What I wish I’d known when I was a beginning doula
Find a mentor and heart-centered trainings
I began my path as a doula in 2002, but it wasn't until 2009 that I started my own business and began seeing this work as a calling in which I could thrive on: personally, intellectually, financially, spiritually. Starting out a full-time business in '09, I was lucky to have a doula mentor who was heart-centered, who worked compassionately and skillfully with clients the way I yearned. She brought me to prenatal sessions with her clients and took me on as a doula partner for the births too. This meant that clients were aware that they would be working with either one OR both of us when they went into labor. In those prenatal sessions, I learned about nurturing couples using my non-judgmental ear, the warm gesture of bringing a gift like a homemade meal to share, and creating compassionate and informative hand-outs for mom and partner. The therapeutic activities were so inspirational for me (birth art, foot baths) and I quickly learned that couples could tap into their inner wisdom, and relax more with just a bit of guidance and openness on my part. My mentor saw me for my unique gifts, led me down the road to confidence, and helped me set a fee which reflected my true worth.
Trainings are important, too. I've attended many a training because I wanted to learn everything possible. But it was birth and the women I served who began to show me the way. In the first three years of my private practice, I attended many hospital births in NYC and worked with couples with all types of birth preferences. I got to know them well; I wanted to know who they were and how they were preparing for birth within themselves, not based on the books they read or other people's stories. I created professional packages that offered a list of services I wasn't seeing on other doula's websites. I wanted to be different. I wanted to work in a soul and heart-centered way. I am a healer and an empath; I wanted to offer this level of support and to trust I'd attract who I was meant to serve.
Take the trainings that speak to your heart, that teach you what you need in order to grow your business, that spark your confidence and unique skill set. Or find a mentor to help you. Ask for help from doulas with more experience. Find a mentor in your community or a virtual mentor.
Don't worry if you don't know everything at first. Your clients will teach you. Babies will teach you. Birth will teach you. Your ideal clients will hire you because they like you and want you around. Your expertise grows with time and your rates can rise quickly with your growing knowledge, each and every season.
Know You are not God
Once while a client was in early labor, I received a serious head injury while resting peacefully in Central Park. A massive tree limb came down onto the crown of my head. After the ambulance was called, and while staying as calm as possible, I had a bystander call my clients to let them know what had happened and that three back-ups were available in my absence. Every doula was called before my own mother.
I am committed to my clients. This is not a question. It was not easy being in bed recovering for three weeks and handing over my other six beloved clients to my back-up team. The whole thing was too surreal. My client and I had just gotten off the phone; she had been telling me that her contractions were getting more intense even with the long break in between. I gave her hydrotherapy suggestions, relaxation techniques, and told her to check in soon. We were waiting for her to be further along for me to venture over. And then, I was suddenly injured.
I wish that in the beginning, someone had told me that being a doula is not like being God. I can't be in two places at once. I can't survive a natural disaster and attend a birth. And I can't make everyone happy, all the time.
Build your own Community
....But I can have everything set up and have a community to support me. I have always considered by back-ups my friends. I have tea with them, know their children, take continuing ed classes with them, travel with them, and meet for long cries in the playground. I have called them at births to vent, ask for their opinion, celebrate when it's through, and then fall asleep to their kind affirmations. I share birth stories with them so that I don't have to hold these gigantic emotional experiences on my own shoulders. And if I am ill, or have a sudden trip to take, there is no doubt they will take my place and serve the women with the same heart and expertise.
Building community is crucial as a solo birth worker. A client's experience is delicate and deep. It must be held, processed, and weaved through time- no matter how the birth unfolds. Without other doulas to lean on, I would be a walking sprinkler system weeping oceans and floods on city streets (Yes, birth affects us too). Doula sisters are the the plug that lets that water drain away into it's right place. Then, like water, the experience re-purifies, allowing for lessons and celebrations to appear. Birth teaches us all. It changes everyone in the room. We know how hard it is to be (sometimes the only) conscientious people in the room, continuously supporting without judgment, holding ourselves strong throughout. When we are through, a doula sister will do the same for us, she'll listen and hear it all, until we can breathe steady again.
Sometimes after a long birth, I get sick. This usually happens when I am not partnering in a birth that turns out to be very, very long. I like partnering because it allows for doulas to split shifts if necessary. If you've worked 15 hours and you know the mama is just halfway through, you can ask your partner to come in so you can sleep the night, and then re-evaluate who will follow the birth the next day. It is so difficult sleeping at the hospital for many reasons. Don't get me wrong; I've been fine many a night without sleep and have also slept on my coat across the labor room floor, and not slept at all during active-over-the-night-births. But I will admit, there have been moments I wished I had called someone in to help when things were slow, and looking like it would be another 24hrs. My health matters too! The client knows this partner doula, she has met them for tea. A relationship has been formed and your client is aware that in the case of a super long birth, you have back-up in case you are not feeling well.
Again, You are not God
We are not God and so cannot be in control of a client's birth outcome. We live in a high rate cesarean culture and even though a part of our job is working to "avoid" surgical birth by advocating with our clients and helping them to get their vaginal birth desires fulfilled, we are also working to help them accept an unanticipated outcome when it does happen. We are working on letting go of birth outcomes. This is her birth and we are hired to walk with her. We ourselves may walk away feeling angry at the hospital system every time a woman's epidural fails her and she in turn needs or even chooses a c-section, or every time a doctor manipulates her in to having one because "he is just done." That's all very, very real.
But here's what I learned: She has hired me to weave her birth story, and so I stand with her until the end. I am modeling (for every person in the room) what it means to be with-woman. This power of presence reminds her of her wishes, her strength, her knowing of what is right for her family. And so the witness becomes the medicine. The doula at times is just a mirror. No, this is not hippie bullshit. This is love and what my moms (and pretty much everyone within earth's gravity) needed, every single time.
Remember, this is the beginning of her motherhood career of making choices for her entire family, forever. In her labor, I am working to remind her that love is in every choice she makes, and sometimes even inside the ones she doesn't feel she is making. I may not be God, but I'm certainly an ally by her side, diving deep into those realms of labor and transformation with a hand and my heart.
Make time for TEA
Time, Energy, Attention- words learned from my dear teacher Diane Bartlett of the Matrona- is what I bring to every couple, every labor, every postpartum visit, every time. TEA is what heals me too after a birth when I care deeply for myself: time, energy and attention for myself. And TEA is what connects me to my clients forever.
You are enough
I wish I knew that my words, my touch, my compassionate presence were enough. I wish someone had told me in the beginning that I was enough.
And that I would need to remind myself this again and again: that this affirmation would save me.
Erica Shane is Childbirth Doula based in NYC. She is a Mentor for new doulas and offers a 12-week New Doula Mentor Program over Skype to help women kick start their heart-centered doula businesses. Recently, Erica has shared an exciting new product with her birth community, Spanish for Birth Caregivers. A graduate of the Matrona’s Holistic Midwife program, Erica shares a compassionate and nurturing perspective surrounding pregnancy, birth, and new parenthood. With a passion for holistic care giving and bringing birth back to the family, Erica is dedicated to each and every family she serves, understanding the distinct needs and wishes each one brings. Find her here:www.EricaShaneChildbirth.com