My social media feeds lit up two weeks ago after this New York Times story about doulas was published. At first it seemed that doulas, and the benefits of continuous labor support, had been validated by the paper of record. However, it soon became apparent, from the many comments and later, responses from individual doulas, the NYC Doula Collective, a doula training organization, and Miriam Perez of the Radical Doula, that many doulas and their advocates were dismayed that the article failed to articulate what doulas themselves find valuable about what they do.
The main argument among the rebuttals mentioned above was that the NYT reporter neglected the research often cited as evidence that continuous labor support results in measurable beneficial outcomes for birthing women and their babies. Many also took issue with the characterization of doula support as a personal service, available to privileged women who can afford to pay handsomely for this luxury.
But there’s the rub. Since doulas only attend about 6% of all births, according to Listening to Mothers 3, a nationally representative survey of women’s birth experiences, it’s hard to support the claim that merely adding more doulas to maternity care teams will make a measurable impact on birth outcomes like cesarean deliveries (currently ~32% in the U.S.). In some areas, new maternity models of care are making an impact, by creating a “pregnancy care package,” with a continuum of team care led by a nurse-midwife and coordinated with an obstetrician, nurse, doula, pediatrician, social worker and patient navigator. But even those projects are difficult to scale up to meet the demand.
Doulas, working as isolated entrepreneurs, or even as collectives, may not be as effective, or as respected by maternity care clinicians, as they would if they were a recognized, legitimated part of the “team.” My colleague Amy Gilliland has been writing about the issue of national doula certification, and recently cited the work of another colleague, Jennifer Torres, whose research comparing lactation consultants and labor support doulas found that “both filled a niche in maternity care practice that is not covered by nurses or physicians. However, lactation consultants have been able to influence medical practice directly. They entered through the “front door” and have been welcomed by medical professionals, because breastfeeding is seen as a medical event. However, doulas are not recognized as having anything meaningful to offer to medical professionals, and as such are seen as entering through the “back door.” (see Amy’s blog for a full discussion).
In our book, Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-Emergence of Woman-Supported Birth in America, we argue that while doulas do provide several benefits to laboring women, the doula role itself is open to critique because of some fundamental contradictions in its definition. Are doulas trained professionals, or “merely” caring women with a passion for birth? Do doulas unconditionally support women’s birth choices even as they hold strong views on the optimal management and outcomes of childbirth? Can doulas advocate for their clients in the hospital labor room without being seen as interfering with the medical management or challenging obstetric authority? These various interpretations are clearly evident in the NYT story and even more so in the hundreds of comments it generated.
Our analysis of doula care in the U.S. maternity context, through a careful examination of its history, observations of training workshops and interviews with doulas and organizational leaders found that:
The reason why doulas are unable to gain respect from the press, the obstetric community and the public is that their primary goal of providing emotional support to women during childbirth is not valued by our culture.
It is well known that facts alone are unlikely to change someone’s deeply held beliefs. Doula advocates’ use of scientific rationale as the warrant for continuous labor support fails to address the underlying cultural belief among many that women’s birth experiences are not that important. Furthermore, unlike lactation consultants, whose goal is to facilitate successful breastfeeding with a client (something of value to hospitals now that The Joint Commission is tracking such rates), the doula’s goal is less clear and clearly less valued by hospitals. On the one hand, doulas and their organizations cite benefits of continuous labor support such as fewer c-sections, yet caution that as individual doulas, the goal is NOT to ensure a vaginal birth, nor question the decision for a cesarean section for any particular client. Instead, doulas typically say their goal is to enhance women’s satisfaction with their birth experience, no matter the outcome, wherever the birth takes place.
Changing the cultural meaning of labor support — the value of women’s emotional experience — is a much harder task than citing research on the clinical benefits of a doula. Any occupation that includes emotional labor is relegated to a lower social status than a comparable one that does not (think school bus driver vs. city bus driver; pediatrician vs. neurosurgeon). Much social science research finds, that in any organization, those workers who are expected to provide emotional care are less valued and less compensated than those who are not.
Doulas and their organizations need to communicate the fundamental value of emotionally supporting women through childbirth.
And that may not be possible using economic or scientific rationales alone. It is challenging to communicate the value of emotional support in childbirth in a context where doulas who engage in entrepreneurial practice charge a higher fee than many obstetricians or midwives are paid through insurance. Furthermore, as we pointed out in Birth Ambassadors, not all doulas speak with one voice, and there is not one organization that speaks on behalf of all doulas. We can see that diversity in the various responses to the NYT article. Interestingly we haven’t yet seen a response from DONA International, the primary doula training and certifying organization in the U.S. Without coordinated leadership from a strong, credible organization that can articulate it, the meaning and value of doula care is left up to anyone with the loudest platform. If doulas don’t want to be compared to Amazon Prime, they need to provide alternative pull-out quotes for articles like the one in the NY Times. And while you can’t always control what the press says, it’s important to insert your view into the cultural dialogue and not leave to others to have the final say. In this case, by an obstetrician, no less, who says, “A doula is like a personal trainer. Not that you can’t do it yourself; it’s just nicer if you have a personal coach for it.”