Speaking of Women's Rights: Practicing Doula Work at the Root

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Practicing Doula Work at the Root

By Jordan Alam

The power of the doula profession is, in many ways, a far contrast to its origins. Traditionally, doulas are a part of the birthing person’s family, biological or chosen, and in many cultures they still are. The professional word “doula” is relatively new and not recognized across all communities. When people grow up in intergenerational and communal societies where they have seen their family members and friends give birth, they play the doula role regardless of whether they have formal training or not. Everyone in the community is involved in the child’s life through pregnancy and birth and beyond.

We now live in a society that is starved for this kind of connection. To me, the professionalization of doula care is an amazing resource that also reflects the fact that in the U.S. families and communities are routinely separated by circumstance or intent. It is worth investigating that contradiction. Often the people who need doulas most are unable to access them. This is especially true for black and brown communities, and particularly those with multiple barriers to receiving care.

An important aspect of my doula practice is working in partnership with EmPATH, an organization working to serve incarcerated pregnant people with doula and midwifery care. EmPATH envisions a world that honors the basic human right to support during the childbearing year, which means repairing the relationships that are taken away by the criminal legal system. Prisons and jails separate families through intent. It is intended for those spaces to sever connection as a form of punishment – a price that ultimately harms all community members and not just the individual. While best practices in baby friendly hospitals encourage bonding as critical for newborn development, varying practices in prisons and jails take away the power of the birthing person to keep contact with their child after birth. Families separated by incarceration often do not experience reunification with their children, and when they are reunited there is struggle to support the family because of the barriers to employment and housing faced upon re-entry. The trauma of separation impacts both parent and child at all of these stages.

Though connection with a doula is no substitute for the immense amount of care needed to support current and formerly incarcerated people and their healing, it is a small but impactful way to open the door. We see this work as having a ripple effect reaching far beyond its origin point, as backed up by research showing that maternal and infant health outcomes are vastly improved with access to a doula.

When I personally came across the word “doula,” I felt that it brought together all the skills I had been cultivating both professionally and personally for years – deep listening, advocacy, bringing comfort – all at a moment of deep transformation in someone’s life. I came to doula work through a training, having never seen or attended birth in my life prior to that. While this is not how all people come into birth work, I believe that many of us come to it seeking out this unique connection because we feel its absence from our daily lives. I consider my doula practice to be just as nourishing to me as it is for the people I serve, and sometimes even more so. I know that I have received so much important wisdom through my clients’ resiliency.

As we close World Doula Week, I invite all doulas to think critically about how we must push our profession further. We owe it to one another to return doula work to its roots. By serving those who have been most harmed and isolated by systems of oppression, we are building a richer community for them and ourselves. We are stepping into a pivotal life event that can affect the physical and emotional health outcomes for every family we touch. And our work does not stop in the birth room. Especially for communities of color, accessing care can begin to heal the connections we have lost through colonization and the criminalization of our bodies and lives.

As doulas, we have the honor of witnessing. And our responsibility is to communicate what we see and to leverage the power we have relative to our clients so that they receive the best care possible. Whether this is in direct client service or in generating resources for others to do the work, we all have the opportunity to meaningfully impact the lives of birthing people and their children. It is indeed a unique and radical position to be in.

Jordan Alam is a writer, performer, and birth worker based out of south Seattle. She coordinates the Birth Doula Services program at Open Arms Perinatal Services and runs her own doula practice. She is deeply passionate about empowering marginalized communities through promoting under-heard voices and serving those who have limited access to resources. Find more information about her work at www.jordanalam.com.

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash