Not just a midwife: what it means to be a doula
“Go low. Go low with me,” UA senior nursing student Genevieve Smith said in a deep voice, standing near the soon-to-be mother. She made animalistic, guttural noises and asked the woman in labor to echo them.
Smith said she uses these noises to decrease the muscle tension that women in labor experience as they transition from quick, light contractions to painful ones that last for full minutes.
Smith is a doula — a term not many people have heard before. It doesn’t replace a midwife and it isn’t someone who beats drums and performs rituals once a woman goes into labor, as comedies might interpret it.
A doula is there for the mother and the mother only. She is her support system and companion to make sure the birth goes smoothly.
“You’re there to give the best experience they can possibly have,” Smith said. Doulas are there for everything from creating a birthing plan in the beginning of the pregnancy to advocating the woman’s choices in the heat of delivery when spouses, doctors and family members may be in a panic.
Birthing is a personal and intimate moment, Smith said, “and with a doula, you’re inviting an outside person into that.”
Smith has been a certified doula for three years now. She has helped deliver eight babies and she said she feels a special connection to each one, like she helped bring that being into life.
“I’m convinced each one is more and more beautiful than the last,” Smith said.
When Smith was 17, her best friend invited her to attend her home birth. “It was an amazing experience,” Smith said. “I naturally fell into the role, assisting and being where I was needed.”
Not only did Smith observe the cycles of pregnancy, labor and birth, but she also saw just how much the pregnant woman has to work to give birth.
“I wasn’t scared,” Smith said. “I never grew up with the idea that birth was a scary process. All I knew was that I wanted to help. … I was enamored with the beauty of pregnancy … They don’t teach you this. It’s something you have to witness,” she said.
As a doula, it’s Smith’s job to create a positive, joyful environment for the mother. The birthing process is about relaxation and celebration, said Smith.
Smith rushes to each birth ready with her doula bag packed with teas, scented oils, a head massager, washcloths for cold compresses and socks in case the woman’s feet get cold.
She even makes her signature doula cookies for the mother and waiting family members.
Once she arrives, Smith assesses the situation to see how the woman in labor is transitioning into contractions and how the family is supporting her.
“It’s a process you fall into. Whatever your mom needs, you get,” said Smith.
Pregnant women are very pleasant during the first portion of labor. They’re energetic, talking excitedly about the new baby and usually up walking around. Normally, women are supposed to be resting for the upcoming struggle but that rarely happens.
However, women in labor soon become quiet and focused as they go into the next portion. Often times, Smith encourages them to get up and walk. But she also does a slow dancing movement as pregnant women put their entire front weight into her and sway back and forth to loosen their hips.
Soon, it becomes intense.
There is always an “I can’t do it” moment, said Smith. Women begin to lose hope. Their sense of time dissolves and they think the pain will go on forever.
But working with families has been the biggest challenge for Smith. Smith has experienced times when family members were opposed to using a doula, even though the mother wanted her there. At one point during a pregnant woman’s severe contractions, a family member pushed Smith away while she was comforting the woman.
Through DONA International, a doula organization, Smith completed her certification process that included attending a number of births, reading materials and attending a birthing class.
Though she is still a student, Smith advertises her services both at home in Chandler and in Tucson.
Smith said it’s difficult being in school and being a doula. She wants to be there for her moms and as a student.
A young college student, Smith is definitely a rarity among doulas — most doulas are middle-aged with children of their own. But Smith’s experiences have influenced her own birth theories and plans for the future. Smith said it’s not even a question that she wants kids, and when the time comes, she hopes it’s either a home birth or at a birth center.
Now in nursing school, Smith said she hopes to work in labor and delivery. After becoming a nurse, she wants to look into becoming a midwife as well.
“It’s all about the mom. It’s all about the baby. And all about the family growing,” Smith said.