The Doula Solution

Here's an article from the Winter 2001 issue of
Western Living Magazine about my doula service:

When the contractions begin and even Dad starts screaming for drugs, a little backup is a good thing.

Six hours into labour, Dad's feeling like a third wheel at the bedside. He wants to help, but he's not sure how.

"What does it feel like?" he asks his wife.

"Sour!" she hisses.

Sour? He has no idea what that means.

"It could be lactic acid she's tasting," explains the ultra-calm woman who has been massaging his wife's feet for the past three hours. "The uterus is a muscle and it's working hard. This is perfectly normal." It occurs to this man that a stranger is sharing the couple's most intimate moment. And damn, but he's glad she is.

She's a doula. "I'm labour support," says the veteran Vancouver doula Jacquie Munro, 'although when I tell people that, they think I work in union administration."

"Certified doula" is a job title that would scarcely have been imaginable earlier in history, or in a less driven culture. (Extended family or a community elder would have helped a mother through her delivery.) But somehow it's fitting that, in the age of the private trainer, more couples are embracing the idea of a personal birthing aide.

A doula is not a midwife, she isn't licensed to intervene medically; she has no particular agenda with respect to drugs or childbirth methodology. You might think of her job as simply full-service care from the ribs up (foot massages notwithstanding). Whatever needs doing - from decoding physician jargon to wrangling agitated relatives or zipping home to feed the cat - the doula just handles it. "I'm kind of the little guardian angel who just makes sure that everything is running smoothly," says Munro, a former graduate student of developmental psychology who also taught the first course at Douglas College's doula program. "I'm also the walking encyclopedia. I don't tell people what to do, but I do give them the tools to help them make informed decisions."

You're not alone if you've never heard of doulas. The term was only coined in the early 90's and derives from a Greek word that means an experienced woman caregiver of another woman. "I think they found out, actually, that it almost means slave," says Munro. "Historically, that's who was looking after other women in labour."

Munro noticed a spike in demand for doulas around five years ago as word spread, via the prenatal-class telegraph, about this option that radically reduced stress and the chance of knifework in the delivery room. There are 475 Canadians registered with the 2,500-member strong Doulas of North America Association (DONA). but since registration isn't obligatory, the actual number of doulas working in cities across Canada is unknown.

Because the doula business is, well, in its infancy, a certain amount of confusion surrounds it. For one thing, the term is understood to mean different things in different places. In New York, where hiring a doula has become de rigueur among turbo-professionals, the doula isn't present at the birth; she's sold more as a housekeeper. "Some doulas literally move in the day you get back from the hospital," explains Vancouverite Sara Dubois Phillips.

Dubois Phillips's husband hired a doula for her as a surprise gift when she was pregnant in Manhattan - though the arrangement proved a bit claustrophobic. Still, says Dubois Phillips, there were initial benefits: "She could tell me how other women had handled what I was going through, because at that time none of my friends had kids. That's why doulas are such a phenomenon in a place like New York, where everyone is a transplant."

The doula is a support system for both partners, but dads seem to benefit most - especially in late-stage labour. When he needs sleep, she spells him off on the back massage. If he starts to flip out, she quietly, constantly, feeds into his ear what guys crave most: data.

"My job is to make him look so good - without being condescending," says Munro. "I try to ensure that he's directly in her line of vision, so that whenever she opens her eyes, he's there. I'm putting the drinks in his hand. I'm handing him the cold cloth. And all she knows is, He's incredible." - Bruce Grierson