Sunday, 3 May 2015

Why Doulas Matter

It's taken me a while to get round to writing this: often I write about books from my memory of them, relying on my impressions, which is quicker. I have huge time and respect for proper book bloggers who have lots of quotes and obvious results of careful notes, but it's not how I usually approach things. This one, though, I wanted to pin down why I loved it so much, because it's the kind of book that could seem slight and unnecessary, and wouldn't be well served by a write-up that just says it's amazing.

But, it's amazing.

Maddie McMahon is a practising doula, and has written this beautiful pocket-sized book to explain what a doula does, perhaps mainly for mothers considering using one, but also for anyone who thinks they might want to be one (and, maybe, for health professionals, to understand who the strange lady in the corner is). It's so far, though, from being a checklist or a textbook.

Really, it's suffused with love, her love for her clients, the presence of oxytocin and incredibly strong emotions in the birthing room, the sense of the relationship between a mother and her new baby. With such a strong current like this running through it, maybe the actual words would hardly matter, but they're lyrical and powerful, elegantly written, with a lightness of touch but at the same time a perfect understanding of the grave solemnity of the act of birthing.

I loved the assurance to mothers about what a thrill doulas get from being with them, and how they truly want to be woken in the night to come to a birth; I loved the descriptions from Maddie and others she quoted of relationships between doulas and their clients, showing just how deep a bond can come about from sharing this most intimate of times.

In fact, the only false note in the whole book, for me, was a quote early on from Suzanne Howlett, which read to me as suggesting that women suffering from infertility might just be able to fix it if they tried hard enough. The quote doesn't say that, it says that releasing stress might cause alignment with conception, but I still don't like it, with its implication that anyone who doesn't relax themselves into conceiving is just doing something wrong.

Such a tiny niggle, though. I'm not doing this justice, here. I can't explain the excitement that I felt reading it, the way it fanned my flames, made me desperately want to be a part of this, thinking a series of wild thoughts, I could be a doula! Or a midwife! Or have another baby! Just, really, anything to get to stay involved with this wonderful thing, and no, I'm not denying that so so many people have not had wonderful experiences of birth, but I have, and when it goes well it is the most extraordinary, life-changing, self-defining experience you could imagine. I thought this description was perfect: "Watching the bag of waters balloon in the water before the head is born is like watching a mother lay a beautiful, mother-of-pearl egg" - what a way to show the mysticism and complete everydayness, in combination, of this happening.

In the areas that I properly know about - breastfeeding - it's spot-on, accurate, supportive, again *loving* and tender and gentle and yet unflinching.

And oh, the aspect about stories, about a doula's role as a story-keeper, and the important of listening. This rang so true, both from my experiences as a mother sharing with others, and from being a breastfeeding counsellor. So often I talk to a mother of a newborn, and I ask about the birth so I can get a sense of the context of her call, and it all comes pouring out, she obviously has such a need to tell the story, and I'm honoured to hear it, and they stay with me, they all do, and I feel it again with her, and it shows me so much about her, and lets me see another angle to what's going on with her now, and I LOVE IT, and am I using "love" enough yet? I love the book, and I love the love in the book, and I love the way that both this and the next book I'll write about (H is for Hawk - watch this space) have a kind of love in them that's not a romantic partner-love, it's a deeply felt something else, but love's still the only word for it.

Now, seriously, where do I sign up?


  1. i had doulas attend both of my births and honestly cannot imagine what it would have been like without them. it was my husband, in fact, who had read about them during our first pregnancy and suggested we have one. our doulas were as supportive to my husband as they were to me, in different ways - in the ways we needed,

    a friend of mine told me about having a woman act as her postnatal doula after giving birth in australia. she helped my friend firgure out what to do after the birth experience was over, when she brought her daughter home, in the weeks thereafter.

    in my experience as a breastfeeding counselor i have felt a little like a doula for other mothers' breastfeeding experiences. i absolutely felt honored and connected by being witness to their stories: birth stories, nursing stories, weaning stories. happy stories, sad stories, everything-in-between stories.

    i have a feeling i'm going to love this book, too, and the love the love in it. thank you for sharing about it. <3

  2. Fab review Helen. If I wasn't so sure that my family is complete I think I'd go out and buy it! Looking forward to your next review too... :-)