"The Dark Side" of a Doula's Job

If you are a doula, chances are you have heard statements along these lines from your non-doula friends and family: 

“You have the best job ever.” 
“What you do is so cool! I wish I could do that.” 
“You’re so lucky you get to see miracles all the time.”

All of those things are true: being a doula is a blessing and an honor. Sharing in some of the most powerful, profound, intimate and influential moments in the life of a mother and her family is not something any of us take lightly. It is sacred and beautiful. The emotions that go through us as we are walking away from a glowing mother who has just discovered her inner strength, fallen deeply in love with her partner and her baby, and is now happily nursing skin to skin, well, there just aren’t words for those emotions. Knowing that your presence made a difference, hearing her say how wonderful you were and how she could not have done it without you are moments that remind us of why we do what we do. But there is a lesser-disclosed side to doula work: ”The Dark Side”, the messy side, the not always beautiful or fun or sacred side.

For example, you deal with a lot of bodily fluids as a doula. Babies come out in the same general area and in the same general manner as a bowel movement, and it is not at all unusual for a mother in labor to pass gas, sometimes loudly, or to clear out those bowels to make way for baby. Sometimes, this happens in a pile on the floor or bed, or with some serious force. This has the potential to fill the room with a strong odor and the professional doula’s job is to completely ignore this occurrence and display absolutely no awareness of the odor filling the room. She may, however, need to quickly and discreetly throw a new chux pad or towel on top of the pile when no one is looking and alert the nurse or midwife. If the mother is laboring or pushing in a tub, the doula will look for a fishing net or another object to scoop any “floaters” that may appear and continue to act like nothing is amiss.  

Often a woman in labor belches and may vomit, sometimes repeatedly. Similar to when she passes gas, a doula pretends she didn’t hear or smell a thing, even when face to face with the mother. If she vomits, sometimes with little or no warning, a doula will need to be quick on her feet to get out of the line of fire. The quick-thinking doula will grab a nearby container of some sort, but it may be too late, or sometimes the mother misses. Sometimes a doula may be holding a bucket or basin with one hand and applying counter-pressure with the other, potentially for hours at a time. A wise doula always keeps an extra change of clothes in her bag and scouts out the vomit containers well before the nausea arrives! 

When the laboring mother gets hot toward the end, as most do, many a doula will adjust the thermostat, get a basin of ice water, a couple of washcloths and repeatedly apply them to the mother’s head or the base of her neck. It does not take long for her hands to go completely numb or for her to go retrieve the extra sweater she packed in her well stocked “doula bag” before her teeth start chattering. 

Then there may be the client who gets to a point in labor where she does a 180 from her original birth preferences and a doula has to consider whether this mother needs support in her new choices or encouragement to remember her original goals. If needed, the doula switches gears and make this new plan as positive as possible for the mother. She reminds her that her labor is not something she can control and that she is going her best to give this baby the safest start to life. 

Another challenging situation arrives when the doula has just poured herself into bed two hours ago following a long birth and then her phone rings at 2:00 in the morning. Another client is in labor and asking her to come. She will curse herself, desperately wish for just a little more sleep, then drag herself out of bed and try to find some ways to look alive before she heads out the door. She may have to figure out who she can call or text to come over in a few hours and get the kids up, then review the plans she had for the day and figure out how to juggle and rearrange, and more importantly, how she will reach the people she needs to if she cannot get away to call at a more decent hour. Then she will meet her clients looking perky and happy as she gives all she has to this mother. 

Doulas take the birth experiences of their clients personally. If there are any problems or concerns with the baby after the birth or if the mother is upset or traumatized by the events that unfold, a doula will feel those feelings along with her client. She will cry, she will question and she will grieve the experience in her own way. Often a bond is formed that goes beyond the birth experience 

Yes, being a doula is wonderful. It is amazing. It is beautiful. It can also be, at times, messy and thankless and down right hard. But those messy moments fade and we hold onto the incredible times when we know we made a difference. We want to give a special shout-out during World Doula Week to all the doulas who work hard to make birth better. You are appreciated!!! 

What have you experienced on the “dark side” of doula work and why wouldn’t you trade it for any other job in the world?

Copyright 2012 © All Rights Reserved

Plumtree Baby, LLC


  • Margaret

    One thing that I never anticipated when I started my doula training was that I would be running my own business! So much more than just feelings to wanting to professionally support moms in pregnancy and birth, but also working on contracts, networking, advertising, marketing, emails, continued trainings, education, research, keeping track of income and expenses, filing for business licensing, insurance, bank accounts, Tax ID numbers, NPI numbers, taxes, and so on and so forth.

    I still wouldn’t trade it for any other job that I have come across though!!!

    - Margaret Rodeghier
    The Grosse Pointe Doula, LLC

  • Heidi Duncan

    An even darker side is that doulas often witness their clients being mistreated by care providers, being misled or outright lied to. Then there are also the times where physiologically speaking things just go a really negative way and the birth becomes traumatic for both the mother and the doula. These are dark and difficult aspects of our work that most people never consider. The highs are very high but the lows are very low, too.

  • Jodi

    Lol. All of the above. But it IS labour. And I personally think it weeds out the wannabe doulas from those whose heart and soul is doula work, birth and women. It’s the raw ,tough moments, llong labours and back to back births (had 3! Home water births yesterday!) that we are needed the most. Love my job and wouldn’t want labour any other way than the ways it comes. Happy Doiula week ?❤️

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