I love how Liz is thinking outside the box here. She truly shows the progress in her beliefs as life has shown her more. As doulas, it is pretty easy to become disenchanted with doctors -- on a surface level we see and hear things -- and often judgements are held. Liz's world shifted when she looked deeper into the issue to see what women physicians face. Think of what it might be like if these physicians were offered physical, informational, and emotional support during the child-bearing year? And how it could help to improve not only their health, but also the health of those they serve?
It is okay, stay with me. I know you are saying, what? Why would we talk about Doctors during doula month?!!? Doctors are the reason women need doulas in the first place! I would agree, wholeheartedly, that women need doulas, in part, to help navigate the maternal health care system. But I would also agree that part of the reason that women need doulas is that doctors desperately, desperately need doulas too.
I became a doula nearly 14 years ago in my twenties, and I’m not going to lie, I didn’t last long. I had some births that resulted in healthy babies and the mom was…not disabled at the end of it. Even with a doula, these moms did not receive mother-centered care. For a long time I thought I was just unlucky to get some bad birth situations, but now I know, they were all pretty routine. A male doctor telling me in the middle of a baby crowning that most women urologists would much prefer to have Cesarean births because it preserves the pelvic floor (is this really the time? While this patient is purple pushing her baby out in a lithotomy position that only benefits you?). That time the doctor was in tears because she had agreed to induce at 37 weeks because winter holidays were coming up, and no, to keep it short, it didn’t go flawlessly. I don’t doubt she was crying because she was tired, and maybe a bit raw, and dismayed that the baby needed resuscitation and extended procedures to make the transition to independent breathing. And yeah, her medical malpractice insurance was about to get tested. I certainly had views on the doctors in these births!
So in my thirties I went to school for a Masters of Public Health with the goal of changing birth outcomes through public health, and if that meant throwing the doctor out with the bathwater, so be it. It was no more than they deserved for being such out of date, out of touch jerks.
But now I’m in medical school in my forties. I see classrooms nearly half full of 21 year old women being called “Guys” by every lecturer and attending, being erased by every lecturer and attending. I see course curriculum that includes nothing on breastfeeding, and when asked a question about normal breastfeeding, an obstetrician says she knows that answer because she has breastfed for three months! Not because as an OB she has extensive and comprehensive training on breastfeeding (they don’t get any), but because she has beaten the odds as a breastfeeding physician (66% of physician mothers do not meet their breastfeeding goals, most don’t make it to three months). She is also the one that told the class vaginal delivery was a procedure done by a surgeon.
Physician mothers have nearly a two-times increased relative risk of birth complications, because they are doctors, and if anecdata is anything to go by, can anticipate having every medical intervention in the book -- evidence based or not -- thrown at them (perhaps accounting for that increased risk?).
After birth? For the 30% of women residents that are pregnant, they have minimal leave; it may be paid -- or not; they may get to finish the program on time -- or not. There is no required minimum maternity policy for residencies. Even if leave is allowed, many won’t take the whole of it because pregnant physicians are considered a burden on the residency program by attendings and male residents. Most are expected to return within six weeks, if not sooner. Maternity leave for practicing doctors isn’t much better. On paper they may have 6 weeks of paid leave, but in reality? Maybe their partners have made it clear that the business will not tolerate that much time away. Don’t even think about taking time to pump! Their employees and staff have better maternity leave.
So get to the point already, you say, why am I advocating doulaing the doctor? Because if ever there was a group that was high-risk for all the bad outcomes of birth and postpartum, while simultaneously seeming to have all of the protective factors, it is women doctors. They set out to become doctors when they are 18, start medical school at 21, and spend the next 4 years being erased as women and indoctrinated into the medical system's way of maternity care. They often have minimal exposure to safe alternatives to standard medical maternity care because of their training, and even if they want something else, the systemic pressure on them is nearly crushing. They are shift workers as residents, they have no protection under the law for breastfeeding because they are salaried, and sure, they have lots education but also lots of debt and not much income. If they are part of a private practice, they struggle to balance breastfeeding and bonding time with the need to go back to work immediately in order to become a partner and thus-financially secure.
And yet they do not utilize doulas, because they KNOW about birth, they’ve been TRAINED, their OB is the BEST, the nursing staff will help. The research is pretty clear on this too -- doulas improve birth outcomes, increase breastfeeding rates and reduce postpartum depression. Also, research tells us that doctors are frankly the worst patients in the world, because they are doctors. They literally refuse to ask for help because they shouldn’t need it, they have the training, THEY know what to do. So a high-risk group that would clearly benefit from doulas isn’t using them, doesn’t realize they need them, and I’d like to see that change.
Great, so I want to see that change. What is the big deal if they don’t use a doula? Most women don’t. True, although that is changing as doulas become more available and the research on their benefit expands. But the big deal is this: Women physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession, 250% higher than the rest of the population (men physicians are 100% higher than the population rate), and 400% higher than women in other professions. We are doing something so profoundly wrong in our profession that women who should be healers and leaders and colleagues and parents are killing themselves.
Suicide has many causes, but here is one I think we haven’t talked about enough: physician mothers are providing care and getting none. Maybe if we nurture our physician mothers through their intense times of change and challenge, support them during their births, help them bond with their babies, meet their breastfeeding goals, maybe we could change that suicide rate. Birth can be transformative, or traumatizing. Doulas can help shift the balance for women, and women physicians need this as much as any other high risk group. Time to doula some doctors and change the world.
Liz Langthorn, Master of International Maternal Child Health from Tulane University, current medical student at University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. Once a birth doula, always a birth doula.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)