Often, when I tell people that I am a birth doula, the first thing they ask is, "What's that?!" I explain that I am a trained labour assistant - a helper of sorts who is hired by the pregnant woman to support her physically and emotionally through her pregnancy and labour. I am a go-to person for education and information on her rights, options and alternatives. I help with comfort measures during labour, and breastfeeding the baby afterwards.
Question #2 is usually, "Isn't that what the father is for?" or, "Doesn't the nurse do that?". Yes, to a certain degree. If the mother and father have a great relationship, it can be a wonderful bonding time for them. These fathers want to be involved, but they don't always know how. In this case, I am their guide. I suggest practical ways for them to help. I reassure them on what is normal, and what to expect at different times. If it's a long labour, I step in so that they can go get a snack, a hot cup of coffee, or a quick nap. It's a lot to ask of one person to be the full support for a labouring woman - especially if this person, being male, has not and will not ever experience labour.
As for the nurse, they can be absolutely wonderful! I've met some labour and delivery nurses who are excellent, compassionate and respectful. It takes a certain temperament to be a labour and delivery nurse, and I've worked with some nurses that I would handpick for my own births. And herein lies the problem - they can't be handpicked. Unfortunately, they are governed by their work. When the shift ends, they go home - and rightly so. It would be too much to ask of a nurse to come in and stay through every labour she began. A recent birth I was at lasted 40 hours. There were 3 different nurses, each with a different personality and birth philosophy. I know the parents I assisted took comfort in the fact that I was there from beginning to end. I was a constant, a friendly face who made it my priority to know them, and adopt their values. I worked for the parents - not the hospital, not myself. For them. In a hospital environment, there have to be rules if everything is to run smoothly. It's a nurse's job to make sure the mom and baby are healthy. They document, they chart, they check on the baby, check on progress, and start all over with the other moms on the floor at that time. If a mom wants personal attention, that will depend on how much time is available. On a good day they might have a nurse's undivided attention. On a busy day, they may have to settle for a check every other hour. A doula fixes this problem. It's a doula's responsability to ensure that the mom is never left alone, unless it's absolutely necessary.
From my own births, I remember the support as the best and most important thing about having a doula. Knowing that I could call or e-mail her about anything birth was a huge relief. Sadly, I didn't feel that I could really connect with the medical staff. I rarely saw the same doctor or nurse during prenatals, so there was no time to get to know each other or even to establish enough trust to ask about anything other than test results and heartbeats. Having someone to listen to me, and who respected my values and decisions was key.
I am grateful to have access to healthcare (free healthcare, at that!). I am grateful to my husband for the love and gentleness he gave me during my pregnancies and labours. But, it was my birth doula who taught me how to make the most of my labours. She taught me by example how to love myself, to respect my body, to mother my child, and to trust my instincts. She was a key player in my birth team, and I am forever thankful.