Having just witnessed another birth, I’ve been reflecting once more on why I became a volunteer doula and what the work means to me.
I’m a baby freak, plain and simple. As a young candy-striper I routinely snuck into the pediatrics ward so I could rock sick kids. While my high school friends dated, I babysat. If I hadn’t been a product of the fifties, I might have considered becoming a obstetrician or a midwife. Instead I followed the path that most girls my age did: I went to college for a liberal arts degree and then became a secretary -- a medical secretary.
My real career began when I became program director in 1979 for the National Women’s Health Network, a Washington, D.C.-based education and advocacy organization dedicated to humane, holistic, evidence-based, feminist approaches to women’s health care. In 1985 I went to Nairobi for the final international conference of the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985). Inspired by that amazing event and armed with a master’s degree in health communication, I began working internationally on behalf of women and children, always trying to bring a gender lens to the table.
In the midst of all this, I gave birth twice. My children were born in the seventies as the women’s health movement, and individual women, were beginning to advocate for natural childbirth and to resist the traumas of overly-medicalized birth experiences. We took Lamaze classes, learned about nursing, expected dads to be active in our deliveries. I was lucky: not only were my labors quick and unremarkable, but the small community hospital where I delivered was sympathetic to the changes taking place in birthing. There were no monitors, no drugs “to take the edge off” if you didn’t want them, no enemas, no shaving, and no macho-docs (although I couldn’t talk my doctor out of the episiotomy). I labored with my nurse and my husband and when the time came to push, I watched my babies come into this world in total awe of what had just happened and what I had done.
Several years ago, I learned that my local hospital had a volunteer doula program. Signing up was a no-brainer and I’ve now had the honor of supporting dozens of women and their partners as they’ve done the hard work of delivering a baby. Not one of them has failed to say afterwards, “I couldn’t have done it without you!” (They could, but I’m glad to have eased their experience.)
One of the early births I attended stands out in my mind. It was a first pregnancy and the mom labored stoically for thirty-six hours, pushing for five, before her son was born. As the hours passed, I held her hand, wet her lips, wiped strands of matted hair from her eyes, rubbed her back. “You can do this,” I whispered in her ear when she grew doubtful. “You’re doing a magnificent job! Soon your baby will be born.” As the baby finally crowned, wet, dark hair pressing urgently against her, I held the mother’s leg in my arm, her hand clenching my free wrist as she cried out with that guttural groan of a woman pushing her child to life outside the womb. And suddenly, there he was, head emerging, wet and pinking up even as his perfect little body swam into being. Later, swaddled and suckling at his mother’s breast, his father, eyes wet, whispered across the bed to me, “Women’s bodies are so miraculous!”
“Yes,” I said, my own eyes filling, “Miraculous.” Always miraculous, no matter how many times you give witness, or weep yourself to see a woman giving birth.
Doula supported childbirth has been proven to reduce the incidence of c-sections, shorten the length of labor, reduce the number of medicated births, increase breastfeeding and provide higher satisfaction for mothers regarding their birth experience. As one pediatrician put it, we are “the descendants of those millions of women who gathered at bedsides around the world” to help women through labor and delivery. “Some day we may again reach a point where women rely on the traditional circle of birth-experienced [women] to ease them through childbirth. … Until then, skilled, compassionate doulas will ably stand in for them.”
That is why I feel privileged to do this voluntary work. It is simply an honor to give witness to birth, and to offer as many women as possible the opportunity to have a birth that is supported, memorable, and full of joy.