Doulas Are Paraprofessionals
Encouraging 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”.
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.
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.