Doula doula-ing

At Birth for Humankind, each woman we support is facing her own unique set of challenges and barriers to accessing the support she needs. With the support of a doula, women feel less isolated, less alone, more confident and more prepared during pregnancy, birth and early parenting.
28 March 2018

For some women, if it wasn’t for their doula, they would have little to no support as they bring their babies into the world. No partner. No friends and family. No support networks. No continuity of care. And sometimes one doula is not quite enough to overcome the intense isolation and lack of support that these women are experiencing.

Today, for Day 7 of our World Doula Week story series, we want to introduce you to two very special women: Bethany and Claire. These warm, skillful and generous women have, on more than one occasion, employed the art of ‘double doula-ing’; supporting a woman together through pregnancy, birth and those first few months post-partum. We sat down with them to hear their experience of ‘double-doula’ing’ for women in our doula support program and why this has been so important.

Thank you for both sitting down with us today. Let’s start by asking you if you can describe ‘the art of doula-ing’:

Bethany: The art of being a doula. Wow. Listening to a woman, where she’s at, what she needs, filling in the gaps for things that she doesn’t know she needs, reminding her that she can have time to ask questions and ask the same question again. Slowing everything right down. Reminding her that she can change her mind, and that she can make good decisions for herself, and that they’ll be different to the person in the room next door and that’s ok. Just reminding her that she’s in the centre of the picture. Feeling heard is huge, for everybody, isn’t it? Knowing that somebody has got your back and is listening to you can have such an impact.

Claire: I think the art of being a doula comes back to knowing that the story is not about you, it’s totally about her. Whatever experience that you have had giving birth to your children, you can draw on some experiences but don’t overshadow hers with yours. She needs to fully be able to go through this for herself, knowing that she is an individual and this is unique to her and that she’s not just the ‘next one’ that’s having a baby. I think a doula especially understands the impact that childbirth has on each individual woman, and how it will affect the way she looks at that baby, how she parents that baby. It’s one day that can impact a lifetime for her as a mum, and for the child as well.

These incredible women were both just nominated for Doula of the Year with Bethany taking home the award from last weekend’s Doula Conference in Melbourne. It’s safe to say that they have the ‘art of the doula’ down pat!

How long have you both been doulas and what got you into this line of work in the first place?

Claire: I’ve been a doula since 2008, so coming up to 10 years. I had no idea what a doula was before that but, essentially, I was at a crossroads not knowing what to do with my life and I got dragged along to a motivational speaker who said these incredible words: ‘find something that you’re passionate enough about that you would do it for nothing.’ And my initial thought was ‘if I had my time over again, I would love to be a midwife’ but I didn’t want to go through the four years of medical stuff; I just wanted to help ladies have babies! And then I met a woman who suggested I become a doula. The first thing I said was ‘what’s that?’. Then I looked it up and did an online course. My initial passion was to support single mums and those that don’t have a support network, which is why I am so passionate about Birth for Humankind. As soon as there was an organisation that did this, I couldn’t wait to start working with you! So that’s the story in a nutshell.

Bethany: Same as Claire, I have been a doula since 2008. I think we must have been sitting in a chair at the same time on the same day deciding to become doulas! It’s like we were meant to meet. Anyway, I was living in the U.S. as a product and business developer and then the GFC happened and everything was hard. I cried for a year. And I sat at the computer one day and literally started punching in things about when I was the happiest, which was when I was a nanny in the U.K.. That day I stumbled across the word ‘doula’, literally stumbled across it. Pregnancy had always fascinated me, ever since I was little. I remember ringing my boss and saying ‘I want to do a course, can I do a course?’ and they said ‘sure’ so I went off and did my doula training with DONA International. During the course, I found out I was pregnant. Everyone clapped when I went to be sick in the bathroom! I came back and was like ‘I don’t know what’s wrong!’ and they were like ‘there’s always one, there’s always one that’s pregnant’. I was thinking ‘I’m not that person, am I? Holy moly!’. I don’t know if ‘doula-ing’ found me or if I was having that crossroads thing too. It doesn’t feel like work to me. It feels heavy, sure, it feels emotional, yes. It feels big, bigger than me, bigger than everything, but I want to do it, I want to be there, I want to turn up because I know the importance of the role we play.

Could you describe the women that you’ve supported through Birth for Humankind in a nutshell?

Bethany: All pregnant women, whether they’re private clients or Birth for Humankind clients, have basic needs — to be seen and to be heard and to be respected. They’re thankful, they’re grateful, they’re receptive, they’re eager to learn, they’re sponges. I think it’s just fabulous, I love it. I think I get more out of it than I put in.

Claire: Oh yeah for sure. I think the clients that are referred to us through Birth for Humankind, there’s a need there, but at the time, some women don’t realise that they need it. We remind her that what her baby needs is her. We say ‘you’re enough’. At the end of the day it’s just about you — your baby wants you and needs you — so just keep showing up.

When did you both start volunteering for Birth for Humankind?

Claire: I think I’ve basically been with Birth for Humankind since inception.

Bethany: I went to the very, very first meeting at the Royal Women’s Hospital a long time ago (2012) but my babies were too little for me to feel like I could volunteer. Claire had always told me that I should join Birth for Humankind but I was like ‘no, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t’. Then last year, Claire convinced me and there was a client that we worked with together and the rest is history!

We’re very glad she convinced you, you two are a dream team! So, in that time, you’ve each supported a number of women but there are two women that you have supported together in what might be called ‘double doula’ing’?

Claire: Yes, there was one woman last year who I said ‘I’m happy to take her on [as a client], on one condition: that Bethany can do it with me’. She was completely on her own, there was no partner involved, no family. And I knew I needed more support to [be able to] support her. She lived in Bethany’s area, and I just knew we’d work really well together.

Bethany: We had already worked together on other stuff, childbirth education, together and we’d really nutted out how to work together. There wasn’t the case of ‘who’s more senior, who’s done more births’ or any of that. It was all about the woman, what does she need. I live closer to her, so I got there first when she went into labour.

Claire: She called us ‘Doula 1 and Doula 2’!

Do you have a sense of the impact of being supported by two doulas?

Bethany: Absolutely, we know how we worked for her. We’ve been in each other’s lives for a huge part of her life.

Can you describe for us what it’s like to work as a doula team?

Bethany: When you’re ‘doula-ing’ on your own, you’re alone. There’s no one else that is doing that role, and there is no one else that you’re talking to about any of the stuff that you hear. Not that you want to disclose any woman’s thoughts or feelings or anything like that, but sometimes it can get heavy, and Birth for Humankind clients are in the situation they’re in because their lives are heavy. When you’re trying to help someone through that, [it can be helpful] to just talk to someone else who gets it, you share the load of her life and the layers. You have no idea some of the stories that these women have. You’re like ‘wow, we whinge and moan about superficial things all the time and then you realise that there are much bigger issues around. Some of the women we’re supporting have walked three countries to safety.

Claire: I think there is an art to ‘double doula-ing’. What I liked about Bethany and I [working together] is that we morphed into [looking after] different needs and I was totally fine if Bethany had centre stage in some areas, wonderful, and I was happy just to sit back. And when I was centre stage, Bethany was happy to sit back. Because it’s like two people doing the same job. We think the same but we also think completely differently on a lot of things and [that’s ok].

Bethany: We are doing the same thing but at different times. We’re not competing against each other. There’s a lot of humility working with Claire, knowing that she’s got my back and if I’m not there, she’s going to be doing things that I feel very comfortable with. Often it’s just a case of ‘well, she lives closer to me so I’ll serve her when she’s home.’ The hospital that she got moved to, Claire lives closer, so Claire filled that space for a few days. It ebbs and flows. It helps that we communicate very well. We’re like an old married couple!

On that note, what do you think makes a great doula?

Claire: I’ve said this 100 times before — you can do kick ass training, trained by this organisation or that one, but if you don’t have the art of being a doula as a core value, you will not be a great doula. You need to have those core basic principles of non-judgment, empathy, to be able to see the woman, to hear her, to know when to offer support, to know when she feels that she’s vulnerable and can’t ask for help. So there’s an art of opening up somebody to really see them as a person.

Bethany: And knowing when to say nothing, knowing when to just hold her glance, knowing when to hold the glance of the midwife, or a partner that’s there and doesn’t know what to do so you’re acting as an example. I have supported women who had no idea there were six people in the room, that she could only hear me, could only hear my voice.

Claire: I think the impact and the value of a doula is not really understood until after the fact. A lot of women will say ‘I could not have done it without you.’ And the truth is that they could have, but it would’ve been more difficult. It’s not necessarily that we added value to her experience it’s that they don’t see [the impact] until after it’s happened.

So, there was a woman last year that you supported together and there’s another woman that you’re supporting right now?

Claire: Yes, the woman we’re supporting right now had sought asylum in Australia and then found out she was pregnant with twins. Her other children are stuck in another country, they’re not with her.

Bethany: I can’t imagine how [hard] that would be. My children are six and eight at the moment, I can’t imagine not being with them. I just can’t imagine what it would be like to be alone, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be birthing in a country that is so foreign from yours. Our system is completely different, everybody she is looking at looks different from her, that would be confronting.

These women are incredibly resilient. Having your support must be somewhat of a lifeline. You are supporting her together because she’s having multiple babies, she has no family or support and also because of the complexity of her case and status as a woman seeking asylum.

Bethany: Yes and I think because she will need a bit more post-natal support. Also, she is scheduled for a Caesarean and we’ve offered to both be with her in theatre. We’ve encouraged her to tell that to the healthcare providers if that’s what she feels she needs. Then if the first baby and her are separated for any reason, one of us can stay with her and the other one can go with the baby. For her to have that choice to have people who are holding or around your babies that she knows and feels comfortable with is great. But, you know, we met with her today and she’s got this. She’s a really capable woman. She’s intelligent. She is vulnerable in the sense that birth has the capacity to tip her over the edge, but she absolutely has the capacity and strength of ‘I can do this’. She’s going to be well supported.

Claire: We want to make sure that our healthcare system doesn’t let her fall through the gaps and I hope that our affluent society can give her the support that she is going to need.

If you could tell the world one thing about Birth for Humankind what would it be?

Bethany: Fund it.

Claire: Support us.

Bethany: Fund it, give the organisation the promotion it needs. It needs financial backing because there are women who see the importance of this but we can’t do as much as we would like. The need is greater than all of the doulas in Australia working for free. There is such a massive need for it. It needs to be promoted and supported and understood. What we do is a basic human right, it’s a human right to have support whether you can afford it or not. The system needs to support women because it’s disjointed, it’s a bit clunky at the moment. It’s good but it’s not great. We fill some [of the] gaps.

This story is brought to you as part of a campaign by Birth for Humankind to raise ‘moolah for doulas’ who support pregnant women across Melbourne who would otherwise have little to no support. Can you help? All donations before midnight tonight to be tripled.