Reflections on four years as a doula

This week is world doula week and I thought it would be the perfect occasion to reflect on what I have learnt since I became a doula.

I kind of fell into doulaing when my friend Maddie McMahon invited me to attend her first ever Developing Doulas course, back in 2008. Four years later, Maddie also precipitated my decision to leave my scientific career when she asked me to attend a birth as her backup (I attended the birth on my day off as I was still working 4 days a week as a research scientist).

I remember this birth vividly. It was a long induction, and 3 of us tag teamed to support this couple. On the early morning when I made my way to the hospital, I was both excited and scared. Would I know what to do? Would the hospital staff sussed that I was a newbie and treat me differently?

Once I joined the couple in the hospital room, however, everything fell into place and I found my role to be very instinctive and natural.

I had my eyes and ears wide open and learnt an awful lot that day. As someone who was a staunch proponent of natural birth, I was quite surprised to find that when the couple chose to go for a caesarean, I knew in my bones that this was the right choice for them, and wholeheartedly supported their decision. They were going to end down that route anyway, and it was wise to do it sooner than later because it would be a lot more traumatic later on after many more exhausting hours on the synthetic oxytocin drip.

The mother had a strong instinct that something about the cord was preventing descent. I watched her express this repeatedly to 4 different staff members, only to have her instincts dismissed each time.

Baby wasn’t engaged, and at some point the mum had a wobble and asked me to massage her shoulders. With an epidural in place it wasn’t easy, so I just put my hand on her shoulders and gave her some Reiki instead.

As soon as I did this, her baby dropped into the pelvis ( the change in her bump shape was very noticeable), she opened her eyes in wonder asking what I had done, then we noticed the baby’s heart rate dropped very significantly. The baby then popped back up, and the heart rate resumed its normal rhythm.

I felt very strongly that this baby needed to give me a message.

This is why I felt totally in agreement with the parents when an obstetrician suggested to either keep going with the induction, or stop and go for a caesarean. I knew this baby couldn’t be born vaginally.

During the caesarean they found the cord tightly wrapped around the baby’s body, preventing descent (a very rare occurrence).

This day I learnt two valuable lessons: always listen to mum’s instincts, and that what makes a good birth experience isn’t what happens on paper, but how the parents felt supported and respected through the process.

I went home feeling completely elated, and it felt fascinating to me, because if I had been told a few years earlier than my first birth as a doula would be an emergency caesarean and I would feel happy about it, I would have laughed.

A few days later I went back to my science job, and as I sat at my computer I thought ” what am I doing there? Doulaing is so much more exciting”.

A couple of months later I handed out my resignation. I started doulaing officially a few months later, at the beginning of 2012.

The universe must have heard me loud and clear because I kept being booked by clients both birth and postnatal, and became a recognised birth doula by the middle of the year, and postnatal a few months later.

It was a very exciting but also a very challenging first year.

During this first year I supported glorious, straightforward physiological births, which left me on a high for days. I also witnessed obstetric violence for the first time and spend several days bursting into tears after some of the births.

I guess I took for granted that supporting birth would be amazing, so I was surprised how much I loved supporting new parents postnatally too. Although it felt very different, I loved it as much as supporting births.

There is a kind of intimacy about being in someone’s home in those first early days after the birth, where everybody is open and tender, which feels like a real privilege.

I discovered that I felt just as passionate supporting parents choices after the birth than before and during the birth.

I also experienced doula burn out, and I learnt to develop a completely new kind of way of looking after myself (I wrote about this here). These days, I am religiously having some kind of body work treatment after a birth.

In my early days I experienced trepidation when meeting parents for the first time, and I also used to turn up at antenatal appointments with a teaching plan. I have longed stopped doing this, much preferring a go with the flow approach.

I also experienced rejection, not being the chosen doula after an interview, and even though I knew this was the right choice for the parents, it did hurt a little.

In my first year, I embraced every job that came my way with boundless excitement, whereas now I am a lot more picky.

I have learnt a lot about my own boundaries. And I also have learnt about what makes my heart sing and what doesn’t.

In my first two years as a doula, I had several long term clients whom I supported postnatally for several months. I have since realised that I enjoy much more supporting couples for just the first few weeks postpartum until they find their feet, rather than for months.

I have also learnt that I much prefer supporting first time parents postnatally because I love the emotional support that comes with those first few weeks, whereas with second (or more) time parents, the support tends to be leaning more towards practical stuff and I don’t find this quite as fulfilling.

I have developed a thicker skin when it comes to witnessing difficult moments at births. I still have the odd tear fest though!

There is never a dull moment in the life of a doula, and whilst I have cried tears of sadness and frustration on many occasions, I have also experienced incredible highs, and often cried tears of joy and gratitude, something I have never experienced in any other job.

I am humbled and immensely grateful for how much personal development being a doula has brought me.

Being a doula exposes me to a much wider range of people and lifestyles than my old job did. I often joke that as a scientist I only met other scientists, and sure, they were all different, but as a doula I regularly met people who have jobs that I didn’t even know existed!

Being a doula has broadened my mind beyond belief. There are so many different dynamics, so many different lifestyles and families, and so many different good ways to be a couple, to be parents or a family. I am humbled by it all. Not many other jobs give you such an intimate insight into other people’s lives.

People keep surprising me, and I love it. In this job we get to really know people for who they are and not what their job is. Every time I think I have someone sussed they surprise me with something unexpected. We are all so full of fascinating quirks, and nobody fits into a box.

I have learnt to try not to have any expectations. I used to sit in my car before driving off to a birth, sending well wishes to the mum and her baby. Now I sit, and I just trust and surrender to the process, and I guess, a higher wisdom, that all will unfold as it is meant to. I find this incredibly liberating.

I have learnt so much from the doula community. From new skills to new friendships, nowhere else have I found such an incredibly supportive tribe of like minded women.

I am so grateful for the all the gifts the being a doula has brought me.

I would like to dedicate this post to my gorgeous and wise friend Maddie Mc Mahon, who started me on this journey 12 years ago when she agreed to be my doula.

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