As doulas, we inevitably have clients who experience difficult births. Whether they have one before becoming our client, or the birth we support is difficult, it is important we know how to support them.
When someone experiences a difficult birth, they will often want to talk about it. Doulas should be able to be an ear as they process their birth. We are not therapists, trauma experts, etc., but we should be an excellent support to our clients.
When someone talks about their difficult birth it is important that we:
Listen – Truly Listen to Them
Active listening is an important part of being a doula. So many people will listen to someone’s birth story with the intent on responding. They are often thinking of their response rather than hearing the entire story.
As a doula, practicing active listening means hearing the story with the intent of simply listening. Let them know you are listening and engaged. Do not focus on what you will say or how you can spin it in a positive light. Most who share a difficult birth story just need to be heard. They do not need, nor should they feel obligated, to hear what you think about their birth.
Validate Their Feelings and Experience
There is nothing worse than sharing a deeply intimate and hard experience with someone only to feel invalidated in your feelings. As a doula, it is important you listen and validate, not discourage their feelings.
It is never helpful to suggest the birth was not as bad as they felt. You will not erase the difficulty by suggesting an ‘at least’ scenarios such as her baby is healthy or that the birth is over. Sit and listen to the hard feelings and validate them.
Acknowledge that the situation was difficult for them. Help them know that you hear their experience and that their feelings about the experience are not wrong.
Many doulas are naturally empathetic, which is why we are drawn to birth work. However, as humans, we can all miss the mark of empathy at times.
No two people have identical experiences. You do not need to compare, or say you absolutely know what they felt. However, you can and should let them know you realize how difficult the experience was for them. Come from a place of knowing what it is like to be hurt, disappointed, scared or even traumatized.
Even if you have never experienced birth or a difficult birth, you have experienced hurt, disappointment, etc. Use your human experiences to listen and respond with empathy even if you do not understand the specific situation they have gone through.
Depending on where you are in you client services when hearing about their difficult birth, your support will vary. If you are discussing a past birth with a client preparing for a new birth, your support will mostly be listening and preparation for the next birth.
If you are listening after a birth you recently attended, they may need some practical support. Perhaps at your postpartum visit they need a bit of practical help such as a meal, coffee, or a load of laundry being switched.
Maybe they need full postpartum doula support. If you provide those services, be sure to let them know. If you do not regularly provide postpartum doula support, refer them to someone in the area.
In some cases, a difficult birth can be truly traumatic. In those scenarios, they might need professional mental health support. As a doula, being familiar with therapists who specialize in the reproductive years can be helpful for referring clients to a trusted resource.
Be a Source of Encouragement
Encourage your client to open up to you as they feel ready to talk about their birth. Let them know you are a safe person to process the experience with. Many feel embarrassed, ungrateful or a variety of complex emotions when they have negative feelings around a situation many see as positive.
Contrary to what many push, birth is far more than just about a healthy baby. A healthy baby is massively important, but it is not the only important thing.
Encourage your client to process their birth. Remind them that they are strong and capable, and that a difficult birth is not a reflection of their ability to handle labor.
As a doula, you should always be a safe space for your client. If they experience a difficult birth even with your support, debrief with another doula or friend about your experience. Be sure not to allow your perspective to color the way you provide support to listen to your client. Her experience is valid. Even with the perfect doula support, some births are simply difficult.