gone through puberty. Anybody can do that. And I think, really, the best thing for a man is to be part of is this.
For more on Ray McAllister visit the National Federation of the Blind.