When I first became a doula, I was awful at self care. I was so excited to get clients and go to births, that I put my health at the bottom of the list - and I suffered terribly. I got sick all the time, felt like I always had a 'birth hangover' when I got home from a long labor and developed mysterious rashes. Birth work is intoxicating and can be intensely addictive. In the beginning, I would do anything to get my fix. I remember literally thinking “Pleaase, I’ll do anything to come to your birth...I’ll even come for free!!” I was SO excited to go to a birth. And while my 200th birth was just as magical as my 1st birth in many ways, I became way smarter at how to pace myself because doula burnout is real, folks - and if you want to avoid getting to the point where you are scouring the internet for a different profession - these are must-do's. Here are my top four self-care tips for the sustainable doula practice:
People, this is hands down THE MOST important thing you can do for yourself before, during and after births. At one of my first births all I had to eat was three bags of cookies from the hospital vending machine, an orange a kind nurse brought me, a power bar and lots of coffee and juice. I had gleefully run out of the house at 11pm and didn’t pack anything because I was so excited to be going to a birth. Turns out I was there for 35 hours and because I was a newbie I was shit at taking breaks (see #4 on this list). The adrenalin and oxytocin surge I had during births kept me from feeling the horrible effects of so much sugar, carbs and caffeine. By the end I was dizzy and nauseous and it took me days to recover. I was super dehydrated. Bottom line: stay nourished.
Right below nourishment is sleep. Sleeping during a birth is a skill that all badass, successful doulas have nailed down. Master the power nap. Throw some blankets on the ground in some corner and get as much rest as possible (laying down is usually better than a chair). Can’t fall asleep? Download a meditation or hypnosis track and relax all your muscles. Lay there as long as you can. Even if you don’t fall asleep, this kind of rest is crucial for repairing tissues, regulating blood pressure and relaxing your brain.
This one is huge and really hard to do until you’ve experienced severe burnout. As doulas, we love our clients so much. We've bonded to them and want to see them through to the very end. I used to stay at births for days straight because of the ridiculous notion that doulas are supposed to provide continuous care themselves - even if that means days without rest - which no human should be asked to do. At some point (after my zillionth meltdown after days with little sleep) I realized I just couldn’t do it anymore. In my contract, I put that at the 20 hour mark I may call in backup if the birth wasn’t imminent. All of my clients understood when I explained to them how important it was for my health as well as their need for a well rested doula. I never had any complaints. I had to let go of seeing the baby come out, even though we all know that’s one of the best parts of the whole experience. I had to redefine the definition of a doula in my head. It isn’t necessary to have continuous support from one person, it may be multiple people and that’s ok.
Breaks at births are not just about going to the bathroom (I’ve seen doulas get UTIs from not going potty for too long) or cramming food into your face as fast as possible. It’s about taking a few minutes for mental rejuvenation during this very intense experience. I’d usually find a corner somewhere or a nice sunny area outside. Some of my favorite me-time activities were journaling, meditation, yoga/stretching, listening to music while I walked around outside, listening to hypnosis tracks, a few minutes of deep breathing with my eyes closed or chatting on the phone with a doula peer about how the birth was going.
Bottom line here, people: Self care at births is crucial to maintaining a long, vibrant and sustainable doula career. This is especially true if you are attending multiple births every month for months on end. Care for yourself the way you encourage your clients to and the benefits will be worth it a million times over.