Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Living as a doula, making a living as a doula, and life without doula-ing

When I heard Penny Simkin speak at the Breastfeeding & Feminism conference, she talked about the rising fees that doulas are charging and the conflict between doulas who do it for a living and doulas who do it as sideline income or even without any real financial need/goals. I've almost never met a doula who can support themselves on doula work alone, but Penny Simkin was talking about how for an increasing number of doulas this is their goal. They love doula work and they want to charge fees that enable them to support themselves/their families on their doula career alone.

For a little while I had the idea that I could be one of those doulas...I gave that up pretty fast. I realized how long it would take to build a consistent referral base to bring in new clients and how even when you think you've got a good cycle going, things happen... many doulas I knew in NYC were really impacted by the economic downturn there, when fewer parents felt financially able/willing to spend on doulas (you all know I think that's one of the most important things to spend on, but those parents didn't ask me!) I also saw how most doulas needed other sources of income to fallback on: many offer a whole set of services like childbirth ed, placenta encapsulation, birth photography, etc. etc. I'm not a personality who is happy patching things together that way long-term, and it didn't seem like it made sense for my personal financial health either. I decided to go back to grad school and get me a Real Grown-Up Job (tm).

Fast-forward to my Real Grown-Up Job (tm) doing something I love - working as an LC - and I am now feeling the tug between my doula work and said Real Job. I attended my second out-of-hospital birth ever today - hooray! It went so well and was such a wonderful experience with a lovely family. It really reminded me of why I LOVE being a doula - why it is my favorite thing in the world to do. But it was hard to work it around the Real Job in ways that show it really wouldn't be sustainable in the long-term to take doula clients. When I'm in the midst of being on-call for clients - phone always on and with me, can't go out of town, can't make concrete plans, etc. - it doesn't seem like such a sacrifice. But then I go to a birth, all those little annoyances fall away, and it breaks my heart to think about stopping.

I have thought about doing a partner doula system, where clients hire me & another doula together with the understanding that one of us is always on-call and at birthing time she could get either one, depending on our schedules. But it has been frustratingly difficult for me to find back-up doulas, and I don't really think that bodes well for finding a full-time partner. There might be some more flexibility in going back to volunteer doula work, but I recognize that will need to be fairly rare; I found myself getting burned out on 30+ hour volunteer births where I wasn't willing to leave but wasn't feeling a return on my energy and experience.

I have one more doula client coming up (yep, still on call!) Both today's and the next one hired me before I went permanent at Real Job. After that, I know I'll be happy to get some time off from the on-call routine...and then what?


...sarah. said...

I totally feel you, Rebecca! I just left a job I had been at for 4 years, mostly because it was totally incompatible with doula-ing. A friend got me a job with the company she works for and told the boss about my doula work before I even interviewed... they are ok with it, but how many times will I have to miss 1 or 2 days of work before that changes? For now, I am sticking to a self-imposed "One client every 3 months" rule. We'll see how it works out.

Enjoy Birth said...

It is such an interesting "career" to be a doula. I honestly don't know if I could support my family doing it, unless I didn't have kids or had a live in Nanny. Being able to leave on a moments notice with no idea of when you are going to return is hard to do twice a month, let alone 4 or 5 times a month.

I haven't been on call since Feb and I am loving it. I miss parts of it and I know I will be excited to go back to doulaing in a few months.

elba said...

I am very passionate about reproductive health and I will be attending grad school in the fall for a Masters in Public Health-International Reproductive Health). I wanted to seek advice in regards to whether or not it was possible to be/become a doula(volunteer) while in grad school? DO you have any advice for that process/volunteer?

Rebecca said...

Hi Elba, that's so great that you're interested in becoming a doula! You can check out the end of this post for a little more info. My main recommendation to you is to take the training over this coming summer, or at least do all the prep work for it, because once you start school it's easy to let other things get in the way. Then just start asking around for either formal volunteer programs or informal opportunities where you're going to school...check out hospitals, clinics/CHCs, ICAN, etc. Good luck!

Raeanne Madison said...

Elba, I am doing the same thing: pursuing an MPH next year and DONA training. I'm completing most of my training this summer and my first family will be delivering this fall, when I'll still be an undergrad! I'm excited about the whole transition but also quite curious how doula-ing will fit into a busy grad school schedule. Maybe we can make our research/projects and internships having something to do with our doula work, and ask if doula work can be a work study. Many communities with MPH programs have well established work study programs, so why not expand to doula work? ;)

Emily said...

Yes, its very hard to be on call and not be able to go anywhere, but you're right - the births make it all better! And getting paid also makes it worth the effort, especially if the birth is emotionally challenging for me. I had delusions that this could be a full time gig, but now I see that would be extremely hard to do.

But I'm glad that I'll be able to do it as much or as little as I like for the rest of my life!

@Elba and Raeanne - I'm an MPH student and just sent my doula certification paperwork out (hooray!). Let me know if you have any questions/would like to chat about it all :)

Anonymous said...

I left birth work after a 92 hour birth, many years ago. It was an on and off induction where the mom would go to the hospital, stay for a few hours, get ticked at the process and then sign out AMA. She had obstetric cholestasis and had put off the induction 4 weeks longer than the docs already wanted. This went on for 5 days. In the end, I was up for 30 hours straight and she ended up with a C-section and a gorgeous baby girl. It was a paid birth but it wasn't nearly enough for the toll on me and my family. that was it for me. While I know that scenario is unlikely to ever happen again, let alone frequently I am just not willing to put me and my family in that kind of spot.
I love birth work but I know that aside from the occasional back-up or doula'ing for a friend I will never do it regularly again. The dedication to birth work necessary to leave my kids for days at a time with little to no notice, I just don't have. I found out that I love teaching and I will concentrate my love for working with childbearing women into teaching.
Back when I started attending births one of the grand dames of doulas said to me, "Your children will only be children once, there will always be pregnant women."
I thought I could balance a family, a husband with a 60 hour a week job, and a birth every couple months. I was wrong. Some doulas do it and do it with grace, I was not/am not one of them.