What is a Doula (and why would you want one)?

You may have heard your partner talking about wanting to employ a doula for when she is giving birth or for after the baby has been born. Or just as likely you have never heard the word before and have no idea what a doula is, and why would you? It’s a bit of weird word and sounds bit too much like ‘dealer’ right! If you thought she wanted one of those you can be forgiven for freaking out.

Well, what is a Doula?

‘a woman who gives support, help, and advice to another woman during pregnancy and during and after the birth’.

That’s a definition straight out of the dictionary. For many, many years women have sort out other women to be with them while they are giving birth, history across cultures is full of such accounts. Now, there is no doubt in my mind that you can offer your partner the support through out pregnancy and while she is giving birth that she feels she needs. The work I do is focused upon increasing you ability and skills in this very area, but for some women the presence of another women, at this intensely important time, is something they feel they want, and if there is not a female family member or friend that she can get this kind of support from, a doula may be the answer.

Lyndon, a recent father told me, that when his partner suggested having a doula his initial reaction was a little defensive, ‘why does she want someone else there, isn't having me there enough’? It took a while, and more than a few conversations with his partner but eventually he got why she wanted another woman to be with her as well as him, and he began to understand how he and the doula offered distinctly different kinds of support. He has since been on the phone extolling the virtues of all things ‘doulaing’:

‘It was an amazing experience, I felt free to just be there. All that stuff I have read about ‘being truly present’ for her only, came into it’s own, it felt great. I’m not sure I would have had the space to do that if we hadn't gone for a doula’ (Lyndon)

If your partner has told you that she feels she needs or wants support from another woman while she is giving birth or after the baby is born, resist any tendency to take her expressing these feelings personally, women have been with each other while they give birth for thousands of years. Employing a doula could be the perfect way for her to get those feeling satisfied, and you never know, you might be surprised by the ways that you are personally benefited in your role as father to be.

In her book Why Doulas Matter (Pinter & Martin, 2015) Maddie McMahon explains how dads and doulas can be a ‘dream team’:

When I work with a couple, I try hard to get across the message that, in fact, the partner has a crucial part to play. His feelings about his role, and what she wants and needs from him, are important to share. If they are a loving couple, the oxytocin they can produce together, as they gaze into each other’s eyes, kiss, cuddle and touch, is more powerful than any artificialhormone drip. He can be home, safety, privacy, labour progression, lover, advocate and protector all rolled into one. But he doesn’t have to always be by her side to give her exactly what she needs.

...for a woman, having her significant other there with her on this amazing day can be incredible. The love and connection that put the baby in there, can really help to get the baby out. But equally, I’ve known fathers who do not wish to be there, or at least not in an active role. I’ve met women who love their partner dearly, but laugh at the idea of having him present, or know that it will be beyond his capabilities to support her in the way she needs. There is no judgement in that knowledge; why should there be? You may encounter people who have strong opinions about men in the birthing room. I think it’s time we moved away from old-fashioned notions of gender. Instead we should ask, ‘Will this person bring oxytocin or adrenaline into the room?’ and ‘What do the parents want?’

During my years of doulaing I’ve met many fathers. Sometimes it’s the father who makes the initial call. The myth that doulas are only there for the mother and can even have a negative effect on the ability of the father to support his partner persists. But it isn’t what I see.

Take the father who remembered trying to support his wife first time round in the hospital. He had no idea how best to comfort and support her, and they had been left alone for long periods of time in the busy delivery unit. No oneoffered him drinks or snacks and he didn’t feel he could leave his wife. Frankly, he’d been terrified and, after a long labour and birth, was faint with hunger and dehydration. This time, he wanted a help-mate and companion. I tended to them both when she went into labour. I fed and watered them, fetched and carried, made the tea, showed him how to massage her back, to dance with her during the contractions, to love and care for her through each surge until the baby made his entrance.

...Of course, it’s often the woman who wants the doula. It’s not uncommon for the father to not really understand why. Usually they just want their partner to be happy and comfortable, so will happily welcome the doula into the birth space. It’s my job to make sure his fears and anxieties are addressed and that he feels supported too.

It can sometimes be a challenge for a father to understand his wife’s preferences and choices. Why would she dream of a normal birth after the frightening labour and emergency c-section last time? Why would she risk planning to stay at home to have the baby? Why does she want to invite this strange woman to share our private journey? Isn’t formula- feeding a simpler, more controlled and measurable way to feed the baby, that will enable him to help her?

Inviting a doula to participate in these discussions can help facilitate effective communication, and allow mutual understanding to grow and concerns to be put into context. A doula may provide the father with evidence- based reading material, or suggest a health professional to talk to so that he understands the risks and benefits of his partner’s choices. The result is a birth ‘dream team’ – two sets of hands to support her, two loving companions to hold her birth space and have faith in her ability to birth this baby beautifully.

If you’ve read this and think a doula might be for you, talk to your partner about it. You can find out about hiring a doula on the Doula UK website. Cost isn’t necessarily a barrier – if you’re strapped for cash there are schemes that aim to make doula support accessible to everyone.

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