Swarthmore Doula program teaches birth strategies, emotional support

Probably the last thing on most college student’s mind is having babies. We just have our foot in the door of adulthood, with all the independence and none of the responsibility. Some students on campus have been taking on some responsibilities outside their own families through the student group Swat Doulas, which has existed, mostly under the radar, for the last few years. In addition to holding discussion meetings and occasionally watching films together, some members of the Swat Doulas group have had the opportunity to train as a birth doula.  In weekend-long workshops run by Jackie Kelleher, a Media local who has worked as a doula for over 20 years, these students are trained in the scope and specifics of a doula’s role, and how best to support a birthing mother and help facilitate a positive birth experience..  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Many of you are probably still wondering: what is a doula, anyway?

According to DONA International, one of the leading certifying organizations for doulas, a doula is “a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth.” Or as Sophia Zaia ’18 explained, “Doulas deal with everything above the waist.” Doulas are not doctors — they are not medical professionals at all.  Rather, they  are meant to care for the emotional needs of the mother while a doctor or midwife  cares for the medical needs of both the mother and baby. So doulas support pregnant soon-to-be mothers. So what?

I think making birth a positive experience for women is something that is very important,” said Abha Lal ’18, another member of Swat Doulas, “the masculinizing tendencies of medicine sometimes rob women of their voice in making decisions regarding their bodies.” In most of US culture, birth is seen as a very medical and mechanical process. The emotional needs or comfort level of the mother  are not always put in the forefront of the birthing process. “Women are often times treated like a medical specimen during birth and no one is really paying attention to her personal needs,” Zaia commented. Doulas offer a support system to the mother and family to make sure their voices are heard and respected over multitudes of medical jargon.

“Often the intensity of birth is played down and mothers have a lot of non-medical needs that should be cared for,” Zaia commented, “the medical system often does not provide for that.”  Mothers are in the hospital for a few days, give birth, then are released and often have to return to work not too long after (the U.S. is one of only three countries in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave). There’s no time to adjust to their new role, let alone let their bodies rest before full time parenting. But often times the emotional health of the mother is seen as secondary, instead of equal to the medical needs of mother. This shows how the medical system assesses what parts of the birth process are most important to attend to, and what parts, such as the mother’s emotional well being, are left for the mother to deal with on her own.

Although childbirth and family creation may seem far away for many college students, Swat Doulas has connected to many student’s personal interests and experiences. A lot of students joined due to passions about reproductive justice, like Leonie Cohen ’16.  

“I came across “The Business of Being Born” a few years ago, and was fascinated and shocked by the ways our society tends to pathologize birth and take agency away from pregnant people,” Cohen commented.  She also noted that her academic interests—including her special major in Biological Anthropology—intersect and align with doula work.

Daniel Lai ‘17 also found some of his coursework to be a useful lens with which to approach the trainings.  He said that taking the Anthropology course “Culture, Health, and Illness” gave him an open-minded approach to medical care that he brought with him to the training.  He was additionally motivated by experiences within his own family.  

“I think my mom would have benefited greatly from a birth doula who could help her through the birthing process, and my hope is that other mothers are able to do the same,” Lai commented.

For her part, Eva Winter ’16 thought of the training as a valuable experience on her way to a medical career, and one that will make her a better doctor later in life.  

“Hopefully my practice as a doula will prepare me to pay attention to the emotional needs of my medical patients and through empathy support them even more than I could by simply prescribing treatments,” Winter said.

The values and skills doulas learn are applicable outside birth, and outside medical care as well. Killian McGinnis ’19 explained, “A lot of the skills that are relevant to doulaing are also relevant in other contexts. Things like emotional support, relaxation techniques, how to manage stress, mediating and facilitating dialogue…it’s really useful skills to have in your personal life.” Doula work builds skills outside the hospital room (or birth center!) that can help students in their own lives. These skills help to really connect with people and understand emotions in a different way.

Daniel Lai commented, “Doula work is all about being empathetic – you want to put your client’s needs ahead of other things that might be going on in the sometimes chaotic birthing room. I’ve found that this sort of approach can go a long way…more generally when listening to my classmates story-tell their personal narratives.” The students who have completed the training emphasized that doula skills are really people skills that can be applied to all kinds of situations. Advocating for someone’s emotions is vital to healthy relationships throughout life.

The importance of doulas and skills of doulas is clear, and yet they are not widely used.  One reason for this is the expense.  Though some doulas work on a volunteer basis or offer sliding-scale fees when they can, the cost of hiring a doula can be too high for many. Lal acknowledged this issue, as well as another side of this argument:

“The criticism of doulas is usually that it is an overpriced service that only rich women can afford, which is often not untrue. But I think advocating for the mother, which is the main and only job of the doula, is just as important for women from low-income backgrounds as well,” she commented. Zaia noted that the fact that doula care may be cost-prohibitive for many—including, perhaps, populations that could most greatly benefit from it—that isn’t a reason to write the practice off.

“There’s an association of doulas as being something only certain people can pay for, which is probably true, but it shouldn’t be that way,” said Zaia, “I think for society to just dismiss doulas is something that’s done a lot with things associated with women in general.” Doulas may seem to be frivolous mainly because of the wide association of emotions with weakness. Paying someone for emotional support and advocacy may seem like something extra, but that doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary. Maybe it’s our associations with emotional health, especially women’s emotional health, that cause us to dismiss emotional care frivolous or unneeded.

So far this year, ten members of Swat Doulas have been fully trained as birth doulas.  The club hopes to continue sending students to these trainings, which are hosted at the Lang Center, in years to come. Though it may not be that every student who passes through these trainings will pursue doula work professionally, they are now highly educated about the processes of birth, and the profound impacts that a strong support system can have for new parents.  And even if they never see a baby born, thanks to these trainings there will be a good number more people in the world who are highly trained in empathy and emotional support, and that certainly can’t be a bad thing.

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