While our culture is coming around to being familiar with the concept of a doula, one who provides advice, information, emotional support, and physical comfort to a pregnant person before, during, and just after childbirth or one who provides guidance and support to the parent of a newborn baby, I am reaching a time in my doula career where I’m having to broaden the definition.
In my early years of being a doula, I considered a few different perspectives to adopt until I settled into my own definition and philosophy. Fortunately, my core doula beliefs can be applied to many professions and are not only expressed by supporting expecting and new parents.
My philosophy surrounding birth and the postpartum time is to meet people where they are and maintain an atmosphere of respect. This maintains space for the people I’m supporting to grow, learn, and to find and listen to their own intuition. In this same space, those who I support also develop their comfort in stating their feelings, emotional or physical, and allowing my support to shift to their ever-changing needs.
To me, what a person needs or feels is sacred. Nothing is too silly or insignificant. I know that respecting and honoring the small requests and the little details is what creates the experience of knowing the big feelings will be honored when they happen.
While I have felt great peace in settling into my doula philosophy, factors in my life have shifted me into what was initially less doula work and then, more recently, no traditional doula work.
This shift began in early 2019 when I decided to return to the school system. I had recently gained some new skills in how to teach reading, and I was in a place where I needed to have more consistent work. I decided to apply for a reading intervention position, and I was hired!
While I liked the reading intervention position, I didn’t know that I would be offered an even better position for the next school year. I moved to a new school where I took the teacher position for the alternative learning center.
What is the alternative learning center? It’s a little, or a lot, different at every school. Where I work, it’s a small, quiet place where students can escape from the intensity of the regular school day. To keep my room from becoming crowded and busy like the rest of the school, only those who are assigned to my room by an administrator or a counselor can spend some or all of a school day with me. Students working through severe anxiety and students who are transitioning back to school after a major medical event may spend a few days in the alternative learning center. Additionally, students who could have been suspended might have the option to spend time in my room instead. Finally, students who would have been assigned to in-school suspension are assigned to me as well.
What do I do with these students? Is this hard to manage? First, the small number of students and administrative support is key to making this experience successful for everyone in the room. But really, it’s not hard for me at all! Why? I’m a doula before I’m an educator. I view all students, no matter why they are assigned to me, to be in a place that is similar to transition in birth. In birth, the transition stage is a time for the doula to be present, consistently attuned to needs, and to meet those needs. Transition is that last, most intense part of labor before it’s time to start pushing to ultimately meet the baby.
For the students, I support them in the same way I would if I were working as a birth doula. I am present, and I respond to their needs. Just like with those who are in labor, the actual needs and my methods for meeting those needs can different and vary greatly from person to person. Students usually have assigned work to complete while in my room, but when I see their needs are overriding their ability to even think about schoolwork, I attune to them. Perhaps they really need to talk, eat a snack, briefly exercise their bodies, or even take a nap when I find out they were at work all night. Other students just need space to be with their own thoughts for a while. I respect that time may be needed before I can talk much with students who need that space. Overall, I honor student needs and ensure, within the guidelines of school and county policies, that they are met.
Like with doula clients, no complaints or feelings are too silly. My respect of all that student expresses opens up a greater feeling of emotional safety, allowing emotional room for the student to eventually really hear any new perspectives I might share.
I feel honored to be the one teacher in the school who only has to think about how to honor, respect, hear, and eventually engage students in personal growth and character lessons. Even the lessons I share have developed into a curriculum that the student and I form together as we learn more about each other. In most cases, I write a new lesson for each student. I never perceive myself as the expert of what the student needs to learn and know. I have ideas, and I ask students to inform me of preferred learning styles and topics to make our growth conversations and activities more engaging.
I have been a classroom teacher in the past, and dividing my attention from student needs with an academic curriculum was too painful for me. Creating assignments for the whole class was disheartening as well because I felt each student needed their own individual assignment. For so many years, I suspected I wasn’t programmed to be a teacher because I saw other teachers who thrived while balancing a curriculum and truly reaching the students on an emotional level. When I became a birth doula, it was such a good fit for me that I wondered over the years if there was a way to bring how I worked as a doula to education. And now I’m so excited because I am actually working as an education doula!
As far as attending births in the future, I’m not sure if I’ll attend more than the 104 I have witnessed in the past seven years. During this past year, while adjusting to my first year as the alternative learning center (ALC) teacher, I only had time to attend one birth. I had been hired to attend a second birth during that same school year, but my health crisis hit me just as Covid was hitting our country. Since my health crisis resulted in my being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it has become essential for me to prioritize my health. As a result, I don’t know if I will ever again be an on-call doula who can get up in the middle of the night to attend births. Part of respecting my health includes consistent, scheduled sleep. Now I need to also have a consistent work schedule to honor my sleep. Perhaps there will be a different opportunity one day to attend births that happen within certain hours of the day. I just don’t know. For now, I will feel peace in knowing that no matter my career, I am a doula everywhere I go.