It feels pretty straightforward to say that having support makes a difference to how we feel about ourselves and how we navigate life events. Describing what this support looks like and how it can affect our experiences can feel a bit stickier. To examine the qualities of effective support and illustrate its impact, we drew from our own experiences in birth and postpartum life. All three of us described our second (and third) births as more positive than our first births. We understood that our own increased knowledge and personal growth were factors in this improvement. At the same time, we identified the presence of dedicated support people as being instrumental to the change in experience.
Our first babies entered the world in ways that left us struggling to cope. Some of the words that came to mind when describing this time were “overwhelming”, “scary”, and “dehumanizing”. Doctors rushed through procedures with barely an explanation. This left an information gap that undermined our attempts to grasp what was happening to our bodies and our babies. We felt ashamed of our apparent inability to do such natural things as birthing and feeding our babies. We felt scared of the unknown and dismissed as autonomous humans. From this level of vulnerability, we struggled to speak up for ourselves. Coming up with options seemed daunting, and we felt trapped in the healthcare system funnel. It was easy to catastrophize these challenging feelings as well. We felt like we failed right out of the gate, and we feared subjecting our babies to more failures. Surrounded by these whirlwinds of emotion and activity, we were thrown into the position of being fully responsible for our babies once home. These experiences all fell under one common theme: feeling de-centred in our own perinatal journeys.
For all of us, our first children sparked a journey of learning, but it was one born out of fear, stress, and rage. We didn’t just dip our toes into the pool of knowledge, we dove in obsessively. Let down by care providers, we felt forced to learn and do everything ourselves. The pressure was immense; we couldn’t trust anyone else to take care of us and our families. Because of all our research and reflection, though, when it came to having second babies, we made different choices and preparations. Some of us changed care providers and two of us chose to hire a doula.
“Hopeful”, “in control”, “empowered”: these were the words we chose to describe our second journeys through pregnancy, birth, and postpartum life. We had a better idea of what to expect from the healthcare system, ourselves, and our babies. We also had an understanding that these were challenging, layered, and personal experiences. With this lens, we didn’t feel like failures, but rather, like people trying their best at a new thing. In addition to these internal shifts, we also had effective external support. Our doulas were there for us and our families. They always checked in with us to see how we felt about what was happening, and the conversations grew from there. They accepted our lived experience as valid, and offered us a safe space in which to share our big scary feelings. Being heard and accepted in this way was affirming, and gave us confidence to keep talking and asking questions. When faced with a decision, our doulas provided us with information and helped us come up with a range of options. They facilitated informed decision-making, which empowered us in our relationships with primary healthcare providers. As Kirsten said, “I felt like I had more of a right to talk about what I wanted and needed. I didn’t care if they liked me or if I was being the perfect patient; I was going to have the experience I wanted.” With this support, we were able to reframe the whole situation, keeping ourselves firmly grounded in the centre. The healthcare system was one part of the story: we now could listen to their options and seek their advice, and we could also access further resources, make informed decisions, and discuss our feelings with our partners and support people. Moving from a place of hearing “no, but” to a place of saying “yes, and” took us from fear to empowerment.
Recent research on doulas and continuous support indicates many benefits, including shorter labours, reduced interventions, and lower postpartum depression. (https://evidencebasedbirth.com/the-evidence-for-doulas/) Evidence also suggests that doula support during labour can lower rates of indicated and non-indicated cesarean delivery, reducing medical costs and risks to the birthing person. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5538578/) At the same time, there is a significant unmet demand for doulas. The main barrier to access, not surprisingly, is the out-of-pocket expense. Additional barriers include but are not limited to: geographical distance from professional support people, lack of understanding of doula support from partners or family members, and lack of culturally or linguistically aligned support. (https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub6/full) It’s important to recognize that many of these barriers have been created as a direct result of the colonization of birthwork and subsequent doula training industrial complex—from which we ourselves benefit. We feel strongly that doulas, birthworkers, and support people must operate with transparency, accountability, and sustainability with the goal of resisting white supremacy culture. We must incorporate community care/mutual aid, intersectionality, and anti-racism into our practices, and we must aim to provide inclusive and accessible services. We must also recognize that this is an ongoing process of unlearning and relearning, and it is our hope that this work extends to all birthworkers who benefit from systems founded in and catering to white, heteronormative privilege.
Between our lived experiences and the research, we strongly believe that doula support that upholds self-determination is vital to perinatal mental wellness. Effective doulas practice with the awareness that one-size-fits-all often ends up being one-size-fits-none. Consequently, they must continually centre the feelings and experiences of the people and families they are supporting. Not only is a supported experience less likely to lead to birth and postpartum trauma, doulas can also help families properly identify the challenges they are facing, become aware of their options, and put together a plan that works best for them. This process allows for more of their clients’ needs to be met, leading to improved mental and physical outcomes and a better experience overall.