Tow women seated on light blue couch hold an infant between them

Photography by Brooke Schaal

Gillian Cullen: Making doula services accessible

Cullen’s non-profit agency, Birth Mark, is helping families get the pre- and postpartum care they deserve

Catherine Reid’s baby just wouldn’t stop crying. As a first-time mom, she thought the endless infant screams would make her go crazy. It’s a story many moms can relate to, except maybe for one detail—Reid was only 16 years old and had no one to turn to.

When Reid was pregnant with her fourth child, she reached out to Birth Mark, a non-profit organization that supports at-risk and low-income parents by providing birth education and free doula support.

Gillian Cullen in black sweater with auburn hair holds a small baby to her chest

In addition to providing Reid with support and patient advocacy during her birth, Birth Mark founder Gillian Cullen also helped the North York mom once she got home. “Gillian surprised me, and it really touched my heart,” says Reid. “She asked me what I needed, and she just grabbed a sponge and starting doing dishes. She helped me with the baby and asked if I need to get some rest. I’m dealing with life issues, and it was nice to have a moment to think and breathe. I was able to free my mind while she was there, without any distractions.”

Studies have shown that having a doula present at a birth can reduce the risk of having a Caesarean section, and help patients better manage pain. Plus, “when you have a positive birth experience, bonding with the child just happens,” says Cullen. “When you’re traumatized or stressed, or don’t have the information you need, it affects your relationship with your baby and your mental health.”

Infant lies on white sheets holding the hands of two adults

It’s a scenario with which Cullen can relate all too well. She was a young working mother of three daughters when she left her abusive spouse. “When I fled my relationship, I had nothing. I left with the clothes on my back and my children, and I was scared,” she says. But she rebuilt her life, married again and gave birth to a son. Her experience also drew her to a new career interest in doulas, professionals who provide non-medical pre- and postnatal care to families. After feeling alone and vulnerable during her first three pregnancies, the idea of having a caring person on hand to answer questions and offer gentle coaching was incredibly appealing.

“I thought, Why am I not doing this? Why am I not supporting families?” says Cullen. She quickly completed doula training, registered with the Association of Ontario Doulas and began working for an agency, attending births (she’s clocked in at 100+) and educating parents in all areas of pregnancy, birth and infant care.

While her new career was fulfilling, she often saw postings for pro-bono doula placements with clients who couldn’t afford care. “I heard a lot of ‘There’s no funding for that,’” she says. So when the seed money to start a non-profit birth-education-and-support agency came along, Cullen jumped at her dream scenario. “I’ve always wanted to be involved in something bigger that would help people who couldn’t get the assistance they needed,” she says.

An opening at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto gave Cullen the office space she needed, and Birth Mark was…well…born. Housing a range of social enterprises, the building is “full of organizations that are creating the same sorts of social programs,” says Cullen. “These are the right people and the right community for us.”

Clients are referred to Birth Mark by dozens of community partners, including St. Stephen’s Community House, STOP Community Food Centre (both of which are United Way–funded agencies), Teresa Group and Humewood House. “We work with many different community outreach programs, Toronto Public Health, almost all of the major hospitals, social-service agencies and a few doctors,” says Cullen. Partners identify high-need clients and refer them for doula services, life coaching and postpartum support. This means Birth Mark doesn’t have to ask for income, background or personal details to determine eligibility—which preserves clients’ dignity while offering a low-stress care environment.

Infant stands smiling at the camera between two women who are holding it

Birth Mark’s 15 trained doulas work with at-risk clients across the GTA. They serve families who have limited access and multiple barriers to care, including poverty, violence, homelessness, disability, race, sexual orientation and citizenship status. Doulas work with people at all stages of the parenthood journey, from early pregnancy through about six weeks postpartum, keeping in touch through text, email and phone calls. They answer questions at every stage, attend medical appointments (many other doulas don’t), advocate for parents during the birth and provide support after the birth, like pitching in with household chores or setting up appointments with lactation consultants and other caregivers. Clients can also access donations of diapers, safe bassinets from the Baby Box Co., clothing and equipment, and attend prenatal classes if they like.

“We’re trying to empower families to know they can make decisions—and to make them,” says Cullen. “We give them evidence and information in a way that they can understand, so they can advocate for themselves.”

In future, Cullen and her team are hoping to offer doula training programs and become a self-sustaining charitable organization, with offices in remote areas of Canada where care is currently unavailable. The motivation is simple for Cullen: the work is satisfying, and it’s making a difference in at-risk communities. “It’s the most beautiful thing to go to work every day,” she says, “knowing we’re changing and impacting the lives of future generations.”

Gillian Cullen sits on light blue couch before brick wall

Reid confirms that Birth Mark is making a huge difference to GTA parents. “It’s good to have a support system of women I can just call, who are also mothers themselves. They are able to relate with me,” she says. In fact, Reid’s experience was so positive, her birth doula, Debbie, is now her daughter’s godmother. “My husband said, ‘This is our baby’s godmother.’ He respected the support that she gave us,” she says.

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