As I have moved from learning to teaching, I have always been blown away by how much deeper one’s knowledge becomes when you start to teach something to others, rather than just using it for yourself.
I recently became a doula mentor.
As I support new doulas through their journeys, of course this too is deepening my understanding of what being a doula is all about.
As a new doula and I discussed the process of supporting a couple through the beginning of their labour, it suddenly dawned on me:
Being a doula is a zen-like practice.
There are many reasons.
The first one is that birth, by essence, is totally unpredictable.
You don’t know when labour will start.
You don’t know how long it will last.
You don’t know how it will unfold.
So just like giving birth requires you to surrender to the process, being a doula too requires the doula to surrender to the unpredictability of childbirth.
This means that, for an ex control freak like me, it is the ultimate lesson in letting go of control and acceptance of “what is”.
In the early days of my doula journey I was so excited, bright eyed and bushy tailed about attending births, that I never gave this much thought.
Five years and many births later, I have achieved a certain state of acceptance and relaxation that allows me to cope with the unpredictability in a much more relaxed manner.
First, there is the on-call period. The time around the “due date” (we should really call it a “guess date”), during which my phone never leaves my side, and sits on my beside table at night. As I have young children this requires a lot of organisation and backup plans for the “just in case” scenarios. For example, right now I am waiting for a client to go into labour and my husband is abroad for a week, so I have a couple of doula friends also on call for me, just in case I need to call them at 3 am to come to my house and mind my children (I look forward to the time when my kids are old enough so they no longer need childcare). Similarly, my social life is on hold, I can’t drink alcohol, and I am never far away from home (If you want to find out more about what being on call entails, I have written about this here and here, and I really like doula Lindsey Middlemiss’s view on the topic too).
Becoming a doula is a calling, something that women do out of passion, not motivated by money. Yet the unpredictability and the intensity of this time, the on call, requires a certain zen state of mind, in order to be able to cope with the intensity of that period. Many doulas give up after a few years. Fellow doulas who have been doulaing for more than 10 years, such as London doula Lauren Mishcon, tell me they can count on one hand which of their colleagues who started at the same time as them are still doulaing.
And when I say unpredictability I don’t just mean waiting for the labour to starting within the 4 to 5 weeks window between 37 and 42 weeks. This is long enough by any means but I have had many experiences outside this window.
Take for example the client who stayed pregnant until 43 weeks had passed. Or the one whose waters broke at 34 weeks, followed by a speedy labour. Or the one who unexpectedly went into labour (thankfully, easily and quickly) at 37 weeks, 48h before I was due to attend my mum’s 70’s birthday abroad. Or the client who texted me with signs of early labour a month early when I was hours drive away, committed to teaching a course and just couldn’t come home (she waited for me to return, thankfully). Or the week-end when 3 different clients, with 3 completely different due dates, where all threatening to go into labour at the same time (they ended up birthing a week apart-one was late, one was on time, one was very early). Or the time a fellow doula called me on Christmas day to ask if I could attend the beginning of the labour of her client who had unexpectedly gone into labour 6 weeks early-the doula is question was over 6 hour’s drive away.
As I reflect on how far I have come since I started doulaing, I remind myself that in the early days of my doula career, I didn’t even dare bake a cake in case my client called whilst it was baking. I had since learnt that, with a few rare exceptions of extremely speedy labours, with most labours you get plenty of warning and time to get all your ducks in a row. These days I seem to take a lot more in my stride, and things which would sent me into a frienzed state of stress barely raise my heartbeat.
I also bow to the doula community, which is incredible when it comes to supporting a sister in need in times like these!
Second there is the early labour. For a first time mother, this may last many hours, and when I am asked by parents or mentees when should their doula join them, my answer is always the same : when they need her.
During this stage of labour, everybody is at home, even couples planning a hospital birth, because hospitals tend to send you back home if labour hasn’t become established yet. Some couples just let you know that they are in labour and don’t require your support yet. So you just sit there knowing that you may be called anytime, and it might be a short time or it might be hours, or even more than a day for you to wait. In the early days I was very twitchy during this time, not knowing what to do with myself. I remember a particular time when a couple’s waters had gone earlier that day, and I didn’t dare go to bed in case they called. My husband found me trying to snooze fully dressed on the sofa and marched me to get into my pj’s and to bed. I’m so glad he did, because they didn’t get into labour until the next day at lunchtime!
Now I treat this period like a pre-marathon and just chill, meditate, watch soppy films and eat nice food, whilst I wait for the call that I am needed. Recently I even sang in a concert with my choir whilst clients were in early labour. It was lovely, because it really energised me for the long birth that followed (interestingly they called asking me to join them the minute I got home from the concert). Many first time couples welcome the reassuring presence of their doulas in the background during this stage, however, even though they may be coping fine by themselves and not actually need you in the same room, knowing that you are in the house help them feel safer. So I have spent many early labours sleeping in the spare room, dozing on the sofa, or simply sitting down reading a book whilst their laboured in another room.
Again there is a big element of acceptance. Supporting labouring couples is all about what the couple needs, not what the doula needs. This can be hard sometimes. You can be eager to be with them, and they don’t need you there yet, so you just sit there, chomping at the bit. They might say we’ll text you in a couple of hours, and they don’t, and you worry about them, and wonder when it is appropriate to contact them again. They might ask you to go home when you’d rather stay. I once had a couple asked me to wait outside their hospital room for several hours, they needed to be on their own for a while, this was a couple of years into my doulaing and I was totally fine with it, but earlier on I know I would be been really eager to be in the room with them and it would have been frustrating.
As you can see, there is a lot of patience involved, and there is a lot of acceptance of “what is”. And there is no space for ego. It’s not about you.
There is a saying in the doula world that doulas are about being, not doing. And it can indeed be challenging to wait “doing nothing” whilst you wait for a couple to ask you to join them. Except you aren’t doing nothing, you are holding space for them (read about that here), even if you aren’t actually physically present, and this space holding is the most important part of our support.
During the birth itself, time seems to assume an unusual loose pattern, and there is something about being there during that process that feels unique and amazing-like time stands still and you are really “in the moment”, you don’t think about anything else or feel you ought to be somewhere else or doing something else. It feels like some kind of amazingly deep meditative process.
Later on when labour becomes established, there are other aspects still, which require us to have a very flexible attitude.
Labour can take a long time. The shortest time I have been present was about 6h (the birth was only 3h long-but doulas always stay after the birth to make sure you’re well and settled and help you feed your baby for the first time etc). The longest time I have supported a birth was 4 days (I have written a blog about How to survive along birth as a doula ) .
Labour can also be surprisingly faster than expected. I have missed a few births, when things happened so fast the mother didn’t realise this was really labour until she started to push, so they only called me after the baby was born. Again now I am quite philosophical about it because deep down I know that things happened the way they were meant to. But missing a birth is always a sad thing for a doula. There is some grief involved in the process.
These days I do a lot of shared care work, because of my teaching commitments. This means I work in a team with another doula to support a client. This has many advantage, not least the ability to lean onto a doula sister during the whole process, and being able to tag team through a long birth. This is the ultimate lesson is letting go of one’s ego, because, sometimes, the mother develops a deeper relationship with one of the doula team, and choses to call only one of us even when the other is available. Sometimes I only support from afar whilst my co-doula attends the birth.
Many things can happen which makes the birth plan veer off course. And when this happens, we have to keep calm and help the couple navigate these as best as we can. I have written before about how difficult it can be for a doula when birth don’t end up the way the parents had hoped. We becoming very emotionally invested in our clients, and when they are sad, we hurt too.
I have also learnt the hard way not to have expectations. The universe has a knack of teaching us the lessons we need to learn, and for me it has been trying hard not to have expectations about what might happen one way or another. It’s kind of difficult not to, especially when this isn’t a first time labour. With first time labours, I have learnt to expect something long (anything between 24h and 48h), so if it’s shorter I am pleasantly surprised. But with mothers who have given birth before, it’s difficult not to have expectations based on what their first birth was like. Yet every birth is totally unique. So for example when a client of mine birthed early with baby number 2, I expected baby number 3 to be early too. But no, he was born 2 weeks past the due date. I also had a client whose first birth had been relatively quick, but her second birth was a lot longer. I didn’t cope very well with it at first, because of my expectations. I also had a client whose second labour had a lull, and she got sent home from the hospital, again this wasn’t what I expected. So now I give myself a mental kick up the arse when I catch myself having any expectations.
The final lesson doulaing has taught me is that everybody is different, unique, and full of unexpected quirks.
I didn’t grasp this in the same way prior to becoming a doula.
It fits in the “don’t have expectations” category too, because every time I think I have sussed someone out, they do or say something completely out of character.
Like the woman who plans a homebirth but then decides to have an elective cesarean instead. Or the one who was scared of birth and planned to go to hospital as soon as possible, but then decides to stay at home during her labour.
This is also one of the reasons doulas have to be so adaptable. If we are to support a birthing woman and her partner the best way possible, we need to change and adapt really fast as a moment’s notice, like a chameleon.
So these are all the reasons why doulaing is like a zen practise.
We don’t know when things are going to happen, how they are going to happen, what will happen and how long it will last. Yet we manage to stay calm, grounded and hold the space through it all.