When you hire a doula, they will probably tell you at what point in your pregnancy they "go on call" for you.
This is a confusing phrase if you've never worked with a doula before! We've been asked if that means clients can contact us with a question at any time of day or night. We're open to clients' questions anytime, but *hope* that unless it's urgent, that doesn't mean we'll be getting calls in the middle of the night asking about whether they should register for a Boppy or My Brest Friend.
A doula's time on-call means the window during pregnancy where the doula commits to being ready to reach their clients quickly once a family asks for their support during labor.
Every doula has their own way of handling this, but we'll try to speak in broad terms. Basically, going on call for you means the point in your pregnancy at which your doula will be ready 24/7 to drop everything and come meet you when you're ready for them in labor. And if for any reason they aren't able to come to you, being on call also often means your doula commits to providing a back-up doula to meet you in their place (according to the terms of their contract). Most doula contracts allow 1-2 hours for them to reach you once you ask them to come to you during labor.
For many doulas (ourselves included), the on call period for each client begins 2 weeks before your due date and continues until whenever baby is born. That means we're blocking out about a month on our calendar of on-call time for each and every birth client
In our practice, we have a group text message with us and each family to help with communication leading up to labor. For labors with a slower start, we usually have a heads up that things are getting started long before we're actually needed. This gives us time to prepare to support our clients. But some labors sneak up on everyone! In those cases, sometimes the first we hear is a phone call from clients (sometimes in the middle of the night) letting us know they're ready for our support!
Living on-call is considered part of what parents are paying for when hiring a doula because this way of living is so different than their normal life. Remember - you're not just hiring a doula to come to your labor. You're hiring a doula to be ready to come to you during your labor at any time of the day or night, no matter when you need them. We're lucky that we work in partnership, so much of the burden of life on-call is mitigated by having someone to relieve us during longer labors. But even still, being on call is no joke!
We want to say here - this is part of our job! We never want our clients to feel guilty for any of this, and ESPECIALLY not when they need to call us overnight. We know exactly what we signed up for, and we love our work supporting parents SO. MUCH. We really wouldn't trade it for anything.
But just to help you understand what it means for a doula to be on-call 24/7, here's some info for you. This is what the on-call lifestyle looks like for us, practically speaking:
We don't leave town. We stay within 1-2 hours of our clients at all times during the on-call period in case a client lets us know they're in labor. This means no trips, no vacations, no spur of the moment weekend jaunts out of town.
Our phones are on. Volume turned up. All. The. Time. We obsessively check our phone volume. Constantly. And ESPECIALLY before we go to bed. We need to make sure we'll hear clients when they call, no matter when that might be.
We're ready to leave in the middle of the night if needed. When we're on call, sometimes the phone rings in the middle of the night. In order to make sure we're ready to head to a client overnight if needed, we lay out clothes, we prep some kind of caffeinated something, and we get a snack ready just in case so we'll be awake, alert, and ready to support our clients if we need to head out the door at 3am.
Doula bags packed and in the car at all times. After a birth we tend to need to refresh our doula bags - replenishing, washing in some cases (hospital germs, ew), and making sure we have everything we need. When we're still on call for another client, this process has to happen FAST to make sure we're still ready to go anytime.
We always have a back-up plan for who will take care of our dogs. For many doulas, this applies to kids (and is way harder to figure out because on call childcare isn't really a thing). We're lucky that we only have dogs to worry about, and that we doula in partnership so often one of us is able to be home to take care of them. But when we need extra help, we have a family member always at the ready to step in and take care of them.
We can't put off chores (one of the true joys of adulthood before kids). When it comes to filling up the gas tank, doing laundry, or grocery shopping, we tend to be a little lazy when we aren't on call. As in, "Eh, I don't HAVE to do a load of laundry tonight - I'd rather watch The Office and do it tomorrow instead." When we're on call, it's possible for us to get called to a birth in that crucial time period between "Eh, I don't HAVE to do that now" and "OMG I have no clean clothes." Which means we can't wait till the last minute. Same for getting gas (we never want to have to do that on the way to a birth!) and keeping our kitchen stocked - it sucks to come home from a long labor and have nothing to eat at home! And since we can't predict when we might get that call, we have to stay ahead of the game.
We have to reschedule with clients. Our non-birth clients who are working with us for childbirth education, postpartum support, lactation counseling and/or car seat education know that unfortunately, there may be times when we are called to a birth and need to reschedule so we can meet a family in labor. As inconvenient as this may be, most of the time these families are wonderful and understanding and send their good wishes for the birth. (We work with really lovely people.)
We miss things. We have yet to be called to a birth over a major holiday, but we've missed family gatherings, dinners with friends, and other special events for births. We also LOVE going to musicals and buy tickets for shows we want to see even if we'll be on call at the time... we have yet to miss a performance, but we know it'll happen sooner or later. That's just the way on-call life is! Pretty much everything we plan to do or go to when we're on call carries the caveat "unless we're at a birth."
We seldom drink. We are careful to be sure we have our wits about us and are driving-ready in case we hear from a client in labor. Gin and tonics (our drink of choice) are a rare treat when we're on call, and we only make little ones even then.
We have LOTS of logistics conversations. When we're on call, we have to plan out each day with considerations for whether someone goes into labor and what time they might need us. We make plans for who will go to a possible birth, whether we need to take two cars to get wherever we're going, who will make dinner and take care of the dogs, etc.
We take extra good care of ourselves. We pay special attention to our health and well-being when we're on call, because we never know when someone might need us to be at our best to support them in labor.
Being on-call is something that we've gotten used to, but it definitely keeps us on our toes. Babies come when they're ready, and we've got to be ready for the people bringing them into the world!