“We Walk Every Step Of The Way With A Woman”: Doulas Share Their Stories
The art of giving birth is a prominent part of womanhood. African and African-American history is rich in stories of women supporting one another during childbirth. From African villages all the way across the Atlantic to Southern plantations, childbirth has always been a time when women came together to support, encourage, and uplift one another in one of the most vulnerable but momentous occasions in a woman’s life. In many cases today, sharing in this memorable moment of labor with the mother and her family is a doula. Doulas serve as birth coaches who assist women during and after childbirth.
“Doula means ‘woman who serves,’” explains Dr. Mai Heath, ND. The 32-year-old naturopathic doctor has been a birth doula for three years. “During the relationship with the family I assist women before, during, and after labor to help ensure a safe, satisfying, and positive birth experience. It’s not about getting their ‘ideal’ birth, but about feeling like they are acting out of their power, making informed decisions, so that when they look back on the experience they feel satisfied and empowered. These are determinants for health, survival, attachment, and maternal mood.”
Dr. Heath says there is a big difference between a doula and a midwife.
“Midwives, like OB-GYNs, are focused on the medicalization of the birth process, the cervical os, the dilation, effacement, heart rate, and blood pressure. But a doula is focused on the whole transition for the mother and family,” Dr. Heath said. “We focus on the ritual of moving from woman to mother, wife to mother, mother of one to mother of two, etc. We walk every step of the way with a woman as she goes through the tunnel or portal into motherhood.”
Sunshine Cummings, 31, who began regularly attending births in the role of a doula in 2008, discusses the types of support she provides. “During birth, I support the mom with whatever physical needs she has and mostly provide comfort measures such as massage, applying hot/cold compresses, and head rubs. I also provide emotional support in the form of encouraging words, assuring her that she can get through the birthing process and that her body is made to do it. Whenever necessary, I act also as an advocate on her behalf to ensure her birth plan is respected by her caregivers.”
Dr. Heath continues the list of duties of a doula.
“I also use knowledge and experience as a woman, mother, naturopathic medical doctor, and doula to support the family on an emotional, physical, and informational level. I provide the options of relaxation techniques, meditation, visualization, massage, positioning, herbs, acupressure, acupuncture, and homeopathy when needed,” Dr. Heath said. “I also communicate, as needed, with caregivers to ensure laboring mothers have the information they require to make informed decisions, and I can provide suggestions for labor progression, comfort, and perspective to mother and her partner, if present. This is where the therapeutic relationship is key. You are a confidant. You are a constant for them to crash into as needed. Doulas also have a unique role in that we are an emotional support, but we have enough emotional distance from our clients so that we don’t crumble when we see them endure the things they must to bring forth their babies. Oftentime relatives have a hard time seeing their loved ones in such a state of surrender.”
Dr. Heath and Cummings are both mothers and reaped the benefits of having a doula by their side as they gave birth to their children. Cummings reminisces about what it felt like to switch roles from doula to expecting mother during labor.
“I had a doula when I gave birth to my deceased daughter in 2013, and also when I gave birth to my son earlier this year in February,” Cummings said. “Honestly, it didn’t really feel like switching roles necessarily, because in birth, when women are able to access the necessary energies required to birth a child, they are in a sense being their own midwife or doula throughout the process anyway. It felt more like having someone there to remind me of my power and help me get through little bumps along the way when I felt like giving up.”
Dr. Heath concurs as having a doula during the birth of her children ignited her interest in becoming one.
“I had doulas at both of my births, and they proved to be invaluable support,” Dr. Heath said. “I didn’t even know what a doula was until five days before I gave birth to my firstborn. We had been living in Toronto for a year when our first child came. All of our family were in the States, and our firstborn came one month early at 36 weeks and two days. My mom hadn’t made it up from Atlanta yet. So my doula was an important part of my birth support team. That’s why I became a doula. I love reliving my birth stories, the good and bad, and doulas are certainly big parts of those stories.”
I haven’t yet had the honor of birthing a child, but I had the privilege of being in the birth room when my friend gave birth to her son. After being in labor for hours, the doctors finally decided to give her a cesarean section. As they were transitioning her from the hospital bed to the gurney to take her to the operating room, she had to use her legs to push herself up and out popped the baby’s head. After that experience, I researched childbirth practices around the world and found that in many countries in Africa, as well as in Australia, women give birth standing up to gain the momentum and energy from their legs. From my research, I have come to the conclusion that the hospitalized childbirth practices we’re accustomed to here in the States aren’t ideal. Having women lying on their backs in a submissive position prolongs labor and causes more cases of childbirth surgeries like C-sections. Both Cummings and Dr. Heath agree with this theory.
“Being on one’s back is a very submissive position to be in for an event in which you’re supposed to be an active participant,” Cummings said. “It makes absolutely no sense. I was blessed to have been able to birth in a kneeling squat. Pushing was a breeze as was labor because I had the help of gravity to get my son to descend through my birth canal.”
Dr. Heath says doulas also take on an advocacy role so that women know their birthing options and don’t feel railroaded into making one decision.
“Too often the birth experience is centered around the doctor when in fact it should be centered around the laboring woman,” Dr. Heath said. “She is put on her back so the doctor can have optimal view of the birth canal, not for mom or babe’s benefit. This is distressing. There is more than one way for a woman to give birth, and the birth support team should create an atmosphere where the woman is comfortable. When a woman is free to be in the birth room she can run the show, call the shots, and steer the ship quite effectively.”
Dr. Heath and Sunshine Cummings are continuing our African legacy as doulas. Cummings encourages women to look into having a doula and experiencing more natural forms of childbirth when the time comes.
“I highly recommend women not only go back to their roots and learn ways of birthing naturally, but also hire doulas to assist in their births.”