“To Heal and Protect”: Attending Birth Doula Trainings for Personal Reasons

Jan 26, 2017 by

-To Heal And Protect-A small but influential group of people attend birth doula trainings not to become doulas, nurses or midwives, nor to positively influence births in other jobs, but to help heal from their own birth experiences (Gilliland, 2016). In any 10 to 12 person training, one or two people are there primarily to make sense of their own births or to make sure their future births are better. Although small in number, their motivations influence the type of discussions that occur in a workshop which makes their presence a significant one.

In this study, this group was defined in two ways. When forced to choose their top five reasons for attending a doula training, participants chose “understand my own labor(s) and birth(s) more deeply” or “make my future labor and births better” as one of their top two answers (n = 38; 8.2%). They also ranked professional reasons lower in their top five answers or omitted them. In the general question (“choose all reasons that apply”), members of this group also selected significantly fewer professional reasons for attending or none at all. There was a very clear demarcation between the “professional” attendees and the “personal” ones. However, this was the only difference. When these two groups were compared to one another on the other variables (age, births attended, parity, etc.) there were no significant differences.

In addition to this well delineated group, about 20% of all attendees chose “understand my births” as reason to attend. So while it’s a primary motivating factor for 1 out of 10, another two people in that training group also have lingering questions. This is a when my knowledge as a trainer with twenty years experience takes over in interpreting the research results from the study.

People who are in a birth doula training to gain healing from their own experience are not primarily invested in learning doula skills in order to use them with another person. They are there to figure out and make sense of their birth. By gaining information about what people need in labor and the components of support, they think they will better understand their own experiences. My hope as a trainer is that these people also develop more compassion for themselves.

In exploring this theme with small groups outside of the published JPE research study, there were five repeated themes in our conversations. They viewed a birth doula training as an avenue for healing because they felt:

  • People in the doula training will understand my story.
  • I will be treated with compassion and not dismissed.
  • I will be able to figure out what happened to me and why it happened.
  • I’ll be able to figure out why I feel the way I do.
  • I can keep what happened to me from happening again (to me or to others).

People seeking healing from a past birth experience have been a part of birth doula trainings since they started happening. In the 1980’s, I took “introduction to midwifery” workshops as well as ones designed to help you become aware of how your own births and growing up in our culture shaped our attitudes. In my decades as a trainer, I’ve learned how to make sure that people with these needs have opportunities to reflect and make sense of their experience – but not at the expense of hijacking the learning needs of the larger group. My primary purpose is to teach the skills that lead to doula success, not to lead a counseling group.

When you think about it, people who want this kind of healing have few opportunities to get these needs met. Where else can you go in our culture where you can get this level of understanding and compassion? Where can you get the information to assess what you actually needed at a significant time? It isn’t just emotional support but information and context that is often lacking when people are making sense of their births. An effective birth doula training can offer all of these things.

What we need to understand is that doula trainings are about training doulas – and part of that is teaching them to all the skills that come with compassionate listening, boundary setting, and putting clients at the center of their own decision making processes.  We have to be aware of and responsible for our own emotions at someone else’s birth or postpartum. The participants who need to heal offer trainers the opportunity to model compassion for ourselves. Further, they offer a living example that to be of service to another birthing family, we need to leave our own attachments outside the door.

Lastly, with these participants we are able to confront the thought that we can protect our clients or keep bad things from happening. We are not omnipotent nor are we the decision makers. Human beings, which includes our clients, are also notorious for learning best from making poor choices and living with the consequences. So doulas may find themselves second guessing a client’s choices or being judgmental. Participants who are processing their births may voice negativity about their choices or themselves during that past birth. When this situation arises in a workshop, it gives trainers a ripe opportunity to model kindness and tenderness towards oneself and others, and the personal empowerment that comes from owning one’s past choices.

As birth doula trainers, our job is significantly more complex than it looks on the surface. While we think we are there primarily to teach strategies to prevent labor dystocia, we are really there to help a whole society heal from damaging birth experiences and learn a greater sense of compassion for one another as we stumble through life.

Gilliland, Amy L. (2016) “What Motivates People To Take Doula Trainings?”Journal of Perinatal Education Summer 2016, Vol 25, No. 3, p. 174-183.

This is the third in a series of posts interpreting this journal article.  The first reflects on people who don’t want to be doulas but want birth knowledge, “Take A Doula Training, Change The World.”  The second focuses on “Career Minded Participants In Birth Doula Trainings“.

2 Comments

  1. Catherine Mccormick

    As an aspiring doula trainer and occasional volunteer at doula trainings I arrange for a group I work with, I have enjoyed and learned from this series of posts. But this post resonated strongly with me. It answered questions I had been unable to fully articulate before.

    Your research results make clear the push/pull i have observed between those committed to mastering the skills taught by the Trainer and those who keep trying to pull the focus back to discussions and their telling personal stories.

    The Trainer always skillfully resolves this issue. But I am left wondering why these individuals were attending the doula training, when they seem uninterested in the skills being taught.

    It was a frustration for me. But now I understand their motivations and can feel compassion for their wanting to keep the training focused on topics that feed their needs.

    Next time, I will closely observe the ways the Trainer sets boundaries for these individuals, in the interest of putting everyone’s future clients first, and turning the trainings attention to learning the doula skills.

    You have shown me a 3 part process that can be used to serve everyone’s needs with compassion and skill. It is very helpful and I thank you for your information, your insights and concrete ways to serve others needs with compassion.

    • Amy Gilliland

      Thank you Catherine, for your appreciation! The easiest way is to have multiple trainers so when people’s emotions arise, the lesson doesn’t have to stop. The trainer who isn’t teaching can meet with that person in another area. I did this for years when I had two co-trainers. Now that I’m alone, I have an assistant for every additional four people. I meet with people at breaks, or before or after the training day. I give them more options for working through their feelings: talking to me, another participant, another friend, writing or drawing in a journal. But I emphasize that no one ignores those emotional ‘pop ups’, as they are reminders of our own attachments – the way we want things to be. Only by being aware of them can we consciously set them aside and be present to serve someone else’s vision. To me, that’s the heart of doula work – no matter what kind of doula you are or the situation or person you happen to be doulaing. Birth, postpartum, death, wedding dress shopping – and I’m not being humorous. We all need doulaing in different parts of our lives in order to be a doula for someone else. #doulaingthedoula

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