On Becoming a Doula - Part I


Birth changes things. It becomes forevermore a part of the life that gave it and the beginning of a journey for the born.  


This is a long post about why I am becoming a doula. Here I talk about the difference a doula made for me. Part two is about how I decided to become a doula.

My two deliveries: one with a doula, one without

The birth of my daughter was a transformative experience.

My entire pregnancy was closely monitored, and appeared to be textbook in almost every way. My baby had measured big, but hey, I'm 6'1''. I wasn't worried about it and neither was my OB.

But then she unexpectedly called me three days before my daughter was due to offer me an elective cesarean. Over one weekend she changed her mind and started worrying that my daughter (who was expected to be about 12 pounds based on the ultrasounds) might suffer complications due to her size. She thought a c-section might be the best way to go to avoid any trouble. I knew I didn't want a c-section, so she asked if I'd consider an induction if labor didn't start before my due date.

I started to worry. Three days didn't offer a lot of lead-time for decision making.

She said I could think about it for a little, but needed an answer pretty soon. Immediately, I set to work counseling with friends, family, and many healthcare professionals about the risks and benefits of an induction in our specific set of circumstances. I was scared to have an induction, but I was more scared to have a complication due to my baby being too big, like suffering a shoulder dystocia or an emergency c-section. Fear began to well up inside of me as it seemed like the option of the spontaneous, natural delivery we had anticipated for nine months had vanished in moments.

We were nervous about making the right decision, childbirth generally, becoming parents, how our family was about to change forever regardless of the outcome. I started to pace the street where we lived while I mulled my options with different people over the phone. I called my mom while I waddled my enormous, full-term belly up and down the street.

Up and down, down and up. I talked with the doctor, my husband, my friends, my sister, the doctor again. As I tried to focus on all the decisions that seemed to have a direct impact on the rest of my life, our shirtless, sunburnt elderly Bostonian neighbor yelled at his kids on the phone about his hedges and why they don't visit enough. I tried to focus on the deluge of information and decisions that were coming my way.  My mind felt like it was swelling uncomfortably in a sea of extremely important choices. I was so nervous, so unsure.

Enter the Doula.

My sister, Sara, was our doula. She was a licensed massage therapist at the time, not actually a certified doula. The fact is, she fit the bill of being a woman who had been through the birth process, had extensive knowledge about how to keep my body and mind calm, had helped other women through their births and, above all, was a woman whom I could trust implicitly with my tender heart, vulnerable position, and to be part of the lifelong memory of bearing a child.

But her help started before she even came to see me in person. We had many long conversations on the phone where she mostly listened and then offered support for my decisions. She could always tell how I was feeling and was able to assess my stress, and reduce it, every time we communicated. Once we decided on the induction, she had nothing but support to offer. She was committed to giving me what she referred to as "a Cadillac birth with a big, shiny red bow," meaning she wanted me to have the best, most perfect experience possible.

The entire process was positive. Please do not read that as meaning easy. It was not easy. It was sometimes very intense. There was the pain, pressure, sweat, and doubt on my part. It was an athletic test of endurance.

There were times when my husband sat behind me with his arms around me while my sister massaged my head, neck, and shoulders, and helped me focus on breathing. I didn't know I would forget how to breathe, but I did, and there she was. There were times when I only needed my husband. She quietly waited somewhere in the background during those times. There were times when I only needed her. During those times, she managed to help me without making my husband feel useless.

During labor, there was massage, soft music, dim lights, pleasant smells of lavender. I recall every time a healthcare provider came into the room he or she would make a remark about how nice and calm it was in there. All of this was due to the effort of my doula. I don't even remember the doctor that helped deliver my baby (I have her name written down somewhere and a picture floating around here, too). I remember my husband and my doula because they were there, the entire time. 

Bottom line (and this is a graphic bottom line): I remember thinking as my daughter was crowning, "I could do this again." Again, the experience wasn't easy by any measure. But I felt so powerful, so capable, that I knew I could do it again if I wanted. This was thanks to having the constant support that a doula provides.


The birth of my son was an instructive experience. 

Our son was born a few years later, following another induction based on circumstances similar to our daughter's. Since we were more seasoned parents, we decided we would like to try delivery by ourselves.

As a side note here, I'll mention that loads of couples do this successfully. Many moms find that just the companionship of their partners is enough to see them through the entire labor and delivery process. On top of that, a doula's job is not to replace the partner, but to support them both. So, this is no judgment on those amazing couples that manage birth by themselves, it is a confession that I am not one of those women and we are not one of those couples. 

We got to the hospital and started the whole process much as we did with my daughter. In fact, beginning to end, it took about the same amount of time. The hospital's birth center was packed and every doctor, midwife and nurse was working full-tilt, so we did not have the attentions we had hoped for - and we missed them sorely. I will also say here that I do not fault the hospital staff for their inability to attend me constantly. They did their job and they did it the best way they could. This experience only underlines, in my mind, the aching need for a doula.

Would you like to know how I would describe that experience? I'll take the liberty here of using the words of Carol Burnett, "Childbirth is like taking your lower lip, and pulling it over your head." I used to laugh at that. Now I don't, or at least, not in the same way.

There was yelling and swearing and so much pain.

It wasn't like this last time. Why?

There was no backup support, no non-drug comfort measures, no reassurance, suggestions, information. When my husband got too tired (and actually sick a couple of times with stomach flu) I was on my own.

I ended up losing my cool and consenting to a small dose of fentanyl (a common narcotic pain reliever given during labor), something I'd mentioned expressly in my birth plan as not wanting to have. I know I could've done it without if I would have had the proper support. I don't feel like I failed, though. I feel like I learned.

I learned how powerful labor support is. It's not a drug, yet it is extremely effective. It's like having a living copy of my sane mind to come and sit with me when I am losing it.

Ultimately we brought home a healthy baby both times. In the end, I recovered from both deliveries. I have happy memories of seeing my children for the first time and am proud of my efforts in getting them here. But the experiences were so markedly different from each other. If we have any more children, I'll be hiring a doula. When my friends ask me what they should take to the hospital, aside from what's listed in this post, I'll tell them: a doula.

For me, the difference is clear. One birth experience left an indelible impression of capability, power, and confidence. The other was a memory streaked with doubt, pain, and solitude. My feelings toward my husband and care providers remained pretty constant. The only difference between the two experiences is that for one I had a doula.