Melissa is another fabulous doula in the Modesto Doula Group. She brings up some great points about doula work, including potential awkwardness when the mom you are supporting is older than you are, and the many reasons why doulas burn out.
I am currently 24. I started "Doula-ing" when I was 21, right after the birth of my first child. I had always been fascinated with the biological mysteries that surrounded birth. It was always my most anticipated subject in science. I was a birth junky from the start and I didn’t even know it. I first started out like most young doulas, volunteering free services just for a chance at some experience. I attended the birth of a friend; other than that though, business was fairly dry for me in the beginning. It was slightly discouraging as I was so eager, but at the same time I had a 6 week premature infant to care for so I wasn't exactly striving to be extremely busy with births.
I got the opportunity about 6 months after my first DONA training and birth to come and sit in the Bradley class I had taken while pregnant, by my old teacher. It was potential for a birth and I felt fairly confident. I was hired by two couples in the class, both women about 6-7 years older than myself. I felt the twinge of hesitation from the both of them when I told them my age. I wasn't surprised. Standing at 5'2 and only about 114 lbs soaking wet, I looked more like 16. The teacher assured them of my skill set, and I was officially on call.
When I was called into the first birth I was slightly nervous, not knowing if I was going to have to work harder to gain trust from someone older than me. I was taught to "Mother the Mother." How do you "mother" someone older than you without sounding slightly patronizing? All in all it worked out fantastically and we found our footing together. When I really think back through the births I have been hired for, I have noticed that almost all the women I have served were older by quite a few years, and it makes me wonder if the younger doula's out there question age gap between themselves and their clients.
I did a very informal, and simple, one-question survey (thank you, Facebook): "How old were you when you started Doula-ing"? Out of 100 answers that I got, I averaged it out to the age of 27. The number seemed fairly accurate to me since by this age most people have had a childbirth experience (whether personal or a family member) that has led them to the path of birth work. But when I started to dig deeper, I started realizing how high the burnout rate of birth support professionals really is.
Most women who train to be a doula only average 2 years in the field. The worst part about this is that I am not the least bit surprised. The idea of birth work is largely romanticized in my opinion. It's easy to think of being with birthing families and babies during one of the most important and transformative times of their lives, and look right over the not-so-nice things, like the long hours -- and I'm not talking 2-hours overtime type hours. I'm talking about the births that last 22-57 hours from start to finish.
The exhaustion after long births is felt on a cellular level. Emotionally you are too tired to care about anything but the next step you are taking, and physically, well let's just put it this way, along with your arms being sore from the double hip squeeze that you did for 17 hours, and your legs being sore from standing and supporting another human for that long, even your teeth and your hair hurt. But it's even more than that, it's the expectations of an ideal birth that fall just a bit short for whatever reason. It's the looks from resentful hospital staff. It's watching a family's entire world fall apart in front of them. This is what I think causes a large number of doula burn-out -- we are not prepared to handle the true exhaustion of body and spirit. I don't want to take away that magic of birth work, because I wouldn't trade this job for anything, but it's anything but easy. And when you start out in this field without anyone to help guide you, it can be impossible to continue going without feeling disheartened along the way.
I have been extremely fortunate -- I was taken in by a fantastically wonderful circle of experienced doulas and together we created a (totally kick-ass) Doula Group. Being the youngest in the group, it’s a bit different for me sometimes, in the sense that my birth approach is different. I learned after those first initial births that instead of "Mothering the Mother" I "Sister the Mother." I try hard to get on a sister/friend level -- someone that is along for the ride with them no matter how many bumps there are in the road. More peer, less authority. I have been told on more than one occasion that I am an assuring presence in birth because, "seeing someone so young and knowing that you have done and accomplished what I am trying to accomplish is comforting." I have gotten out of the nervous mindset of working with a clientele that is older than I, because it doesn't help anything.I go in confident in not only myself, but also the laboring mama and the process of birth, and this is what helps.
I have come to realize that there are definitely some up-sides to being on the young end of the doula age-spectrum, at least for me. Before getting pregnant with baby number two, I was actively training for my black belt in Kung Fu. To say that I have the physical stamina for this job is an understatement! Not only that, but I love the physical demand of birth work. If I don't feel sore after a birth I wonder if I didn't do enough.
Another thing that was brought to my attention by my favorite midwife in conversation about this particular topic of age was: "The earlier you start, the more years of service we can get out of you, and the longer period of time you can commit to the long-term vision of radically changing our maternity care system. There is no end to the benefit of young women going to births. Of course all women at whatever age they start get my vote and I'm excited about it, but I look at young women like, great! So we can get close to 50 years out of you!" And its true! The younger doulas start, the more of a difference they can make. The more experience they can gain. The more knowledge they can spread.
The fact is that no matter what your age, if you are a dedicated doula, you will find a way to practice that works for you and your mamas. You're always the right age to help provide evidence-based care and support.
Melissa is Birth Doula certified through Still Birth Day. She is one of the doulas in the Modesto Doula Group. She is an experienced Bradley Childbirth practitioner and assistant instructor. Melissa has a background in Child Development, Education and Psychology, and an interest in special-needs and high-needs children. Melissa brings to her clients her personal experience and expertise with premature labor and birth, the challenges of parenting in the NICU, and breastfeeding a premature baby. She has excellent skills in communication and listening, massage, visualization and meditation practices to help during pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)