Doulaing For Friend’s Births

Feb 25, 2016 by

DoulaingForFriendsIt’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 no money 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.


  1. I have been invited to the births of 3 close friends. The first was before I had done a training. It went really smooth. Long labor with challenges here and there but ultimately smooth labor. The second friend’s birth did not go well. Every intervention under the sun. Baby did not do very well throughout the birth. Baby ended up in NICU and there was a solid 8 hours where I wasn’t confident the baby was going to make it. It was very traumatic. Momma and poppa said there is no way they could have done that with out me by their side. They don’t look back on the experience as traumatic and i certainly have never shared with them that I do. My other friend had a planned home birth that resulted in a hospital transfer. oddly enough we transferred to the EXACT same room at North memorial as my other friend so that was weird. She pushed at home for 7 hours after laboring for over 30 hours. She got an epidural and pitocin and pushed for another 7 hours. There was a vacuum assist for 2 ctrx and then she continued pushing all on her own. Healthy mom and healthy baby. She kicked so much ass. The transfer was super smooth-midwife to midwife transfer. She felt great about the care and so did I. It was really brutal to watch someone I love so dearly work soooooo hard for so long. I always experience empathy and compassion with my clients but it goes so much deeper when there is a personal relationship involved. There were issues that arose during her pregnancy that almost required planned hospital birth but she worked so hard to have her home birth and didn’t get it. That was really hard for me to feel her disappointment. she feels great about her birth and knows she did everything in her power to have a home birth and trusts her baby led her to where she needed to be. In both settings they definitely needed someone there for them. I sometimes wonder if I would have been a better doula had I been able to keep my emotions out of the picture. I don’t struggle with this typically with clients who have no other role in my life. It is hard for me to set emotional boundaries period but especially in this context. As doulas we have a good understanding of what birth can look like. Because of this, we also tend to absorb a lot of trauma that our clients don’t ever experience, especially first time mommas as they don’t often have a reference point.

  2. I’ve gotten resistance when I mentioned my trainer spoke about not doulaing for friends.
    I wonder if we don’t hear about negative outcomes and impacts on friendships because many friend-attended births are within the doula community?

  3. Rachel

    I have yet to take the plunge into being a professional doula outside my circle. I have loved every part of being support for them during their births. I’ve even held my friend while she had to find the strength to deliver her sleeping baby. I’ve always had natural births and even my friends who love their epidurals have come to me and asked me to be there. I haven’t had a bad experience yet. I will need to check out this book. In fact I never thought about it as a career until my friend who lost her baby said this is your calling Rachel. This is who you are.

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