The Coach and the Cheerleader

Sophie Brigstocke photo

By Sophie Brigstocke

What is a doula? It’s a question we ask before the start of any doula course because there is still a lack of clarity for many people about what a doula actually is or does. 

Recently I worked with a lovely group of yoga teachers and asked them to define what a doula does.  The words “cheerleader” and “coach” were a couple of the ideas that came back, and “gatekeeper” is another I’ve heard many times before now. 

I’ll be honest – I struggle with all of those definitions.

Why?  Because each of them tells me a story that doesn’t feel quite right.

The cheerleader conjures up images for me of relentlessly positive and smiley girls with pompoms attached to their arms doing backflips and chanting in unison.  They exist in brightly-lit spaces being watched by hundreds.  The image doesn’t resonate with those feelings of stillness, of being with one person in the darkness as they do the work of bringing their baby into the world.  I don’t need to draw attention to myself – the labouring person is the one doing the work – and my support is often really gentle, quiet, whispered.  Whilst I love to encourage, and despite how passionate I am about this work, it is about staying true to the client and being with them on their journey. 

The coach is an expert – tells us what to do and when to do it and often sits on a bit of a pedestal.  They are to be listened to and woe betide if you don’t do what they say.  You might incur wrath or punishment.  Doulaing is about encouraging a person’s inner-expert to come out, about helping someone to connect with their intuition and wisdom.  It is NEVER about what I want or pretending to be the expert.  I may have been in similar situations before but I cannot foresee how this particular one will play out, nor should I tell someone what to do.  I am there to encourage someone to make decisions that feel right for them.  So, I will ask appropriate questions (a bit like a mentor in a doula mentoring session) and support people in their choices, whatever they may be. 

The gatekeeper is a physical presence deciding who does and doesn’t pass through the hallowed portal.  A decision-maker with powers.  In the birth or postnatal context I’ve heard stories of doulas not allowing midwives into a room, preventing access of health providers to perinatal families.  This doesn’t sit comfortably with me at all.  I think it is often rooted in fear.  As a “protector of the bubble”, a phrase I use a lot on our courses, I am there to support everyone involved in a birth, to ensure that people feel heard and safe.  I can certainly encourage question-asking, asking for evidence and space/time to make informed decisions, but I will not be making those choices or speaking on behalf of someone, except in very rare circumstances. 

So, what terms do sit comfortably with me? 

Personally, I wish we were called Be-las rather than Do-ulas, especially as the etymology of the word doula comes from the Ancient Greek meaning “slave to women”.  The word that sits most comfortably with me is “guardian”.  For the duration of our support doulas are guardians of physiology, of consent, of the experience.  We walk the path with our clients, supporting them in their decision making, listening and validating.  And then, when the time is right, we step away. 

What terms feel right for you?  I’d love to know your thoughts.