It’s been at least a decade since I first heard of the concept of birth doulas with different ways of looking at the job, and it has been an interesting concept to consider as I’ve come to know other doulas and mentor new doulas just starting it. I feel it can be a useful concept for parents considering which doula can best help them meet their goals as well.
At some point in the first 2-3 years of being a birth doula, I took a little quiz that categorized doulas into three types:
Birth focused – These doulas were focused on helping moms have the kind of birth that they felt was the best. They are the ones who are advocating for all low risk women to birth at home, for midwifery to be the standard of care unless higher level care is needed, and who have in mind an ideal birth they’d like to help their clients achieve. They tend to be huge fans of birth plans and often align themselves with specific methods of childbirth. Some doulas who have this philosophy will work only with out of hospital birth, and many go on to become home birth midwives.
Baby focused – These are the doulas who view everything about birth through the lens of the impact on the baby. They tend to be attracted to the work of APPPAH, to encourage mothers to talk to their babies and to be huge proponents of skin to skin bonding and breastfeeding. Many doulas who philosophically fall in this area tend to be very much against circumcision, routine newborn procedures, and formula. They can be passionate and valuable advocates and supporters of moms who have similar philosophies.
Woman focused – These are doulas who are most concerned with mothers feeling supported in their decisions and having the power and right to make decisions for themselves. They have an easier time supporting moms who make decisions that they may not have made for themselves. They tend to work in homes, hospitals and birth centers somewhat equally, and can support women planning everything from a planned cesarean birth to an induction with epidural to a home waterbirth or lotus birth.
Now these three types of philosophies are not at all mutually exclusive, nor are they unchanging and constant. As doulas learn, grow, and see more births, their thinking often changes. I would say that when I started out, I was definitely more birth focused, but over time I have become more woman focused, though I still do have quite a bit of overlap between the two with some baby focus thrown in there for balance. I feel pretty passionately that there is not any ONE way of giving birth that is “correct” for everyone, and I firmly believe parents have the right – and should be trusted – to choose what is best for their family.
Want to take the quiz for yourself? You can find it here: What Kind of Advocate Are You?
I don’t think that any one focus of a doula is necessarily any better than any other, but I do think it is important for parents to consider if the doula they are interviewing has a focus that is a good match for them. Most doulas will (like me) have quite a bit of overlap, but often there is one area that is more passionate for them, and it sure comes out when doulas talk about what drives their work and motivates them to do this job. You’ll hear it in their tone of voice, in the fire in their eyes, and in the power of their words.
One thing to watch out for is the doula that ProDoula founder Randy Patterson calls the “Birth Avenger” style of doula work. I’ve seen many times that new doulas come to this job because they had a horrible birth experience and they want to “save others from what happened to them” – this can create a really difficult situation when the doula has not processed and resolved her difficult birth experience. I’ve heard from a doula that she had to leave in the middle of a client’s birth because “she was going down the same road I did and I could not stick around for the train wreck” that she believed was coming. It was her last birth as a doula, she dropped all her remaining clients and left the field. I’m sure the client felt abandoned at a vulnerable time as well.
I’ve counseled doulas who were retraumatized by attending births at the hospital where they delivered – even if all went well.
Let me be clear here: Having experienced birth trauma does not mean a woman can never be a doula. It does mean she should do whatever it takes to process and heal from her birth trauma before attending other women’s birth. It may mean she sets boundaries such as not working with a specific place of birth or provider, too.
Being aware of what drives a doula philosophically is an important thing when practicing as a doula or when choosing which doula to hire. Not all doulas are alike, and find a good match in style, philosophy and personality is crucial for a good working relationship with your doula.