Doulas are witnesses at births.
by Beth Singleton
This is kind of a tricky topic to write on, but one I consider quite valid when it comes to childbirth. When most people think of a doula and what she does (well, for those who know what a doula is!), the primary thing that probably comes to mind is her service and her support. Encouraging women through their contractions, reminding them to breathe, and using touch as a way to help ease discomfort are a few things that doulas are known for doing. But what about a doula as your witness?
During life’s most meaningful moments, we desire to be surrounded by people who care. Weddings, graduations, and funerals come to mind, where the support of others and the power of their bearing witness is paramount. Having people around to witness once in a lifetime moments goes as an unspoken desire that’s fulfilled because others care enough to be there. I mean, in order to get married, you have to have a witness!
Childbirth really isn’t any different. While it’s certainly a more private affair than the public vows of marriage, it definitely tops the charts of once in a lifetime moments. During my training through DONA, I remember hearing the word witness more than a few times by the other women there with me. I wasn’t the only one who viewed doulas this way or who knew the need was there!
Why doulas make great witnesses
• A doula is with you continuously throughout your labor. That’s not to say that your partner, friends, or relatives (whoever you’ve chosen to be present) aren’t with you; but, more often than not, they need to take breaks. It’s also very common for people, if they aren’t actively supporting a woman in labor, to get involved in conversation or a good book. Not the ones faced with the demands of labor, people can’t help but find ways to pass the time. Books or phones in the hands of those who are with a laboring woman are a very common sight, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. Labor can take awhile! Your doula, however, knows things can change in an instant; so unless mom is taking a much needed rest and fast asleep, no book or phone will be in the doula’s hand. Her eyes, ears, and intuition are all focused on mom. In a hospital setting, shift changes mean that a new set of eyes, ears, and hands will be taking over care. It’s not uncommon for the nurse who cared for you in the early stages of labor to not be the one there when baby finally arrives. Your doula, on the other hand, is there for from start to finish. If you aren’t sure or can’t remember exactly what happened or when, just ask your doula.
• A doula can help validate your experience and your feelings. This is HUGE for most women, regardless of whether or not they had a positive birth experience. As doulas, we are trained to pay attention. This really matters when it comes time for mom to process her birth, especially if it was traumatic for her. During a tender period of time afterwards, women need to go through and piece things together. When there are pieces missing, a doula can help fill them in. Sometimes women have questions about specific things that happened, like procedures or even something someone said. Was the nurse really being mean? Did my doctor really say that? Your doula can help you shake that feeling of “Am I crazy or did that really happen?” by either confirming or clarifying the moment in question. She can also help to paint a visual picture for parents. Pointing out relevant moments that were possibly overlooked because of the intensity of labor, a doula can provide insight on the experience by highlighting those details.
• A doula works for you. They answer to no one else. Their focus is on you and what you’re experiencing, without letting emotions get in the way. That’s not to say your doula isn’t emotionally vested because she is; it’s impossible not to care! But your doula isn’t your partner, your mom, or your best friend…and that’s really important. The people closest to you are probably as emotionally involved in your birth as you are. They can’t help it! Needless to say, it’s reassuring to labor and give birth knowing someone was there attuned to you, your wants and needs, and paying attention. Your doula is filing everything away in her brain and in her notes about your labor and birth. She knows how much it matters to you to have this information later. Even if questions pop up months down the road, your doula is the one you know you can turn to for answers because she was there as your witness.
For some women, having a doula present at their birth is critical because of special circumstances. Some of these circumstances include, but are not limited to:
• the absence of a supportive partner
• the absence of supportive friends or family
• women with anxiety
• women with previous trauma
• women with a fear of labor and/or childbirth
• women with doubts about their abilities to labor and give birth
• women who know they will need someone to process the birth with
• women who struggle with trust
On the flip side, some of these reasons might also apply to a woman NOT wanting a doula present. Depending on her specific situation, some of the reasons listed above may stand in a woman’s way of even reaching out for the support of a doula.
As with all things, any number of factors play into whether a woman wants support, to what degree she wants it and what her specific needs are. As doulas, we understand.
If you’re considering hiring a doula to support you throughout your pregnancy and birth, Birth Quest is
here to help. For more information about our services or to set up a free consultation, contact us.
“Although this moment is bittersweet, it’s one of my favorite photos and I’m glad it was captured. Just before I was taken into surgery, after 24 hours of hard labor at home. My #doula, Faith, never left my side.”
— Ottawa County client, after a homebirth transfer to hospital
“[Faith] provided me with many resources, and I also really appreciated the teas she made me. Her evidence based approach was very unbiased and nonjudgmental. I felt like I could be honest about my needs with her… She really proved herself when the birthday came. She was my knight in shining armor! She made me feel so confident and comforted through my labor. Her knowledge of a birthing woman’s body and need for support was obvious. I credit my smooth labor and delivery to her…”
— Norton Shores mom, of her homebirth with Birth Quest
When I tell people that I’m a birth doula, the most common response I get is, “Oh, so you help women having their babies at home?”. To which I reply, “Yes, doulas support women at homebirths, but all of the women I’ve supported have given birth in hospitals”.
Because the word doula is not a part of everyday vocabulary for most people, I think many confuse a doula with a midwife. This is usually the second thing I have to explain to people about my job. I don’t catch the babies; I hold space for mom and support her through the process.
The next question usually revolves around why doulas attend more hospital births than homebirths. Several factors impact a woman’s decision on whether or not to hire a doula. For the woman choosing to give birth at home, the biggest factor is likely financial. Homebirths are generally paid for out-of-pocket, as are doulas. Since doulas don’t provide the clinical support a pregnant woman needs and they don’t catch babies, women who desire a homebirth are often faced with the decision to choose between hiring a midwife or a doula. In this scenario, the midwife is usually chosen because of the necessity of her services.
But what if having a doula AND a midwife were an option?
It’s true that your midwife will spend more time with you while you labor and provide a different model of care during pregnancy and delivery. It’s also true that she will likely have assistants who can attend to some of your needs. However, with their focus primarily on the clinical aspects of care, there are other elements left unaccounted for.
Generally, a doula will meet with you in your home at least a couple of times before you have your baby. She’ll be familiar with you and your surroundings. It’s during these meetings that doula and mom become acquainted and comfortable with one another. If there are pets, the doula will get to know them. If there are other children or family members, the doula will get to know them, too. This process is vital in developing a safe relationship as the mother will depend on the doula to cover the non-clinical elements that are a part of the birth process. It’s during these visits that mom can share her hopes and her fears. While she’s probably also done this with her midwife, the doula provides more time for mom to process and plan. The more informational and emotional support a woman receives during her pregnancy, the better.
And in the event of a hospital transfer?
Your doula will be with you. Your midwife probably will be, too, but if your doula is the one you’ve been leaning on emotionally during your pregnancy and labor, her presence is vital. Odds are, she was with you earlier in your labor than your midwife was, as well. That’s the beauty of a doula: no shift changes and present with you from the beginning to the end. Another benefit is that a doula is likely to be very familiar with the hospital environment and maybe even some of the staff, so she can help to explain what is going on and bridge the gaps between a homebirth and a hospital birth.
Regardless of the outcome, whether you had your baby at home or had to transfer to the hospital, your doula will be there postpartum for you to process the experience. Your midwife will, too, but depending on how the birth went compared to how you had envisioned it, your doula provides added space and opportunity to share things that you might not wish to share with your midwife. I know for me, I’m no good at confrontation and had I been upset with my midwife or disappointed, there’s no way I could have told her that (fortunately, that wasn’t the case for me!). A doula is trained to listen to your grievances and your joys. Validating your feelings and helping you to pick through the pieces and put them together, a doula can offer perspective, encouragement, and reassurance.
Birth is one of the most unpredictable events in nature. No matter how much you know about it, curveballs often appear in the form of all the little things that surface in the midst of the limbo of labor that no one had planned on.
I think back to my last pregnancy, when I had finally planned the homebirth I’d always wanted. It honestly was an amazing experience to labor at home and push my baby out the way I wanted with a supportive group of women (midwives, assistants, my mom and mother-in-law) and my husband. All of it was golden. I was even doing “doula talk” in my head, like focusing on the words soft and open. You see, I’d had my birth doula training through DONA only a few short months before the birth. So at the very least, I was able to focus and feel pretty in control during the more intense moments of labor. Super proud of myself for that!
However, the entire day leading up to my precious little one’s arrival, my anxiety and the negative self-talk going on in my head was relentless. Fourth baby, longest labor. Why? Was I not moving around enough? How long was it going to take? Why were the contractions that woke me in the wee hours of the morning that were 4 minutes apart and very uncomfortable spacing out to 15 minutes and not as painful? And there went my thoughts for the better part of an entire day. It’s the one part of my labor I look back on and wish I’d had a better attitude about. As helpful and supportive as my husband was physically for me that last time around (so grateful for the counter pressure and back rubs!), I needed someone to help ease my mind. I needed someone to remind me that every labor is different and that what I was experiencing was normal. I’d fed my fear of waking in labor and things moving quickly, as they had in the past (with my third baby, I went from 5cm to holding my baby in under a couple of hours after painfully relentless contractions). Instead, I spent the better part of the 24 hours that I was in labor anxious, discouraged, and feeling guilty for having sent my kids away first thing in the morning because I was sure “this is it!”. I wasn’t mentally prepared for a long labor. I’d never had one.
Don’t get me wrong; my birth team was incredible! I’d depend on them again in a heartbeat for their care and support during pregnancy and birth. Looking back, though, I know I needed more in those long hours before my little guy finally made his arrival.
Doulas meet so many needs that are maybe overlooked or not considered.
I know when my son was born, my house was a mess. Pretty sure there were dishes and laundry that needed to be done. I didn’t feel like cooking and no one brought food while I was in labor. It was a long, lonely day. I struggled to find distractions. There were so many things during that entire day of early labor that a doula could have helped me and my husband with. We were both so tired.
When I was in active labor and pushing, I soaked up every encouraging word and touch my birth team provided me. They were tender, attentive, and confident. In hindsight, I realize I had needed that all day to better cope with my apprehension about the imminent arrival of my baby. I needed someone to hold that space for me and remind me that everything would be okay. I needed someone to tend to the things my husband and I couldn’t get to while I tried to rest.
My other children were born in the hospital, where food and laundry weren’t an issue. While the hospital environment is not my personal favorite for giving birth, those two things ended up being huge oversights for me with my homebirth. I don’t have sisters or super close girlfriends that I would have felt comfortable having with me while I labored; and I wanted my mom and mother-in-law present for the birth, not running around my house cleaning and cooking. While having my son at home was truly a dream, waking up the next day to the reality of…well, real life, wasn’t. Looking back, I hadn’t planned for how to handle those seemingly tiny details. Who knew that while I did the hard work of bringing life into the world that my house wouldn’t clean itself or cook a meal for me! Or take care of my other children when they returned home the very next day (totally needed a postpartum doula, too).
My business partner and Birth Quest founder, Faith, also had her last baby at home. Her labor, which was the complete opposite of mine, was quick and intense. Despite her doula training, she found herself in need of one and speaking the words women the world over often say when it’s become too much…“I can’t do this! Make it stop!”
I needed a doula; but even if I’d wanted one, I couldn’t have afforded one anyway.
At least, that’s what I thought. I know better now. I could have asked family to help with the expense or sought a doula out that would take my finances into consideration and work with me to make it affordable. Our vision is to increase access to doulas for every person who wants one, so please contact us if you have a financial hardship, especially if that is due to the unreimbursed expense of an out-of-hospital birth. Everyone deserves a doula!
As one Birth Quest client of her having a doula for her homebirth said, “My parents paid for my doula as a gift for our Homebirth. If they hadn’t, cost might had been an issue but I definitely would choose to hire a doula again. Their knowledge and support are so priceless if you can find one you love!”
My story and Faith’s are just two of many stories. Doulas do so many things. If any one part of your labor and birth could be considered customizable, it’s who you choose as your doula. With you from the moment you feel like you need her, she’s the one you’ll have expressed your desires to about labor and birth. Whether you need someone behind the scenes – doing your dishes, folding laundry, or getting a meal ready – or someone to be a part of the action – holding your hand, taking pictures, or showing your partner where to apply counterpressure – your doula is the one person attuned to your wants and needs. And if at any time you want what your doulas doing to change, just say the words…that’s what she’s there for.
What does a doula do at a homebirth anyway?
At a homebirth, a doula is going to do everything she’d do for you in a hospital, except that she is in your space where there are more personal elements that might need tending to. Because the list could go on and on, here are a few examples:
- Ideally, she arrives earlier in your labor to provide support (informational, emotional, physical, etc.)
- Support for your partner (in the form of breaks, encouragement, direction on how to apply pain management techniques, etc.)
- Support for others present during your labor and birth (friends, relatives, children, etc.)
- Light household chores (dishes, laundry, etc.)
- Meal preparation
- Tending to the needs of pets
- Taking pictures
- Crowd control (making sure mom has the space and privacy she desires)
- Immediate postpartum support
- Assistance with breastfeeding
- Preparing a place to rest postpartum
- Meeting needs specific to the individual
- Hold space for the woman in labor
- Create/maintain a peaceful and calm environment
Who could use a doula at a homebirth?
There’s no denying that as a doula, I feel the benefits are universal and for all women. With that being said, specific reasons a doula is perfect for a homebirth include:
- Women whose family/friends are not near enough to provide support
- Women without a partner or whose partner might not be available for support
- Women with anxiety or other health issues that might impact their confidence in their ability to give birth
- Women who want to be prepared in the event of a hospital transfer
- Women who know they need a lot of support
- Women who don’t want to worry about meals or cleaning during labor and after birth
- Women who know their partners will need additional support
- Women who want support but aren’t comfortable with family/friends present
- Women who have specific wants and needs
- Women who have other children that will be present that need support
- Women who want someone to promote and maintain a calm, peaceful environment
- Women who want a safe person to hold space for them
Since doulas aren’t as commonly present at homebirths as they are for hospital births, we did a little investigating into why.
Thanks to the women who took part in our Facebook poll (@birthquestservices) to find out why they, women who’d had homebirths, didn’t have a doula. Not surprisingly, the leading reason was cost. A close second were women who felt they already had enough support while the third reason was a desire for privacy.
However, because women were allowed to choose more than one option, some chose both cost and sufficient support as their primary reasons for not hiring a doula. This leaves us to wonder…which was the biggest factor?
Answers to a 2017 Muskegon-area Facebook post asking, “If you had a homebirth and didn’t hire a doula, why not?”
— Blog written by Beth Singleton, DONA-trained Birth Quest birth doula and photographer,
who had her fourth child at home in Muskegon
Birth Quest’s fall 2017 and winter 2018 childbirth education classes can be taken a la carte.
Interested in attending childbirth education classes, but don’t have the time to research your options, travel outside of Muskegon or attend a full series?
Busy families like yours want to be able to make the best use of their valuable time when expecting a new addition. That’s why Birth Quest offers a la cart classes so that you can seek out knowledge according to your unique interests and circumstances. I have taught a wide variety of classes privately, in group settings, for non-profit organizations, and as a guest presenter in classrooms. Since 2014, I have taught classes in the following settings (places in italics were as a volunteer):
Please contact me if you would like to host a class!
Are you having trouble deciding which classes to attend? Check out the class descriptions below:
- Choices in Childbirth: Providers and Settings — Did you know that the choice of where and with whom to give birth best predictor how it will turn out? The purpose of this class is to educate you about all of your choices are so that you can give birth where you feel safest and the most supported.
- Self-Care for Your Changing Body — This class is for those who are motivated to optimize their health during pregnancy through diet, movement and tending to their emotional needs. Strategies for alleviating common pregnancy discomforts will also be shared.
- Holistic Pregnancy Care Options — Many families are turning to less invasive and more natural solutions during pregnancy and birth. This class will look at several different complementary and alternative medicine options, along with where to find practitioners in the Muskegon area.
- Birth Plans: What Parents Need to Know — There sure are a lot of choices to be made when having a baby! You will leave this class confident, knowing what the available research says about birth plans, staff responses and birth outcomes. Parents will be provided with multiple templates for creating a birth plan, as well as advice for forgoing a birth plan altogether. Whatever families decide, they will learn all the key decision-making points from early labor to common newborn procedures and everything in between.
- Labor & Delivery: Prepared & Informed — Birth is unpredictable, full of unexpected twists and turns, making it something families anticipate with both excitement and apprehension. Highlights of this class include indications for, risks and benefits of and how to prevent common interventions, such as inductions, episiotomy and cesarean. Childbirth education does not guarantee an outcome, but it can lead to empowerment: knowledge is power!
- Essentials of Labor Support: What Birthing People Need — This class is for the birthing person and whoever they choose to support them during labor and delivery, including spouses, partners, friends and family members. Topics include communication skills, practicing massage comfort techniques and so much more!
- Pain-Coping Strategies: A Smorgasbord of Options — Pain relief during labor is a primary concern for many pregnant people. Some believe that they must choose between no pain relief or an epidural. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since the days of a one-size-fits-all approach. We will explore a full spectrum of both pharmaceutical and natural ways to lessen and cope with the pain of childbirth.
- Postpartum Wellness: The Fourth Trimester — This class is focused on the physical and emotional health of parents after a birth. We will cover recovery from a vaginal or a cesarean birth, movement, nutrition and mental health with lots of resources for further exploration. This class is appropriate for any expectant or new parent.
- Newborn Care — Babies aren’t born with an instruction manual, but the good news is that you are the expert on caring for your baby! We will cover what to expect from newborns in terms of appearance and behavior, as well as bonding, development, diapering, bathing, safe sleep and more!
- Breastfeed Successfully with Knowledge & Support — This class is for anyone interested in learning more about the benefits of breastfeeding how it works, and how to avoid common pitfalls, as well as community resources to support breastfeeding families.
- Childbirth After Cesarean: Making Informed Decisions — With about 1/3 of West Michigan moms delivering their babies via cesarean, many are faced with limited future childbearing options. This class seeks to inform and empower families before and during pregnancy to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.
- Introduction to Birth Work: Doulas & Childbirth Educators — This class explains possible career paths for doulas and childbirth educators, what they do and how they positively impact birth outcomes. The presentation concludes with a sample childbirth education class.
You can find out about upcoming classes on my calendar or under “events” on Birth Quest’s Facebook page.
Classes can be tailored to suit the needs of any setting or population, like youth, maternal and infant health professionals, homeless shelters, or places of worship. Presentations can also be developed to cover other specific topics, like pregnancy complications, anger management during pregnancy, substance abuse prevention or parenting. What topics would you like to see Birth Quest offer?
As a doula, two of the most important people in my life are my sitter and my back-up doula! Through the Lakeshore Doula Network, I have been fortunate to have had several area doulas willing to support my clients in the rare event that back-up is needed.
One time, I had two clients due the same week. Beth Singleton was my back-up doula. When they both went into labor at the same time, she was there for me. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to know my client was in good hands!
Beth and I have met to talk about working together since then. After making lists of our strengths and weaknesses, we identified ways that we are similar as well as ways we can mentor and support each other as we continue to develop our businesses. We recently signed a formal agreement outlining our commitment to provide back-up for each other.
Let me introduce to you, Beth Singelton, Birth Doula!
Hello! My name is Beth Singleton. I have lived in Muskegon my entire life and graduated from Reeths Puffer High School in 2000. I am the proud mother of 4 awesome kids and have been married to my husband for almost 14 years. I have given birth in both a hospital setting and at home. In 2014 while pregnant with my 4th child, I completed my DONA training and am currently working towards my certification. Aside from my life as a wife, mother, and birth doula, I have spent many years working as a floral designer and I LOVE writing poetry (I have self published two poetry collections so far!). Free time with my family is best spent in nature, preferably by the river or in the woods, with my camera in hand. I am also a huge fan of watching the sun rise.
I have always had a passion for pregnancy and birth and am very grateful to the women in my life that have allowed me to be present during the birth of their children. What I’ve witnessed while watching other women labor and experienced during my own is that having support is vital to a positive birth experience yet, it is something so many women do not have. Giving birth is one of the most challenging and life changing experiences a woman can go through and how she experiences it can have a lasting effect on how she feels about herself, her baby, and the bonding experience. I know the importance of achieving the desired labor and birth and it is my hope to provide women with the information and support needed to do this. There is no crystal ball that can predict how labor will go. That is why I think it is so important for a woman to have support.
During pregnancy, I believe it is pertinent for women to educate themselves and build a good support team. It is also the perfect time for a woman to learn about self care and begin implementing this into her daily life if not already doing so. As your doula, I will be there for you during your pregnancy to answer questions, provide moral support, go over the importance of self care, help you with a birth plan if you’d like one and go over what you ideally think you will need from me. When you are in labor, it is my goal to be there for you and do all that I can to make sure you feel in control and empowered, providing you with the support you need to be a better advocate for yourself. Whether it is simply my presence that is needed, encouraging words, a shoulder to cry on, or hands on support like massage, I will be there for you. In the instance that complications do arise, I will remain with you and support you through those challenges as well. I believe all women have an inherent sense within them that guides them instinctively through labor and childbirth. My hope is that in all I do, I am able to hold that space for you, allowing you as an individual to experience labor and birth in whatever way you so desire. After birth I will visit with you, talk about the birth, talk about how you are feeling, and I can provide some help with breastfeeding if you need it.
I view birth as something sacred and a laboring woman as someone to be respected and held in the highest regard. There is a transformation that takes place whether a woman is having her first baby or her fifteenth and I consider my being allowed to bear witness and provide support during that transformation an honor. I also believe that a doula’s support is meant to complement and enhance the care that is already being provided by those who are giving clinical support and by loved ones who are also present to help. In birth (as in most of life), there are no do-overs. That is why I feel it is imperative that a woman who will be giving birth is surrounded by people who understand and are sensitive to the significance of the moment.
Flyer for the ACES Muskegon Study, sponsored by Health West.
I pride myself in being a trauma-informed birth worker. So, when I was chosen as a “ACE Champion” as a part of the release of a new Health West survey, I registered for and attended the one-hour training on November 17th in Muskegon Heights.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACES, began in 1995 and found that the more traumas a person experienced in their youth, the worse their lifelong health. Since Muskegon County ranks worse than every other county in the state of Michigan for health behaviors, such as smoking and obesity, there is a high likelihood that childhood traumas are driving these outcomes.
Health West, through a grant called Wellville, is conducting the ACES Muskegon survey just for county residents who are 18 years or older. Their goal is to get 3,000 people to complete the survey, using the results to raise awareness of the need for trauma-informed treatment and prevention, as well as grant funding to address the problem.
I cannot express strongly enough how much I support the intentions of this initiative! Still, I must acknowledge my deep hesitations in supporting ACES Muskegon. Although completing the survey will be easy and for most people, for those with traumatic memories, asking them to spend even 10 minutes thinking about the worst moments of their lives is a lot to ask. I don’t feel comfortable asking people to do it unless I know that there will be a serious effort to get to the root causes of violence and oppression in our neighborhoods.
As someone who is very well-versed in the theories of primary prevention, I know that for this data to be effective, it must not just lead to providing services with more compassion knowing anyone could be a survivor. Action must be taken to influence change at the highest rungs on the Spectrum of Prevention, influencing policy, legislation and organizational practices. Unfortunately, many of those involved in the dissemination and promotion of ACES Muskegon work for organizations who have misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, and other oppressive and exclusionary policies and practices!
The conundrum of social change is that what is palatable to those in power is the least effective and what stands to be the most effective is shut down in its earliest stages. I speak from experience too vast to include in a blog and I am not alone. I am close to many people who have lost their livelihoods due to their social justice work.
After contemplating my reasons for skepticism, I shifted my focus to thinking about my own personal healing journey. I’m always saying that I need to devote more time and energy to self-care. If I complete a survey, I will receive educational emails. Maybe I can use this survey as an opportunity to consciously carve out more time to learning about healing my own traumas and those of others.
I have a lot of respect for the Health West staff for putting in the effort to launch such a bold campaign. Kelly France and others were very supportive of me when I organized the Perinatal Care – A Trauma-Informed Approach conference in April of 2013. I believe in the sincere intentions of behavioral health professionals to make an impact on the heartbreaking abuse they see in their work every day. I’m going to take the survey and I encourage you to do the same.