No Free Births!

“I’m offering service for free until I’m certified, then someday I’ll have paying clients.”

“I don’t charge for more than gas money now, but one day…”

“I’m looking for a student doula, or somebody who is willing to do births for no charge…”

Doulas, Mamas, I’m going to be blunt, here:


Now. I mean right now.  Cut it out.

“One Day” is not a day of the week. “Someday Isle” is a fantasy destination.

This mindset is not doing anyone any good.

If you are a doula, whether you identify as a student doula or an experienced doula, whether this is your first birth or your 401st, it is time to recognize that your work in the world has value, and begin treating it as such. You were given the gifts you have – the same gifts that make you well-suited to this doula thing –  to make it easy for the universe to bless you with abundance. So stop saying, “No thank you, Universe, I’m not good enough for that yet.”

You have been called to this work. You have capabilities and knowledge and skills that affect someone’s most precious memory – that of her child being born. You add value to the lives of others.  It is time to know this about yourself. You deserve an abundant life so that you have more to offer. Your playing small serves no one. It sends the message that you are unworthy, and that what you have to give is of no value. None – as in, less than a Happy Meal toy. This is not the message befitting of the services we provide.

Doulas deserve to be recognized within our culture and our medical system as having worth. We lower the cesarean rate, lower the percentage of interventions necessary, lower the use of pain medications, and leave mothers feeling more satisfied with their birth experiences and their babies.

Even if you have only served a handful of births, when you meet with an expecting mother for the first time, chances are that you already know more about birth than she does. That’s part of why she wants you there! Whether you’ve served one birth or many, you provide families with  information, physical comfort, and emotional support. In the very first studies proving “the doula effect”, the doulas did nothing more than sit in a chair with a clipboard, observing and taking notes. That’s it! If you’re doing at least that much, you are providing a worthwhile service, and it is only fair that you be compensated in exchange.

When you diminish yourself by giving your work away, you affect not only yourself, but every other doula in your community. Those who are charging a fee adequate to make a living wage  – which you someday hope to be – are questioned about the validity of their fee, because it’s something that others are willing to simply give away. (See What’s In a Fee? for a more in-depth breakdown of what a doula’s living wage fee entails.) Sending a message of being worth nothing denigrates the value of doula service as a whole, and begs the question, “If someone else will do this for free, why are you charging me at all?”

Another interesting point to ponder:  If you do hope to someday make a living wage with this work, it will not ever happen as long as you are willing to give yourself away, or charge less than your service is genuinely worth. I hear student doulas frequently saying, “I want to make myself appealing to clients, so I charge a lot less.” This may surprise you to hear:  This actually works against basic human psychology.

Human beings  make financial decisions based on a “set point” for what they believe something to be worth. Let’s think about this a moment. Let’s say that you want to buy your beloved a romantic getaway, and you’ve decided that a night in an oceanfront bed and breakfast would be just right. In your mind, from recommendations you’ve had from friends and a little bit of looking online, you know that the sort of place you’d like is going to be about $150 for the night. That’s your set point. That’s what you believe a nice night in a bed and breakfast to be worth. Now, as you are looking, you come across an ad on Craigslist offering a a night in a bed and breakfast for $40. Is your first response, “Yes! Sign me up for that!” If you’re anything like most folks, no. Your first response is more likely to be, “Eeew! I bet it has bedbugs!” What if curiosity leads you to call to ask a few questions, and upon hearing your hesitation,  they’re willing to give it to you for $30? Is that better?  NO! Oh, well what if they let you stay for free? In fact, what if they’re willing to pay YOU, just so they get the benefit of the experience of having you for a customer?  At that point, you’d be questioning the sanity of anyone who chose to stay there, right?  So, why do this with the value of our own services?

“But, Jodi,” I can hear you saying, “Don’t you believe in ‘a doula for every woman who wants one’?” Without question, yes, I do. Are there people who truly cannot afford a doula’s fee? Yes. Even then, I believe in the equal exchange of something of value for something of value.  I’ve known doulas to barter for meal preparation, for childcare, for piano lessons, for cleaning service, for moving help… there are many possibilities. Brainstorm with your client, and get as creative as you need to, but convey the message clearly that you are offering something of worth, and an equivalent exchange of worth is absolutely necessary. This is not negotiable.  Even the Wall Street Journal has recently published that when businesses offer “pay what you want” policies, customers are more likely to pass up the opportunity altogether than they are to accept something for free. Everybody knows that we can’t get something for nothing. It’s a gamble, like playing the lottery. It’s a nice idea to think about, but it’s not a realistic expectation. That which we have worked for, have earned, or have invested in has far more worth to us. So, if you want more clients, charge what you are worth! Starting today, starting now, no excuses.

This benefits not only your business and your doula colleagues, but our clients, as well. A woman who has spent more on bubble bath at the drugstore than she has on your service has also expressed a belief in her own worth, and in the worth of her birth. An “empowered birth”, like winning the lottery, might be little more than a nice idea. She has invested nothing, and is at no risk of losing anything in the process. In the heat of the moment, very few women are going to put much trust in the opinion of someone who has offered her something-for-nothing. Nobody really wants  the input of someone who has already declared herself worthless. Please, doulas, think carefully about the message you are sending about yourself, the women you serve, and the work we do. Birthing women, know that a doula’s service to your birth is of great worth, and so are you. Birthing with a doula’s support is a beautiful gift to yourself, your partner, and your child.

Together, we can create a culture that supports doula care as a valid and sustainable path for those who are called to it, and a valued service for those who benefit from it.


 Like this article?  Come “like” Jodi the Doula on Facebook for more! 

Edit on 7/25/13:  Are you now one of the many asking “But what about the low-income mama who truly can’t afford a doula?” Come take a look at “A Doula for Everyone…But How?” 

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