As I write this blog I am on-call for my last birth as a doula. I’ve made the decision to stop doula work. This might come as a surprise and I’d like to explain the long process that led me to take this decision.
Being a doula is a very demanding and challenging job. It is not for the faint hearted. The emotional investment in our clients, and the logistical demands of the job are phenomenal. When I support a family during pregnancy, I’m always there for them, often at the expense of my own and my family’s life (Read my blog post about this). The on-call period in particular, as well as not knowing how long I will be gone to support a birth, makes for very challenging juggling, especially with young children. Being a postnatal doula also comes with unpredictable demands as clients may need you at very short notice. The nature of birth and early parenting is unpredictable.
When I work with a family as a doula I become very emotionally invested in supporting them. I am 100% there for them. The first year of my doula work, my parents came to stay with me during a school holiday. I was on call and my mum said “You’re not there”, and that was true. I wasn’t. Energetically and emotionally, I was with my client.
As doulas we build a deep relationship with the families we support. We are there at every turn of the way. We are there listening to their hopes, their fears, their worries. We become deeply invested in helping them get the birth experience they hope for. We are deeply empathic so their challenges become ours. We share their joys, and their frustrations. Sometimes we share their disappointment, and sometimes we even share their trauma. We cry tears of joy and sorrow with them, or for them.
Sometimes people don’t get the birth they hoped for. Sometimes there is hurt, sorrow and trauma. Sometimes we are more traumatised than our clients by what we have witnessed. Because we know, when we witness callous care from medical professionals. We know when people are being pressured into consenting to interventions just because a guideline says so.
I’ve been a doula for nearly ten years. I attended my first birth in the summer of 2012.
In the past, the joy of supporting families through birth made up for the challenges. I adored my job. It energised me. It filled my heart. It gave me a deep sense of fulfilment. Because of this it didn’t feel too challenging despite the demands and extreme flexibility and sacrifices it required.
It is a true privilege to support people when they bring new life into the world. There is nothing quite like the moment of birth, especially when the birth goes well. No other job has made me cry tears of joy the way being a doula has. After supporting a birth, I often go home with my heart swelled with joy..
When I started this job I thought that, in my time, I would see improvement in maternity services, but I’ve only witnessed the exact opposite.
In 2020, it got much worse. The pandemic brought restrictions to visitors, and I wasn’t able to physically attend births in hospital from March 2020 to July 2021. I learnt that I could still make a huge difference even when supporting people remotely, but it robbed me of much of the joy doulaing used to bring. I remember a particular low point in the summer of 2020 when, having just remotely supported a client through a long induction (neither her partner nor myself where allowed in the induction ward-this felt so dehumanising), I met a client I had supported 3 times previously (this was her 4th birth) outside the hospital to give her a hug, and watched her walk inside the hospital alone, without even her husband. I drove home and told my husband I was done.
Later in the year there were moments that gave me hope again, when I saw how much of a difference I still made, especially for families who had no family nearby and I was the only other adult they saw for weeks. But overall something started to feel amiss.
Along the pandemic restrictions, and dehumanising decisions of only allowing partners in established labour, as well as many other disproportionate restrictions (my local hospital even stipulated that doulas couldn’t be present at a home birth when the midwife arrived!), the rate of interventions (inductions and caesarean) rose very fast without any evidence to justify it (I wrote about this in my blog: Induction of labour, does it really saves lives?).
I noticed that, whilst in the past a small proportion of my clients would require support in fighting for their rights to birth the way they wanted, now, every single client fell in this category. The rise in induction rate in particular, saw almost every client being pressured to consent to an early induction of labour (around 38 or 39 weeks of pregnancy). These clients were being told this at 12 weeks pregnancy because of their ‘risk factors’.
The energy of doing this work started to feel warrior-like. This was a regular instance before, but suddenly this was all I felt, all of the time. I started to find it exhausting. In 2021 I supported several clients who refused to be induced at 38 weeks and fought extremely hard for the birth they wanted. I saw so much bullying, and so many threats designed to make them comply.
I saw a level of bullying the likes of which I had never seen in ten years. I saw doctors scouring old medical records and bringing up historical medical issues against clients. I saw people I used to rely on for being women centred at my local hospital start to toe the line and talk the same fear speech as everyone else. Whilst I loved supporting my clients and seeing them experience positive births against all odds, it took its toll on me. I started to notice that the constant fighting was harming me.
In a few weeks I’m going to be 52. I am nearly menopaused. Interestingly I started working as a doula when my perimenopause started (it’s normal for the process to take up to 10 years). As I enter this new phase of my life, cronehood, I feel a deep need to be in the energy of support and love. I want to be an elder at the back of the battle line, supporting people with more youthful energy. The energy required for being at the front line of maternity services in its current state feels at odds with who I am now. The maternity system has become so unhealthy and damaged, I no longer have the energy or the desire to fight against it. I want to use my experience in a different way.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still an activist. I am grateful to my friend Scarlett who pointed this out to me. It started with my blogs and with my book. I can still affect change in a positive manner, by sharing my writing and knowledge with others. But I no longer want to bang against a brick wall all the time. This feels like such a waste of my energy.
I need to live a quieter life. A slower rhythm. I want to spend more time being connected to nature. Over the last 4 years I have been on a journey of getting out of work overwhelm by immersing myself in nature. This has shown me that having the time and space for this is vital to my wellbeing, and for my business to thrive. I swim in the local river all year round. I drum in the woods with 2 other women. I practise mindful dancing weekly (5rhythms and other styles). I take part in land based rituals which honour the turning of the wheel of the year. These practices are the first things I put on my to-do list. They are the foundations on which I build everything else.
Many of my doula friends and clients have been shocked when I say I’m going to leave. They say that I’m very experienced, and very good at it. This is true. However, I am not leaving with regrets. And the work I will do going forward will use the skills I have acquired being a doula. As well as finding this work unsustainable over the last couple of years, I also have a strong inner knowing that this work is no longer what I am meant to do, and that, until I leave this work and its very high demands on my time and energy, I will not be able to do what I am called to do right now.
Ten years ago I left a 20 year long career as a research scientist behind to embark on my work as a doula. I remember feeling incredibly excited about it. It was a decision that took a long time to enact, because I retrained as a doula and an antenatal teacher and babywearing instructor, whilst working 4 days a week as a scientist. During these 4 years I also changed jobs twice and had my second child. It took me 4 years because I needed to build a new income, as well as wait until my second child was old enough to go to preschool.
The decision I’m making to leave doulaing has a similar energy to it, at the cusp of something as transformative and different. Except this time there is a sense of calm and trust about it rather than excitement. I am also not leaving employment, but changing the focus of my self employment.
Last time I had a plan and bidded my time until I had qualified and built a bit of an income. This time I sense that I don’t quite know what shape my new work is going to take. I just know that it is about helping people connect to their heart and inner knowing (which is something that has always been woven in everything I have taught for the last ten years already).
If you have ever seen the Indiana Jones movie called The Last Crusade, there is a scene towards the end where Indiana has to take a leap of faith and step over a precipice. When he steps into the void, an invisible bridge magically appears underneath his feet. That’s where I feel I am. And surprisingly for someone who used to be a control freak, I feel mostly OK with it.
What I look forward to:
After ten years of being on-call on and off for most of the time, I look forward to living without the pressure of knowing that I may need to leave at a moment’s notice. Of not waking up in the middle of the night checking my phone in case I’ve missed a text message. Of not being able to stray far from home in case my client needs me. Of making constant backup plans and warning my friends that I may drop out at the last minute. Of not having to cancel things.
I look forward to not having to worry about whether the midwives or doctors supporting my client will be kind. I look forward to being able to rest and relax and be present to my family, my friend, my dancing, swimming and drumming. I look forward to being able to serve my community more, both locally and further afield.
I have had a sense, since I published my book Why Postnatal Recovery Matters in 2020, that I am meant to reach a bigger, more international audience. This has been reinforced by the fact that, without me seeking it, my book has been translated in 2 other languages (Italian and German. The French translation is under way too but I made that happen). Since 2020, having been forced to moved to teaching online courses, has also resulted in my gaining an international audience. Leaving doulaing, where all my attention and energy is given to one family only, also feels in alignment as I will then be able to share my knowledge with more people.
What I will miss:
I will miss the intimate interactions with families that I experience in this job. I will miss getting to know people deeply as we walk the journey together. I will miss sharing their joys and their sorrows, and rejoicing with them as they find their feet.
I know that I may miss seeing the direct impact I have on people’s wellbeing and confidence. This is not a new experience for me. I went through a similar process when I gave up teaching NCT classes and running a sling clinic in 2016. I had run both of these activities for 6 years when I decided to stop. I gave this things up because they no longer made my heart sing, and because I knew I needed to make room to teach the people who teach to parents, as opposed to parents themselves. This feels similar. I won’t necessarily see the results as I do in one to one work, but I think this will help reach more people and make more of a difference overall. I hope to hear from people who take my courses or read my book what positive impact it has had on them and the families they serve.
What I’m going to focus on now:
I am still going to be present in the birth and perinatal world. I am going to carry on offering online courses, and the odd face to face course (I no longer want to run live courses at the frequency I used to before 2020, which was 2 to 3 courses a month). I want to create new online courses, downloading all the knowledge and wisdom I have accumulated through my birthworking years, to share with others. My next online course, on which I am working right now, will be on how to run a mother blessing. I want to carry on offering mentoring for professionals, but not necessarily limit myself to birth professionals. This has already happened in my offering impostor syndrome sessions.
I want to carry on offering mother blessings and closing the bones ceremonies. I want to offer training in spiritual and intuitive knowledge. To help others develop their inner knowing, intuitive healing and to listen to their hearts. To connect with nature. I want to help more people discover their soul’s purpose. To connect with themselves. I want this to be from a place that doesn’t belong to a prescriptive model, but helps people develop their unique abilities.
I want to carry on bringing more of the sacred to my life and help others do the same. I want to run more regular connection and community building activities, like drum circles, in my local community.
My word of the year 2022 is Opening. I am excited for what is coming.