Tulasi Harrison was only seven years old—still practically a baby herself—when she decided she wanted to become a midwife and help bring new life into the world.
Tulasi grew up in the ISKCON community at Bhaktivedanta Manor in England, daughter of priest and congregational preacher Kripamoya Dasa and gurukula teacher Guru Charana Padma Dasi. Her little brother was fortunate enough to be delivered by a devotee midwife.
Present for the birth, Tulasi watched with fascination as her mother’s friend Ramadevi brought her brother into the world.
“I thought it was just so amazing that someone who was both your friend and a devotee could deliver your baby,” says Tulasi, now twenty-one.
Inspired, Tulasi kept the thought in her mind over the years. She considered other caring jobs such as nurse or teacher, but when she got to University at eighteen, everything fell into place for her to become a midwife.
As soon as she started her course—a three-year Bachelor of Science Degree at London’s City University—she knew it was the right one for her.
“I was so thrilled by it,” she says. “It was exactly the right amount of excitement and variety for me. And working with so many different people, and having to be strong for them, really suited my nature.”
Tulasi was in for a busy, challenging, and rewarding three years. She explains that in the UK, the role of midwife is a very prestigious, well-paid government job. Although capable of doing natural home births, midwives in the UK—unlike those in the US—generally work at hospitals alongside the doctor and are present throughout all births.
“We’re like specialized nurses in the sense that we are autonomous, making our own decisions and prescribing our own medicines, not just following what the doctor says,” she explains. “We educate people about pregnancy and childbirth, and have the power to act as an advocate for the mother if the doctor is approaching the birth in an overly medicalized way that she doesn’t like.”
To learn such a specialized skill, Tulasi spent forty per cent of her time at her University, learning theory and academic knowledge; and sixty per cent at the University College Hospital in the heart of London, getting practical training and experience.
There she delivered four more than the required forty babies, and participated on some level in hundreds more births—at the post natal ward in the delivery suite, at the birthing center, and at special pools for pool births.
“I started off just observing and helping a senior midwife,” Tulasi says. “Then, I put my hands on hers while she was delivering the babies. Finally, as I became more experienced, I started doing the deliveries and all the paperwork afterwards myself.”
According to Tulasi, the job requires a strong stomach—new students have often fainted at the sight of blood—but she thrives in such an environment.
“There were miscarriages, still births, and times when I wasn’t sure if the baby would survive,” she says. “I’ve had to make quick decisions. Once the umbilical
cord had wrapped around a baby’s neck, and it was so tight that her face was white—a very bad sign. I knew that it was dangerous to cut the cord before the baby came out, because she could get stuck inside. So the senior midwife said to me, ‘Are you happy that this baby’s going to come out?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I want to make this decision.’ I cut the cord while she was still inside. And then, thank Krishna, she came out and I rushed her off to the doctors. And she was fine.”
Krishna consciousness helps Tulasi deal with the stress of such situations. When she’s done all she can, and things are out of her control, she understands that it’s all up to Krishna, and prays to Him to help the mother and child.
“Sometimes mothers will say, ‘Wow, you’re so calm. Whenever you come in I just feel peaceful,’” she says. “Others request me specifically, saying, ‘We like the way she is.’”
In helping couples through this often difficult experience in their lives, and providing emotional support for them through all kinds of complications and situations, Tulasi finds that she forms strong bonds with them in short periods of time.
“You have to be strong for both of them, when they’re scared and worried,” she says. “You have to put them at ease, so that they feel completely comfortable with you. You become like their best friend. By the time the birth has happened, they love you so much. And then it’s time to say goodbye. You just have to end the relationship right there. It can be difficult.”
But before the new family goes, Tulasi is always sure to chant the Hare Krishna mantra in the newborn baby’s ear while she’s weighing it or doing some other task.
“I don’t know what kind of life they’re going to have, but I just want them to have heard Krishna’s name, and hopefully they’ll remember it at some point in the future,” she says. “That’s just something I like to pass on to every baby as they embark on the journey of life.”
Sometimes Tulasi will meet the baby and their mother again, and be moved to see someone whose life she has had some impact on.
“Sometimes I’ll bump into a mother with a one-and-a-half-year-old child, or deliver a second child for someone, and they’ll remember me, even after all that time!” she says. “They’ll say, ‘You delivered my baby!’ People say you never forget your midwife. And it’s true!”
Tulasi is popular at the hospital for her caring, bright and happy nature, much of which she attributes to her Krishna conscious upbringing. Sometimes, people sense this and ask her about the sacred beads around her neck, or where she got her unusual name. When she tells them she’s a Hare Krishna, they’re often surprised, because they expect her to have a shaved head, or to be dancing around and banging cymbals together all the time.
“Working as a midwife is an excellent opportunity for me to tell people about Krishna consciousness, and clear up any misconceptions they may have about it,” she says. “I’ve found myself having long conversations with mothers, other midwives, and even with doctors about the philosophy.”
In December 2010, two months after completing her course, Tulasi got a chance to really connect her work to Krishna consciousness by assisting in her first devotee birth at ISKCON’s headquarters in the holy land of Mayapur, India.
“I wanted to take some time out before getting a job, so I went to Mayapur to do my Bhakti-Sastri degree on Srila Prabhupada’s books,” she says. “While there, I discovered that Ramadevi, who first inspired me to be a midwife, is living there and doing midwifery there—and I got the chance to help her with a birth. It was just an amazing experience—it was my first birth since qualifying as a midwife, my first devotee birth, my first birth in a holy place, and my first birth with my original inspiration, Ramadevi.”
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Tulasi with the newborn Malini in Mayapur
For Tulasi, delivering a baby at someone’s house in Mayapur was an entirely new experience. She had never done a home birth before, and the nearest hospital was half an hour away, with a car waiting to rush there in case of complications. What’s more, there was less equipment than was even available at home births back in England. And there were no doctors or senior midwives to help.
“Ramadevi and I were completely on our own, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is so much responsibility—if anything happens to this baby, it’s all my fault,’” Tulasi says. “We had to formulate our plan in case of an emergency, and then just rely on Krishna.”
This faith in the Lord was the one thing everyone had plenty more of in Mayapur than back in England, and it guided them through the task.
“At one point, as we were really struggling, Ramadevi looked up at the couple’s Jagannath Deities,” says Tulasi. “She said, ‘We all have to pray to Lord Baladeva, who is the force of gravity, to help us pull this baby out, just as he once pulled the Yamuna river to Him.’ We all prayed, and immediately, the contractions became stronger, and the baby started coming out. It was amazing.”
At that moment, Tulasi remembered what ISKCON Mayapur’s head priest Jananivasa Dasa had once told Ramadevi: “You have the highest service, because you get to touch the feet of the dhama-vasis [residents of a holy place] before they even touch the ground.”
These words running through her head, Tulasi placed the baby’s feet on her head, and then handed her gently to her mother.
All the while, a recording of Srila Prabhupada singing kirtan played in the background, and everyone present chanted the Holy Names of Krishna. Ramadevi told everyone, “There’s nothing more special than delivering a devotee into this world to the sound of kirtan, with Prabhupada singing, and devotees surrounding them.”
“We all got quite choked up at that,” Tulasi recalls. “It was such a wonderful thought. The birth of a devotee is an addition to our big, worldwide family, and is always such a special, heartfelt moment. And this one certainly was. It was such a celebration! Throughout the whole labor, the father had been cooking a huge feast, and many devotees gathered after the baby had been born and gave her their blessings.”
After spending six months in Mayapur—during which she delivered one more baby—Tulasi has returned to England where she is now applying at various hospitals for a job. She hopes to get employed at Watford General, where her brother and many other devotee babies were born.
In the future, she hopes to return to India to help Ramadevi deliver babies in Mayapur and the surrounding villages. There, she may co-author a book with
samskaras teacher Radha-Sundari Dasi about Vaishnava mothers and their experiences of giving birth and raising their children. She also plans to study Ayurveda, samskaras, and other Vedic sources regarding pregnancy and birth, so that she can provide a more spiritual, holistic alternative to modern advice.
Finally, setting up her own clinic is a long-term future goal for Tulasi.
“I’d like it to be a place where devotees can come and have a more Krishna conscious experience, and feel completely comfortable,” she says. “I’m looking forward to it—this is such a sweet, rewarding service to have.”