“Do you have any children of your own?”
This is a question that sometimes comes up when I talk about my work, whether I’m talking with a potential client or just chatting with someone at a party. Sometimes, when I respond with, “no, not yet.” and a smile, I’m met with a puzzled look. On a few occasions, the puzzled person has come right out and asked me, “so, why did you become a doula then?”
In honour of International Women’s Day today I thought I’d take a stab at answering that question.
While many doulas are moms (and I hope to be one myself before too much longer), many of us are not, and from where I sit, it doesn’t really make much of a difference when it comes to doing our work. While many people, I am sure, come to be birth professionals because of a passion for working with babies, I, and many other doulas, come to this work because we have a passion for serving women. After all, the word doula means “woman’s servant” in Greek. While some are uncomfortable with the word “servant”, I feel that this is the perfect way to describe what I do. For me, being a doula is about working for and with women in childbirth. It is 100% about the woman. I do, of course, offer a great deal of support to partners who may be men or women, but really, partner support is still about the birthing woman. A partner who is calm and supported is better able to reassure, participate and support the woman they love. While midwives offer wonderful support to women, they also have other tasks that they must do and have to split their attention between mother and baby as they are responsible for the well-being of the newborn as much as they are responsible for the well-being of the mother. A healthy baby is everyone’s goal, but as a doula, my orientation to the baby’s well-being is through the eyes of the mother. Given that a healthy baby is important to her, it is therefore important to me. I serve my clients so that they can have satisfying birth experiences, that they feel proud of and that help them to recognize and cherish the power that is already within them. That always includes a healthy baby and a healthy self, but it also includes a lot of other things that vary from person to person, and from birth to birth.
My original entry point into this work comes from my academic background. While pursuing my Master’s degree, I became interested in the sociolinguistic concept of communication style. My interest in gender theory led me to explore the notion that gender is culture, that is, the way that we experience the world differs based, in part, on how we identify according to gender norms and expectations. In other words, growing up as a girl is a different cultural experience than growing up as a boy in the same place, at the same time, etc. where all other things are equal. This leads to differences in communicational strategies, expectations and abilities. Communication styles are the product of socialization that begins the moment we begin assigning gender to a person. Indeed, few people acknowledge the difference between sex and gender; that male sex does not necessarily lead to identification as ‘boy’ or ‘man’ and female sex does not necessarily lead to identification as ‘girl’ or ‘woman’ (this is referred to as the sex/gender distinction). As a side note, we should keep in mind that many men employ feminine communication styles and many women employ masculine communication styles. It is important to realize that these things operate on a continuum or spectrum, they are not fixed.
Not to get too deep into communication theory, suffice it to say that different cultural institutions utilize communicational strategies that may be more or less ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. In other words, those strategies may “speak” to some individuals and alienate others depending on how those individuals were themselves socialized to communicate. Law and medicine tend to be particularly ‘masculine’ in their communicational strategies. A prime example of this is the idea that in medicine, including childbirth (which does not need to be a medical event, but is often expected to be one), silence can be construed as consent. This is much the same as condemning a rape victim who did not openly and forcefully say “no!”. It is not acceptable that we socialize women from the time they are newborn girls to communicate with indirectness and consideration for the feelings of others (as our culture expects us to become caregivers and nurturers in general, to a greater extent than we expect this of men and boys in general) while at the same time insisting that we defend ourselves in ways that require direct, verbal and forceful objection. Not only are we expecting women to do that which we are trained never to do, but we are expecting them to do it in moments when they are at their most vulnerable. This is true in date rape scenarios and true in birthing rooms. No wonder the term “birth rape” is coming into use more and more as we begin to see just how often women are subjected to interventions that they have not been fully informed about, that they do not want or that they accept only because they have been made afraid of refusal.
That is why I became a doula.
Serving women, standing by them, holding their hands and their gazes, massaging their feet and their backs, walking with them, breathing with them, vocalizing with them, reminding them of their right to ask questions, to deliberate, to decide for themselves – these things are all a part of ensuring that the women I work for feel comforted, feel safe, feel supported. When we feel comfort, safety and support, it is much easier to speak up and speak out for ourselves in the face of a system that can be intimidating, authoritarian, frightening and even cruel. I don’t know of anyone who couldn’t benefit from that kind of presence.
It’s true, I don’t have children, but I am a woman and I know what it means to need to be heard. I can’t and won’t be your voice…because you have your own voice, you just need to be able to find it and make it heard. My job is to remind you, when you are at your most vulnerable, that it’s there and to make sure that everyone else is listening.