Parenting and Birth Doula Work

You mean, you just go to a birth when you’re called? What do you do with your kids? What about work?
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For a lot of people, it’s not sustainable to just up and leave your job responsibilities and/or leave your kids with someone to go to a birth. Childcare and other job responsibilities are the number one reason why there is such high turnover in doula work. Maybe as this profession grows, we’ll figure out other models that allow more people to enter and stay in this field—perhaps a pregnant person would hire a team of doulas who take turns being on call. But for now, most doulas work on the model of being on call 24/7 for their clients. On one hand, this consistency and certainty that the person you've built a relationship with will attend your birth is one of the reasons why, I think, doula presence can be so effective. But on the other hand, while being invited into a birth space is a sacred invitation, the logistics are not always easy to arrange. This blog post will explore how to make the logisitics of being on call 24/7 a little easier.

As a new doula, childcare was the hardest part of doula work for me: how to prepare my very young children for the unexpectedness of it, how to be away from them for 24 hours or more with little to no notice.  It’s not easy and I definitely don’t have the answers.

In the middle of the night, my client calls to let me know her water has broken. She’s checked in with her care provider who has told her to try to get some more sleep. Contractions are five to seven minutes apart and she is doing fine without labor support for now. She lets me know that she’ll keep me updated. 
“I have to go to work today,” I say to my three year old as he wakes up at dawn.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had to work?” He rubs sleep out of his eyes.
“I have to help a mommy’s baby be born.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Soon.”
“When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know.”
“I wanted it to be a Mommy day.”

*(all details about clients are fictional on this blog)

Recognize that your children are resilient.

I don’t buy into the idea that very young children need their mothers 100% of the time. Some people think that women shouldn’t be birth doulas when their children are very young, that it’s a job better suited for a woman whose children are more self sufficient. This is the historical precedent for midwifery—historically, women became midwives in their 50s after their own children were grown. Yet, according to the diary of Martha Ballard, a midwife in Maine between 1785 and 1812, by the time a woman had her first baby, she had attended about twenty births, and continued to attend the births of her neighbors in a supportive role. 

To me, labor support (nonmedical emotional and physical support, which is different from midwifery care which requires medical training and a commitment that was really only possible historically when a woman was older and not raising very young children) has always been provided by women of childbearing age to other women of childbearing age.

I worked full time during my son’s first year. When my second son was born, I started attending births when he was three months old. I pumped during the birth and was away from him for sixteen hours when he was three months old. To me, that is just part of having a job. It was way better than being away forty hours a week, day in, day out, like I was for his brother. Both my kids are fine. And doula work has helped us pay the bills while we navigated life with young children.

Cushion your children by preparing them, but not too much

I tell my kids that I might have to go to work later in the day or tomorrow, but I don’t warn them that I’m on call every day. I explain to them that I have to help a momma have a baby. I also try to tell them when I’ll be back, based on how far along she is in labor when she calls me in, but that’s kind of dangerous because you don’t want to make promises you can’t keep. I usually err on the side of saying I’ll be gone for twenty four hours or more. “Daddy will do your bedtime tonight. I’ll be gone when you wake up and Daddy may do your bedtime tomorrow night. But when I get home, I’ll rouse you up and hug you.” It’s also great to share childcare arrangements if you know them. “You’ll be going over to play with Sam…you remember him? He can’t wait to see you!”

Reunite with your kids with low expectations

When you get home, after you strip down and take a shower, I try to reconnect with them in some way, whether that’s just taking an interest in what they’re doing on the tablet, (sometimes tablet is all I have energy for after a birth!) or going on a walk. I also expect some behavioral craziness, just like you would after any other transition. Having their mom gone randomly is kind of weird, so if they are a little unsettled, and the reunion is less than perfect, don’t be surprised! Just make room for the entire family to recover. Patience, easy dinners, and put chores on the back burner if possible. 

Network with other doula mothers who understand the craziness of doula work.

“Hey are you available for my kids today? I don’t know what time I’m leaving or when I’ll be back!” Other doulas get that crazy request! See if you can set up a babysitting coop with other doulas and use a simple Excel spreadsheet to keep track of points. You can come up with your own formula, but we have a coop that has a Facebook group where we can post a need for a sit, and then an Excel spreadsheet with 4 points per hour per kid, 2 additional points per hour for extra kids. The coop has saved me many times, and I’ve used it for prenatal and postpartum visits as well.

Use your family/neighbors if you can

But recognize that you use up a lot of your childcare capital with family and neighbors if you just ask them to be available. Even though my parents live 20 minutes away, I only use them as a backup. I realized that calling my mom about potential childcare needs was stressing her out majorly. The art of being on-call is really, really hard for people who don’t do it 24/7. I have learned how to not really alter my plans when somebody is in labor until they call that they need me. But if you call your mom or neighbor, and let her know someone is in labor, she is probably going to stay home and change her day around to potentially take your kids. If you do that enough, she is going to get sick of changing her day around and wish that you weren’t a doula. Which is why I think other doula mothers make the best childcare! “Ok, cool,” they might say, “I’m here for your kids, but I’m going to go do XYZ, but call me if you need me.” Then they’ll go do XYZ without really thinking about your childcare needs until you need them. They also know how to stop doing XYZ quickly and be available when you’re headed their way.

Paid childcare

There are some on-call babysitting services but a large portion of your fee can be eaten up with childcare. I would definitely try to network with other doulas and trade for childcare if you can! This can be a great back up system though.

Partner

If you have a partner who can come home from work, or who can rearrange his or schedule last minute…that is ideal! But that also can lead to relationship issues if the partner feels like their life is taking a back seat to your doula work. It’s also very challenging if your partner works night shifts. My husband was an ER technician and worked from 7pm to 7a. I remember just having some names to call of people who wouldn’t mind if I dropped my kids off in the middle of the night (other doulas, who understood the weirdness of that!) If your partner has to travel for any reason, recognize that that can also be a significant challenge for childcare, as you may be away for 24-36 hours, so you need somebody who is willing to host a sleepover or two for your kids.

If your partner is going to be asked to make a lot of sacrifices for doula work, it helps if he or she understands how important the work is to you. It also helps if your fee is high enough to make a difference for your family’s budget, and it helps if he or she feels like doula work has an inherent value. 

What other tips do you have for making parenting and doula work more compatible? I wrote this entirely from a mother of young children perspective, as that is the age of my kids…what tips do you have if you are a parent of older children? Please feel free to leave a comment below or connect with us on Facebook.