Things doulas should stop saying...
Words have power. They express meanings and ideas. They can convey support or judgment. As doulas, we have an obligation to be mindful and intentional with the way in which we speak to and affirm our clients. So, let's talk about some phrases that permeate the doula industry that often cause more harm than good.
"Your body was made to do this. Your body knows what to do."
What is “this”? This phrase is so incredibly vague that it leaves more confusion than clarity.
Let’s be honest, I often see this phrase touted as a way to claim “your body was made to push a baby out vaginally and without medication or intervention", implying that everything you could need as part of the birthing experience is solely within the person going through it. It is often the mantra of the "natural birth" community.
In some cases this is true.
And in others, more external support may be needed or wanted. Hearing a phrase like this is a quick way for clients to feel a sense of guilt if their birth experience deviates from this implied "natural" outcome.
“My body failed.”
“My body WASN’T made to do ‘this”.
“What did I do to keep my body from doing what it was ‘meant’ to do.”
“I’m not woman enough.”
“I’m too weak.”
"If only I had tried harder." "Did I trust my body enough?"
"This is my fault."
As doulas, we must be specific with our language. Our validation is tailored to the person in front of us while also being mindful to not make promises or set expectations that not a single person has control over.
I think about the many clients who spent years going through fertility treatment, time and time again experiencing no pregnancy or loss after loss. A phrase like “your body was made to do this” could quickly send their mind spiraling into a vicious cycle of “but wait, my body hasn’t worked as I want it to. It, quite literally, hasn’t had the ability to do what comes so easily/naturally for many. So if it has failed me then, why would the birth be any different?”
Or the client whose prior cesarean was absolutely necessary & wanted due to the placental abruption or cord prolapse. Where insight and guidance from the medical team they hired and trusted were able to provide clinical support.
Or the client who fully recognized and honored the limits of their coping techniques and felt reassured that, rather than feel traumatized by the pain, they were able to improve their birth experience with medication. By reducing or removing those painful sensations they could better connect with their own mind, their partner, and their baby through the rest of the laboring & birth process.
So, while this phrase can be helpful for some, especially those who explicitly state they connect with it deeply, it can easily place blame on the birthing individual or imply doubt as to whether they “did enough” or “tried hard enough”. We, at no point in our communication, want to imply their body failed for any outcome that isn’t an unmedicated, non-intervention, vaginal delivery.
Calling clients "mama", "mommy", "mum", etc.
Some new parents so deeply identify with this new title that the only people they want to hear utter it are the people who have given them that title…their children. I have heard many express frustration that they feel the title “mama” ends up entirely watered down by the time they end up delivering their baby due to the number of friends, family, and professionals in their life who no longer say their name, but simply call them “mama”. Their annoyance is that it no longer feels like a special title reserved for the little one they worked so hard to bring into their family.
As an experienced postpartum and infant care doula, there is one thing I have seen ring true for a majority of my postpartum clients: they are desperate to bring who they once were, pre-pregnancy, into this new role of parent. They are looking to merge those two worlds, those two identities.
So, say your client’s name.
Remind them of who they have been for so long; long before their baby joined them. Do this so they don’t lose sight of the reality that their identity of parent has been added to who they are, it hasn’t erased or replaced it. Who they were is still important to them and so I honor and respect that by calling them by the name they have introduced themselves to me as.
If we acknowledge how powerful this new role and experience is, respect this powerful and meaningful title that comes with it.
If a client explicitly says “I have waited so long to be called “mama”, I love hearing people call me by that” then I ask “Would you like me to use that title with you every now and then to spark that joy? I’m more than happy to!”. With a response of an enthusiastic yes, then, and only then, will I incorporate it into my communication with my client. And when I do, it is placed so delicately at the appropriate times to reiterate its importance and just how meaningful it is. I use it with care and caution and intention. I don't lace it into every single conversation.
And just as importantly, not all pregnant and postpartum individuals identify with the term 'mom'. When referencing pregnant and postpartum individuals you are working with, just call them what they are to us as doulas: clients.
"The power and intensity of your contractions cannot be stronger than you, because it is you."
While the intent might be to reiterate and point out that it is your body quite literally exerting the strength to create this contraction, this can feel dismissive to many. The implication is that because your body is creating this intense sensation, you will always have the capability to cope with that intensity in a way that isn’t traumatizing. That your coping will be as strong as or stronger than the contraction or sensations of that experience.
If there is anything I know so deeply about this work, it’s that everyone experiences pain differently. Sometimes the mind gets in the way. Sometimes past trauma gets in the way. Sometimes, some birthing individuals self admit that their ability to cope with pain and discomfort is low. We also can’t forget that sometimes labor is induced or augmented with medications that can cause contractions to feel more intense or come at a faster rate, making coping more difficult for some individuals.
There are so many reasons why someone may feel as though the intensity they feel IS stronger than their ability to cope. We know there are comfort measures, techniques, and tools that can help one’s ability to cope. Yet, in some cases, those techniques aren’t enough for the person sitting in front of me. This is why we have the option of other types of medical pain relief like epidurals or nitrous oxide. And in these cases, the power and intensity of the contractions was stronger than the client's ability to cope.
Your instinct will just kick in/you’ll know exactly how to breastfeed/care for/nurture your baby.
Birth and parenting isn't as intuitive or instinctual as many make it out to be. Ask any new parent who has looked at their baby with confusion and worry as they continue to cry for another 20 minutes, or frustration around breast/chest feeding that doesn't seem to feel easy or beautiful, or confusion around what is normal and what isn't in terms of development. It takes real tangible skills to parent a child, skills that take time to learn and develop and grow. They don't magically appear overnight.
We don't live in a culture in which most families raise their children around their own parents or siblings. It was in these small communities where knowledge was shared: how to soothe and comfort your baby, how to change diapers, how to notice challenges with feeding, how to swaddle, knowing what is developmentally appropriate and what is a red flag, etc. It was generational wisdom and knowledge that was passed down. With more and more families feeling detached from those kinds of knowledge sources, they can be left feeling confused, worried, and doubting their abilities attributing it to a lack of "maternal instinct". So, when a parent is having challenges feeding their baby and their friend/doula/family member responds with "Your instincts will just kick in! You'll know what to do!" it can feel utterly dismissive of the frustration and pain this new parent is experiencing. Telling them to just "listen to their gut" isn't actually helpful advice when their nipples are cracked and bleeding.
Are some aspects of the parenting experience instinctual? Sure. This typically is more about having an internal drive to want to care for their baby and bond with them. But we cannot negate just how much of the new parenting experience is also spent simply learning how to navigate it all. The drive to nurture is there. The actual skill to nurture comes with time and practice.
Remind your clients that it isn't always going to feel instinctual or natural for them. Some areas might be easier, and others harder. It doesn't mean they are any less of a good parent. They just may need to strengthen some skills to build their confidence.
Time, practice, and quality support are key here.
And let's be clear, if this birthing and raising a baby thing was so instinctual and everyone knew exactly what to do, we wouldn't have a job as doulas!