Doula Talk: What did you learn from your first few clients?

by: Cat Ennis Sears

Doula training is immersive. Usually, we attend a three day, 20+ hour training and then we learn on the job. Much like an apprenticeship, our first few clients are part of our certification process, and a new doula learns so much from each family. I heard a doula at a conference say once, “I had only attended about five births at the time, so each birth was an entire education in and of itself…” I heard another doula comment once that when you have attended twenty births, you realize again that you know nothing. (A midwife might say the same thing about 1000 births.)

So much of doula work is about presence. Skills like acupressure, optimal fetal positioning, rebozo, postpartum recovery and breastfeeding support—all of these skills are valuable, but what we learn in the first few births or first few postpartum clients is how to be present. I find my birth and postpartum bags getting slimmer and slimmer with each client as I learn to trust my most powerful tools: my hands, my voice, and my presence.

We polled our members to ask them what their takeaways were from their first few client experiences. What I found so amazing was that not one of them mentions a skill that you can pick up at a weekend training or by reading a birth blog. Each and every doula describes learning something about presence and emotional support.

 If you are a client, know that doula work is resting on your openness and your willingness to share your journey with us. Thank you.

My first postpartum shift: I learned that it's very important to morph into what that particular family needs me to be at that very moment and most of all listen, listen, listen and leave my "baggage" in the car.
McRae Brittingham, postpartum doula, breastfeeding peer counselor and child passenger safety technician
With my first few births I learned that not doing was as important as doing. Sometimes sitting back and not interrupting the laboring couple was as important as giving a back massage or encouragement. It's a balancing act. I also learned that not doing was harder than I thought it would be.
Gloria Miles, Navy veteran, birth doula, childbirth educator and student midwife
From my first few births I learned just how different birth is for each woman. Both how each labor looks different, but how each woman copes differently, too. Also, how each partner supports each woman differently, too. I think it's something I knew, but knowing and experiencing are very different things!
Donna Westcott, birth doula
Support the mom, not the plan as plans don't always work.
Heidi Blanton-Pohl, birth doula
With my first postpartum shifts, I learned that everyone is different. I learned that my job is not to project my attitudes and opinions about parenting, but instead to be present, listen and respect each family, their unique situation, and their individual beliefs and goals. My job is not to "fix" anything, but to provide support and reassurance through my presence.
Claire Prendergast, postpartum doula

Heidi-Blanton Pohl reminds us that even though our emotional support and presence mean so much, there is always that one birth where you will be glad you remembered the Chap stick, hair ties, honey sticks, essential oils, tea lights, snacks, electrolyte drinks, comb for acupressure, and on and on....

Sometimes you do need every trick in your bag!
Heidi Blanton-Pohl, birth doula

And Kristi Ramey does offer one important and practical tip--

Get rest while you can!
Kristi Ramey, birth and postpartum doula & childbirth educator

Cat Ennis Sears is a certified birth and certified postpartum doula, as well as a Birthing From Within mentor. She is the mother to two exuberant boys and is the wife of an outdoorsy family man.