Young Doulas Reclaim The Birth Experience

on Wednesday, Jun. 29th

Kelsey Gustafson, 25, grew up hearing the story of her own birth. Her parents decided to have a home birth at their communal house in Berkeley, CA. There were eight adults present, including residents of the house and her parents’ friends. There was a midwife and an obstetrician present. As she emerged into the world, the adults welcomed her with song.

“I grew up hearing my own birth story all the time, which isn’t common because a lot of birth stories are really traumatic,” said Gustafson. “These adults are still in my life, and everyone refers to it as a happy time.”

Gustafson is now a certified doula, one of many young people entering the alternative birthing field. For those who don’t know what a doula is (I didn’t until I met Kelsey), a doula is like a birth coach, someone who is hired to form a relationship with the mother in the prenatal phase, support the mother during labor, and continue to support her postpartum.

NPR recently reported on the higher frequency of home births in the United States. The percentage of home births rose 20 percent between 2004 – 2008 after a 15 year decline. According to the article, these women are trying to avoid having a negative birth experience – which includes avoiding unnecessary medical interventions in hospitals.

A doula’s job goes along with improving the birth experience for the mother, which Gustafson can attest to.

Gustafson's doula client (left), a fellow doula Alli (middle), Gustafson (right)

During the training process, she had to volunteer at a few births. The night before she was going to have her first prenatal meeting with the pregnant mother, she got a call saying the mother was going into labor. “[The mother] was 17 years-old… When I got there she was in triage, her whole body was trembling because of the power of the contractions, and she was hyperventilating. Her boyfriend was completely freaked out. I just stepped into the room and said, ‘I’m Kelsey, I’m your doula,’ they both exhaled,” said Gustafson.

Nora Weatherby, 23, is also a doula and birth advocate. One of her first birth experiences was attending a woman in her forties, pregnant with her second child. The doctor decided the mother needed to have a cesarean section operation, which didn’t sit well with the mother. Weatherby said, “We talked through it and she was able to tell [her doctor] how she felt and that she believed in her body’s ability to have the baby. She did end up having a scheduled cesarean because her doctor felt that she was too old and the baby could be too big… Although she felt disappointed about having the cesarean she also felt strong for having spoken her part,” she said.

Weatherby added, “Of course everyone wants a healthy baby and a healthy mom, but it is also important to take a step back and look at how best to support a laboring woman both physically and emotionally,” she said.

Is it weird to be a doula for a woman twice your age? Gustafson says no. “People ask, ‘How can  you be a doula without having given birth?’ Well how many Hospice nurses have died? How many cancer doctors have had cancer? We’ve all been in pain,” she said.

But the doula lifestyle does take an adjustment. Gustafson said many people in her training course dropped out once they learned they had to be on-call at all times when you have a client. Gustafson explained that while she was first starting out as a doula, she also worked as a waitress. “I had a paid client who went into contractions for three days. I missed three shifts and lost my restaurant job,” she said.

But if you can stick it out, it might not be a bad field to look into, as the trend is definitely spreading. Some hospitals are starting volunteer doula programs like San Francisco General Hospital and President Obama also allocated federal money for community doula programs in 2010.

Weatherby used her doula background to start The Birth Narratives Oral History Project, which recently found a spot on Kickstarter.  Weatherby records women as they recount their experiences giving birth, and hopes to transcribe the interviews to be used on radio and television, as well as in educational materials. “By making a space for these stories to be heard it is my hope that we will focus not only on the methods and outcomes of childbirth, but also consider and respect the process,” she wrote on Kickstarter.

Becoming a doula can be a relatively quick way to get into a health care profession, but both Weatherby and Gustafson agree that the appeal of being a doula has to do with the bigger picture. “It’s the most important thing you can do as a modern feminist, to start with the female body… Doula-ing is not only about the actual time of the birth, but being there for that person through the whole child-bearing year and supporting women in general. We need to start by taking violence out of the birth place,” said Gustafson.

Weatherby also senses the female empowerment in doula work. “Women have historically attended each other at births… I think people see an opportunity in doula work and other kinds of birth support to reclaim the power and meaning of childbirth,” she said.

But the job isn’t for everyone. “I have a ritual I do before I go into a room with the mother to make sure I’m not bringing in extra energy or attitude. You have to have a self-care regimen to have enough to give to others,” she said.

Corey McCall with the video game controller that measures the level of excitement in the player. Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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