If there is one thing I love, it is helping other doulas get started. There are so many aspects of doula work left to individual preference and style -- it can be beneficial to watch and learn from other doulas as you discover your own shape. The first time I was able to shadow a doula, it was accidental. I was hired by a family, along with a second doula, because both of us had prior scheduled events near the due date that we couldn't miss. The offer was then extended: If you are both available then you can both come and support our birth. As luck would have it, we were! Although I had plenty of doula experience at this point, it was my first time in a new hospital; the other doula was generous with her knowledge -- I couldn't help but grow in many ways thanks to her openness to share all kinds of things with me.
Have you ever shadowed an experienced doula or asked to be shadowed? Did the experience match your expectations?
I think one of the greatest challenges new doulas face once they’ve finished their initial training is learning how to put their knowledge of textbook labors into practice when so very many labors are not textbook. I remember walking out of my initial training excited, feeling ready to jump in as a knowledgeable support person, only to find myself at a 56-hour complicated and confusing labor both for me and the couple I was supporting. It wasn’t following any of the textbook rules. Neither did the next 2 births I attended, which were equally complicated and confusing for entirely different reasons.
Many certifying organizations offer only a short introduction to the labor process in person in which there isn’t much time to get over the natural and normal variations of labor. While there are many books, articles, and websites available for further study into the various reasons why a labor might look active when it’s not or why it might not progress in a linear fashion, it takes time for a new doula to start putting those puzzle pieces together. I had to learn as I went.
Often on the fly, little by little, we learn as we go. I sort of took those early difficult labors as a test of my will to be doula. Wouldn’t that be so much easier, wouldn’t it be so much faster though, if there was a mentor to help in those situations? This stress over feeling not well enough prepared is what leads many doulas to try find someone to shadow or another doula they can call while at a birth. But it’s not always so easy to find or implement. I often hear from doulas that they asked around but no one was willing, or that they found someone but then their client don’t want someone sitting in the corner watching, or that they were afraid to wake a mentor at 2 A.M. to ask questions about a situation unfolding. While many certifying organizations encourage finding a mentor, few formally arrange for it.
As someone who comes from a strong teaching and mentoring background, I really wanted to offer shadowing situations for new doulas. But I found that the shadow concept didn’t work well for me or for my clients for a lot of different reasons. It might be a new doula that I didn’t personally know very well, the connection with the client might be awkward, or often the case, the new doula might reach out once and then never follow up. The energy output for a mentor is high. When it’s not reciprocated, it can be frustrating and discouraging. I needed a different solution, which luckily presented itself as most great ideas do, like a light switch coming on.
I’m fortunate that I often get to work with licensed midwives, and an important part of becoming a licensed midwife is be an apprentice. An apprenticeship has all the things I was looking for: It addresses that most people learn best by watching and then doing; it’s a formal relationship with clear expectations; it’s long term so you get to know each other well; and, clients know we come as a package.
By this time, I was already working in a group practice. We had already worked through the logistics of our business model, things like work load distribution, call time management, money management, and most importantly communication requirements. It was relatively easy to slip an apprentice into the mix, what remained was deciding what was required of the apprentice and how to select one. This process has evolved and been refined over the years and includes the obvious things, such as attending prenatal sessions, active labor, and postpartum follow-up with the client, but also now has requirements about reading, advanced classes, and hands-on experience. When our group turns a doula out into the world, we want to be confident and we want that doula to feel confident that they have the skills and experience to handle any situation. The birthing people and families in our community deserve excellent doulas. We really enjoy being a part of helping to make that happen. It’s an honor and a privilege.
In case you’d like the do the same, here are a some tips to you started:
In working with an apprentice, I believe that it’s very important to know yourself before you can know what you need from an apprentice (it’s not all just you giving, it’s a reciprocal relationship). For example, what are your core values or what makes you tick? Your values help you to stay focused and keep on track, make appropriate decisions, connect with like-minded people, and be inspired.
Some questions to ask yourself (answer truthfully!):
Best of luck to you and your students! If you need a mentor, I’m here!
Teri Nava-Anderson, PhD, CD(DONA), ICCE has been assisting pregnant people and their families through their labors since 2008. She is the CEO and founder of the Harmony Doula Group and co-founder of the Modesto Doula Group, both private practices dedicated to community education, mentoring new doulas, and advancing “mother/baby-friendly” practices in local hospitals. She has been teaching advanced doula training classes since 2012. Teri is the Northern California Regional Representative for DONA International, and the Board President of Mt. Diablo Doula Community.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)