Outside the Elevator (What I Really Do)

By Guest Blogger, WellPregnancy-trained labor doula and childbirth educator Jenny Everett King, CCCE

“So, um . . .What do you do?”

It’s okay. Doulas are more accustomed to this question than you probably realize. No one wants to say, “Soooo, you don’t catch the baby. You don’t give any meds. You don’t use monitors. Ah, why are you there, exactly?” I promise, we get that. Modern day doulas are relatively new to the birth scene, so much so that my trainer advises having a prepared “elevator speech,” a quick and simple description of a doula’s role at birth or postpartum: A doula provides physical, emotional, and informational support to families during the childbearing year.

I have been thinking a lot lately about what that support means. So allow me to wax philosophical for a moment (in the sense that “moment” = “several paragraphs”). Consider this the polar opposite of my elevator speech.

Maybe you’ve heard the stats. Hiring a doula for your birth means you are less likely to use pain medication, have a long labor, or need a cesarean. You are more likely to view your birth experience in a positive light.

So what does that mean, really? Do doulas make contractions less painful? Do they do things to get the baby out faster?

Well, often, yes – we use positions and techniques to optimize the laboring woman’s comfort and enhance labor progress. Sometimes, we lessen pain and speed up labor in concrete, obvious ways.

But I am beginning to think that is one of our less important roles. I am realizing this as I observe the other environments in which I provide support, as I begin to understand my role – my calling, even – during prenatal visits, over emails, as a doula, as an educator, as a friend. Because what we really do is bigger.

Will your labor hurt if you have a doula present? Yup. Or, okay, maybe. Granted, I have heard stories of pain-free births. Some women have them. You might too. And yes, you can absolutely make preparations to have it hurt as little as possible. But personally, I have never felt comfortable telling families to prepare for a pain-free labor. I have seen too many women come away from their birth with the feeling that if it hurt, they did something wrong. Doula philosophies differ, and it’s important to find someone whose outlook on birth aligns with yours. Mine happens to be that labor hurts and that that’s okay.

My job, as I see it, is this: To give you a safe space for experiencing that pain. To allow you the room to deal with pain in the absence of fear and worry. The best description I have heard of this concept (and oh how I wish I could remember where I read it – if you happen to know, please say so in the comments) is simply, to hold space. This role is protective and maternal, to be sure. But it does not strike me as maternal in the feel-good, snuggly, rocking chair way. Yes, I have gently laid a hand on a client’s forehead, or held her hand and spoken soft, reassuring words. But the role of a doula is also maternal in the fierce, mama bear sort of way. Perhaps more so. Because we are hired to be the ones asking others in the room to stop saying dumb, completely unhelpful things. We are the ones encouraging you to get loud if being loud helps. We are the ones charged with reminding parents, This isn’t what you wanted, this isn’t what feels right to you, and yes you absolutely need to stand up for yourself here. And we are the ones, if Plan B happens, to say firmly, I know this isn’t what you wanted, and it’s okay to be upset, and I am here for you.

Of course, holding space is not just for pain. When doulas hold space, we help parents to experience the joy and ecstasy of birth free from so many of the distractions that can hamper it. We help you to have those quiet moments alone, to feel cared for and, yes, loved on your birth journey.

There was a time, several years ago, when I didn’t think I was gentle enough to be a doula. I am not soft-spoken, and am too often sarcastic. I am almost always kind but not always nice – not, at least, in the sugar and spice way. Now I smirk to think about that misgiving, because the reality is, I cannot think of a doula I know who comes across as gentle or soft. We are, collectively, more tough than gentle.

And when you want an advocate for one of the biggest moments of your life, that is a very, very good thing.

Jenny Everett King, CCCE, is a CAPPA-trained Labor Doula and Certified Childbirth Educator, as well as a prenatal yoga teacher and birth photographer. She is the co-owner of DeviBloom Wellness and Birth, LLC, based in southern New Hampshire (www.DeviBloom.com), and blogs at www.CrossroadsBirth.com.


  1. Julie Carew on March 31, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Nicely done, Jenny! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Paula Norcott on April 1, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Well said Jenny, Thanks!

  3. Nancy Madru on April 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Brilliant! Thank you, Jenny.