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Body, Mind & Pleasure

Having A Baby in Pandemic Times

Photo by Unuk Studio, Stocksy.

Oh, baby, this is the trauma of bringing a new life into this world during a pandemic:

  • People are having babies virtually alone, with hospitals severely restricting support to one person or none.
  • Babies needing testing or treatment are being whisked away to Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU), with contact to the mother limited (some to just 15 minutes a day, making it nearly impossible to breastfeed and bond).
  • People are being sent home as little as two hours after the birth, putting enormous stress on parents.
  • One hospital tried to mandate epidurals until people protested the ethics of forcing narcotics on all birthers.
  • People are being stripped of the right to a home birth in jurisdictions that regulate them, citing a lack of PPE for midwives.
  • Birthing policies are changing by the week and differ between regions in a country and even between hospitals in the same city.

During such a scary and chaotic time, birthers need doulas (personal birth support workers) more than ever to provide psychological, emotional support, education on the changing process, evidence-based information on COVID-19 impacts, and advocacy and understanding of their rights to informed consent—and their right to say no.

“No is a complete sentence,” says Natasha Marchand.

So is, “Fuck, no,” if you need it, offers Bianca Sprague.

Co-Founder, Bianca Spragge

The two co-founded Bebo Mia Inc. 13 years ago with a mission to connect women* with their “intrinsic value and power” and change the way we give birth. They do so by providing international online training and certification for personal birth and fertility support workers. Their reach and global impact is impressive, having trained 2,700 people in 31 countries, with 500 taking courses with them each year.

It’s not the least bit surprising to them that doulas—at this moment of critical need—are being excluded from hospitals “pretty universally” around the world, with the medical establishment using the pandemic to double down on their control over the birthing space. North America has largely dismissed the World Health Organization’s call for doulas to be considered essential workers.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” says Sprague. “This was happening before [COVID-19] . . . telling people not to hire doulas. The reason? We give people back their voice in the birth space.”

Go Online or Stay Home

Luckily, the company had the foresight to move online in 2014, which has enabled them to empower their international graduates in moving their practices online. Doulas are now texting and video conferencing through every stage, from prenatal education to appointments through birth and post-natal support. “So things have changed,” says Marchand, “but we are still here to support people and it’s always important, but so much more important at this time.”

Natasha Marchand, Co-founder

Ironically, the company faced incredible flack for being the first doula education company to move online seven years ago. Nearly everyone told them they couldn’t teach the emotional skills or build community or provide proper support. Says Marchand: “We became really creative in how we would move online and still give people the personal touch that’s so important.” The entire team is available to take calls nearly 24/7 and checks in constantly through texts and video, which helps replace one-on-one talks over coffee. “Our community is huge and beautiful and everyone loves each other, and everyone told us we couldn’t do it, well, until now, when everyone’s trying to move online.”

Sprague contends that “people underestimate how powerful community can be in the virtual space.” In fact, the founders were “overjoyed” to find they could build a stronger community online than a bricks-and-mortar office, which confined their training to their physical location in Toronto. Doulas now “have easier access to each other” around the world, and Bebo Mia has clients taking their courses not just in North America but in Japan, New Zealand, and unlikely places such as Jamaica, Egypt, and Bahrain. Their reach on social and email reaches beyond 35,000 around the world.

Now the company is being recognized as thought leaders during this massive shift online. Next month, the founders will share their insights as Feminists in Residence in LiisBeth’s Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC).

They offer this advice: Look at your business and think about how it goes online. You can’t just translate the whole thing into the digital space. Pivot one part online and do it really well, with a very clear niche and a very clear problem you are trying to solve. Make sure you’re very clearly calling out to the people who you want to be clicking on your business.

“Pick one thing and then slay at it,” says Sprague.

Speak Feminist, Loud and Clear

Moving online has also enabled Bebo Mia to amplify what they proudly describe as their inherently and radically feminist voices and business practices.

When they started out, the co-founders (Sprague is 39, Marchand is 41) said that business coaches’ advice on how to be successful never felt right. “There was always a ‘yuck’ factor,” says Marchand, “until we started listening to ourselves and started noticing forums like the FEC, and we realized there are new ways [of doing business].”

By implementing conscious feminist practices, they removed the hierarchical structure of their company. Their six full-time staff and four contract workers have an equal vote on policy and direction. They believe “money is energy” and keep it in flow by paying fair salaries, generous bonuses, professional development, and ensuring that everything they touch and spend money on is with vendors who share their feminist values.

They introduced “radical” HR policies, with support for individuals, their mental health, and their families equally weighted with keeping the corporation alive. Diversity is top of mind when hiring as is drawing from their pool of graduates. They have granted $50,000 in scholarships over the past three years for students who identify with marginalized communities, and a corporate sponsor, Olivia Scobie, has given seven scholarship positions. They also exclusively hire women*—with the asterisk intentional.

The company’s webpage loudly and proudly embraces a broad definition of women* to include women-identified, femme-presenting, two-spirited, gender queer, trans-inclusive, gender nonconforming, androgynous, agender, intersex, bigender, gender questioning, gender fluid, butch, non-binary, queer positive or any person that would like to be included in this definition. They got flack for that exhaustive list too, most especially from those who wanted to protect the word “women” in reproductive health, fearing that it meant letting go “of this power goddess, women-bring-forth-life thing,” says Sprague. They’re also getting pushback from those who feel that a broad term of women* is not actually inclusive of trans and gender-nonconforming folk.

Photo by AllGo

The company is not only at ease with these challenges, but they also invite it. They check in constantly with the community, says Alana Nugent, the company’s marketing director and Sprague’s spouse. “It’s interesting as we get more language and access to it, there are more folks who say how it doesn’t work for them. It’s a moving target and it comes down to consistently checking in and understanding where people are at and how we can collectively come together under a term that people feel good about,” says Nugent.

Rather than squabbling over language that keeps us divided, they work to reduce exclusionary gendered language and introduce new inclusive terms to the reproductive health space. “Mother” doesn’t quite cut it for gay parents or someone giving up a baby at birth. So, they use an array of terms: birther, pregnant person, gestational parent, surrogate, mapa, papa. “If we are speaking to a mother who wants to be called a mother, we will do so,” says Marchand. “But all genders are represented in this space and many wouldn’t think of themselves as a ‘mother.’”

Change a Business Plan, Change a Life

In addition to offering certification courses for birth, fertility, and postpartum support workers, they also teach skills to run a successful business—and that too is with a feminist lens. They say that everything they do at Bebo Mia is with the intention to smash the kyriarchy and level power structures. All bodies are kept safe. All bodies are represented. Communities speak for themselves—so they ensure speakers on their teaching roster come from diverse communities.

“It all sounds so big,” says Marchand, “which I love. When we started this, it was so individual. It was Bianca and I struggling in this system.” They clawed their way through extreme poverty at startup (zero funding or loans), suffered through nightmare relationships (Marchand with an ex-husband, and Sprague and Nugent with the sperm donor for their daughter), and battled oppression from the medical system, all while raising children. “We did what we needed to do to get out of it. Then we wanted to do that for each individual person,” says Marchand.

Building their company “to do seven figures this year” is clearly satisfying, but they delight in seeing their clients around the world rising and thriving, from putting their passions last to setting up businesses and achieving financial independence. “There’s a ripple effect,” Sprague says about their business this flourishing. “It’s really magical to see the healing and what’s possible.” People help others. They flee abusive relationships. They secure homes and support for their family. Their children see them happy.

Bebo Mia at play. From left to right:  Natasha Marchand, Bianca Sprague, and  Alana Nugent

Says Marchand: “We know that we are birthing in a broken system that is broken on purpose, to keep us broken. So, we are actively hoping that by letting our voices be loud, people will know they have choices, they can make their own decisions, and they can say ‘no’ within the birth space and have the birth that they want. That will have a better outcome health-wise. They will basically have a better start to their life and start as a whole person with autonomy and personal choice and feeling strong. If this parent is strong, then this baby is strong. We’re trying to fix things from the very beginning of life.”

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Feminist Practices

At Home With Your Values

A fourth pig? Photo by Jeff Wasserman

Amid the cookie-cutter suburbs and glassy condos in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), a handful of buildings proudly stand out for Melinda Zytaruk and the passion her company poured into creating them.

There’s the second-storey addition on a downtown family home insulated with straw bales sourced from a southern Ontario farmer and made from the stalks of wheat, which stores more carbon than is required to grow it. In the east end, a basement and kitchen renovation built with concrete containing 60 percent less CO2 emissions than conventional concrete. On the outskirts of the GTA, in Caledon, Ont., an old horse barn turned into a brewery using various recycled materials.

These are all projects completed by Zytaruk and her team at the Ontario-based sustainable construction company, Fourth Pig. “You’ve heard the story of the three little pigs? We’re telling the story of the fourth pig,” says Zytaruk, the company’s general manager who is also a certified builder, registered designer, and environmental expert. The famed children’s tale, she explains, doesn’t actually end with the pigs who built their houses out of straw, sticks, and bricks. There was another pig who proposed they work together, combine all their materials and concepts, and create a healthier more environmentally sustainable house. That’s what the Fourth Pig is all about: building new possibilities.

Melida Zytaruk, Co-Owner and General Manager, Fourth Pig

Zytaruk and Glen Byrom (who are married) along with Matthew Adams and Sally Miller (also spouses) formed Fourth Pig back in 2007 after realizing how few green construction companies there were in Canada even though, according to recent data, residential, commercial, and industrial buildings accounted for 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Adams, who is now the director of operations and education, referred to conventional buildings as a “climate change catastrophe” and that Canada needed significant change in the construction industry to meet reduction targets.

Fourth Pig set out to be part of that change, promoting sustainable construction practices by hosting talks on green building and hands-on skill-building workshops, and by creating greener, cleaner, and healthier buildings in communities in the GTA, the Golden Horseshoe, and Muskoka areas of Ontario.

Says Adams: “Sustainable building means a cleaner environment, more efficient energy generation and use, more effective use of building materials, and healthier living spaces.” For instance, traditional building materials release high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have been linked to headaches and skin irritations. Fourth Pig uses eco-friendly adhesives with zero VOCs. Constructing an eco-friendly building doesn’t necessarily cost more than conventional structures, but going “green” typically lowers operational costs, such as energy usage. “The result is buildings that are good for the planet and good for your health,” says Adams.

But Fourth Pig’s goal wasn’t just to use healthier materials and reduce a project’s carbon footprint. Committing to building sustainably required rethinking how people work within the business, explains Zytaruk. “Can you protect the environment and still exploit people? Is that even compatible?” Short answer: No. That’s why the founders set up their business as a non-profit worker co-operative, to ensure all worker-owners participate equally in the decision-making and direction of the company.

At the time, the business structure was not well understood by financial institutions, so rather than loans, the founders sought private investment to start their business. Says Adams, “Any startup is going to face strong scrutiny from a lending agent so at that time being a non-profit worker co-op (very rare) was one more challenge.” He adds that they have since received support from government and not-for-profit grants and wage subsidy youth placement programs.

Employees can become worker-owners after completing two years and 2,500 hours with the company. Applicants must also comply with the International Co-operative Alliance’s values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. Once approved, all worker-owners have an equal role in governing Fourth Pig. Currently, all six current worker-owners sit on the board, which meets monthly. Whether a lead carpenter or an operations manager, each has an equal vote, says Zytaruk.

She admits that involving so many people in decision-making can mean there is “more process” than in a conventional business. However, she feels that approaching challenges as a team is why co-ops are so resilient in times of crisis—such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In accordance with public health guidelines, Fourth Pig ceased on-site work on April 9 until at least May 4. As with most businesses, that has meant lost income. But in the true spirit of a co-op, Zytaruk says, “The whole company is involved in discussions about how we get through this, whether they’re a carpenter or manager.”

The worker co-op structure and the company’s commitment to sustainability and equality attracted M-C MacPhee to join the company last year. She remembers reading through the company’s policies and procedures and being impressed by its carefully considered zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence and harassment such as bullying or jokes that are degrading or offensive. MacPhee has worked in the industry “on and off” for a decade, usually for larger companies where women comprised a miniscule minority of the labour force. Though she can hold her own, the 39-year-old said she actively sought to work apart from the rest of the crew at job sites, to avoid their sexist banter. That type of behaviour is not tolerated at Fourth Pig.

“There’s just a commitment at the Pig to always do better, to talk things out, to make sure communication is really clear, everyone’s really comfortable, everything is going well, and people are having a really good work experience day to day,” says MacPhee.

That commitment extends to Fourth Pig’s “fairly flat” pay structure. According to Zytaruk, entry-level positions earn a living wage, rather than minimum wage, and managerial positions, while still competitive, are not as high-paying as in other companies. “Nobody earns more than two and a half times what the lowest wage person would be.”

Beyond creating a more equitable structure internally, Fourth Pig also prioritizes education—another reason the company appealed to MacPhee, who teaches construction at Georgian College. Fourth Pig provides training opportunities for employees and hosts hands-on presentations for the public on worker co-ops and sustainable construction as well as raising awareness with public policy-makers on the importance of sustainable building.

MacPhee, who joined as a carpenter, is now a site supervisor. She says there’s a strong team commitment to the company’s mission to build greener and also to “help each other learn in whatever capacity we can.”

That goes for the founding owners, according to Zytaruk, who says the company is constantly striving to improve, utilizing new tools and approaches to creating healthier buildings, communities, and work teams. “We’re always trying to learn and do better every day,” says Zytaruk.

Since all companies are mandated to have policies on workplace violence and harassment, MacPhee wanted to emphasize that what stood out to her was that this one seemed to be thoughtfully written compared to others that seem cookie-cutter and just there to fulfill requirements

This was a specific company so don’t want to generalize