When Morgan O'Kane met Domino Kirke in 2007, he was living in a squat on the Lower East Side and had recently lost his best friend to a heroin overdose. A handsome and talented busker, he had caught Domino's eye months before she worked up the courage to approach him. Not surprisingly, Morgan had noticed the head-turning beauty during her frequent trips on the L train and was eager for an introduction. "We knew right away we were meant to have a child together," Kirke said.
Morgan and his banjo can still be spotted on the L train platforms at Bedford Avenue or Union Square, although his performance schedule was modified after he and Domino gave birth to a son, Cassius, two years ago—and his busking hours have been further reduced now that Domino is frequently on call as a birth doula. Doulas provide continuous nonmedical support to mothers who seek an alternative or a supplement to a traditional hospital birth, often working in conjunction with midwives to facilitate the ultimate DIY experience, the home birth. They have become increasingly popular among holistic-minded young mothers in post-gentrification Brooklyn neighborhoods that are coming of age.
As any veteran Williamsburg resident can attest, Park Slope no longer has a monopoly on outer-borough competitive parenting. Clementine Natural Birth and Midwifery recently moved to Williamsburg from Park Slope, and Caribou Baby—a birth education center and "babywearing" boutique—is scheduled to open later this month in Greenpoint. Educated parents breeding the second generation of Brooklyn hipsters are increasingly circumspect about their childbearing options, with mothers taking a more proactive role than a conventional hospital labor and delivery might allow. And those skittish about giving birth in their own bedrooms can still benefit from doulas (like Domino) who are willing to attend hospital births: These doulas will work with a mother to create a "birth plan" and advocate its enforcement on behalf of a woman who may be in a vulnerable state during crucial decision-making stages.
Morgan and Domino arrived to each other by way of starkly different backgrounds: He from humble beginnings in Charlottesville, Virginia; she from a more privileged childhood in London and New York. By all estimates, Domino is a product of the moneyed, art-schooled milieu depicted in the semi-autobiographical film Tiny Furniture, which sketches an angst-driven return to the symbolic womb. Writer/director and star Lena Dunham went to high school with Domino's younger sister Jemima, whose scene-stealing turn as the protagonist's long-lost BFF is backed by a soundtrack featuring Domino's eponymous band. Domino is far more eager to discuss Morgan's burgeoning musical career than her own success in that arena. "Nowadays, Morgan plays enough music for the both of us," she said. "And I get to focus on babies."
O'Kane left home as a teenager and became immersed in the country's loose-knit underground community of freight train jumpers and urban squatters. He traveled throughout the U.S. in this manner from age 16 to 21, setting up temporary camp in Kansas City, Tucson and New Orleans. In Kansas City, he converted an abandoned mansion into an organized squatter colony, where he acted as something of a den father to a co-operative plagued by addiction. In 1998, a squat fire in Tucson claimed several of his friends, and by 1999, when "heroin hit New Orleans like a ton of bricks," he was ready for a change and headed to New York.
"Choosing to stay in that world meant a slow death," he said. But he struggled with the unfamiliar rhythms of stationary life, and went through a period of heavy drinking while working as a decorative painter and taking odd jobs. Eventually, "I decided to see what would happen if I only played music, and now I have two albums... The music has made it possible for me to travel and support the family." In addition to his studio recordings (Nine Lives was released in 2010, and the follow-up is currently in production), Morgan contributes his distinctive Appalachian sound to independent film projects. Along with his bandmate Ezekial Healy, O'Kane composed and performed the score for Low Coal, a documentary investigating the impact of big-profit mining companies on Appalachian communities. Morgan is also featured prominently in Matt Finlin's film Below New York, which celebrates the city's subway musicians.
In recent years, O'Kane and a rotating cast of like-minded musicians have taken the act above ground. "Morgan used to be a wild man," spoon player Liam Crill told me after a well-attended Monday night performance at Pete's Candy Store in late January. "It's great to see him doing so well now."
It is without question that Domino has played an instrumental part in Morgan's success and well-being. Her preternatural gift for ushering in new life has kept her remarkably busy with doula work, despite being a relative newcomer to the field. Domino has four births scheduled for February and several more coming in the spring. Most clients have come to her through referrals, although she cold-approached one expectant mother on the subway ("where I seem to meet everyone," she said).
Domino trained under London King of PushLove and is certified through DONA (Doulas of North America). She is in the process of launching a business collective with two other labor supporters, which she plans to call Carriage House. Although Domino insists that "births don't collide," most doulas work in small groups to back each other up in the event of a scheduling conflict.
Carriage House will offer a menu of services that includes two prenatal visits, uninterrupted support during labor and delivery, and two postnatal visits. During pregnancy, email and phone support is guaranteed 24/7: Domino programs all of her mothers' phone numbers into her Blackberry with a distinct, high-volume, urgent-sounding ring tone.
A collective agenda among doulas is to reduce the number of Cesarean births performed in hospitals. Gynecological obstetricians often prefer to deliver via C-section: They can be scheduled in advance, carry a high price tag, and minimize some of the risks (and liabilities) associated with vaginal births. One way to combat what Kirke describes as "defensive medicine" is to avoid hospitals altogether.
But she knows all too well that this is not always possible. Domino herself attempted a home birth with Cassius, but after three days in labor she suffered a uterine infection, which manifested as a dangerously high fever. Understanding that continuing labor at home would pose too serious a risk to both mother and child, Domino transferred to a hospital where Cassius was delivered via Cesarean.
"The tone of your motherhood after a Cesarean can be different," she explained. "There is this no-man's land between having a baby and bonding with the baby." Although Domino enjoys an untroubled bond with her son today (she continues to breast feed him whenever and wherever the need arises), she suffered crippling postpartum depression for the first year of his life. "I decided to start redeeming all of that by attending births," she said. "I will do anything to stop a woman from going through what I went through."
Domino's doula fee ranges from $1,000-1,500 dollars, which she admits is on the higher end of the typical range. It allows her to offer a sliding scale option for unsupported mothers with limited resources. In May, she will attend the hospital birth of a single mother who is addicted to methadone and can't afford to pay. And during the blizzard this past December, she attended the birth of another single mother whose Brooklyn apartment was too small to safely accommodate the delivery. At the height of the storm, Domino and the midwife relocated her on foot—while she was in active labor—to a friend's apartment, where she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Both mother and son are now staying in Domino's Williamsburg loft until they find a permanent living situation.
"When you are working with someone without a partner, you want to embrace her more. You get more emotionally attached," Domino said. "I will never turn a woman down."
Photography by Sandy Kim
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