This is an essay I wrote as part of my labor doula certification program with Doula Trainings International.
I am often asked what a doula does. Most often, the question comes from friends and family who are genuinely interested in this profession that they know so little about, or perhaps have only heard about because I’m pursuing this work. I know, in my mind and my heart, why doula care is so important. I believe that it can be life-changing for women and their families. And I have been thinking hard about how to convey this to those who ask. How do I explain this work, and my passion for it, effectively? How do I do it justice?
More than labor support
It seems like there is a standard answer to the question of what a doula does, that begins with, “A doula provides physical, emotional, and spiritual support to a woman in labor….” And I do believe this to be true. In fact, my initial vision of a doula was that of a woman providing emotional and physical support during labor and delivery. But for some time, my thoughts stopped short there. I still believe that labor support is a hugely significant piece of what a doula does. However, as I have undergone training, and begun to work with families, I have come to recognize additional significant aspects of my role, which if lacking, would result in incomplete doula care. While simply having somebody there during labor and delivery, providing support would be incredibly valuable on its own, I believe the doula’s work is much deeper. I always knew, even before training to become one, that doulas visited with mothers and their partners during the prenatal and postpartum period, but I didn’t initially realize how important those visits are.
Trust, information, and empowerment during the prenatal and postpartum periods
The culture surrounding birth in our society is one that oppresses women, fully expecting them to not question common practices and procedures. It is a culture consisting of a deeply ingrained fear of birth, perpetuated in almost every direction a woman turns her head during pregnancy. The message is clear: Pregnancy, labor, and delivery are a medical condition. Women’s bodies are not capable of birthing babies without help. Women are not to be trusted. I am striving to craft a practice in which I work with women during pregnancy to question these assumptions, to seek evidence-based information, and to feel capable, confident, and strong as consumers, as birthing women, and as life-givers. Not only do I provide access and direction to that evidence-based information during my clients’ pregnancies, but I also work with women to help them envision the overall feeling they hope to have, and the way they would like to be treated, when giving birth. Regardless of their birth choices, these prenatal visits, as well as the additional communication during my clients’ pregnancies, have the potential to set women on a path of making their own decisions and trusting themselves throughout pregnancy, labor, delivery, and the postpartum period.
Another vital part of doula care is supporting women during the postpartum period. That initial postpartum visit is a sacred time, an opportunity to help the woman remember her power in her birthing her baby, however she did it. It is also an incredibly sensitive time in the life of a mother, and one in which a doula can help to normalize the range of experiences and emotions that come along with the postpartum period. I try to help women understand that they don’t have to “bounce back” from having a baby within weeks of the birth. They will never truly “bounce back” because they will never be the same. As their doula, I give them permission to let everything else go and simply mother their babies, trusting their babies and their own instincts.
In between pregnancy and postpartum, yes, it is absolutely my job to show up for their labor and delivery. As is so often the case with birth, things may go completely differently than envisioned. But with a strong foundation of trust in themselves, their bodies, and their support people going into labor, a doula can help support a woman to have a powerful birthing experience in which she is an active participant and the ultimate decision maker. How I show up for each woman in labor will be different, according to her personality, her needs, her desires, and the rest of her support team. One woman may want me to provide mostly physical comfort measures, another may want positioning suggestions for her and her partner to use, another may not want to be touched at all and prefer soft words in her ear, and yet another will need help sifting through choices they are presented with during labor and delivery. What will be the same for each one, and what I know is essential in the doula’s role, is that I will unconditionally love each woman and her baby.
What would it look like if every woman was unconditionally loved and trusted to birth her baby? If her support people filled her birthing space with love instead of fear? I know that it would alter each woman’s life, marking the beginning of her mothering journey with confidence, power, and trust. And I believe that it would change the world. It would push back against the current paradigm, and these women and their experiences would collectively create a new culture; one that values and respects the power of women, and one that marks the transition of each person from womb to world with peace and dignity.
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