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The Scrutiny and Criticism Faced by Doulas: Challenging Patriarchal Values in the Caring Industry

Doulas being scrutinised.

Doulas, who provide essential support during pregnancy, birth, and postnatally, face a unique set of challenges rooted in patriarchal values. Historically, work traditionally performed by women, particularly caregiving roles, has been undervalued. This is especially evident in the criticism and scrutiny doulas endure, often being made to feel ashamed for charging for their services. This article will delve into the various factors contributing to this devaluation, explore the societal pressures doulas face, and highlight the critical role these professionals play in the infrastructure of our society.


Patriarchal Values and the Devaluation of Doula Work


Patriarchal structures have long influenced societal perceptions of work, especially work done by women. Historically, caregiving roles such as nursing, teaching, and, more recently, doulas, were among the few professions available to women. These roles were poorly compensated, reinforcing the notion that care work was of lesser economic value. This historical undervaluation continues today, creating a framework within which the contributions of doulas are systematically underappreciated. Add to this, the complete lack of knowledge and understanding of birth physiology and what women truly need during childbirth and afterwards, means that many don't fully understand the value of a doula.


The expectation that women should provide care out of innate kindness or maternal instinct is a patriarchal construct that undermines the professional skills and emotional labour involved in doula work. This mindset not only devalues the work but also places undue pressure on doulas to offer their services for free or at reduced costs, perpetuating the idea that care work is not a "real" job deserving of fair compensation.


If I was to ask you what you would pay for a positive birth experience, leading to quicker recovery, preventing postnatal mental health issues and increasing your chances of establishing breastfeeding, which all together leads to life-long benefits for both mother and baby? Tell me, what would you pay for that?


Cultural Expectations and Norms


Cultural expectations significantly influence the scrutiny doulas face. Society often positions caregiving, particularly in the context of childbirth and maternal support, as a "natural" role for women, something they should do willingly and without expectation of financial reward. This perspective, deeply ingrained in societal norms, reinforces the idea that caregiving, including doula services, is less valuable than other types of work.


Doula work involves significant emotional labour, which is often invisible and undervalued. The societal expectation that doulas should provide care out of love and compassion rather than as a professional service overlooks the complexity and skill required in these roles. This devaluation of emotional labour contributes to the criticism doulas face when they seek to monetise their caregiving skills. Why should something that comes naturally to some people be considered unethical to charge for, while other innate skills, like those in sports, are not?


Economic structures that favour traditionally male-dominated industries contribute to the lower valuation of work typically done by women, including doulas. The wage gap between men and women is a well-documented issue, and it is particularly pronounced in industries dominated by women, such as caregiving. This disparity reinforces the belief that care work is less valuable economically and perpetuates the notion that doulas should be paid less for their contributions.


Economic inequality further exacerbates the challenges doulas face. Women are often expected to accept lower wages and poorer working conditions because their work is seen as less critical or valuable. This economic marginalisation not only affects individual doulas but also devalues the entire profession, making it difficult for them to command fair prices for their services.


Evolution of Doula Profession


The historical context of caregiving professions, including doula work, sheds light on the persistent stereotypes that devalue women's work in this field. In the past, caregiving roles were seen as extensions of women's domestic duties, which were not financially compensated. Over time, while these roles have become more professionalised, the lingering perception of caregiving as "women's work" continues to affect how these professions are valued.


To break this cycle, it is crucial to recognise and challenge the historical stereotypes that contribute to the devaluation of doula work. This involves advocating for fair wages and greater societal recognition of the skills and labour involved in providing doula services. By addressing these historical injustices, we can begin to shift the narrative around doula work and its value.


Media Portrayal of Female Entrepreneurs


The media plays a significant role in shaping public perception of female-led care businesses, including those run by doulas. Often, the media portrays these businesses as less professional or less legitimate than their male counterparts in other industries. This portrayal can create a public perception that doula services should be cheap or free, further devaluing the work women do in this field.


To counteract these negative portrayals, it is essential to highlight successful female entrepreneurs in the doula industry and the professional skills they bring to their work. Positive media representation can help change public perception and elevate the status of doula professions, making it easier for women to command fair compensation for their services.


Doulas play a vital role in supporting maternal and infant health. Studies have shown that continuous support from a doula during labour can lead to better birth outcomes, including reduced rates of caesarean sections, shorter labour durations, and improved maternal satisfaction. This support is crucial for the well-being of both mothers and infants, highlighting the importance of valuing and compensating doula services fairly.


By providing essential support during childbirth and the postnatal period, doulas contribute significantly to public health. Their work helps reduce healthcare costs by supporting natural birth processes and reducing the need for medical interventions. Recognising and valuing the contributions of doulas is essential for a sustainable and effective healthcare system.


The Devaluation of Motherhood in the UK


In the UK, motherhood is often undervalued compared to countries with more generous maternity leave policies, such as Sweden. The UK offers up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, but only the first six weeks are paid at 90% of average weekly earnings, followed by a flat rate that is often insufficient to cover living expenses. In contrast, Sweden offers 480 days of paid parental leave per child, with a substantial portion paid at nearly 80% of the parent's salary. This disparity highlights the lack of support for mothers in the UK and the need for better policies to value and support caregiving roles.


Studies have shown that generous maternity leave policies, like those in Sweden, lead to better outcomes for mothers and children, including improved maternal mental health, higher breastfeeding rates, and stronger parent-child bonds. For instance, research indicates that longer maternity leave is associated with lower rates of postpartum depression and better physical recovery from childbirth. Additionally, extended paid leave allows for increased breastfeeding duration, which has numerous health benefits for both mother and child​. These benefits also contribute to broader societal and economic gains, emphasizing the need to re-evaluate and improve maternity leave policies in the UK.


The undervaluation of motherhood is a reflection of the broader societal tendency to devalue women's work, especially in caregiving roles that are crucial for building the infrastructure of our society. When a mother is not adequately supported, she struggles, and this can lead to issues in the child, for which the mother often gets blamed. What is lacking is not the mother's capability but the value and support necessary for her to perform the critically important job of raising a child. This lack of support underscores the need for systemic changes to ensure that motherhood, and by extension, all caregiving roles, are recognised and compensated fairly for their indispensable contributions to society.


Moving Forward: Strategies for Change


Education is key to changing societal perceptions of doula work. This involves educating the public about why doula services brings so many priceless foundations for a good start to the journey of motherhood. We must challenge the stereotypes that devalue this work, and promoting a greater understanding of the economic and social contributions of doulas.


Policy change is critical in addressing the systemic issues that affect doulas. This includes advocating for policies that promote gender equality, protect the rights of care workers, and support the economic empowerment of women.


The scrutiny and criticism faced by doulas are deeply rooted in patriarchal values and intersect with various societal factors, including cultural expectations, economic structures, historical context, and media representation. By recognising and addressing these issues, we can work towards a more equitable and supportive environment for doulas. This involves promoting fair compensation, raising awareness, supporting female entrepreneurs, and advocating for policy change.


Furthermore, the devaluation of motherhood in the UK, reflected in inadequate maternity leave policies, underscores the broader societal failure to support women's work, particularly in caregiving roles. When mothers and caregivers are not supported, the repercussions extend to the entire society, emphasising the urgent need for systemic changes. By valuing and supporting the critical work that doulas and mothers do, we can build a stronger, more equitable foundation for our society.


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