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Family man 

Stay-at-home dad, father of three boys and the province’s only male doula, Kelly Carrington is a role model for a new and better masculinity.

click to enlarge LENNY MULLINS
  • Lenny Mullins

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 of 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 6:45 am 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 baby-blue 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 a pond. Raindrops 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 cord 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 5 am 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 well-rested. 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 11:42 am 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 C-section. At 4:10 pm, 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 12:13 am on Saturday, Edison Peter Stephen Johnston was born.

click to enlarge LENNY MULLINS
  • Lenny Mullins

———

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 eight-pound, 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."


Fadila Chater is a journalist and Annapolis Valley native, trying to make a name for herself in this big, bad city. She graduates from the University of King's College Journalism School next month.





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