I’ve always been a birth geek. I loved the experience of being pregnant with my son. His birth (at home, without drugs; with the baby’s father, two midwives, and my mother present) was the most intense and painful experience of my life; I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Even before becoming a mother myself, I sought out birth stories: fictional and nonfictional, in books, magazines, online and in person. I gravitated toward raw, no-holds-barred narratives of women experiencing this unique and profound transformation into mothers. (I am, of course, aware that there are other ways to become a mother besides giving birth!) “Natural” or medicated, vaginal or surgical, long or short, fulfilling or traumatic – I read and absorbed them all, marveling at the variety of women’s experiences and emotions.
A few years ago, I began to feel that perhaps I was called to do something about this preoccupation. Amid some personal and vocational turmoil elsewhere in my life, I began to feel the push to seek out training as a birth doula – a professional pregnancy, labor and birth support person. (Amusingly, “doula,” the Greek word for “female slave” or “female servant” is found a number of times in the New Testament.)
I hesitantly mentioned the idea to a few female clergy colleagues in my diocese, and the women with whom I shared this inchoate desire unanimously encouraged me to go for it. Looking back, I see the work of the Holy Spirit in those conversations, along with a powerful example of sisterhood and female spirituality, even though several of the colleagues had not themselves borne children.
I suspect that even as becoming a mother through childbirth first sparked my interest in doing birth work myself, my experience of attending to the movement of the Spirit in vocational discernment enabled me to hear and follow the Spirit’s call to this other path when it came.
I have now gone through training as a doula with DONA International and I have attended one birth. I was profoundly humbled by the laboring mother’s strength, by the love between her and her partner and their child, and by the sheer incredible process of birth. In that labor and delivery room, I felt as powerful a sense of calling, of being in the right place doing the right work at the right time, as I felt the first time I celebrated the Eucharist as a priest. Building a doula practice takes time. It is certainly not as drawn-out and stressful as the pastoral search process, but it does involve a lot of work. I have become part of an emerging statewide doula network, and I am hoping soon to have attended enough births to be formally certified.
Doulas are not medical professionals; we do not diagnose, treat, prescribe, or administer any kind of medical care. Our job is to provide physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother, her partner, and anyone else present for her in the birth process. In any given birth, a doula might be found rubbing the laboring woman’s shoulders, fetching her water, vocalizing with her, repeating phrases to center and encourage her, discussing the possible implication of decisions about her care, reminding her partner to eat a sandwich, keeping her mother out of the labor room, or taking pictures on her phone. It might turn out, though, that the best way the doula can support the laboring couple is to sit silently in the corner of the room, simply bearing witness and holding the space.
Doula work is most profoundly a ministry of presence, and it has taught me much about the nature of both ministry and presence. It is well documented that simply having the continuous presence of a trained support person at a birth, even if she doesn’t “do” anything in particular, improves outcomes measurably, and increases women’s satisfaction with their birth experiences.
Couples choose doulas for all kinds of reasons, and though the relationship is shorter and more focused than that of pastor and parishioner, a good fit is just as important. I hope that one thing my prospective clients understand from our conversations is that I am simply in awe of birth and honored to be part of their experience of that sacred moment, however they understand it.
Talking to expectant moms before they give birth, attending and supporting them in the physical and emotional crucible of labor, and reflecting together on the experience afterward, is deeply satisfying work for me. It calls on many of the same skills as crisis pastoral care, but allows me to walk more closely with expectant couples through the huge transition into parenthood than most pastors are generally able to do. Since I was already used to many elements of the work – being in hospitals, being part of pivotal moments in people’s lives, and being on call 24/7, not to mention the absolute necessity of boundaries and self-care – those aspects of doula work have not come as the shock they do to some new doulas.
Doula work as a formal profession is only about a generation old, and in many ways it is finally coming of age. One way in which the doula ethos is being extended into other areas of life is in the new concept of “death doulas.” (It was recently covered in the New York Times, so it must be true…) Death doulas work in hospitals or through hospices, being present at the end of life, as birth doulas are present at the beginning. Having attended births as a doula and deaths as a pastor, I can bear witness that the same energy – and it is an astonishingly powerful one – is present in both a room where someone is dying and a room where someone is being born.
Each one of us must pass these two thresholds, birth and death. As mothers, we usher the newborn into the world; as pastors, we are privileged to be present and bear witness as souls and bodies are born into larger life. For me, as a doula, to bring these three vocations together and have the honor of being present for birth and for death, is a great and unexpected gift.