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Doula Performance Anxiety

I used to get performance anxiety before births. Probably the first two or three years I was a doula, I would have butterflies in my stomach and sometimes dread while waiting for the labor call. I had to make a music playlist called “Oxytocin” to try to override the adrenaline while driving to the birth. For some reason, “Ventura Highway” always calmed me.

I’m sure I’m not the only doula who has felt this way. I know I’ve gotten calls and texts from new doulas on their way to a birth. So let’s talk about it.

You Can’t Script It: When we walk into a birth space, there is no way to predict what we might be doing over the next hours. I have found myself in the strangest positions. I’ve twisted my body into odd shapes, slept in weird chairs, dirty danced with a laboring woman, gotten in the shower fully clothed, and stood on a hospital bed. I’ve said words that I never could have rehearsed and followed rituals that I never could have created. This inability to prepare used to drive me nuts. Now I roll with it. Things that may help:

  • Wear clothes that are comfortable no matter your position. No one wants a doula worrying about her butt crack or bra strap. So do some yoga in your clothes first and see if they pass the test.
  • Have a well-organized and well-stocked bag. I rarely use anything in my bag. But I have less anxiety when I know I have it.
  • Eat, drink, and pee. Basic, I know. But I’ve failed to do those things at births and gotten foggy/grumpy/dizzy. Since you can’t predict how long you’ll be there, eat at regular intervals. I tell my clients in advance that I will make sure everyone is fed and that includes me.

It Is Not A Performance: I think this one is so difficult. We are hired help. Clients have expectations of us. We want to do a good job. But performance suggests that we are on stage. We’re not. We are not! It does not matter what the midwife, doctor, nurse, or mother-in-law thinks about us. Our role is to hold the space for the mom, provide support to her and her partner, and keep them center stage. At the end of the birth, the mom should say, “I did it!” I really don’t want her to say, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” Things that may help:

  • Meditate on service. I have a few rituals on my drive to a birth. I pray. And specifically, I pray that I will be a servant. I pray that my ego will be put aside. That I won’t try to impress anyone. I also listen to birth affirmations. These help me focus.
  • Release the outcome and the path to it. The doula does not get to make decisions. Nope. Not our role. My perfect birth is just that. Mine. Not my client’s.

There Is No Instruction Manual: Sure we have doula trainings, books, and seminars. They can teach techniques. I remember one of my early births (I’d never even met the mom before), the midwife literally took my hands and showed me how to massage the mom’s legs. Another time a doula took my hands and showed me where to press for counterpressure. Oh, how I worried I would do it all wrong. Then I realized that it really is intuitive. I’m always telling the laboring woman to trust her instincts. I had to learn to trust my own. Things that may help:

  • Have someone you can call or text when you have no idea what to do. It is always helpful to talk it through with another birth professional when you’re stuck. I think there may even be a small book called The Pocket Doula that might be helpful. Don’t read it in front of the client, though!
  • Be confident. Channel it. No one wants skittish hands or a questioning voice when she’s birthing. It doesn’t matter if you feel confident. Fake it. Stay cool, calm, collected. Grounded.
  • Try not to overthink it. It isn’t rocket science. Birth is a pretty simple and straight-forward bodily process. It uses some of the same muscle movements as digestion. Most births would work just fine if no one was around. So maybe you don’t need to DO anything. Or SAY anything. Maybe you should just knit in the corner.

Remember that adrenaline does not often serve you well in a birthing environment. Go outside and do some jumping jacks to get rid of it if you must. Breathe deeply. Take some motherwort tincture. Stretch.

You were chosen to attend this birth and this family. There is nothing to fear.

21 responses »

  1. Yeah, I could just see you knitting in a corner. 🙂 ❤

    • 🙂 Ha! Believe it or not, I do carry a knitting project. I only know one stitch and I have to use circular needles. And there will never be an end product. A couple of years ago, I read in Midwifery Today that women are comforted by someone knitting. So I learned just enough. Sad. I know.

      • That’s not sad–it’s hilarious! Do you go back and forth in rows (so you can at least pretend to be knitting a scarf), or are you making a bag (just going around in one continuous circle)?

      • I’m “making” a baby hat. I completed a few. One fit my husband. The others looked like moths had been gnawing on them. Precision: not my thing.

  2. Thank you for this. After attending my first birth in years and waiting for the phone call for my second, I needed to remember this.

  3. Were those my leg cramps from hades you had to rub out?

    And I remember you knitting in the corner at birth #2. 🙂

    • The legs belonged to a woman named Cat. I never saw her again. But I remember those leg cramps of yours. I think they were my first. Wish they were my last.

  4. The only birth I attended as a “doula,” I knitted for half the day. Until I heard the birthing sounds, I stayed out of the mama’s way and just made sure the family was fed. Once I heard those sounds, I just stayed by her side. I actually brought knitting to that birth because I remember you saying in a blog post that knitting can calm a mom, so that is what I did. I almost finished the hat at the birth. It was completed a day or two after the birth.

  5. As I prepare for my path as a doula; I surely appreciate these wise words. Thank you, friend!

  6. I was so convinced at certain times during Maddie’s birth that i would not make it through. You definately calmed me and reminded me that I was strong. And even though I was so very thankful for your (and my amazing hubby) awesome support, I definately had the powerful feeling that I did it ! (I am so very glad that you chose to drive at outrageous speeds instead of knit though!!!!)

  7. This really is a beautiful post. One I’ll send out over the NetWaves. Thanks so much for writing it; you were bang on with many of the energetic and realistic aspects of attending births. Great job!

  8. This is such a great representation of all doulas, I think. I love this line: Our role is to hold the space for the mom, provide support to her and her partner, and keep them center stage. At the end of the birth, the mom should say, “I did it!” I really don’t want her to say, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” –
    They usually do say this, but I always let them know that THEY did all the work! I praise the partners, the other medical professionals in the room and of course, the mother!
    Thank you for writing this. If I ever need to explain how it is to be a doula, I will have this post handy. You summed it up well.
    {{doula hugs}}
    Kelly Kravitz
    Doula Surround

  9. Great post. It’s so important to remember (and repeat to yourself): It’s not about you.
    Focus on the mother and on being present to what’s going on for and with her.

  10. Love! Strange probably but I sometimes think “What would Julie do?” when I am in a pinch or don’t know what to do next. WWJD. Hey, it works!

  11. Thanks so much for this post. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I am beginning certification this March and have not attended any births yet- I do worry about how I will handle it when it finally happens! ahh! thanks again

  12. Pingback: Oxytocin

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