Recently I was asked to doula a fellow doula for her upcoming birth. A close member of her family, who supposedly knows what doulas do, asked, "So Stacie is going to deliver your baby?" This pregnant doula was exasperated by the question, because she has explained many times to her family members (who have been her biggest supporters) what she does when she is hired by families -- and that is always punctuated by, "we don't deliver babies." Erica shines a new light on the answer to this question, and the idea to me is lovely and accurate.
Through almost a decade of discussions with friends and family, this has been the most frequent question asked: what DO doulas do? A loaded one. In the few instances where someone does know the word doula, I typically see generalized notions picked up from media, college, or that hippy-dippy aunt of yours that had her baby at home, such as labor and delivery support, birth assistant, maid, personal assistant, stand-in for unsupportive partners, etc. And while I could speak on the subject for days, I often find myself explaining over and over again how integral a doula can be in any birthing experience from a planned cesarean to an unmedicated home birth, even a high-risk pregnancy and loss of pregnancy. Doulas wear many labels, often times several: birth doula, postpartum doula, antepartum doula, bereavement doula, etc. This led me to find out what the leading experts say about the modern-day doula.
In the fourth edition of The Birth Partner | The Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companions, Penny Simkin states:
"The [birth] doula is on call for you, arrives at your home or the hospital when you need her, and remains with you continuously, with few or no breaks, until after the baby is born. The doula is trained and experienced in providing emotional support, physical comfort, and nonclinical advice. She draws on her knowledge and experience as she reassures, encourages, comforts, and empathizes with the mother."
Ann Douglas, in The Mother of All Pregnancy Books, writes:
"[Postpartum doulas] offer a similar service [as birth doulas] during the postpartum period, providing hands-on assistance to new parents during the first few days or weeks of parenthood. Postpartum doulas are “jill of all trades,” who bring a range of different skills to the table."
The Doula Book, written by Marshall H. Klaus, MD, John H. Kennell, MD, and Phyllis H Klaus, MFT, LMSW, explains:
"…a doula needs specific skills and insights. A successful doula is comfortable with giving of herself and is not afraid to love. She also can enter another’s space and be highly responsive and aware of another’s needs, moods, changes, and unspoken feelings. At the same time, she is able to be flexible in this process, adapting herself to each mother’s needs, and has no need to control or smother."
Clearly, there are a wide-range of definitions available for a doula, and often times doulas vary in what they offer to clients and their families. I’m reminded of a term I learned while watching animated films with my husband and son: Inbetweeners. In animation, these are assistants to the animators that ‘fill in’ drawings around the key frames to maintain smooth evolution from one to another. Just like a doula, they do not control the story line (that’s left to the writers, directors, editors, etc.), rather they assist progression to accomplish the end goal of a successful film. In birth, doulas are the Inbetweeners.
Doulas do the inbetween work – applying counter pressure on mom while she leans on her partner, managing meal prep and household upkeep while mom, dad, and baby adjust to their new life together, offering words of encouragement during a challenging transition. She does not control your birthing experience. You may not see her in birth photos (just like we rarely notice credits for Inbetweeners), but she is there, assisting progression to accomplish the end goal of each mother.
Her face isn’t what you’ll carry with you. A birthing experience void of confusion, desperation, frustration, or regret is the ultimate service of a doula, and this is a passive one. She is dedicated to facilitating an experience as close to the wishes of the mother as situationally possible.
What DO doulas do? Everything inbetween.
Erica Verbeck, born and raised in Southern Indiana, is the owner of Doula the Damn Thing. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication and Culture with studies in Anthropology, Family Studies, and Early Childhood Education from Indiana University.
She values homeopathic restoration of our natural bodies through healthy diet, minimalism (work-in-progress), and unschooling her toddler. She works to balance her traditional upbringing with the ancient methods of our predecessors to enlighten her journey through pregnancy, birth, and motherhood.
When not playing with her young son or discussing birth and babies, Erica enjoys wire-wrapping jewelry and reading the latest research on pregnancy, birth, and parenthood. Through a mother's most intimate and primal journey, she hopes to build a trusting and informed birth experience for all who desire one. You can find her through her Facebook pagedoulathedamnthing.com, or her website, Doula the Damn Thing.
Did you know, those fabulous statistics we read about regarding "continuous one-to-one emotional support provided by...a doula," don't diminish if the person in labor also happens to be a doula? That's right! Even doulas hire other doulas, because we know EVERYONE deserves a doula -- even a doula. Are you tired of the word doula yet? Because it happens to be World Doula Week, and I am pretty positive the "d" word will be prolifically used herein -- fair warning! Now, settle back and read why doulas choose to have that unique support and help only doulas bring to birth.
Other reasons are longer, and they still make a lot of sense:
"Preparing for my fifth baby I considered a doula. However, my husband has been such a great support and I found myself using all the common reasons not to have a doula. I worried it may interfere with the dynamic between me and my awesome, supportive husband. I worried about expense. I also have precipitous labors and didn't know if I'd be able to make it to the hospital, much less if my doula would make it. I spent much of my pregnancy helping my own doula clients plan their births. Yet I struggled to focus on my own. Finally I realized that I needed some help to focus and plan on my birth. Talking with my doula was invaluable. She helped calm my fears and work through trauma from a previous birth. I still didn't know if she would be able to make it in time but having her help me prepare and knowing she would be there to help me process afterwards was a big comfort. I also knew that I could use all the hands I could get for counter pressure. When my birth came, it was longer than expected. It was wonderful to have someone that knew what I meant when I asked for different counter pressures or rebozo techniques. She read my mind so I didn't have to verbalize each step. I was able to hold onto my husband while she gave counter pressure -- to hug him while still having the comfort measures. In transition I was grateful for multiple hands providing relief. I have birthed four times without a doula. I have supported countless families as a doula myself. However, having a doula for my fifth baby, I will never personally go back to not having one again. There is always a use for one. You never know what may happen or how useful a doula may be."
-Becky Hartman is a doula, photographer, and energy worker in Davis County, Utah. She just birthed her 5th baby this past week, so this is all fresh in her mind! To learn more, visit her website and go "like" her Facebook page.
Sometimes the decision seems made for you:
"I didn't actively choose to have a doula for my births -- it just happened that the universe provided them. They were just the right amount of hands-off until absolutely necessary, and then hands-off again -- which is exactly how I work. I felt so relieved I could let myself fall into the network provided for me by my community. I'm eternally grateful to these women who gifted me their work, both emotional and physical! My midwives through the years have been amazing support, as well. There's nothing I would change about my births, thanks to their skilled care."
Bryna Sampey is the creator behind the Portland-based Doula My Soul. Always about community, she and the others at Doula My Soul offer birth and postpartum doula support, breastfeeding help, classes, and more.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)