Take a Doula Training, Change the World

Nov 9, 2016 by

take-a-doulatrainingchange-theworldAlmost ten years ago I noticed many happy participants at the end of trainings but few people actually went on to become doulas. Being a researcher I decided to do a study, which was recently published as “What Motivates People To Take Birth Doula Trainings?” in the Journal of Perinatal Education, Summer 2016, Vol 25, No. 3. While I can’t repeat what was written for JPE because of copyright restrictions, the blog allows me to explore the findings of this research project in a more intimate way. This first post covers people’s desire for social change by taking open birth doula trainings; part two will focus on professional motivations; and part three will focus on personal reasons.

From 1997 to 2007, most people came to my workshops to become doulas. They traveled hundreds of miles and most people set up practices or attended births in some way. Sprinkled in were attendees who’d had difficult births or were from related occupations. By 2008 I was convinced there was something else going on – why did it feel that fewer people were headed down a doula path?

So, for three trainings I used my own participants for a pilot study. I had people brainstorm all the reasons why they were there until I stopped reading anything new. There were 18 unique reasons. Dang! Now, I wondered how popular each one was, and if this trend was happening outside Wisconsin. I tested on my own workshops again by making a survey to complete before the workshop began. I did that for a year, refined the survey, and then decided a wider investigation was possible.

Next dilemma: Who would volunteer to distribute the survey, and be committed enough to do it correctly? How could I get a diverse enough group in order to generalize any findings? I turned to other DONA International doula trainers, who were willing to implement my persnickety procedures so that everyone was doing the same thing. I am grateful to the many trainers who helped. In the end, the survey was answered by 473 people who took one of 46 DONA birth doula workshops offered by 38 different trainers in 18 U.S. states and 3 Canadian provinces. Data was collected in Oct-Dec or Jan in 2010/11 and 2013.

What I suspected all along was true: people were attending for many reasons and career advancement was clearly important to most attendees. But the proportion is what surprised me. No matter which statistic I cite from the study, what emerged is that only about half the people in those trainings were there with the intention of becoming a birth doula with their own independent practice. And only an additional small percentage intended to become a doula in another setting, such as volunteering or working for a hospital or other program. Remember, this is for trainings where registration is open to anyone[i]. I thought it would be about 70%, but here it was at less than 50%.

The Survey: First I had people choose ALL their reasons for attending from the list of 18 reasons (ALL). Next, they had to choose their top five reasons and rank them in order. Then I could compare what reasons were popular with ones that remained important. “Becoming a birth doula” only ranked for about half the people whether I was looking at all the reasons (tied for third place), the top 5 reason, two 2 or even #1. So why else were people there?

By far the main reason all people were taking a doula training was for social enrichment, not for any professional or personal reasons. “Increase my birth knowledge” was chosen by 74% in ALL, was in the top 5 for 65% and the top 2 for 37% of attendees. This means it was the prime motivating factor.

So what, Amy? Duh. That was my first reaction.

However, when I examined this issue more deeply its significance became clear. It means people are seeking out real knowledge about birth – learned knowledge from those who have been sitting with birthing people during their whole labors, over and over again. People gave up two to three days of their lives to acquire it! This means doulas’ views of birth are spreading. Birth doula workshops are often accessible, welcoming and oxytocin inspiring. Pregnancy and birth are powerful and meaningful to us. We’re attracting people who want this knowledge, and whether or not they actually use it doesn’t matter. Why? Because it changes the conversation about birth in the general public. The doula training has become a medium for transmitting a powerful vision of birth as a laboring person-centered and/or woman-centered one that deserves support.

This interpretation was strengthened by the popularity of two other reasons: “knowledgeably discuss birth issues with all women” (tied for #3 with becoming a birth doula in ALL motivations, and ranking 6th in people’s top 5 reasons), and “want to be around women who believe in women’s bodies and ability to birth” (#2 in ALL motivations, and #4 in the top 5).

This strong desire for inspiration and enrichment was not focused on the individual, but to “help women have better births (not as a doula or birth professional) (#10 in ALL, and #11 in the top 5). In other words, when analyzed as a separate group people who didn’t want to become birth doulas wanted to understand birth more comprehensively and from a perspective they couldn’t get from a book. They wanted hands-on learning but also to comprehend birth by focusing on the needs of the individual persons who are laboring and being born. Doulas put the persons at the center, not the process of birthing, and this is very different from other perspectives in our society. Even midwives need to pay equal attention to both.

Every birth is a symphony of social forces: majority culture values, neighborhood influences, family needs, the home/hospital atmosphere, the effectiveness of the body’s processes, and the individual wholistic needs of the laboring parent and the child. Through open doula trainings, we export the message that caring is a skill, it is not innate or inborn simply because of gender, and it is a skill that can be learned. We also emphasize meeting the needs of the individual over the system the person is birthing in, which is contrary to institutional values.

These messages are revolutionary and have already created social change simply by being enacted by doulas for the last thirty years. As more people grow to see birth the way doulas do, the demands they make on our institutions to humanize and be more rewarding and supportive places for staff to work will change, along with positive results for mothers and babies. The change has to be comprehensive – not just for patients but also for those who care for them. Doula trainings have become another significant medium in our modern society for the message that caring for individuals needs to be placed front and center in our birthing institutions.

 

[i] These results likely apply to other face to face trainings where general knowledge is emphasized. However they probably do not apply to workshops where a substantial part of the curriculum is devoted to a specific interest, especially if that is the reason people sign up. (Ex: shared religious beliefs about birth, a particular method of labor coping, or a desire to build a financially successful doula business).

This is Part One in a three part series about what motivates people to attend birth doula trainings.

 

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What U.S. Birth Professionals Need to Understand About ICWA

Oct 13, 2016 by

icwa-alex-garland-photo-copyThe Indian Child Welfare Act – why is that relevant to my practice? The laws concerning children’s rights changed earlier this year. Although standards vary among the 544 tribal nations recognized by the United States government, some tribes consider a person with one drop of Native American blood as a member.  While only slightly over five million people have full or partial Native American heritage, the growth rate within the population is more than double that of other racial groups. At 26.7%, birth rates between 2000 and 2010 were almost triple that of the nation as a whole at 9.7% (U.S. Census, 2012). The average age of a Native American is 29 years old, compared to 37 years for all Americans (U.S. Census, 2012). This means most of the indigenous U.S. population is in their childbearing years – when they are most likely to be utilizing our health care services.

Why should we care? Recognition of tribal status is important to the individual, the family, and for the continuation of the tribe. The child may qualify for different social programs because of their heritage, but the most significant impact occurs if they enter a Child Protective Services (CPS) system.

Tribal status begins with correct information on the birth certificate. Even misspelling a name can interfere with identification. (The infamous Veronica case went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2013, which was caused in part by an error in spelling the absent father’s name on the birth registration form. Even though he was registered with his tribe, his misspelled name did not show up in a search. So the child was legally adopted by a White family until the father contested.) Since hospital staff are filling out the forms, it is important that parents and their support team ensure that correct names and demographic information appear on the birth certificate. In a recent briefing session, Oklahoma CPS social workers explained, “Even though we have a higher than average population of Native Americans in our state (Oklahoma), nurses still look at the baby to discern race and ethnicity. If the baby looks white or black, they check that off without ever asking the parents.”

Parents may also not realize why it is important to categorize their child’s heritage correctly from the very beginning. It is difficult, but not impossible, to get that changed at a later date – but it must be done with a court order by a judge.

Doulas can explain to families how ICWA affects their child’s rights, their ability to receive assistance or scholarships, and placement in the welfare system if those services are ever needed.

How does a person become recognized as a tribal member? Heritage is not established by clicking a box; the person must be recognized by the tribe. Each tribe has their own standards and they are not the same. After applying, the first step will be genealogical research on the child’s relative, who may or may not be a recognized tribal member. Most tribes keep complex family trees. Some records are online and easily searched, while others have paper records kept in file folders. If the relative is already recognized, establishing heritage may be fairly easy.

Why does this status change how a child is treated in protective services?  Native Americans are dual citizens, and each tribe has the right to be self-governing as a sovereign nation over its own lands and properties. That means that most large nations have their own child welfare services. They work cooperatively with the state or county CPS agency. Anytime a child needs to be removed from the home and a biological relative cannot be found, the child needs an emergency placement. This could happen if there was an auto accident that hospitalized the parents and it took time to notify relatives, or when abuse or neglect is suspected.

It is considered ideal for a Native American (NA) child to be placed with a NA family rather than a non-NA family, preferably within the tribe. The majority of families who take in emergency placements or foster children in the U.S are White. ICWA is designed so that children will be preferentially placed in a qualifying NA home when a biological relative is unavailable – even if that placement is farther away, even hundreds of miles away, from the child’s school or home community. This is the controversy of ICWA: it states that the child’s status as a tribal member is more important to nurture than the child’s emotional or developmental ties with an existing family or community.

Here is how it gets problematic: Let’s say five year old Melinda needs a temporary foster family. She is not listed as having tribal blood on her birth certificate. As her relatives are contacted, one of her paternal aunts mentions that she is a tribal member so her niece is too. Rather than getting the best possible placement from the start, Melinda would be put in a temporary home while her records are investigated. Since placements with a tribal family are harder to come by, she would likely be placed initially with White or Black foster parents. It may take several weeks or months – if all records are in order – before Melinda’s initial placement is confirmed or she is moved to a new tribal foster family. If she is confirmed as a tribal member, she will be moved, with no exceptions. So, what most of us are wondering is, “Why aren’t they thinking about Melinda and putting her needs first?”

In their own way, they are.

So, the individual child’s welfare is considered secondary to the cultural preservation of the tribe? Yes, that is one way to look at it. But the goal is for both to be important. If records are properly kept from the very beginning, many of the heartaches shown in the popular news can be avoided. The world is seen differently by many tribal peoples and this influences their definitions of health, harmony, and balance. The more we can step back and understand the world from that point of view, the more ICWA’s policies make sense from that perspective. In this informative essay, Clark explains that most western European or American thought is linear, and Native peoples tend to think in relational terms. “In the linear view, the person owns or is the problem. In the relational view, the problem is circumstantial and resides in the relationship between factors. The person is not said to have a problem but to be out of harmony. Once harmony is restored, the problem is gone. In the linear model, we are taught to treat the person, and in the relational model, we are taught to treat the balance.” So ICWA helps to bring their world back into balance.

How is this affected by past racist policies to assimilate Native people into White culture? Between 1790 and 1920, it was considered good domestic policy by the U.S. government to bring as many Native peoples as possible into White culture. By 1890, that meant separating children into residential schools where they would not learn their tribal language or beliefs or participate in events and ceremonies. Children would be effectively cut them off from their past and their people. Adoption became a negative thing because it was used as a method to separate NA children from their culture and families of origin. The goal was not to place the child back in their home, but to find whatever possible reason to keep them from returning. This went on for over fifty years, leading to multiple generations of tribal peoples feeling angry, lost and without a sense of belonging. Many of the social problems that Native peoples face today have their roots in U.S. government policies of assimilation. So part of what is happening with ICWA in 2016 is a response to the damage done by assimilation policies of the past – and to bring indigenous peoples back together and into harmony.

 

For more information about the Indian Child Welfare Act:

http://www.adoptuskids.org/adoption-and-foster-care/overview/who-can-adopt-foster/families-for-native-children

http://www.nicwa.org/what_we_do/documents/NICWA%20FAQ.pdf

https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/diverse-populations/americanindian/icwa/

Photo ©Alex Garland This photo has been altered to highlight the mother and child. https://www.flickr.com/photos/backbone_campaign/27186540216

 

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Hospital Agreements: An Opportunity For Engagement [Part II]

Jul 24, 2016 by

HospitalDoulaAgreementsAnOpportunity For Engagement (1) copyIf a doula agreement is being waved in front of you, congratulations! It means that your doula community has gotten too large to ignore and is having enough of an impact that the hospital wants to exert some control. Now the real work begins, not with clients, but with the institutions where our clients are choosing to birth. You have an opportunity to create a collaborative atmosphere even if their actions seem hostile at the moment. This is politics, system change, and social change happening in your neighborhood, and I hope to give you concrete suggestions to co-create a synergistic relationship – even if it seems impossible now.

Keep the focus on your long term goal: an open channel of communication between this hospital and the doula community. Your goal is not to get the hospital to eradicate the agreement but to build understanding and strong reliable communication channels between two groups of people. You are using the proffered agreement as an opportunity for greater connection, understanding and dialogue between the people most affected by it. It’s imperative that the doulas who are approaching this conflict negotiation realize that attacking the hospital’s solution, the agreement, is counterproductive.[1] Anytime you openly criticize something, you make that person defensive about it and more entrenched that they are right. Instead, you have to put the emphasis on the conflict and your mutual interest in resolving it. If you focus on the agreement and what’s ‘wrong’ with it, you will get into a power struggle and doulas will likely lose. If not this issue, how you handle this will set a precedent for communicating about any future conflicts. Sorry to increase the tension, but this is an influential time and needs to be recognized as such.

So what can doulas do?

  1. First, have a leadership committee of the people who have the best communication skills as well as doula experience. Prepare yourselves. Read simple books on negotiation and conflict resolution (see below), or see what community or internet resources are available for continuing education. Being prepared and having skills will give you more confidence – but don’t wait too long.
  2. Contact the people in charge and set up a meeting. Make it clear that your goal is to generate solutions to their problem, and not to deny that a problem exists. Explain your perspective is rooted in concern for the long term health of the hospital’s relationship with its future patients and future doulas, and an ongoing relationship with open communication can work to both of your benefits. Doulas are not going to disappear, and trying to exert power over the doula community without seeking to get to know them will not work in the hospital’s favor. Someone in that problem solving group knows that, but their voice may have been drowned out by others. Doulas, there are allies in that hospital, and you will need to find them. Hopefully, you will also cultivate new ones through your sincerity and focusing on the long term goals. This will be harder to do if the atmosphere is hostile or the agreement is written in a way that delegitimizes a doula’s contributions to maternal-infant health or seeks to restrict the doula’s access to a client. However it isn’t impossible. Remember, they don’t understand our values or our role and you can change this over time.
  1. Be gently persistent until you get a meeting. State that you don’t want to get rid of their agreement proposal, but seek to find additional ways for their needs to get met. Do they want someone to call and complain to? Often what people want the most, over and over again, is to feel that their concerns were heard and met with kindness and respect. If you push that aspect of the meeting – “we want to hear more about your concerns” – it will be more effective than “we have to do something about this agreement”.
  2. Use this handout Doula Information for Nurses Sheet (initially designed for a nurse and doula conflict resolution meeting in my city) or a similar one to explain why doulas do what they do and give background about the state of the profession. Make sure you are all on common ground about doula support and what doulas actually DO and don’t do. Issues may arise as you go through this sheet together.  Listen. Listen. Listen. Even if the people at that meeting are not listening to you, listen to them. Reflect back their concerns in your own language. “What I heard you say is…”
  1. Emphasize common interests. “What we both value is…[2] Do this repeatedly as needed throughout the conversation.
  2. Ask, “What other possible ways to address this problem did you come up with besides an agreement?” This is where you’ll find out whether they fully explored the initial problem or took into account the concerns of other stakeholders. It’s possible they may not have and you can initiate it at this meeting. Ideally, you’ll be able to follow up with a small group made up of multiple stakeholders (see list in Part I) who are interested in a more complete problem solving process. Resist the urge to rely on one or two people from either group to do the negotiating or attend meetings – if one person leaves their position you’re back where you started from – without an ally.
  3. If the atmosphere is hostile or untrustworthy, it is critical that you do not allow emotions to cloud your judgment. Your communication needs to be intentional, not reactive. Don’t take bait – slurs on a doula’s past actions, a doula’s motivations, etc. Let it go for now.  Frame it as “learning about the tactics of your negotiating partners”.  Recognize that establishing trust takes time and repeated interactions where people behave reliably and do what they say they are going to do. Promise what you can deliver, not what you can’t. Set reasonable deadlines and meet them. People learn the value of a doula by experiencing you doing what you do, not from reading or talking about it.
  1. Be prepared for the presenting problem to not be the true problem. In one hospital I consulted with people were angry that doula clients kept insisting on special treatment for their newborns. Administrators discovered that while there were protocols for one hour of uninterrupted skin to skin contact in place, that was not what nurses were actually doing. Unless the doula reminded the parents and both parties actively advocated for it, usually repeatedly during that first hour, parents were not getting the care that the protocols were written to encourage. Nurses didn’t like the criticism and resistance they experienced from doula attended clients, and it was labeled as a ‘doula problem.’ However, once different stakeholders were interviewed, they discovered a deeper issue. It turned out the nurse’s workloads were so high that they felt pressured to do newborn procedures even when that interfered with the one hour skin to skin mandate. So what was initially perceived as a doula conflict, was instead a conflict between policy and workloads, with parents and babies being the losers and doulas as the scapegoat. This can also work the other way, so be prepared to listen to criticism of doula behaviors. Remember, listening is the most important thing you can do at this stagethere may be years worth of resentments pouring out if you’ve never had a meeting before.
  2. Focus on the possibility of a positive outcome. You can create collaborative relationships that don’t compromise the doula’s autonomy, ability to represent and serve her clients, and satisfy the hospital staff’s needs for predictability. In doing research for these blog posts, I found examples of several birth communities who had already created collaborative long term processes. (Please add yours in the blog comments.)

Susan Martensen, a doula and trainer in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, states that her local doula group has worked hard to be recognized as part of “The Care Team” and not as a “visitor”. The instigating situation that brought doulas and nurses together was the SARS outbreak in 2003. Hospitals sought to limit access for anyone into the hospital. Doulas in the area formed a new group to develop a standard of practice and code of ethics based on ones from their different training organizations. All doulas in the area agreed to sign the document they had created. “Two hospitals in the area agreed to regular meetings to build bridges and establish doulas as part of the Care team (and not included in the usual visitor policy),” according to Ms. Martensen. “It took several in-services to introduce, or re-introduce, the role of the doula to the nursing staff, so that we all understood the collaborative model of care. The meeting was multi-disciplinary, so there were doctors, anesthetists, pediatricians, etc, there, but not everyone and not all at the same time.”

The next step was to establish nametags for the doulas that were created by the doula group and a book at the nurse’s station that listed photos, names and contact information for the doulas. “Over time we developed a complaint process as well as establishing a system for addressing any conflicts during a labor,” adds Ms. Martensen. “It is a collaborative model that has worked well for the most part, and it is not administered by the hospitals.” They continue to have regular meetings with key personnel and doulas to provide feedback and assess their collaboration with one another. Ms. Martensen feels that the emphasis on collaboration and being seen as a valued member of the care team is what has made all the difference.

Ana Paula Markel, of BiniBirth in Los Angeles, California, USA, initially worked with a small task force at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. A rising number of conflicts was leading to a tense atmosphere, and Ms. Markel was talking to a labor and delivery nurse about it. Out of that casual conversation, a small group of interested individuals got together and outlined several steps which they have been implementing in the last year. They created a Cedars-Doula Advisory Committee made up of labor and delivery nurses, midwives, the nurse manager, and six doulas from the community who each have a different level of experience. Ms. Markel feels that having new doulas involved is crucial, since they often present a different perspective. The CDAC meets monthly, and has its own email address where people can write with questions or complaints. It is used by both doulas and nurses. Based on this feedback, they created a teach-in day for doulas, which was also attended by much of the labor and delivery staff. They did several role plays of challenging scenarios and explored the point of view of both nurses and doulas and what each thought the other “should” be doing. It was very enlightening for everyone. After attending the teach-in day, doulas received a recognition badge to wear. In this way nurses were reassured about the doula’s perspective and background knowledge.

Both the Toronto and Los Angeles doula communities were able to turn potential conflicts into opportunities for collaboration and enrichment. So, take heart! It can be done – you can create a process that benefits many stakeholders long term.  It is up to us, as doulas, to do the work and it is a task to be embraced. To have the ear of hospital leaders, even if it is coming in the guise of an untenable agreement, is what decades of doulas have been waiting for: an opportunity to create positive change in the system.

 

Here is a pdf copy of this blog post: Gilliland Hospital Agreements Engagement

[1] Fisher and Ury, Getting To Yes, p. 41 (first ed.)

[2] Fisher and Shapiro, Beyond Reason, p. 53

Fisher, R., Shapiro, D., (2006) Beyond Reason: Using Emotions As You Negotiate. Penguin Books. 

Fisher, R., Ury, W., (1981 through 2011) Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Penguin Books. 

Other conflict resolution, negotiation, or mediation resources may be available through a community college, university extension, adult education, or state or provincial small business support organization.

 

 

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Hospital Agreements: The Wrong Solution for the Right Problem

Jun 27, 2016 by

HospitalDoulaAgreementsAnOpportunity For Engagement (3)Birth doulas are concerned about hospitals requiring signed agreements in order for them to practice their livelihood on the facility’s grounds. Some agreements outline scope of practice behaviors and even have vaccination requirements. My concern is that these agreements are seen by hospital leaders as an easy solution, without realizing that agreements without prior negotiation lead to greater conflict and tension, thus worsening the situation for their staff rather than alleviating it. They seek to save institutional energy and time, sidestepping the processes of defining the problem well or evaluating other possible solutions.

It’s also possible hospital leaders do not understand the doula’s role. A few months ago a very experienced labor and delivery nurse asked me about a doula who “just sat on the couch” most of the birth, only “getting up to help them change positions or go to the bathroom”. Her perspective was that the doula’s role was to tell the mother what to do to make her labor more efficient. This also represents a clash in values. In the hospital system, members have been socialized to believe that their primary value is in doing something. Our emphasis is on presence, a state of being that helps to create a safe space where oxytocin can flourish, the laboring person’s body can open up and use it’s own wisdom to get the baby born.

As someone who does frequent workshops and trainings for labor and delivery nurses, I can say that nurses gain their knowledge about birth from different sources; and often they do not know what doulas know. Nurses reading this blog very likely do, but they may not be the people in charge of solving the ‘doula problem’. Doulas read different research literature and have different conclusions. It is risky for doulas to assume that others understand our role or why we place value on physiologic birth[1]. When people don’t understand the doula’s approach to enhancing labor, they misunderstand our actions and motives as well.

To me, the agreements and many doula communities’ reaction to them, are representative of a clash in values, misunderstandings about each person’s role, and short sightedness about the long term relationships that need to exist between birth doulas and hospital staff and administrators. Part of my reasoning comes from the hospitals and doula communities who have effectively worked through their conflicts and found solutions that work. Each group took the time to appreciate the other’s contributions, and develop a long term perspective that included a multifaceted communication network. In my next post, I’ll outline their achievements and share strategies to help get to that point in your own community.

If an agreement is being proffered by your hospital, this means that you have a sparkling opportunity to engage with administrators to resolve conflicts and outline your working relationship. This is a critical time to define your relationship with one another as it has the potential to influence all future interactions. In a way congratulations are in order – the doulas in your area are being seen as a big enough force that they can no longer be ignored. You’ve got their attention and can use it to create positive change in the system that benefits you, your clients, as well as the hospital. The hospital staff just doesn’t know it yet!

Let’s focus on some key questions that we need to ask:

First, has the problem been defined well? Agreements are seen as a solution to a problem that people belonging to the hospital are having. Usually it seems the doulas in the area are often in the dark about what the problem actually is. From what I’ve learned about people and medical systems, a solution can be latched on to without ever really defining the problem well. “I read on the internet that Hospital X was having a doula problem so they developed an agreement. We could do that too.” Having latched on to a solution, the group then moves forward without fully defining the problem first.

Problems that agreements may be seen as solving:

  • Doulas who are using clinical skills while in the hospital.
  • Doulas misinforming the person in labor about their progress.
  • Doulas who are not being collaborative in their labor support strategies with nurses.
  • Doulas who ignore nurse’s experience or expertise in support skills.
  • Doulas who criticize a medical careprovider’s approaches.
  • Doulas who give medical information that the hospital feels should come from their representative.
  • Doulas who are blamed for their client’s strategies to delay or avoid interventions.
  • New doulas who need mentoring, and the nurse doesn’t feel that is their role (the agreement serves a gatekeeping function, keeping newbies away).

Besides the first one, the rest of these problems are relational. In other words, they aren’t easy to define and will depend on the personalities and communication skills of the people involved. That is what makes the agreements so problematic – they really can’t define appropriate behaviors in an accurate way. For example, if an agreement states, “The doula will not openly criticize the medical care being offered to a patient”, what does that mean? What is considered “criticism” and “open”? Is asking about BRAND[2] seen as criticism? Is bringing up alternatives critical? Is reminding a mother about her pre-labor priorities critical? How do doulas know? How do nurses know?

Second, are the perspectives of multiple stakeholders (nurses, physicians (all kinds including anesthesiologists), midwives, administrators, mothers, fathers, babies, laboring patients, family members, lactation professionals, doulas, social workers, etc) being taken into account? Having defined the presenting problem, who else is affected by it? What are their considerations that need to be taken into account? Have they been asked or consulted?

Third, what are all of the possible solutions to the problem? Are there other issues that have come up during this exploration period? What are the short and long term gains of each solution? What if instead of forcing all doulas to sign an agreement, we had twice yearly orientations for new doulas? What if the hospital sponsored events that covered the allowed safe discussion of most annoying behaviors of doulas in nurse’s eyes, and vice versa? What if nurses were free to ask questions about why doulas do things a particular way, without negative repercussions? What if doulas could seek to understand the nurse’s perspective without animosity?

In this way, hospital-doula agreements can be shortsighted. We don’t know what the goals of the hospital or the doula community are or whether they overlap.

Agreements that are created without communication between the negotiating parties will create tension and conflict. An agreement works best when it has been negotiated after a effective communication and conflict resolution process has been established. The agreement is the outcome of a negotiation. When it is handed down with authority as a “power over” move, it is doomed to create tension, defensiveness, and an anxious and tense work environment.

 

 

[1]  Supporting Healthy And Normal Physiologic Childbirth: A Concensus Statement by ACNM, MANA, and NACPM (pdf file) 

[2] Acronym for Benefits, Risks, Alternatives, do Nothing, Decision (after establishing that this is not an emergency)

For a doula’s insights on being handed an agreement, read: https://birthanarchy.com/hospital-doula-agreement/

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Doulas Are Paraprofessionals

May 31, 2016 by

2DoulasAreParaprofessionals (2) copyEncouraging professional behavior by doulas is one of the purposes of this blog, but it needs to be clear that the doula occupation is a paraprofession, not a profession. Community based, hospital employed, and independent practice birth doulas clearly fit dictionary and research interpretations and even the U.S. Department of Labor classification. However postpartum doula work is not such a neat fit. One of the definitions for paraprofessional is that they work alongside of or under the supervision of professionals. While they may work and make decisions independently, there is something about the nature of their work that is connected to the stronger influence of a professional.

Profession vs. Paraprofession

A profession is any type of work that needs specialized and prolonged training, a particular skill, or a high level of education; often a formal qualification or licensure is required. A defining characteristic of paraprofessional occupations is that training can be achieved with only a high school degree or its equivalent. While some programs may offer an associate’s (two year) degree, this is often done for financial aid reasons, not because it is essential for training purposes. Because there are no impediments to offering services (some people don’t even take a doula training before doing the work), we cannot define doula work as a profession.

However, that does not mean that doulaing does not require a high level of specialized skills to perform well, nor does it mean that there are lower standards for professional behavior. In fact, several papers discuss the need for paraprofessionals in the family support services field to develop a professional identity as helpers of families, and to transform who they are and how they serve others as part of a successful training process (Behnke and Hans; Hans and Korfmacher).

“Paraprofessionals frequently associate significant personal growth with their training and work experiences. They connect their training to higher self-esteem, greater personal and professional aspirations, and the ability to engage in more effective interpersonal relationships (p.10)…An emerging identity as someone who plays a valuable and valued role helping other individuals seemed to be a central experience of doula training for the women who successfully became doulas.” The women who did not complete this transformation [or become doulas] felt they gained “mostly technical knowledge” but did not feel personally changed by the experience. In fact they expressed “a resistance to change” and seeing themselves in a helping role.” –Behnke and Hans (2002)

It also does not mean that the professionals we work alongside of can effectively do our job. This is not to say that the professional person can perform the paraprofessional’s duties.   The paraprofessional has specific skills and attributes that make it possible for the professional to accomplish more complex tasks and responsibilities.

Several sources discuss that when paraprofessionals fulfill their role, they boost the effectiveness and relationship between the client and the professional. They are able do their job better because we do ours. I think this is true in the perinatal context for doulas because our core values are good communication, maternal involvement in decision making and maximizing positive memories. Even though the labor and delivery professionals we work with may not have the same values, our presence often contributes to meeting their medical goal of “healthy mom, healthy baby”.

Doula Research

The defining of doulas as paraprofessionals comes initially from research articles published in the Zero to Three journal from 2000 through 2005. Researchers at the University of Chicago were invited to participate in a community based doula program called the Chicago Doula Project (now part of Health Connect One). Examples of other paraprofessionals: paralegals who work in attorney offices; paraeducators working in school classrooms; library assistants; nursing assistants; paramedics; veterinary assistants working alongside veterinary technicians (associate’s degree) and veterinarians (doctorate degree).

Another aspect of the paraprofessional is that the person is considered a good fit based on personality characteristics and social skills they already possess. Paraprofessionals often work with the people part of a situation; they need solid interpersonal skills and to be good communicators. These skills are strengthened during the training and early supervision process. This concept is clearly defined and repeated in the articles about community based doula programs and their staff selection process.

In the only national representative survey of doulas (so far!) published in a peer reviewed journal in 2005, the title is, “Doulas As Childbirth Paraprofessionals: Results From A National Survey”. Lantz, Low and their team state “doulas have become a new type of “paraprofessional” (or someone with a lower level of training and /or credentials who works in tandem with another professional) with a specialized role and an interest in finding clients who will hire them for their services. As such, doulas (who are also called labor assistants) represent a new addition to today’s maternity care team.”

Dictionary and Wikipedia Definitions

As an English prefix, the word “para” is used “in the naming of occupational roles considered ancillary or subsidiary to roles requiring more training, or of a higher status, on such models as paramedical, and paraprofessional: paralegal, paralibrarian, parapolice.” (Dictionary.com) “A person to whom a particular aspect of a professional task is delegated but who is not licensed to practice as a fully qualified professional.” (Oxford Dictionary.com) Wikipedia, which represents the generally understood meaning of a concept, states that “paraprofessional is a job title given to persons in various occupational fields such as education, healthcare, engineering and law, who are trained to assist professionals but do not themselves have professional licensure [note – in the U.S. this is administered by state]. The paraprofessional is able to perform tasks requiring significant knowledge in the field, and may even function independently of direct professional supervision, but lacks the official authority of the professional.”

Are All Doulas Paraprofessionals?

While the definition of paraprofessional is grounded in the early literature on community based doula programs, the nature of a doula’s labor and her support behaviors do not vary substantially for independent practice and hospital based doulas. While each may have their own niche and specialty skills, the actions of support during the prenatal, labor, birth and the postpartum periods are the same. In teaching how to support emotionally and physically; offer information as needed; and prompting clients to advocate for themselves, the skills do not change. The setting changes, and the background knowledge to effectively complete the task, but the behaviors of support are transferable. For example, an independently hired postpartum doula comforting a new mother about her birth will use the same skills as a community based birth doula. Building confidence in one’s ability to birth is similar to building confidence in one’s ability to breastfeed.

One of the conflicts inherent in these definitions is that the paraprofessional works for or under a professional. We can make the case that a birth doula would not be engaged for their services if the person was not pregnant and is almost always seeing a physician or midwife for prenatal and labor care. But what about postpartum doulas? While a postpartum person may also engage a lactation consultant or be seeing a doctor for checkups, there is no connecting relationship between them and their doula.

Is Being A Doula A Vocation?

Doula work may or may not be a vocation, which is a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation. In my files, there are plenty of interviews from women who state they could not imagine not being a doula – it fulfills their purpose in life. I’ve previously written about it being a calling. However, not all doulas feel that way nor is it a requirement for effectiveness. Therefore, it is not a vocation.

United States Department Of Labor Classification

In December of 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Standard Occupational Classification Policy Committee (SOCPC) added “Doula” to category 39-9099 Personal Care and Service Workers, All Other. They declared that no formal schooling was needed although most in this category had a high school diploma or equivalent. I don’t think we can disagree with that. Those of us who have advanced degrees find them helpful but they are not required to perform the tasks of doula work effectively. Other occupations in this category are Butler, House Sitter, Shoe Shiner, Valet, and Magnetic Healer. While being lumped with shoe shiners may feel frustrating or upsetting to doula readers, from the SOCPC standpoint, median wages for doula work are not high and there isn’t an educational requirement, nor are there many doulas. But also consider butlers. The Guild of Professional Butlers has 10,000 active members (35% in the U.S.) who earn $50,000 to $150,000 a year. I’d also like to point out that each of these jobs require a high level of interpersonal skill to provide good service and personal care.

DoulaDeptofLabor

 

Abramson, R., Altfeld, S. & Teibloom-Mishkin, J. (2000) The community-based doula: an emerging role in family support. Zero to Three, Oct/Nov, 11-16.

Behnke, E.F. & Hans, S. (2002) Becoming a doula. Zero to three, (November), 9-13.

Hans, S. & Korfmacher, J. (2002) The professional development of paraprofessionals. Zero to three, (November), 4-8.

Lantz, P.M., Low, L.K., Varkey, S. & Watson, R.L. (2005) Doulas as childbirth paraprofessionals: Results from a national survey. Womens Health Issues, 15(3), 109-116.

Meyer, H., Kirwan, A. & Dealy, K. (2005) Expanding the Doula Model: An Illinois Replication Story. Zero to Three, 25(5), 35-42.

 

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Birthrape And The Doula

Apr 29, 2016 by

The (1)“At many births, while I have my hand on a woman’s arm reminding her to breathe, someone has their hand in her vagina digging around, her eyes are wide, she’s trying to get away, screaming STOP… What do I do? What do I say? How do I help make it right? I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. It seems so wrong.” [excerpt from one email among many I’ve received over the years]

Dear Doula,

I wish I could tell you that these kinds of things only happen to you, that they aren’t worldwide, that people aren’t suffering, that how one is treated during birth doesn’t traumatize a person, and that I don’t have multiple examples of this in my doula interview files. But that wouldn’t be true.

I wish I could explain what the medical careprovider is thinking or understand more deeply the processes that lead this person to conclude that what they are doing is right or that it doesn’t matter to the person in the body that they are touching. But that compassion is hard for me to come by.

What I can tell you is that the careprovider has somehow forgotten they are treating a person, not just a body. The medical detachment they learned to protect themselves has gone haywire, and so much so that they’ve forgotten that a real person is inside the body, and it is the person, not simply a medical situation they are treating. There is no detachment for the patient – and everything is experienced wholistically, meaning it affects their psyche and their spirit as well as their physical selves. Maybe the medical careprovider never learned this or maybe this knowledge has gotten buried.

But our focus needs to be on our client, on the person in the body. We are their amplifier, their voice, their conduit, when others who are caring for them aren’t listening. We are the one reminding that there is a person in the body, and that person has value. So what do you do?

  1. Be the voice. State what is happening in clear language.

“Dr. X, I hear [client’s name] saying “Stop” and “No”. Do you hear them?”

“[Client’s name], do you want Dr. X to stop?”

“Dr. X, is this an emergency or can you stop for a moment and let us all catch up with one another?”

Christine Morton and Elayne Clift, in their book Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-Emergence of Woman-Supported Birth in America, discuss the “interactional wedge” when doulas ask physicians to stop doing what they are doing and talk about it. It’s one of the main reasons doulas are often disliked by medical careproviders. (My opinion is this an asset for informed consent, which I discuss here). When we interrupt a physician or midwife, we are vying for power, so it must be very clear that we are doing it on behalf of our clients whose voice is not being heard even though they are expressing themselves.

  1. If the medical careprovider does not stop, appeal to the nurse.

“Nurse Y, I hear [client’s name] saying “stop” and “no”. Do you hear her too?”

“[Client’s name], do you want Nurse Y to ask Dr. X to stop?”

“Nurse Y, if this is an emergency, can you explain quickly to [client’s name] why Dr. X cannot stop? She needs to know this for her own well-being.”

Sometimes careproviders don’t stop because they think that whatever they are doing will be over quickly and just want to finish. Unless there is a medical imperative, this is selfish behavior because they are putting their own desire to be done quickly over the patient’s need for understanding and caring from them. Unfortunately, this is their prerogative as careproviders. As doulas we will experience a wide variety of responses to our clients’ needs for compassion and kindness from their physicians and midwives. Often the lack of it within a system is why we are hired as birth doulas.

  1. If the medical careprovider stops, facilitate the communication. Start with gratitude – really. Then help your client to gain information, preview what they can expect especially with bodily sensations, and encourage eye contact and affirming touch (if possible) between careprovider and client and nurse and client.

Your goals are:

  • To assist your client not to feel they are being treated like an object, and for the careprovider not to fall into the trap of treating the body as separate from the person inside of it (objectifying).
  • To assist in obtaining the information they need about what is happening and why.
  • To forecast what is going to happen and what sensations they might experience.
  • To re-establish a positive relationship with the physician or midwife and the client, and the nurse and the client, if possible.

“Thank you, Dr. X. I think [client’s name] needs a breather from all that intensity. Can you explain what is going on?”

“What sensations can [client’s name] expect?”

“What other procedures or people might we expect?”

“[Client’s name], what do you want Dr. X or Midwife Z to understand about what you were feeling or why you were feeling it?”

If the doctor or midwife seems disinterested, show it matters to you:

“[Client’s name], do you want to tell me more about what you were feeling or why you were feeling it?”

  1. What if it really is an emergency and there isn’t time for the physician or midwife to stop?

If the physician or midwife is really concentrating, we don’t want to interrupt them. So appeal to the nurse.

“Nurse Y, I can hear that [client’s name] is becoming really frightened/terrified (make sure you include an emotion) by what is happening and the pain they are in. Can you please get their attention and explain briefly why the doctor or midwife can’t stop?”

Use the Take Charge Routine from The Birth Partner to get through the painful procedure.

If the nurse is unavailable or busy, it’s up to us.

  1. What if the physician or midwife doesn’t stop, the nurse can’t help, and the situation is continuing? What do I do then?

You go further into what I call “trauma prevention mode”. You want to affirm that they are not alone in what they are experiencing, that you heard what they said, that what they wanted is not what is happening, and that you know how to help them get through it. If you can forecast any sensations or what might happen next, do so.

Get your client’s attention and look them in the eye. Grasp their hand, arm, shoulder, or side of their face firmly. Say:

“I’m right here with you and I’m not going anywhere.”

“Dr. X isn’t stopping but I hear your request and your pain.”

“Right now, let’s just get through this together.”

“This might get crampy or sharp before it goes away, but I’m right here.”

In the immediate aftermath, most careproviders and nurses will make some acknowledgement. “Sorry I couldn’t stop right then”, and then just go on to the next thing. For them, it isn’t any big deal. This is what I find the most frustrating – it’s as if they ignore the situation it doesn’t exist. I imagine that in their mind, that’s true, even if it isn’t our client’s reality. Whether to pursue a conversation at that point is up to your client, the situation, and how they like to handle conflict. We have to take our cues from them.

If you are a direct person, who is used to privilege and of having choices in your medical care, this might be very frustrating to not pursue the situation. But your client may feel that any confrontation may make things worse, or that they have to take what they get. Clients may be afraid of the consequences to them and their baby. These consequences may be very real, especially for people of color, immigrants, and those living below the poverty line. If you are white, or otherwise privileged it may be hard to believe but consequences for not being compliant exist.[i][ii][iii] This is hard because you are emotional too, but you have to keep in check what you would want to do. You will be leaving this client and their baby in a few hours, and they will have to deal with any aftermath.

In some cases where the doula is concerned about being asked or made to leave, it may be appropriate to go directly to option #5.  The doula who is in the room can offer more effective support than the one who has been restricted to the waiting area.  Use your skills to assess the situation.

Sometimes I find that clients are not interested in pursuing a conversation at any time. They just want to put the unpleasantness behind them. They may also have a different memory of what occurred, minimizing their experience. Don’t mess with this! The brain works to protect the psyche, and defense mechanisms are called that for a reason. They are defending against the negative impact of an experience. Often how a person thinks about what happened to them (cognitive appraisal) influences whether a situation is coded as traumatic or not. So, in the moment, they may make minimizing statements to try to soothe the chaos of their thinking – but whether that works in the long run remains to be seen. Increasing oxytocin flow by positive touch, eye contact, laughter, holding the baby skin to skin, etc, should be encouraged if it feels appropriate and congruent with your client’s feelings and experience of the moment. Oxytocin lowers stress hormones, which contribute to encoding memories as traumatic. After all, it’s still a birth! If the event really does become a source of anxiety and trauma, we can validate our client’s feelings at that time. Once again, we take our cues from them.

But what about us? As doulas we are often the ones left feeling raw and as if we witnessed a rape. I say that if you feel that was what you saw, then that was what you saw and you should seek counseling with that in mind. Your experience was valid even though it doesn’t jibe with what the medical careprovider, nurse, or client experienced.

If you have a positive rapport with your client’s nurse, you may want to discuss what you witnessed if you have some private and unhurried moments together. “It was really difficult for me when [client’s name] was crying out for Midwife Z to stop. My client sounded terrified, and then the midwife didn’t stop and it just continued. Can you help me to make better sense of this? What was that like for you?”

Hopefully you will get a good dose of understanding and some insight on the nurse’s perspective of these situations. You will get a snapshot of the nurse’s mindset if they feel free enough to share with you. I have found that some nurses feel exactly the same way the doula does, but they don’t know what to do either. Sometimes the discussion with the doula, who is an outsider, is the impetus for them to talk with the director of nursing about it.

Other times, the doula will hear a minimizing statement, “Oh, I knew it would be over in another minute and the mom sounded like she was overreacting.” Or, “Most patients wish Midwife Z would be gentler during that procedure but that’s just the way she does it.” If that’s the case, just thank the nurse for their insight and know that you’ve learned how they rationalize their way through these situations.

Note:  All my suggestions are based on my research, discussions with expert doulas, and conversations with medical careproviders.  I am steeped in white culture, the privileges of education, and being white. Please interpret my suggestions with that in mind – your culture and life experience may lead you to conclude that other actions are more appropriate or better than what I have written.  My goal is give doulas actions that are within their standards of practices as most define them – a beginning point to have a conversation, not to provide the last word for every doula.  

Is it rape? Aren’t you exaggerating?

Some people feel that by using the term ‘rape’, I’m overdramatizing these situations or minimizing the experience of people who have been sexually violated. But I don’t think so. The patient has given over their trust, their body, their life, to a medical careprovider who has a sacred covenant to treat that person and honor them. When they act in a manner that is dismissive, painful or coercive, they violate that trust. The careprovider is touching the most intimate parts of the body – places that may only have been touched by one or two other people besides the careprovider! They have power over the patient and are treating their body like an object. The patient is often lying down and is unable to move or get away. When the patient says, “No” and “Stop”, to me, they are voluntarily retracting their consent.

As a qualitative researcher, our ethics state that the person who is having the experience is the one who defines it. They choose their language and share with us their emotions and mindset. In recent Facebook queries with over forty responses from mothers and professionals, all of the people who felt they had experienced an assault during their labor used the term “rape” or “birthrape”.  Many had also experienced sexual assault or rape, and these people felt many links between the two experiences. The term “rape” has a visceral emotional component that grabs one’s attention in a way that “assault during labor” does not. That is what the victim or survivor wants – for us to acknowledge and see their experience as best we can through their eyes. These people didn’t feel assaulted, they felt raped.[iv]

Rape is defined as “unlawful sexual intercourse or any other sexual penetration of the vagina, sex organ, other body part, or foreign object, without the consent of the victim. An act of plunder, violent seizure or abuse; despoliation; violation. The act of seizing and carrying off by force.”[v]

If the person who had the experience describes it in terms of feeling their body was violated, that is an assault. If they say, “I feel like I was raped”, that counts. They may have signed a legal consent for treatment for a vaginal birth form upon entering the hospital. But that in no way gives medical careproviders, or anyone for that matter, consent to violate their person when they clearly state their wish for that person to stop.

The medical and nursing literature is full of research on traumatic birth and the role of physicians and nurses in creating that trauma. It is also full of the pain that medical careproviders experience when they feel they have been complicit with or damaged by the coercive tactics of their coworkers and colleagues. For more information, I would urge you to read chapter 17 in “Traumatic Childbirth” by Cheryl Tatano Beck, Jeanne Watson Driscoll, and Sue Watson, or access Beck, C.T., & Gable, R.K. (2012) Secondary Traumatic Stress In Labor and Delivery Nurses: A mixed methods study. JOGNN, 41, 747-760.

 

 

[i] Bridges, Khiara, (2013) Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization. UC Press

[ii] Oparah, Julia, & Bonaparte, Alicia (2015) Birthing Justice. Routledge.

[iii] The American Dream of Birth (2016) Video (Free and a good watch!)

[iv] If I was working with a group of medical care providers desiring to change their care practices, I probably would use the word “assault” repeatedly in discussion – it’s no good triggering their own histories of being assaulted or demeaned when the goal is lasting behavioral change. The majority of physicians have experienced bullying behaviors and mistreatment from professors and supervisors. The idea that physicians are perpetuating what they experienced as students and residents to their patients is a valid one. https://portalcontent.johnshopkins.edu/Housestaff/Uploaded%20Files/Medical_Student_Mistreatment_at_Hopkins_BRIEF.pdf

[v] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/rape

There are several good books about trauma and recovery but these are a good place to start:

The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms by Mary Beth Williams PhD LCSW CTSSoili Poijula PhD

In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter A. Levine

Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk

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The Time To Ask About Past Abuse or Assault is Never

Apr 6, 2016 by

TheOne of the most upsetting questions I have read on a doula’s personal history form is some version of this: “Have you ever experienced sexual abuse or assault, either as a child or as an adult?” While I realize the doula is trying to be helpful, the attempt is misguided at best, and can actually create problems and stresses for the client that negatively affect the doula-client relationship. What the doula really wants to know is whether there are ways to help the client more effectively, even if what the client wants may seem odd or unusual. There are better ways to obtain that information that don’t create more problems.

Asking the question automatically puts your client in a bind. They have to choose whether to be honest with you before they are ready to do so, or whether to lie. The issue with most survivors of abuse or assault is that the perpetrator took away their power of choice. Their body was not their own, it was the property of the perpetrator. The victim’s only choice was to submit or possibly face worse harm if they resisted. Part of offering healing is for us to allow self-disclosure if it is desired, and when the client initiates it. When we ask the question, it is to meet our own needs even though it is in the guise of good intentions. If our client does not wish to discuss these acts or even for us to know, their only other option is to lie. This dilemma is distressing for our client, which is not the doula’s intention. So don’t ask.

The truth is, what you really want to know is how you can help them more through their birth or postpartum journey. There are ways to get at that information without knowing exactly why. In fact, knowing details about the story is not necessary to offering effective support. Here’s what you really want to know, and I suggest you say something like this on your last prenatal visit (after establishing rapport):

Sometimes people have had life experiences that left them traumatized and that they had to recover from. Sometimes that involves assault or abuse, or even being in a car accident. There may be things that other people do or say that lead you to being instantly scared or startled or remind you of that original traumatizing experience. I just want you to know that I can help you best when I can help myself and others to avoid those behaviors, and what to do if they happen.

You can also offer examples:

  • Sometimes a person is easily startled and doesn’t want to be touched from behind without being asked first and waiting for a response.
  • Another person didn’t want to be in the bathroom alone with the door closed. The door had to be open or someone needed to be with them.
  • Another didn’t want people talking about her as if she wasn’t there. She insisted that they use her name and not call her ‘dear’ or ‘honey’ or ‘mom’.
  • Another was concerned that breastfeeding would bring up negative associations with a past experience involving their breasts. This person needed assistance in being anchored in the present whenever the baby nursed in those first few weeks.
  • Others don’t care for particular words, such as being told to ‘relax’.  

This is the kind of information we really want to know as birth and postpartum doulas. How those needs came to be is not important. We don’t need to know the story in order to be effective.  

At this point your client may choose to tell you the story. But I think it’s important to repeat that you don’t need to know their story to help them. Disclosure should serve a purpose and you want to make sure they don’t feel uncomfortable later if they tell you now. It could be a good time to get a glass of water or use the restroom to make sure their choice to disclose is one they’ve taken a few moments to consider. It is also okay for the doula to not want to know the story! Doulaing is a relationship and you get to take care of yourself too. Perhaps hearing their abuse or assault story would be triggering or upsetting for you, so its okay to ask that they keep their disclosure general rather than including emotional details.

My second point is that childhood sexual abuse is estimated to affect one out of every four women[1] in the United States, and one out of six men[2]. Sexual assault and rape are also common experiences[3], directly affecting at least twenty percent of the population. So, we’re probably better off as doulas if we assume an assault or abuse history rather than seeing it as exceptional. That doesn’t mean that every person who has been assaulted or abused will be affected by it during labor or their postpartum. In fact, some people are relieved to find that it didn’t have a negative effect in that part of their life.

In my experience there are two behaviors that new doulas are most likely to see and that they can effectively address. The first is disassociation – for some reason, the person in labor or postpartum doesn’t seem to be present anymore. They are not in their body, their present moment consciousness is somewhere else. The person may seem distant and unfocused, or may even be looking out the window or down and to the left (recalling a memory). The empathetic neurons in the doula’s gut are giving the message that the client isn’t with you anymore in the room, they’ve drifted somewhere else.

The other worrisome situation is when the laboring or postpartum person’s behavior seems to be totally out of proportion to what precipitated it. In other words, the way they are acting seems to be more dramatic or over the top and is disconnected from what they are responding to. This overreacting may mean they were reminded of something awful that happened in the past. They are responding to that experience rather that what is currently going on.

In both instances, the most effective actions by the doula are the same. Bring them back to the present moment, to being in the room with you, gently and without exerting your power or voice over theirs. This is usually more effective when the doula is quietly and gently persistent, rather than using a loud voice or giving orders.

  • Use your client’s name, use today’s date – or better yet, ask them what day and year it is.
  • Have them look at you, have your client tell you what is happening today, and where they are.
  • Have them notice objects in the room, prompting them with positive ones (flowers, baby book, etc).
  • If invited, touch them in a preferred way (you’ll know them) in a safe place on their body (this will differ). If you aren’t sure, ask. “May I put my hand on your knee, arm, hand?”
  • Rather than ordering them to do something, invite them. Let the client choose – this is very important. “If you can, let yourself come back to TODAY fully.” “When you are ready, let yourself explore feeling safe here in the room with us, letting your body to birth/breastfeed/nurture your baby.”
  • When it seems that your client is mostly back in the present moment, ask something like, “How can I help you to feel more safe right now? Even if it seems silly, please say it. Your brain sometimes has wisdom that doesn’t make sense at first.”
  • Follow through as best you can, with the extra blanket or the pink flowers from the gift shop or finding the right song on the playlist.

These can seem to be scary situations for newer doulas, but we can use the same skills with our friends and family members who have experienced trauma and are triggered in our presence. Sometimes they aren’t even aware that it happened, and our feedback is what helps them to notice that they aren’t in the present moment anymore. To me, because of the commonality of experience of personal violation, these are life skills we all need to see one another through the journey. It’s not about complicated strategies. It’s about being a safe and trustworthy person and allowing the laboring or postpartum person to have their own experience in a supportive atmosphere.

Some doulas have extensive counseling skills, degrees, or training. They have additional strategies to use than what I’ve mentioned here. The book, When Survivors Give Birth by Phyllis Klaus and Penny Simkin, is an excellent resource. There are also facilitators offering two and three day comprehensive workshops for birth professionals wanting to focus on this issue in their practices.

[1] http://www.oneinfourusa.org/statistics.php

[2] https://1in6.org/the-1-in-6-statistic/

[3] http://centerforfamilyjustice.org/community-education/statistics/

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