Doula Discernment Around Emotions & Logic
Hey there doula. Can we talk about something that's been on my mind?
There are patterns within the doula world I'm witnessing that have me concerned about the support new families are receiving. Well-intentioned behaviors that leave those in times of deep transition and heightened emotions longing for something more.
This isn't coming from any specific direction or group of individuals. I've seen it in the excitable new doula with a wealth of new information they want to share with the world as well as the veteran doula with years of knowledge & experience they find might be helpful for the next family they encounter.
It's the desire to share information and fix problems.
A doula walks into the home of a new parent, after a difficult night or challenging few days; their body recovering from the birth of their child, hormones desperately looking for a place of stability, and an intense sense of sleep deprivation that has their mind is plodding through, what feels like peanut butter, just to find simple words or coherent thoughts. In a moment of vulnerability, they admit their challenges, the frustration that follows, but mostly about the complex emotions that seem to sweep over them without warning.
Suddenly the conversation shifts. The doula, with compassion for how hard things have been, begins to enter problem-solving mode. Their tone of voice is one of investigation, inquiring about diaper output, sleep intervals and habits. They verbally poke and prod, checking for details that could lead to clear solutions in hopes of shifting their client's emotions from sadness and anxiety, to hope and calm. Well-intentioned feedback offered quickly with succinct instructions; something about typical cluster feeding behaviors, or the new parent support group, or tummy time, or wake windows, or sleeping when the baby sleeps, or 'have you talked to your job about just not going back to work', or 'this is totally normal based on developmental expectations'...
What I'm witnessing here is an imbalance in the kind of support offered to families in these situations. You see, there are many in this line of work who tout the definition of doula as offering "educational, emotional, and physical support." Yet, put into action, many turn the role of doula into "birth and postpartum encyclopedia". Client is feeling emotions like unhappiness or self doubt or worry? I have the knowledge and solutions to fix that. Let's get to work.
Emotional support is not dumping explanations and facts and solutions surrounding the events that led to said emotions. It's also not searching for a quick inspirational message to summarize the series of events to inspire a positive outlook.
Emotional support is leaving space for them to just feel. All of it. Any of it. Exploring the feelings with compassion and a tender approach. When a space of trust and nonjudgment is created between the doula and client, we open up the potential for what happens when one is able to fully experience the entire range of human sensations.
We must stop fearing the negative emotions. Resist the urge to want to FIX the feeling by changing it to something more positive. The desire to fix an emotion implies that it's the wrong emotion to be having. Making value judgments about these sensations implies that only the ones that feel good offer anything of value to the person feeling it. Katherine May writes in her book Wintering:
I’m beginning to think that unhappiness is one of the simple things in life: a pure, basic emotion to be respected, if not savoured. I would never dream of suggesting that we should wallow in misery, or shrink from doing everything we can to alleviate it; but I do think it’s instructive. After all, unhappiness has a function: it tells us that something is going wrong...Sometimes, the best response to our howls of anguish is the honest one: we need friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while when we’re finding our feet again. We need people who acknowledge that we can’t always hang on; that sometimes, everything breaks.
Doulas, we have to work to combat the toxic culture that's been created; the message that tells us to fight vulnerability, to feel shame around not having a constant sense of gratitude for the experience, or to find a sense of purpose or inspiration through the difficulties. Let's be really clear: sometimes there is no bigger message or inspiration. Sometimes, shit hurts. While we may not expect our clients to feel a constant sense of gratitude, choosing to redirect honest conversations from emotional processing to practical instructions and guidance isn't allowing space for that vulnerability to be shared.
This simple act says to them: your emotions aren't as important as the actions we can take to change those emotions.
When we have someone express to us the deep emotions running through their body, find a moment of pause. Sit in the silence, the discomfort, the ache. I promise the unease you feel in hearing about these difficult feelings doesn't come close to what the person experiencing them is going through.
Allow time for them to acknowledge what their body is saying. Affirm that they hurt. And mostly, recognize that they may not want anything to do with problem-solving just yet. Even if you know the fix is there. Even if you think the suggestions will help. You see, forcing someone to both feel their emotions to the fullest extent and shift their mindset into problem-solving mode isn't possible for many.
In fact, a study published in NeuroImage found that "separate neural pathways are used alternately for empathetic and analytic problem-solving. The study compares it to a see-saw. When you’re busy empathizing, the neural network for analysis is repressed, and this switches according to the task at hand." This means that as you are spending time logically thinking about all the right solutions you're about to offer, your brain is not able to empathize with the person in front of you.
Let's be more than encyclopedias for the families we serve. There's a time and place for those kinds of discussion and that type of support. Information is valuable and helpful when presented at the right times in the appropriate contexts.
Learn to embrace the "emotional support" part of our role with more intention. Honor the moments in which we can sit in that space of vulnerability and show that they are safe in our presence. That sometimes, the best solution to the hardships they endure is simply allowing some time to fully feel the sensations that come with the experience.
Let there be something to learn in those quiet and intimate spaces as they find their footing.