“I can’t afford a doula,” said a pregnant woman to me recently who was only a few weeks away from giving birth. “And, anyway, my husband is going to be there.” We chatted a while about the kind of birth she was envisioning. This was her first baby. She had a strong desire to avoid a cesarean and to give birth without drugs. She really didn’t want a “huge needle” in her spine.
This mother had clearly done her research and knew that many of the interventions that are so common in American childbirth are unnecessary. She had a lot of statistics at the tip of her tongue and we discussed many of them. I could tell she was determined to beat the odds, even though when you think about these odds, you probably would not bet against them in Vegas!
Eighty-three percent of American women receive pharmaceutical drugs for pain during labor (despite polls that show that most women say they would prefer NOT to do so). Ninety-one percent of American women lie on their backs or just a bit propped up when they are pushing out their babies. Forty-seven percent have bladder catheters during labor (which means they are NOT walking around). The list of interventions goes on and on. (These statistics come from the study “Listening to Mothers III.)
When I asked her how she thought she would avoid these common interventions, she said, “Well, I’m informed. I’ve done my homework.” She imagined herself just saying “no” to these interventions during labor.
This is when I asked whether she’d considered hiring a doula and she told me she couldn’t afford one. I asked how much the doulas she interviewed cost. She had not interviewed any doulas, but she’d “heard” that they cost $1,000.
In my town, only the most experienced doulas charge $1,000 as birth doulas and the real going rate is somewhere between $350-700. So her data on this point was inaccurate. But this woman’s tone indicated that this line of inquiry was closed. She was just not open to the idea of hiring a doula in these last weeks before giving birth and I could tell that continuing that conversation was not an option.
But if she had been open to the conversation, this is what I would have said to her:
It’s possible that you will have the kind of labor that never gets really hard. You might pay $1,000 and realize at the end of the day that you and your partner could have handled that birth without any outside help at all. It does happen. I have met such women before.
It’s possible that you will have the most amazing labor and delivery nurse who reads your birth plan and gives you a lot of labor coaching because she is a strong believer in natural birth. Even at the moment when you say, “I can’t do this anymore. Get me an epidural!”, this nurse will say back to you, “You’re doing great. Just focus on this contraction.” And you will focus on this contraction and the next one and after a few minutes that feeling like you can’t do it anymore fades away and you start to feel the urge to push. This also happens. I have met such women before.
It’s possible that your midwife will maintain a calm and protective aura in your room and never let you know that there is a resident just down the hallway who is watching your baby’s heart rate monitor and suggesting all kinds of interventions. This happens. I have watched it happen in hospitals in my town.
It’s possible you will be able to speak calmly and rationally throughout your labor. It’s possible that you will be able to interact with your hospital staff very rationally and weigh pros and cons of interventions on the spot. It’s possible that when the obstetrician says something like, “I’m a bit worried about your baby and I’d like to get some more information. I’m going to break your bag of waters and put in this internal monitor,” you will be able to say, before the next contraction hits you, “Oh, thank you so much for your concern. Is my baby in real danger right now? Could you tell me the pros and cons of this procedure?” And the obstetrician will patiently wait at your bedside while you handle an intense contraction that lasts a minute and a half. When you’re back to yourself, the doctor will touch your arm gently and explain the particular situation with your baby (who is not in imminent danger) and the pros and cons of breaking your water and using an internal monitor. Except that the explanation will be interrupted by four more contractions. But you have the best obstetrician in town, who will patiently wait through all of these contractions. You will be able to ask specific questions about parts you don’t understand. You will ask about alternative ideas. And you will be the kind of woman who is still able, after all this, to say politely, “No, thank you. After considering your explanation, I don’t want to do this right now. Let’s wait a little while longer.” It’s possible.
Although I want to tell you that I have not really met more than a handful of women who can do this during an active, strong labor.
This is where women who want natural births without unnecessary interventions often end up “giving in” and later regretting it. They are deep in the physical work of labor and they can’t really (and shouldn’t really!) concentrate on logical conversations. All the intellectual information we have gathered during pregnancy really does us almost no good when we are in labor because we are not really able to access much of our intellectual knowledge during labor. It’s much easier to say, “Yes,” during labor than it is to articulately say, “No, thank you.”
We imagine ourselves as our everyday Self in labor. Our everyday Self may be a strong, educated, and even opinionated person who is able to advocate for herself. But our Labor Self is a different self. Our Labor Self is strong and educated in a very different way, in a sensual, physical way. Labor Selves rarely articulate themselves well in full sentences and well-considered arguments.
You don’t pay $1,000 (or, more often, $500) for the labors that are easy and that you could manage without help. You pay $1,000 (or, more often, $500) for the possible times that having a doula changes the game.
So, if we are playing the Vegas odds, let me tell you that while it’s possible you will have that easy kind of labor in which your doula is really unnecessary, the odds on it are not very good. Maybe 3 in a 100. But the chances that a doula has something to offer you in labor that turns out to be important? Well, those odds are worth betting on. I’m going to put that at about 89 out of 100 or even higher.
In case she is needed, what will she be needed for?
Maybe for fifteen hours of squeezing your hips because when she squeezes your hips during a contraction, the pain changes from unmanageable to just manageable. But.only.if.she.squeezes.your.hips.EVERY.TIME.
Maybe she will help you walk around the hallways when your labor seems “stalled” at six centimeters and the hospital staff say it is time to think about a cesarean for “failure to progress” and it turns out that getting moving helps your labor a lot and you are eternally grateful for your doula’s insistence on walking before agreeing to the cesarean.
Or back to our scenario of “rational decision-making” during labor. It might feel like you paid $1,000 for her to whisper to you, after the doctor explains the pros and cons of the intervention, “I know you’ve heard what this doctor has said. Do you want a minute to discuss this with your partner?” And you nod your head. The doctor leaves the room and your partner is able to ask you, without a lot of eyes and ears around, “I know how important doing this naturally is to you. Do you want me to tell them we don’t want to do this and we want to wait a few hours?” And you can nod your head. You don’t have to say any words. You have a team that knows what you want, a team that knows how to create a situation in which you are likely to get it, and that does not expect you to talk rationally.
Let’s be honest that most women in America will not pay even one penny for this kind of support. Around 94% of American women, in fact. Maybe for these women paying $1,000 (or $500!) is not worth it for these “moments.” They are happy enough to go along with the routines of the hospital and have the kind of birth that the hospital staff guides them toward. If their labor is medicated and no one suggests anything “hippie” like walking around or using a shower to manage labor pain, if they end up with an unnecessary cesarean, they are pretty OK with it. They choose the route of “going with the flow” and that route works well for them.
But if you are the kind of woman like the one I met at the park the other day, the kind of woman who has done her homework and knows the statistics, who wants to beat the hospital intervention childbirth odds, then I would roll my dice with a doula. Every time.
photo by Salvatore Vuono
If you want to read more about ‘Listening to Mothers III” you can find a report here:http://transform.childbirthconnection.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/LTM-III_Pregnancy-and-Birth.pdf