When we're working with a couple for childbirth preparation classes, we always ask if they're going to have a birth doula to support them so we can tailor some of the information we'll be discussing.
And sometimes, we get this answer: "My partner will be my doula."
It's usually said as sort of a joke with some sheepish laughter. But we wanted to take a moment to address this sentiment, since we hear it fairly regularly.
Can your partner be your doula?
Well, it depends on how you think of a doula's role. Is a doula defined as just any person present with you in labor?
If so, is your OB or midwife your doula? (Hint: midwives are not doulas unless they're specifically practicing as a doula instead of a midwife at a certain birth.) What about your nurse or midwife's assistant? There are some who feel that yes, any supportive person present at birth can be considered a doula.
But what WE mean when we talk about a birth doula is someone who is specifically trained to fulfill that role, who has agreed to provide continuous support during your labor, and who isn't fulfilling any other roles during your birth. By this definition:
Your midwife is not your doula - they are your midwife.
Your midwife's assistant is not your doula - they are your midwife's assistant.
Your OB is not your doula - they are your OB.
Your nurse is not your doula - they are your nurse.
Your friends or family members who will be at your birth are not your doulas - they are your loved ones.
Your partner is not your doula - they are your partner.
This isn't to say that people in these roles can't have moments of encouraging you, comforting you, or supporting you during labor. It's just to say that they aren't your doula.
If you have a partner and they'll be with you during labor, they are fulfilling a very important role. They are the person in the room who knows you best. They are bringing an amazing tool to your labor - their love and support.
But they are not your doula.
If you're still not convinced, here's a handy checklist to test and see if your partner really is your doula:
Has your partner attended births of people they aren't related to as a primary emotional, physical, and informational support person?
Is your partner used to seeing people go through labor? Are they accustomed to bearing witness while people experience labor pain without trying to jump in and “fix” it?
Does your partner regularly participate in continuing education opportunities on topics related to supporting families through pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period?
Is your partner someone you'd consider a primary resource for information during pregnancy? What about after your baby is born?
Does your partner have referrals on hand in case you need extra support? Can they point you toward a great childbirth class, prenatal chiropractor, lactation counselor, pelvic floor physical therapist, prenatal massage therapist, ...?
Is your partner a member of any doula/birth professional groups or associations so they can learn from others' experience as well as their own?
Is your partner well-versed in the language of birth? Do they have a thorough grasp of commonly used medical terminology, abbreviations, acronyms and other language specific to labor?
Does your partner have an in-depth understanding of the ways medications and technology can be used during labor? Do they understand the common side effects of medications and procedures that are sometimes used in birth? And if so, are they practiced at communicating that information with people who are deep in labor to help them make thoughtful and informed decisions if the need arises?
Does your partner have a wide working knowledge of coping skills and comfort measures to help people through labor? Do they have tips and tricks up their sleeve that they can offer at pivotal moments during labor, based on their experience and knowledge?
Does your partner have advanced knowledge and skills to help identify ways you might be better supported during labor? Can they identify labor patterns that might indicate that a specific change in position for labor progress could be helpful?
If labor needs to be induced for whatever reason, can your partner walk you through what to expect from the induction process and what questions you might want to ask your care provider? What if a scheduled cesarean is necessary?
If there is a challenging situation during birth, does your partner have the experience and knowledge to offer a solution that may not have been offered by your care providers yet if the need arises?
Is your partner totally comfortable in a hospital labor and delivery room? Do they have tricks for helping YOU feel more comfortable there?
Does your partner have experience "holding space" for laboring parents? Are they practiced at staying balanced within themselves even in the uncomfortable, challenging, or even frightening moments that can happen during birth, all the while supporting you fully?
Does your partner have experience speaking to and touching people during birth? Are they in tune and responsive to the needs of someone who is in labor?
Is your partner used to spending hours upon hours in a small space with little nourishment and/or sleep while still supporting someone through their labor?
And for those of you who might be partnered with a birth professional of some kind and can actually answer YES to the questions above, one final question:
Do you want your partner to experience birth as a doula, with some emotional distance so they can continue offering you unbiased support? Or do you want your partner to experience birth with you as your person?
If you started out reading this thinking, "OF COURSE my partner can be my doula! They're so loving and attentive and supportive! Why would we hire someone else to do what they already can?" we hope this offers some insight into the things doulas do in order to support their clients through pregnancy, birth, and in the early weeks and months afterward. Doulas have a role that's all their own. If you don't have a doula, it doesn't mean someone else is automatically your doula - it means that the role of a doula is simply missing from your support team.
If you've decided that for whatever reason adding a doula to your support team for birth isn't for you, we encourage you to say just that - "We've decided not to work with a doula," or some variation - instead of "My partner will be my doula." Because chances are, if you're relying on your partner to provide everything on the checklist above (and more), you'll be disappointed.
We believe that partners deserve support during labor too! Read more about important ways doulas support partners.
Tip: If budget concerns are the reason you've chosen not to hire a doula, there may be new doulas in your community who would be willing to work with you for a much smaller fee while they begin to gain experience. You can ask experienced doulas in your area if they know anyone who is just starting out and might be looking for some experience. Keep in mind though that a new doula may not have the breadth and depth of experience as a more established doula.