It’s so thrilling to imagine being a doula for your friend’s pregnancy and birth! For some doulas this is what draws them to the work from the beginning. They want to make sure family members and dear ones have the best experience possible and to help make that happen. But underneath these altruistic desires is the reality of what going to our friend’s births really means. Sometimes it’s a harsh learning.
Ever since I started doulaing, I wondered what was different about it. I thrashed the topic over with my fellow trainers and experienced doulas for years, and then I started asking about it in my doula interviews. Eventually I had enough data to analyze (stories to pick apart!) to get to some core truths. Author Julie Brill, in her compilation book, “Round The Circle: Doulas Share Their Experiences” graciously invited me to write my findings for a chapter in her book. Along with 22 other experienced doulas, we offer advice on unexpected home births, surrogacy, encouraging the mother-baby bond, self-care, and supporting religious belief that is not your own, as well as many other topics. But here is a sample of what I learned:
1. Despite your best efforts, you have an agenda. Pregnancy and birth are times of tremendous life change and shifting of identity. When you walk alongside your dear one, you are attached to them. You want things to go well and you will do what it takes to get a positive outcome. Contrast this with your clients. You care about them and want the best, but our role is to support their efforts and not be invested in their choices. You will likely see them a few times after the birth, but your role is to see them through this transitional period. With your friends, you expect to be in their lives and their child’s lives and to see them grow up. This attachment to a particular outcome shifts and changes your support and you can’t get around it.
2. No matter what happens, you will be associated with that birth and its outcome. Forever. Because of your expertise, you may be blamed if something does not go as expected. In order to get distance from the birth, the family may need distance from you. This need may be expressed by the partner or grandparent, not your friend. However they need to honor those feelings. That may mean not being invited to gatherings or even not having casual visits. It’s so easy to blame the doula, which is not a problem when it’s a client. We shrug it off. But when it’s your friend, you want to explain or work it out, but some feelings you can’t work out. They just are. Often it’s a big surprise to the doula when this happens.
If something goes really well, you may be assumed to have “magical powers” that you know you don’t deserve, which can also be disconcerting. What really matters is how closely the laboring person’s labor and birth expectations meet the reality. If expectation and reality are a close fit, then it is usually a positive for your friendship. If they don’t, it can have negative consequences.
3. Your relationship will change and neither of you can control it. Beyond the rollercoaster ride of many friendships, which have ups and downs and varying levels of intensity, birth does not bring out the best in us. It isn’t supposed to. It brings us face to face with who we are – our strength, our weaknesses, our fears, our beliefs about the world and our place in it. When a stranger is with you, you are able to be intimate, understanding that knowledge is held in a special private place and will not have repercussions for your future relationship. When your close friend sees you, they will know you that way forever. That knowledge and intimacy can make some people really uncomfortable afterwards (including you).
You will also see their partners and family members in a new light, which may or may not be a favorable one. As doulas of friends, we have a much greater emotional load to bear. When we care deeply, it’s very difficult to hide our feelings about a partner’s actions or a care provider’s options. We are more transparent. They aren’t used to our doula mask, and they know when we’re upset or hiding resentment. It can be done, but it’s darn hard.
So what’s a doula to do?
First, buy Julie Brill’s book and read the two chapters on attending the births of friends! (BTW, I get nomoney from the sale or promotion of this book. I just think it’s a great resource so you should know about it.)
Second, contribute your baby shower, birthday and holiday gift money towards a doula’s fee and encourage other people to do the same thing. Your friend or family member still needs a doula, just not you! Imagine what a fabulous supportive friend you can be: a sounding board for feelings, an extra resource for information, and all without the full burden of responsibility. You get to show your excitement and your disappointment honestly, offering an extra set of hands whenever they’re needed.
Lastly, as an older woman I want you “youngers” to know how precious your friendships are! Having people in your life who knew you from decades ago doesn’t happen without conscious effort and cultivating compassion, caring, and humility in each relationship. As doulas we often have a leg up on those qualities – but sometimes not with our friends. There’s you, and your friend, and your relationship that all need tending – make sure that you’re looking after each one before deciding to be their doula.