Many partners worry that hiring a doula will make them feel left out of the birthing process. They understand their role as that of the caring supporter and feel as though a doula might take that away from them or put them at arms’ length from their partner while she is in labour.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As one of my clients’ partners once said to me following the beautiful birth of their daughter,
“There were so many moments when I know I would have felt anxious or worried, but seeing how confident and relaxed you were helped me to understand that everything was normal and that there was nothing to worry about. I was able to just follow your lead and focus on helping (her) through each contraction.”
In addition to serving birthing women, I make it a priority in my doula practice to get to know partners and to make sure that their anxieties and concerns, their priorities and preferences and their hopes and wishes are heard and responded to. After all, they are just as emotionally invested in the birth of this child as the woman giving birth is. While the birthing woman is the one whose body will undergo the changes of pregnancy and experience the sensations of labour and birth, the partner also has unique challenges to deal with as he or she supports her. It is not easy to watch as your partner, your closest friend and beloved companion copes with the physical pain of contractions, the exhaustion of a long second stage, the emotional turmoil of transition or the exertion of pushing the baby out. In addition, there may be fears about the health and safety of the baby adding stress and worry to an already challenging situation. When you further consider that on top of all of those pressures and stressors, that partner is expected to be calm, confident and supportive in a context with which he or she likely has little or no previous experience and which can be confusing and overwhelming, you begin to understand what a tall order it is for the partner who wants to support his or her partner during labour and birth.
Having a doula means having someone there whose experience and knowledge will be reassuring throughout the entire process for both people. Even if the doula does nothing at all, her presence and calm, confident demeanour remind the couple that everything is progressing normally and that there is no reason to worry. If you are having a hospital birth with an OB, a doula means never being left alone without an experienced and knowledgeable birth professional. A friend once told me that the stress that he and his wife were under throughout her labour vanished each time a nurse came into their room. Had they had a doula, he felt, that stress might never have been there to begin with. Stress isn’t just unpleasant, it’s downright counter-productive to labour. Catecholamines, stress hormones, can slow or even stall labour, which only adds more stress into the mix – it’s an unhealthy cycle.
A doula will encourage the partner to ‘massage here’ or ‘press there’, or to assist with changing positions, helping him or her to provide comforting, effective touch that relaxes the woman in labour and helps her to manage the sensations that she is experiencing. There are many techniques that are easier to perform with two sets of hands. There are others that become very tiring for the person performing them, so having someone to trade off with now and then is good for both the doula and the partner. The words that a doula uses to encourage the woman in labour will be easily adopted and echoed by the partner who might otherwise not know what to say.
I also know from experience that many women find it reassuring to overhear their partner and their doula talking and working together as a team while she labours. It can be comforting in that it lets her know that everything is going well, and it can also be a relief to know that her partner doesn’t need to be cared for, that he or she feels relaxed and supported too. For many women it can be difficult to shake the feeling that she should be caring for others, even during labour and childbirth – this can be distracting and an impediment to going with the flow of your body and the work that it needs to do. Knowing that you don’t have to worry about your loved one removes that pressure and allows you to go deeper into a relaxed and open state that is amenable to labour and birth.
During the prenatal stage and the labour itself, there might be medical terms thrown around that can be confusing or even troubling; having a doula means having a ready-at-hand translator who will explain things in terms that make sense to you both. Prior to labour she will provide you with resources and do research for you so that you both feel confident in your choices. This can be especially helpful when partners are uncertain about a choice that the pregnant woman has made or is thinking about making – sometimes all that is needed is a clear understanding of the evidence regarding risks and benefits. Getting this information from a third-party who is not emotionally involved in the pregnancy or the overall relationship can often make it easier to process.
Aside from all of these reasons, a doula will mean that during labour you can go to the bathroom, get a breath of fresh air, grab a coffee or a snack when you feel the need, make phone calls or run out to the car to get the camera that you forgot was in the glove box without having to leave your partner alone while she is in labour and in need of constant support.
The ultimate job of a doula is to support and comfort labouring women so that they can have satisfying and empowering birth experiences. A partner who feels engaged and empowered to participate makes that goal easier to reach.
Partners who felt like active participants in the births of their children tend to be more comfortable with the new responsibilities of parenthood. Sharing in the birth experience in meaningful ways is easier when you’re not stressed out or worried and you have a “lead to follow”. Maybe that’s why studies have shown that couples who hire doulas for their births report greater relationship satisfaction six weeks after the birth than those who do not. It’s something to think about. Ultimately, if you really do feel like you want to be the only support person during your partner’s labour, you can find a doula who will be present but hands-off. As with all aspects of doula care, what a doula does for each couple depends on what they want her to do (provided that we’re talking about things that are within her scope of practice). A silent, calm presence who makes sure that no unnecessary/undesired people enter your sphere might be all that you want or need. For others, a team-mate who can help to guide your words and your hands might be more your speed. These things are all negotiable and as long as you are open to communicating with your pregnant partner and your doula, there are no downsides to having one.
UPDATE: Just came across this and thought it would make a lovely little addendum to this post: http://birthgoddess.ca/2012/01/letter-to-dads/