By Sharon Muza, BS, CD(DONA), BDT(DONA), LCCE, FACCE, CLE
In the United States, many people are preparing for a major holiday tomorrow. It will soon be Thanksgiving in the USA, practically a four day food-fest accompanied by football games and bargain shopping for many (That’s another post entirely though). For doulas, particularly birth doulas, major holidays can bring all sorts of additional stress, and it’s the stress of being on call and potentially missing out on festivities with family or friends if a baby decides to come on the holiday. I am starting my 15th year as a birth doula and I am pretty sure I have missed every major holiday possible at one time or another, including my own birthday (more than once) and the birthdays of both of my children.
For the families and friends of doulas who have planned to celebrate with them, there is another layer of stress, wondering if the host will be able to join the festivities in their own home, what food will go unprepared, or how things will have to be juggled to compensate for the fact that the doula has randomly disappeared for an undetermined amount of time. Many a partner or housemate has nervously wondered if they will be abandoned and forced to pull everything off themselves, while the doula is supporting another family through a labor and birth. If the doula has children, particularly young ones, explanations will need to be provided yet again, as we try to help them understand why their parent cannot be with them on a special day.
Doulas are not the only ones on call and likely to be pulled away from celebrating with loved ones. Other professions also miss holidays and special times, but often their work shifts are scheduled and known in advance. Those babies don’t read the rules and usually come at the most inopportune times, including when 16 people are arriving any moment expecting a full Thanksgiving dinner or someone special is getting ready to blow out the candles on a birthday cake.
Travel plans also are affected when a doula is on call. Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house may no longer be possible if grandma lives in an area with poor cell phone reception, or just beyond the limit of what is sensible when on call for a birth. In areas prone to poor weather, traveling may involve being unable to return promptly due to road conditions.
Birth work requires finding the balance between being on call and taking time off, but that may come at a cost. Time off call often means taking a financial hit as well. During celebratory times, holidays and special occasions, doulas often cross their fingers, hoping that things will remain quiet and babies will wait just one more day. I am often reminded (and share with new doulas during my DONA birth doula trainings) of what my dear friend Teri Shilling always says: “I would do the birth for free, but pay me well for the on-call period.”
How do you handle the stress of being on call, especially during holidays and important dates in your personal life? What do you do to assure those who have made plans with you that it will all work out, though truly you might disappear at any moment? How do you ever plan to host at your home with the threat of a birth hanging over your head? Please share in the comments section below strategies that help you manage the on-call life so that those doulas who still struggle can read your wise words and take your guidance to heart. Also, please let us know about some of those times that you have been at births during those important personal days in your lives, while still respecting client confidentiality. And if you are on call this holiday weekend, you are not alone, I am right beside you waiting for the phone to ring too!
Oh my goodness, this could not come at a better time. I am at a long birth that has barely gotten started over the last 24 hours. I am not hosting Thanksgiving tomorrow, but I have dishes to cook. Then I leave for vacation Friday morning. This baby is coming at 35 weeks, so not even on my radar. I am struggling!
I try to be prepared by working ahead, as much as possible. I have my shopping and laundry done. I let my mother know in case she needs to make or buy my dishes. I have 2 backups, one who can cover on the holiday because her family doesn’t celebrate that day. Both have another baby due, but hope it will all work.
My family is well aware that I can be called away, after 14 years of doula work. The hardest ones for me are the young grandkids who don’t understand when I have to cancel plans. But I tell them…Grammy helps babies be born!
I didn’t actually have a baby born on my birthday until #165 or thereabouts. Although I missed the day with my family, what a special treat — and that client contacts me every year on my birthday to give me her well-wishes.
Every summer I start to think if I want to stay home for the holidays or be free to travel. This year I am home because two repeat clients are due and I love them so much, I knew I would accept their invitations to be their doulas. Part of that also was knowing as second-timers, their births likely won’t be long. I generally take the opportunity to purge toys and clothes while I wait at home. I have friends who will happily let me eat at their table. And we don’t have to worry about pet-sitters. I was home alone for Thanksgiving last year, though, and I am missing my extended family — but I will be free at Christmas, so it all works out.
One year I had two clients due a couple weeks apart. I knew Thanksgiving would be a no-go for travel so I talked my sister, who is an excellent cook, to come to my house with her family. As luck would have it, one client went into labor Thanksgiving eve — it was about 10 hours and I got home around 8 am. I curled up on the floor of the living room where many boys were watching a moving. Then my husband and brother in law took the boys out for a ride while I continued to sleep (in my bed now), and my sister began cooking. I came down around 3 to set the table. We had a great meal, and decided to go to the park for an after-dinner walk. While doing laps and chasing boys, my next client texted me that she was feeling weird and maybe she just ate too much? This was around 7 pm. We continued to check back in, and by midnight, it was apparent it was hospital time. Her baby was born around 5 am. I was home again by around 8 am — awake long enough to tell my sister and her family good bye, and then I crashed out. It was great having my family come to me, and even greater that my sister cooked everything.
Another Thanksgiving a client and her partner had dinner with my family as we all had to stay in town, and none of us had family there.
The worst thing is, though, when you stay and no baby comes — then you feel like you wasted an opportunity to be with your family. But that’s life on call.
This year all my November babies came early so I am off call and get to go out of state to be with my family. Just have postpartum clients right now and we scheduled around my time away. Halloween, though, which is a fairly big thing in our house, I missed entirely. Had to skip the school Halloween parade, neighbors helped with our daughter and fed her dinner, and my husband handled all the trick or treating and friend time. I made it home just in time to tuck my girl into bed for the night. I grew up with a family of firefighters (and one nurse), so we are very used to it.
I have spent at least 3 of my birthdays with birth… and currently am now in another state waiting on a baby’s arrival and away from my family. After 14 years, it’s become part of my life. My friends and family know that while I’m on call, I may have to take that second car to the movies and sit next to the isle, I will be in the back row at church with my cell on my lap, and my family knows that I may not make it to dinner…. I am “prime Realestate” for many birthing families because I am not married and have no children. This makes things easier and more difficult all at the same time. It means that I not only get called by clients (both birth work and postpartum doula work), but I get calls from other doulas who may need support for their family while they are at a birth.
Several years ago, I made a choice to take fewer clients per month. It made a hit to my budget, but gave me a release to practice a bit more self-care. I think that many of us who work in birth, forget that we are best for our clients when we take care of ourselves as well. That would be my encouragement for other Doulas.
I am pretty new at this juggling act as I have only been a Doula for 19 months. This Thanksgiving I was on call and so as I prepared for feeding my extended family I hoped that the babies would wait (twins), had to brag. They did. I swear though that my parents and adult children think it’s supper cool that I might run off causing a bit of excitement and leaving them to do the rest. They are very proud of me.