I can vividly remember driving over to my first ever birth. It was December 2002 and my client, pregnant with her third child and booked for a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Caesarean), called me in the middle of the night.
On my way over to her house, I stopped in a lay-by and got my bottle of rescue remedy out and just sat for five minutes focusing on my breath and thinking, this is it! Was I going to enjoy it and be supportive for this couple, or would I start screaming, faint or just walk out in the middle of it all? When I walked through their front door minutes later, I felt calm and excited again and just stayed quiet and focused. Eventually, when we decided to transfer to hospital, my client and her husband went in one car and I went ahead in my own car. It was rush hour traffic and I got to the hospital 45 minutes before they did. The husband got lost, taking a shortcut, and by the time we were re-united in the hospital car park, I had already learnt a couple of important lessons: if at all possible, leave before rush hour, and travel together (or at least follow each other!) My client gave birth twenty minutes after we walked through the hospital doors.
So, how have I changed the way I now work as a doula compared to back in 2002? Well, I used to think that I needed to do courses in everything and be prepared to fix all the different things that could happen during a birth! Things like how to turn a baby into a good position, how to administer different potions and lotions, and how to massage in a “proper manner”. I made sure the antenatal meetings were well planned and that I covered everything that I felt was important. I didn’t often challenge a woman about her reasons for wanting the birth a certain way and generally felt that I was there to support and not question.
I used to feel happy if the couple I supported had a straightforward physiological birth. If things didn’t go to plan, I used to sometimes feel angry because I felt that perhaps if they had just listened to what I had suggested, it might have been different. Other times, I’d feel guilty because somehow I believed I should have done something or done more to prevent what happened. I felt that I was an important part of the birth and that as I was being paid, I had to do something to justify my wage!
One birth in particular that changed my views was birth number eight. I had been booked by a same-sex couple. When the pregnant woman went into labour, she took herself to hospital. I got a call from her partner telling me to meet them at the hospital, as the labouring woman was already six centimetres dilated. I was sure I would not get there in time and meeting at the hospital was something that I had already learnt was not a particularly ideal situation. When I got there, my clients were on the normal delivery suite, waiting for a room to become free in the birth centre and we were soon transferred to where they wanted to be. The woman in labour went straight into the ensuite bathroom and sat on the loo, in the dark, with the door slightly ajar. Her partner and I were left outside, looking at each other as we did not want to make any noise to disturb the labour. After a while, I started feeling that perhaps the woman in labour wanted me to leave the two of them alone. I said to her partner to go and ask if she wanted to come out into the big beautiful room we were in and if she wanted me to go outside for a while. She returned looking a bit sheepish and said, “Yes, if you don’t mind, we would really like it if you could just sit outside so that we can call you if we need you”. I was a bit taken aback, my big ego getting bruised, but left the room. I sat outside for four hours, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on my feelings and behaviour, and when I was invited back into the room to admire their beautiful baby, I finally understood that being a doula is NEVER about the doula, it’s about the people we are supporting and their experience! Sometimes just being outside the room, “just in case”, is exactly what a labouring woman would need from me - who was I to tell her she should want anything different?
I believe the essence of being a doula is just that; “being”. Sometimes, I think we should actually be called ‘Be-las’, not ‘Do-las’ or perhaps even ‘Do-less’? I will listen to women and their partners and try to understand where they are coming from and where they are at present. We all need to meet the couple where they are and walk along with them from that point forward. At times, I will not have enough time to get to a, in my view, ‘good place’ with the couple and I have to accept that. Sometimes I will not be told everything and I might struggle to make sense of my client’s behaviour, but I realise that there are always reasons for it. I know that I can’t make anyone choose or think like me, and that is also not what doulas should do. No one can control the birth process and it is just as important for me to let go as a doula, as it is for the woman in labour.
I no longer use birth plans, but usually write a “birth preference” with the couple and I always encourage them to keep an open mind. Things could happen that make the birth different from how they had hoped, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be a positive experience.
I know that I would not be the doula I am, had I not had the opportunity to support all the lovely couples I have during their births and postnatal periods. Whilst it is always special to be the chosen doula, I have also realised that it is never about me, that there is no room for my ego in my work, that I can only give it my best and to be aware of my boundaries and limitations. I know I would not be the doula I am if I had not taken on board feed-back and spent time reflecting with colleagues on what I’m doing and how I’m feeling. I also think the key to being a good doula is never to think that there is nothing new to learn and to always strive to remain humble.
Kicki Hansard is a member of Doula UK, however any opinions expressed on this blog are personal views and not necessarily the view of Doula UK.