What’s in the Bag?


A most-frequently-asked-question circulating in the doula community always seems to be, “So, what do you carry in your birth bag?”

I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve talked about it, I’ve shown my bag to clients, I’ve even led workshops about it. I’ll tell you – when I first started out as a doula, I carried a hiker’s backpack with everything but the kitchen sink. It weighed about fifty pounds – over a third of my own bodyweight.

What was in it? Massage tools – wooden and battery operated. Massage oils, scented and unscented. Essential oils. An acupuncture activator. Moxibustion sticks. A rebozo. A pump for my birth ball. Duct tape, in case my birth ball sprung a leak (though I joked that it was in case of a mouthy mother-in-law.) Rice socks, to use as hot packs. Tennis balls. Snacks. Lip balm, and an extra in case mama forgot hers. Hair ties. CDs of good birthy music (this was pre-smart-phone.) A yoga mat. A homeopathy kit. A reference manual. Toiletries, in case birth was long. The list went on and on and on. If I thought I might use it, ever, it went in the bag. Like any good girl scout, I was prepared.

Know what happened? Stuff broke. Bottles leaked. Things got ruined. My shoulders got sore from schlepping this massive bag from house, to car, to hospital, and back to the car again. Most of the time, I didn’t use much of what I’d brought with me, and sometimes, even though I had every material thing I thought I could possibly ever need, birth still didn’t go the way I thought or hoped it would. I felt tired, disappointed, fatigued. My recovery from the “reality vertigo” of attending a long or difficult labor, even when everything went (what I judged as) “perfectly”, sometimes took days. The real work of doula support, I learned, wasn’t what I could do with “stuff” – it began with what I could do within.

It’s not about the bag – it’s about the baggage – MY baggage. The biggest hindrance, I’ve seen, isn’t in not having the right tools in the bag, it’s about having the right tools in my toolkit. Not the tools I carry in a pack, but the ones I carry in my own head, and my own heart. The most effective tools I now carry come out in my words, in my energy, and in my hands.

My hands are among the most powerful comforting tools when my heart is committed to service. Whether I’m offering a loving touch, or removing a distracting clock out of a mother’s field of vision, serving her birth means keeping my thoughts attuned to what a laboring woman wants or needs, free from my own ideas of what “should” be. Believing in my heart that she is capable and strong, that her body knows how to birth and her baby knows how to get born makes my words of affirmation in moments of challenge a greater source of strength than any massager or homeopathic remedy could ever be.

I learned to unpack my “stuff”. It started with the unpacking of the heavy stuff I carried in the pack. What I bring now is basic and simple – a dry shirt, a phone charger, my wallet, gum. What was harder was unpacking the even heavier stuff that I carried within me. The judgments, the “shoulds”, the “have-to’s”, the “can’t”, the “try to”. It included releasing my own definition of what a “good birth” is, letting go of any ideas of my own agenda, and just showing up ready to serve in compassion and support.

I began to re-stock my kit with learning the importance of good self care – keeping myself nourished, energized, and fulfilled, so that I can give wholeheartedly without giving out. I learned how to recognize the difference between what I want, and what someone else has the power to choose. I learned how to set and keep effective boundaries. I learned the language of honoring both myself and another. I learned clear communication skills.

The simplest, most effective tool a doula can carry is love. Show up, and love her. That’s all. Love her in her moments of strength and in her moments of vulnerability. Love her in her power to make her own choices, whether or not it’s the choice I would make for myself or another. Trust her to do her best for herself and her baby, knowing that she is the only one who can say what “the best” may be.

Most of the material tools can be brought by the mother herself, or can be made up on the spot at home or in the hospital with what is already on hand.

What are you carrying that no longer serves you? What do you believe to be true about birth, about yourself, about your own strengths and weaknesses? What expectations are you bringing? What are you judging as “right”? What are you wanting, more than a mother may want for herself? Forget the bag, and check your baggage. You’ll be glad you did.

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