This is Not the Doula You’re Looking For

Have you ever heard a “bad doula” story? Chances are, if you’ve been in this field any time at all, you have at least once. She crossed a line, rubbed somebody the wrong way, didn’t do what was expected, things didn’t go as planned… In her own version of the story, the doula may have put her best foot forward. Sure, sometimes we all make mistakes. That’s part of learning and being human. It might also be true that, no matter what she did or didn’t do, this story was not going to have a good outcome in the end.  Not every doula is a good fit for every mama.

As we learn, grow, and hone our skills, a really important lesson comes in the form of knowing when to say, “I’m sorry, I’m not the right doula for your birth.” It’s not easy, especially in the beginning. A new doula is excited to have an opportunity to serve as many as she can. She’s eager to meet with new clients, and willing to stretch herself as much as possible to make her mamas happy. The thought of turning a client away is fear-provoking. She needs the experience, wants the income, and has in her heart a desire to be helpful.

Eventually, the lesson comes that we, as birth workers, are responsible only for our commitments. We are not responsible for our clients feelings, or the choices she makes, or her struggles. We are not responsible for whether her birth meets her own expectations. Nor are we responsible, though our egos love to think so, for her joy. We are accountable for our integrity – for doing as we say we will, when we said we would. Nothing more, nothing less.

A big part of showing up in integrity is knowing ahead of time what we can and cannot do. Saying, “That’s beyond my ability”, especially the first few times, is terrifying. The hamster wheels in our head get to spinning. We may think, “What if she doesn’t like me anymore?  What if she doesn’t hire me?  What if she tells her friends, and then I get a bad reputation? What if she doesn’t find someone who is right for her?” We worry about creating stories of abandonment, or hurting feelings. Doulas are, at the heart of the matter, compassionate people. But, if we truly long to help not just this mama, but the many who may come after her, knowing when to say “no” is truly an act of service within itself.

If we take on the responsibility for the journey of a woman’s pregnancy and outcome of her birth, we have robbed her of the opportunity to claim her own responsibility in creating her birth story. Denying a woman the power of using her own voice and strength is the greatest disservice we can do. The “bad doula” that you’ve heard about?  Chances are that she was speaking for the mama instead of encouraging the mama to speak for herself. It’s likely that she was holding herself accountable for this birth, instead of holding herself responsible for support. She showed up in combat gear to do a peacemaker’s job.

On my own doula path, I’ve come to recognize a few red flags that let me know clearly when I’m not the right doula.  Other doulas may have their own signals. A few I’ve come to recognize are:

If a mama is…

hoping that hiring a doula is all she needs to do to have an unmedicated birth

not interested in taking childbirth classes or reading books (at least one or the other)

learning all she needs to know from watching birth shows on TV

suffering from unresolved trauma, panic attacks, or debilitating anxiety for which she is not seeking other professional help

working with a doctor she hates and is unwilling to change practitioners

working with a practitioner who has made it clear that he or she doesn’t want to work with doulas

delivering in a facility that has strict policies against what she wants, and she’s unwilling to go somewhere else

planning to accidentally have her baby at home without qualified support

wanting to have uninterrupted hands-on doula support from the time her first mild or erratic contractions begin (even when it’s clear that birth may be days away)

truly terrified of giving birth at all, with or without medication

wanting to be told what to do, rather than given her options and asked for her decision

wanting to be protected from an abusive spouse or family member who will be present for her birth

… then I’m not the doula she’s looking for.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t care. Rather, it means that in knowing my own limits, I’m in a much better position to say “here’s someone else who might be able to really help you”. Maybe I send her toward a great therapist, or a support group, or even another doula who specializes in exactly what she’s looking for. Sometimes, saying “I’m sorry, but no” is the best support that I can offer. Is it easy?  Heck, no. My hands sweat and my knees shake, every time. But in the end, I know that in the temporary disappointment for us both, I’ve offered her far greater support than I ever would have if I’d have made a commitment I knew I couldn’t honor. I sleep with a clear conscience, she has the opportunity to get the support she really needs, and all will be well.


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