So what makes a doula so special? Or why can’t my friend or my chiro be my doula?
I hear a lot things like ‘Oh, I had my sister (friend, chiro, reflexologist, a student midwife, mother, etc.) at my birth, she was my ‘doula’. Now, I totally respect that any of these people can provide excellent labour support. I firmly believe that it is the right and responsibility of each of us as a mother to choose who we want to support us at our births. It is a beautiful thing to have a close network of family or friends who you want to be close to you at this time.
Still, with the utmost respect, I must say that these supporters are not ‘doulas’. It’s not just me that says it. Research shows this difference as well – there is a difference in outcomes for mothers who are supported by doulas vs. those who are supported by other family members or friends or hospital staff. For the curious, you can read about what research says here on Childbirth Connection (there is a summary and access to the full study).
So, I’ve been thinking lately about some of the ways that a doula is different to other possible birth supporters. Before I share my thoughts, I would like to note that all doulas are individuals – if you are looking for a doula, please take your time to choose carefully (see some helpful guidelines on choosing a doula here). Doulas – like anyone else – come in all shapes and sizes, of all practices and persuasions. What I’ll be talking about here is the kind of doula I am (or strive to be), and the kind of doula I might consider inviting to support me.
Being a doula isn’t about showing up at a birth, holding a mother’s hand, telling her to ‘breathe’ or massaging her back, and holding the baby afterwards. Being a doula is about who you are, what you do each and every day. Here are some of the ways that for me, a doula is ‘different’ than any other birth supporter you might meet or engage.
*Undisturbed, phsyiological birth is her norm. She understands the implications of birth for mother and baby, and the myriad of ways that the delicate balance of birth can be unthinkingly interrupted by common protocols or procedures. She understands the impact of a word, a setting, a feeling in the room. She can hold space. She can apply her awareness of what birthing women need to a variety of situations and scenarios. She trusts birth.
*She is there to support the woman, yes, but also her partner or other chosen birth companions. She acts without ego and without judgment – she steps aside when she is not needed, always puts the needs of the woman and her family first. She has a good sense of what is needed, when to step aside and when to step in. She serves the woman, she serves the family, she serves birth. She respects the mother’s and family’s wishes first and foremost. She has no other, conflicting loyalities or personal agendas.
*She has most likely given birth herself. This is not true of all doulas, but for me it would be essential. At least one of her births has been a postive and transformative experience. She has reflected on and processed any trauma or difficulty from her own birth experiences so that she is not bringing these into the birthing room.
*She has undergone some form of preparation – be it a training course, a certification or process of recognition. Yes, some women and men are ‘naturally’ great labour supporters. But there are few of us who don’t improve or who are not enriched through study, work, and personal practice. A doula preparation, in the best cases, will include a personal reflection / debriefing of her own experiences, a training in the physiology of birth, education and practice with communication skills as well as ‘doula’ skills for birth. While ‘training’ is not essential to calling oneself a ‘doula’, in most cases it is highly beneficial. The best doulas, certified or not, are those who engage in a lifelong process of learning. Kay Gillard sums up why for me this kind of prepation is important (just replace ‘healer’ with ‘doula’).
*If she has been practicing as a doula for any length of time, she has a wealth of experience to draw on – what has worked in other births, what is ‘allowed’ or easy to obtain, what may be more challenging. She knows how to keep what is really essential and important to a mother or family from being lost if unexpected circumstances arise – she is flexible, but has the capacity to stay focused and responsive within the flow of a particular birth.
*For her, it’s not all about the birth – it’s about what happens before, in pregnancy, and after as a new family grows and adjusts together. The doula is there throughout, not just for that glamorous moment of the baby’s appearance. She is there for the tears of joy and sorrow, the fear, the pain and the ecstasy. She walks with you through the process. She doesn’t tell you what you should do, but is a quiet presence whose strength and resources you can draw upon as you walk your own path.
I recognise that not all doulas will fit the above descriptions – but to me, this is what being a doula is all about.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences as well – to you, what makes a doula different? What do you wish people could understand about doulas? What questions do you have about what makes a doula ‘special’?
I’d also like to invite you, doula or parent, to join me each Monday for a new episode in the ‘Connections’ series – creating connections is at the heart of a doula’s work, feeling connected is essential to a woman’s journey into motherhood. The first two episodes are now out – you can see what it’s all about here and the first practice here.