Fam­ily man

The prov­ince’s only male doula de­liv­ers a strong les­son on what pos­i­tive mas­culin­ity should look like.


Kelly Car­ring­ton’s black dread­locks cur­tain over big, broad shoul­ders. They make the 38-year-old look younger than his age, but his beard gives him away. Curly white hairs sprout like weeds along his jaw­line. He’s built like a Ford—tough. He’s loud. He’s sar­cas­tic. If he didn’t quit foot­ball after high school, Car­ring­ton says he would have gone pro. In­stead he fell in love and mar­ried his high-school sweet­heart. Now he’s got a mort­gage to pay and three boys to feed.

He usu­ally works at night, which gives him time in the day to gar­den, ren­o­vate his base­ment and have a cou­ple of beers with his neigh­bours on the dirt roads of the sleepy, coastal com­mu­nity of Prospect.

You could say he’s a typ­i­cal man’s man. Ex­cept he’s also a lady’s man—a preg­nant lady’s man.

There are many un­usual things that a man might say to his wife: “I don’t love you anymore”; “I cheated on you”; “I’m liv­ing a dou­ble life.” But in all of Nova Sco­tia, per­haps all of Canada, Heather Car­ring­ton might be the only woman whose man came home and said, “I think I want to be a doula.”

The baby is nurs­ing silently on his mother’s breast. It’s a lazy Fri­day morn­ing and Sara John­ston is rev­el­ling in it. She sits in a red, faux-leather chair in her liv­ing room, cradling her six-day-old child. She’s tired, but her skin glows. The house smells of pep­per­mint and freshly brewed cof­fee. The room is quiet. Knock. Knock. Knock. Car­ring­ton doesn’t wait for any­one to greet him at the John­stons’ front door. He walks right in like he’s fam­ily. He prac­ti­cally is.

This is Car­ring­ton’s sec­ond post-par­tum checkup since John­ston gave birth, and one of many vis­its he’s made since 2014. Since re­ceiv­ing a Doulas of North Amer­ica (DONA In­ter­na­tional) cer­tifi­cate, Car­ring­ton has helped 28 cou­ples move into par­ent­hood.

He’s a rar­ity. A male Cana­dian doula, Car­ring­ton is one of only a few men working in a field that, for mil­len­nia, has been dom­i­nated by women. But he’s good at what he does, his clients say. So who cares what his gen­der is?

Stand­ing in front of her, Car­ring­ton peers over John­ston’s folded arms to get a closer look. The boy’s tiny bot­tom lip is curled into his mouth—not a com­fort­able po­si­tion for a nurs­ing baby. Tak­ing his in­dex fin­ger, Car­ring­ton gen­tly pries the baby’s lip out and onto John­ston’s nip­ple.

Like most first-time par­ents, when John­ston and her hus­band Scott found out they were preg­nant they were a lit­tle un­sure of what to ex­pect. Their mid­wife, Robyn Ber­man, rec­om­mended they hire a doula, and she knew the right man for the job.

Be­fore sit­ting down, Car­ring­ton un­wraps brown paper from a rec­tan­gu­lar pack­age he has in his pocket. In­side are home­made choco­late bars, made with his se­cret fam­ily recipe. He hands John­ston a piece, and one to her mother, Sandy, be­fore putting the rest in their fridge.

Then Car­ring­ton pulls out his note­book, takes a pen out of his dread­locks and lis­tens in­tently as John­ston re­counts the lat­est news.

“His poop is yel­low,” she says. “Grandma checked this morn­ing.”

“Yes!” says Car­ring­ton, pump­ing his fist in the air. “That’s good, right?” “Hells yes, that’s good,” he says, laugh­ing loudly. The doula has cause to cel­e­brate-it had been a rough week for the John­stons and an even rougher de­liv­ery day.

There is some­thing pro­found about hu­man touch. The lay­ing of one’s hands on an­other per­son is a pow­er­ful force. It can be won­der­ful or dan­ger­ous, life-af­firm­ing or painful. In rare cases, it can even be heal­ing.

Car­ring­ton’s clients say the man is a healer— that he’s one of those peo­ple who has a spe­cial wis­dom in his hands. He wouldn’t use the word “healer” him­self. Car­ring­ton couldn’t be both­ered with such “hip­pie-dippy bull­shit.”

The way he sees it, his hands are tools. They’re an ex­ten­sion of him­self to get the job done, just like the screw­drivers and ham­mers in his wood­shop. It’s a qual­ity that’s taken him 17 years as a mas­sage ther­a­pist to hone.

But, be­ing a doula is not just a job. It’s not as sim­ple as yelling “Push!” Some first-time preg­nan­cies are over­due, oth­ers are pre­ma­ture. Some women can squeeze ’em out in four or five hours and some labours go on for days. Be­ing a doula is not a nine-to-five job, and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Car­ring­ton didn’t grow up want­ing this as a ca­reer. He doesn’t know where this passion came from. It just kind of hap­pened.

He grew up in the lit­tle Nova Sco­tian com­mu­nity of Great Vil­lage, on the Fundy coast, west of Truro. One day, when he was 11,

Car­ring­ton’s dad Stephen took him to the Truro YMCA for bas­ket­ball prac­tice. Lit­tle Kelly, wear­ing Brooks bas­ket­ball sneak­ers, squeaked all the way up to the sec­ond floor. When dad and son walked into the gym, they im­me­di­ately saw the tallest girl in the room. She was tow­er­ing above the rest of her team. “You bet­ter be nice to that girl,” his dad said. Kelly looked up at his fa­ther and nod­ded. He says he didn’t re­al­ize un­til later that what his dad was telling him was even though she’s a lit­tle awk­ward-look­ing, that girl must be re­spected and treated kindly. Just be­cause she’s a girl, doesn’t mean she’s weaker or any less smart.

After bas­ket­ball prac­tice, you could of­ten hear the airy, soul­ful voice of Smokey Robin­son com­ing from the Car­ring­tons’ kitchen. Fin­ish­ing up a hot bowl of their step­mom’s goulash, younger brother Chad was known to make a run for the bath­room to avoid wash­ing the dishes.

Un­like his lit­tle brother, Car­ring­ton didn’t mind do­ing the dishes. His dad popped in Mo­town cas­settes, try­ing to mo­ti­vate his sons to help around the house. Some­times, if he was in the right mood, his dad would dance in the mid­dle of the kitchen. He’d pick up dishes from the cast-iron sink, plac­ing the wet ones on the dry­ing rack for the boys to towel dry. “Women’s work” didn’t ex­ist in the Car­ring­ton house. Ev­ery­one had to chip in.

It’s not how most boys are raised. Ac­cord­ing to a study con­ducted on fam­i­lies from 15 coun­tries all over the world, re­searchers in the Jour­nal of Ado­les­cent Health say most par­ents still raise their chil­dren on rigid gen­der norms. This up­bring­ing may carry ad­verse con­se­quences into adult­hood. The 2017 study shows a link be­tween learned gen­der-spe­cific be­hav­iours (like ag­gres­sion and re­pressed vul­ner­a­bil­ity in boys; pas­siv­ity in girls) and an in­creased risk for gen­der-spe­cific men­tal and phys­i­cal health is­sues later in life. The im­pact from those learned gen­der roles is seen in ev­ery­thing from sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted in­fec­tions and al­co­holism to ex­po­sure to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

The Car­ring­ton boys grew up a dif­fer­ent way. They learned to always look out for their fam­ily. That meant cook­ing, clean­ing, working and treat­ing ev­ery­one—es­pe­cially women—with re­spect. To­day, Car­ring­ton thanks his par­ents for rais­ing him to be the nur­tur­ing, re­spect­ful and lov­ing man he is. It’s a les­son the fa­ther of three is im­part­ing to his own sons.

“Al­right, let’s go dudes,” Car­ring­ton says. The dudes fol­low. To­gether the Car­ring­ton men take the stairs down to dad’s wood­shop. It’s a week be­fore Sara John­ston is due, so Car­ring­ton is en­joy­ing a quiet week­end at home.

He woke up ear­lier that morn­ing not know­ing how to keep his boys busy. It was a mild win­ter day, and the snow had turned to rain. Too mis­er­able to go out­side, Car­ring­ton in­stead asked his three sons if they wanted to make sling­shots. Nat­u­rally, they said yes.

He wakes up at 6:45am ev­ery week­day to make his kids’ lunch, takes din­ner out of the freezer and send his boys off to school. He’s home dur­ing the day; a mas­sage ther­a­pist and doula by night. Car­ring­ton cooks and cleans while his wife, who’s a social worker, is away at the of­fice. Satur­days, though, are for the boys. Car­ring­ton’s el­dest and youngest sons run down the stairs into a small, clut­tered room in the base­ment. His mid­dle child is away this week­end vis­it­ing a friend.

The shop smells sharply of hot steel and singed wood. Just about ev­ery sur­face is pow­dered like a fine French pas­try in saw­dust. A dozen wooden ca­noe pad­dles are stored over­head in the ceil­ing rafters. In the cor­ner far­thest from the door rests a 12-foot baby­blue ca­noe on its side, with its bot­tom fac­ing the work­table.

The kids stand in front of a ta­ble vise that’s grip­ping a piece of scrap wood cut into the shape of a Y. Car­ring­ton walks in with two white dust masks and places them on his sons’ faces. He gen­tly pinches the masks over the bridge of their noses and hands each a piece of tat­tered sand­pa­per.

Fresh wood shav­ings cover the floor as the boys chip away at their new wooden weapons.

Car­ring­ton turns on the ra­dio to the lo­cal rock sta­tion and swings open the back door. Just a few me­tres away is Bara­chois Pond. Rain drops can be heard plum­met­ing onto its semi-frozen wa­ters. The Car­ring­tons live a re­mote, yet pic­turesque life; their clos­est neigh­bours are the deer and squir­rels that fre­quent their woodsy back­yard.

Ev­ery now and then, Car­ring­ton takes a sip from a cold, brown beer bottle. His youngest boy, four, who’s wear­ing a plas­tic toy tool belt, takes a match­ing drink of juice from his sippy cup. They look like a cou­ple of con­struc­tion work­ers on break.

After sanding the wooden sling­shots, Car­ring­ton drills two holes in each arm. He threads a bungee chord through and places in the cen­tre a piece of leather he cut from an old work glove. He gives it a fi­nal tug, mak­ing sure the knots tied are big enough to keep from fall­ing out.

He stands in the pour­ing rain with his 11-year-old to test the fin­ished sling­shot. Nei­ther wears a jacket. Nei­ther seems to care. All that mat­ters is whether this sling­shot works.

On a deeper level, all that truly mat­ters to Car­ring­ton is spending time with his kids. Whether it’s build­ing sling­shots, bak­ing banana bread or watch­ing a Pa­tri­ots game, the proud fa­ther just wants to hang out with his three en­er­getic, funny and smart boys.

It’s some­thing more dads wish they could do.

A 2017 study pub­lished by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found 52 per­cent of Amer­i­can fa­thers find it dif­fi­cult to bal­ance work and fam­ily life. Nearly half of them said they’d pre­fer to stay at home with their kids.

The way Car­ring­ton sees it, no­body gets to the end of their life wish­ing they spent more time working.

“If any­thing,” he says, “they wish they spent more time with their fam­ily. Be­cause fam­ily is ev­ery­thing.”

The doula is fam­ily man through and through—not just for his, but all fam­i­lies. He’s made it his busi­ness to en­sure the par­ents and baby are cared for, es­pe­cially dur­ing those first in­ti­mate and fleet­ing mo­ments of life.

John­ston woke up with an un­com­fort­able pain in her lower back. It was 5am on a Fri­day; nearly a week after her due date. The night be­fore she had gone out for sup­per, en­joy­ing a warm bowl of seafood chow­der, be­fore head­ing back home to sleep. She knew go­ing to bed that night she needed to be well­rested. She was three cen­time­tres di­lated and hours away from de­liv­er­ing a baby.

At 5:30, she woke up her hus­band and called the doula.

Car­ring­ton ar­rived at the John­stons’ home in Birken­stock san­dals-a pair of shoes he usu­ally re­serves for house­work. The tem­per­a­ture that morn­ing was be­low zero, and he had no socks. At his urg­ing, Sara got on her hands and knees in the back­seat of her black Jeep.

At the IWK, Car­ring­ton dimmed the lights and lit can­dles. Nor­mally John­ston was a tough and de­ter­mined woman, but now she was in ex­treme dis­com­fort. To ease her suf­fer­ing, Car­ring­ton helped her into a tub and brought both hands to the small of her back. He be­gan knead­ing her sore mus­cles the way a baker would stretch out soft, bil­lowy dough. For half a sec­ond, she felt re­lief.

By 11:42am she was four cen­time­tres di­lated; not far from where she started the night be­fore. Some­thing wasn’t right.

Two weeks ear­lier, Car­ring­ton had de­vised the John­stons’ birth plan to be as “low-in­ter­ven­tion” as pos­si­ble. That meant hav­ing the free­dom to move about the de­liv­ery room, labour in a tub or forego an epidu­ral.

Car­ring­ton’s job is to make sure labour and de­liv­ery meet the cou­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions. He’s like a wedding plan­ner, but in­stead of cake and wine he works with pla­centa and breast milk. But he’s always pre­pared to scrap the plan if com­pli­ca­tions arise.

After talk­ing with the mid­wife and nurses it be­came ob­vi­ous John­ston would need a Csec­tion. At 4:10pm, her wa­ter fi­nally broke. Her buddy Ron, the anes­the­si­ol­o­gist, gave her an epidu­ral.

“That’s good shit,” John­ston said. Car­ring­ton and hus­band Scott just looked at each other and laughed.

Soon the room was silent. Scott went to get a bite to eat. The nurses left to tend to other pa­tients. John­ston and Car­ring­ton were alone to­gether. She rel­ished in her numb­ness and Car­ring­ton sat down next to her to tell it to her straight. He had been pre­par­ing John­ston for this mo­ment for the last five months.

“You worked hard all day,” he said, “but you haven’t pro­gressed far enough. So there’s some­thing go­ing on with the baby. It’s up to you whether you want to con­tinue.” She nod­ded. She knew. At 12:13am on Satur­day, Edi­son Pe­ter Stephen John­ston was born.

Doulas aren’t a ne­ces­sity, says Car­ring­ton. Cou­ples can eas­ily go through pregnancy and labour on their own. But fam­i­lies that have hired him say he’s been in­dis­pens­able. Car­ring­ton rids his clients of fear and un­cer­tainty the way a stern fa­ther would com­fort his scared child: With rea­son; empathy; courage and a kick in the pants.

Back in the John­stons’ liv­ing room, mom looks ad­mirably at Car­ring­ton, then down at her nurs­ing son. Even though she hoped for a vagi­nal birth, she was nei­ther scared nor dis­ap­pointed to have had a C-sec­tion.

“I would have been a lit­tle more shocked about the C-sec­tion if we didn’t have that con­ver­sa­tion,” she says about Car­ring­ton’s prep work.

With a smile on her face, John­ston ca­resses her son’s soft head.

Car­ring­ton puts his notepad away. Their sec­ond post-par­tum doula ses­sion is just about over. The baby has been nurs­ing for two or three hours now, with a burp­ing be­tween each meal.

Be­fore get­ting up to leave, Car­ring­ton takes out his iPhone and snaps three or four can­did pho­tos of the new fam­ily.

“This is what it’s all about,” he says, point­ing to a pic­ture of Scott hold­ing baby Edi­son in his arms.

“When that cou­ple gets to meet their baby for the first time, that’s my favourite part of the job. I tell dads all the time: ‘If you think you love this woman now, you wait un­til you see her have this baby.’”

The boy is strong; stronger than your typ­i­cal six-day-old. It’s a won­der how an eight­pound, hair­less, tooth­less mir­a­cle of life could give a grown woman so much hell. Scott looks down at his son. He watches Edi­son stretch his long arms to the sky, fur­row his brows and tighten his fists like a boxer.

“Ed­die’s go­ing to be big,” he says. “He’ll take after his doula.”


Car­ring­ton with the John­stons’ baby.


Sarah and Scott John­ston with baby Edi­son.

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