Keith Roberts is unfazed by the attention given him as the first man to be certified as a doula by DONA.  He has has spent over 30 years in the field of holistic care, specifically focusing on pregnancy massage therapy and birth support for the last fourteen.  The prenatal massage work he does was a segue to following one mother right into labor where he found expert massage therapy was extremely beneficial to her in labor.  She was the first of fifteen more mothers he supported in labor before he determined to pursue certification as a doula.

Keith is perhaps more determined than female doulas to not replace fathers at birth.  The female support presence is invaluable because she is female and yet that bond is one that many a father may meet with trepidation: a club that he can’t be a member of by virtue of his gender.  Keith recalls an image that influences his genuine welcome of the father, an old cover of International Doula.  The cover’s image showed a mother embraced by her doula and the father is in the background.  Many a father today may not care to be present for labor but just as many men know there was a battle fought by Dr. Robert Bradley and the Hathaways to protect a father’s right to be in the labor and delivery rooms.

Those men who do want to be present for their child’s birth are already engaged in a checklist of all that they are expected to be today: he is to know everything about birth because he will be the mother’s advocate allowing her to focus on her labor; this he must accomplish while also providing physical, mental and emotional comfort.  Then after the baby is born he must strike the perfect balance between staying with mother throughout third stage and going with his baby should there be a medical reason to separate mother and baby.  As many a partner has put it, he/she must be everywhere, have eyes in the back of their heads and know how to play football, delivery room football that is.

Keith’s role is primarily for physical comfort.  It is easy for mom to choose between the two males present for her emotional and mental support….dad is her intimate partner.  “(Partners) are a reflection of mother’s state-of-mind; they tend to follow her lead and birth is just as much of an unknown to them as it is for mom.  They (dads) have as much a desire to meet birth at mother’s level of comfortability and she will want dad in front of her, to see him and be held by him.”  Further, for all of the reasons listed above, men appreciate having another male present in the primarily female energy until and unless a male obstetrician walks in for a few minutes of observation, medical speak and then exits.

When asked how he perceived the choice of a woman to invite doulas, let alone a male doula, to their births over their mothers even Keith’s keen observation of relationships is quick to surface.  In his experience few mothers want their own mothers present because they will feel a need to perform or meet parental expectations whether real or imagined.  Having their own mothers present is often an overwhelming thought no matter how comedic, true or polite the response is expressed!

Keith’s own intimate insight into birth as someone who could not experience birth for themselves but supports laboring women gives invaluable advice to partners.  These are his experienced Natural Birth Critical Factors:

  • Once you are in labor you cannot stop the flow of birth care you signed up for.  Choose wisely.
  • Read. Read. Read.  Take a natural childbirth class and read some more! A natural childbirth experienced and focused birth class leaves mothers and their partners with less “unkowns” and less fear of those unknowns.
  • Learn about fetal positioning.  The more you know about baby presentations and how to encourage optimal ones and work with less than optimal ones the more sense prudent changing of positions in labor makes.
  • Your choice of birth care practitioner directly relates to your odds of having a cesarean!
  • Keep the bag of waters intact!  Artificial rupturing of membranes (AROM) or artificially breaking the bag of waters is trivialized.  EVERY practitioner knows that within a short while of breaking the bag of waters labor intensifies in a ratcheted manner (versus a natural progression) and the majority of women will subsequently ask for an epidural.
  • Hire a doula for the purpose you want be it physiological support, birth knowledge, support for dad.  In all cases the doula can alleviate what stresses you most leaving you better able to meet labor’s demands with all of your own energy.
  • It is very hard to buck the system therefore, go back to Critical item number one.
  • Lastly, but more importantly, he reminds mothers that they have their own voice.  A doula will provide his/her opinion if asked but will never make a mother’s choice for her.  Mom must convey her choice directly to her careprovider and partners must be prepared to be be the first line of support echoing mother’s choice and minimize the number of minutes he/she might otherwise spend playing football by putting all that you’ve learned in a natural childbirth class into action.  Learn more about how your doula can best help you.

Through supporting women in labor hands on, so to speak, Keith has gained a whole new appreciation for the courage of women and for the hospital birth experience.  He concurs with Penny Simkin’s address at the DONA conference in Washington D.C. three years ago where stated the doula backlash is very real.  Keith advises new doulas to be mindful of their standards of practice and ethics.  Unless they have an established relationship with local practitioners then their voice, necessary for the support of laboring women, must be viewed as respectful of the practitioner and facility as well.  Birth is a hands on experience for the obstetricians and nurses themselves.  This is an opportunity for them to observe truly natural childbirth and learn.  If the doula is not respectful and professional in conveying her knowledge and experiences then the entire birth community suffers the backlash.

In a recent discussion we have had on our independent childbirth educators email list, the topic turned to one of the basic differences between supporting a woman through labor, and medicating a woman through labor; between listening to a woman’s complaints, and “fixing” a woman’s complaints; between most home births and far too many hospital births.

One woman told of an experience in supporting a woman through her labor.  The mother turned to her doula and husband once and said, “This sucks!” The doula answered, “Yes, I know it hurts, but you can do it.”  The mother responded, “Yes, I know I can do it. I just wanted to let you know it sucks!”

How many nurses, husbands, or other birth-support people would have heard the woman say that, and offered her medication to “fix her problem”? She wasn’t needing anything fixed — she just wanted to communicate. Isn’t there a whole industry in attempting to help men and women communicate, especially in marriage and other personal relationships? Why should we think that doctors (who are typically trained in the all-male tradition of med school for generations) and the medical establishment will know how to communicate in the all-female world of birthing mothers?  Men tend to want to know the answer. Doctors are also trained in how to fix problems, medically. Mothers want to talk about it first.

So many women just want to be listened to. These basic differences will not just disappear because women are in labor. Some people — both men and women, although men tend to fall into this much more easily than do women — just want to know the answer and use it to fix problems, even if the “fix” is something unwanted by the person who is dealing with the situation.

When a woman’s birth-support team moves too quickly from listening and encouraging – and the other basic tenets of female relationships and female support – they may undermine a woman’s innate courage and strength.  This can happen regardless of the sex of those who surround her in birth.

What if, instead of telling her “you can do this,” the doula had responded, “would you like an epidural?”  The mother may have heard, “You’re not strong enough to handle labor without drugs, so just go ahead and get an epidural before it gets any worse.”  For my part, I’m very vulnerable to suggestion during labor.  A question like that — as innocent as it sounds — may have been enough to make me say “okay.”  Because, after all, if the people who are watching me labor think I need an epidural, then maybe I do!

Fortunately, nothing like that happened during either of my labors.  Instead, the midwives asked open-ended questions, like, “What do you want to do?”  Every time they asked a question or made a suggestion (like getting into or out of the labor tub) I obeyed it as much as if it were a command; questioning it no more than if they had asked me if I wanted some cake, or if I should breathe.

Sometimes, women just want acknowledgement of what they’re going through, rather than changing what they’re going through.  At times labor hurts, it’s intense, you just can’t get comfortable and there is no way in hell you would call what you’re doing relaxation.  It can suck.  It’s time to honor that too.  Don’t fix us.  We’re not broken.

Recently The New York Times wrote about doulas and the article left a negative impression about doulas, and tossed in a criticizing lactation consultant comment as an aside. To take the view that the New York Times article does–as an across-the-board view that doulas are problems–is an error. The paper presented a complaint rather than pursuing a couple of viable angles: the many expectations that mothers and partners have of labor support today, and the licensure of female support at birth such as midwives, birth educators in the role of birth support, monitrices (someone who has been trained to provide some clinical assessment in labor usually while mother is at home) and doulas.

There are now many birth support and whole birth health care options for women to learn about, choose from and advocate for change. Midwives, independent childbirth educators, doulas, birth centers, homebirth and breastfeeding are now more commonplace subjects to bring up when planning birth. Women today are realizing that they need to avoid interventions such as induction which carries a higher risk for cesarean or just arriving at the hospital too early; and there are options available to support their refusal to fall in line with industrialized birth. In response, hospitals are trying to offer more and more amenities but many parents recognize that in spite of measures by hospitals to draw them in by offering a luxury tub or more comfortable birth room furniture, hospital birth is still hospital birth. Seeing the smoke and mirrors, women who still choose to birth in a hospital may seek additional independent female support in birth which has been shown to be a positive influence on outcomes. However the benefits of the additional birth support is very clear in the birth community and we hope the media will take the time to do more in-depth articles on the anthropology of women in birth, culturally and traditionally.

It is confusing for the public to read contradictory articles posted by the same journalism venue such as this one from CNN that says doulas advocate for you and then CNN also posted this article stating “doulas are not supposed to offer a medical opinion….strictly to motivate the mother.” What remains the focus for women is that we still need to think independently, make our own choices and employ those who support our choices from birth care to birth itself. Women have many different reasons for hiring a doula besides strictly whether or not to ask them to advocate. Doulas can make fathers and siblings comfortable with birth and help them enjoy birth too! There are obstetricians, midwives and labor and delivery nurses who have witnessed doulas as an extra pair of caring hands so that all participating in the birth remain fresh and positive during a labor and birth–especially an intense birth. Doulas help military moms birthing without their partners. Doulas are sometimes even interpreters! This is a day that many never imagined: birth support, midwives, homebirth, unassisted birth, informed birth, etc. are all in the headlines!

In many states women’s choices are being restricted and the birth community continues to work together for the greater benefit of society at large ~ improving mother and baby outcomes ~ and for the mothers and babies where you live!