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In Defense of the DOULA

by julie on January 16th, 2017

There are moments that change the course of your life and that happen most often unexpectedly and always with a feeling of divine intervention.  One of these moments happened to me in the spring of 1998 when I attended a women’s health fair in Victoria, BC, where I was living at the time. I was a new resident to this west coast city and working in an art gallery in the tourist district.  I had graduated with a college diploma in social service work but aside from volunteering with Victoria’s street community, I really hadn’t found a job within the parameters of the work I hoped to do.  And then I happened upon a booth at this women’s health show, promoting the work of doulas and specifically the BC Doula Association. I was intrigued and felt an all-knowing-buzz that THIS is what I was meant to be doing. This serendipitous encounter, led to the  scraping together of my limited funds and enrolling in a birth doula training course that was scheduled in Victoria in the coming month.

The weekend was nothing short of incredible, moving, life changing and life affirming. For me, doula work was a privilege and getting paid to be with a woman and her family as she birthed a baby was a bonus. I had found a career that was beyond fulfilling and that I could make a small living doing. I continued to work at the art gallery until my clientele base reached a point where I had to leap off the cliff with both feet to do the work that I was very passionate about. Sometimes I would be gone for 30+ hours and my husband was always impressed at how happy I was when I returned home exhausted, weary and exhilarated. What a blessing it was to help women in this capacity! It took time for me to gain the experience that I felt qualified me to charge a fee for my services. My very first birth was for my sister and I gained a tremendous amount of experience in her 50 hour labour. My second birth was done in exchange for a year worth of haircuts as the mother I supported was a hair stylist. I helped several mother’s living below the poverty line who paid me what they could which was usually covering my costs for parking, snacks, etc.

Doula work is demanding and anyone who goes into this work must first and foremost do so because of a desire to help others through one of life’s most challenging experiences. One must be creative in generating other modes of income as there is a limit to the number of births one can do per month. I supplemented my income as a belly cast artist,  prenatal educator, and as a certified breastfeeding counsellor.

As I established myself as one of the more experienced doulas in the community, I noticed this question popping up more and more: “So you do a weekend training and then can start charging $600/ birth?” My answer was always the same: “Don’t go into this work to make money. If that is your guiding principal, you will burn out fast .” With that said, I felt that doulas should be fairly compensated for their care but the truth is, you can never be fully compensated for this work. There has to be a deep desire to help people. It bothered me that some women looked at this as a quick way to make money: take a weekend course and wake up Monday morning charging $600 for doula services.

305783_10151600128794905_1708696498_nOver the years I mentored many new doulas and was always happy to give of my time, experience and knowledge in helping them to set up their own practices. I brought a birth doula training (DONA International) to my own community as, although I was no longer practicing, I saw a need for doulas in this rural area. I recall a conversation over breakfast with two newer doulas who I had been mentoring and who were eager to get their practice established. They told me of a workshop they were signing up for with a (newer) organization called ProDoula that was going to  teach them how to make money as a doula and help them with their business model. My initial reaction was this: “What a racket! The only person making money is the person behind the concept of teaching doulas how to make money.” But what a brilliant scam…………make money off of the starving doulas you claim to want to help by convincing them that you have the secrets to making money.

I had been mentoring doulas on more important topics like professionalism, kindness, respect for fellow doulas (and other professionals), ethics and standards of practice but I also understood the business side of things and freely shared my advice on branding, websites, marketing/ promotion, media relations, etc.  In a few short months, the two doulas, under the spell of ProDoula, made decisions that severed our relationship and I predicted their demise in a few short years because this type of behaviour never, ever leads to success in the end.

Reading THIS ARTICLE posted on BuzzFeed last week about the ProDoula empire didn’t surprise me but what it did do is affirm my initial thoughts about this “cultish crew of snakeoil salespeople.” I thought it’s tagline: “ProDoula wants to revolutionize the touchy-feely doula profession — and make millions of dollars along the way. Who really benefits from the for-profit company’s goal to rebrand doula work from a fundamental right to a luxury service?” said it all until I read the whole article and well, the catchy headline just touched the surface. If you haven’t read the article, I would recommend it for the sheer entertainment of how cult-like, multi-level marketing schemes have even taken over the birthing world.

I decided to share some of the “highlights” of this article and provide my own input.

  • “….contentious tactics ProDoula is known for, such as the “12-hour contract” which means when a client goes beyond 12 hours, the doula gets paid extra for every additional hour.”  Really? Are you kidding me? It was a bonus when I would leave for a birth and see a newborn within 12 hours. This. Rarely. Happened. Especially for first time moms. Can you imagine the pressure of labouring and knowing your slow progressing labour may force you to take out a second mortgage or at the very least be costing you hundreds of dollars? Is this yet another ploy for ProDoula to make money? How about stress the heck out of a labouring woman causing her oxytocin levels to take a nose dive resulting in a stalled labour. Cha-ching! How many women would just opt for a cesarean because they couldn’t afford the doula fees any longer? This alone would have me running the other way as fast as possible if I was an expectant woman about to sign a contract with a doula. My advice to expectant women researching doula care: DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING with this stipulation. This completely defeats the whole purpose of doula care. 
  • “From the start, ProDoula targeted pragmatic doulas ill-disposed to what one woman called “all that woo, drum circle, doula heart stuff. “Right…because all that woo, drum circle, doula heart stuff is a bad thing? You know the slogan of DONA International “a doula for every woman?” This slogan wasn’t just about each woman having a doula, it is also about the fact that all types of women seek doula care and so we need all types of doulas. Imagine if ProDoula catered to ALL doulas. Never mind, that wouldn’t work.  The woo, drum circle, hippie types are likely too evolved to buy into ProDoula’s BS.
  • “In the words of one ProDoula: “client got an epidural, circumcised, formula fed, sleep trained? So what!!” I don’t know? So what? Oh, wait….sorry, another broad brush stroke that ALL doulas are anti-medical intervention and promote natural birth and parenting practices. Actually, my training focussed on keeping my own opinion out of the equation and supporting couples in having a positive birth and postpartum period however THEY defined it. 
  • “Members are banned if they don’t follow a long list of rules, such as if they write “Kumbaya, sister-hood, doula spirit posts” or talk “negatively about us as a group, or as individuals, in another forum.” Banned? Wow. That’s how you keep your power…silence your followers. A  common tactic in running a cult.
  • “Although ProDoula doesn’t advocate lying, newcomers are told by other group members that they can charge as much as doulas with decades of experience, even if that means faking it until they make it. (“I used to tell people that our most popular service was overnights before I’d ever sold a single overnight shift,” one woman advised.) Doulas discuss their “target markets” (think upper-middle-class professionals instead of teen mothers) and how to attract them with expensively designed, search engine–optimized websites. There are even threads about brushing off new doulas seeking mentorship: “My future competition isn’t going to pick my brain for details on practical and business advice, have access to my clients, and have me pave the way for free,” one doula wrote.” A business model based on deceit plus working with women as vulnerable as labouring and birthing women and new mothers? There’s a recipe for disaster not to mention potential birth trauma. Can you imagine interviewing a doula to be by your side during your labour and birth and they are blatantly lying to you? Oh, sorry, not lying per se, but being completely dishonest!
  • “ProDoulas are advised to “warm chat” prospective clients, a tried-and-true Mary Kay tactic for talking to strangers. New doulas are encouraged to invest in the services ProDoula sells, along with website design (through Patterson’s husband’s company) and social media consulting (through Patterson’s daughter).” Long before I got to this point in the article, it reeked of a multi-level marketing company. Seriously…..come on, doulas….you really buy into this? You do not see the scam here?
  • Virginia doula Liz Pelletier said she was “very hard-core ProDoula” in the beginning. Patterson’s motivational messaging drew her in. “I really felt like she just absolutely loved doulas and wanted what was best for us, each and every one of us,” Pelletier said. “It was like being brainwashed.” On Facebook, ProDoulas swap tips with each other on how to afford the company’s services, suggesting others take out loans, charge credit cards, and even sell plasma. Pelletier said she spent her $2,000 tax return on what she now calls “worthless crap”…… I was one of the first doulas in Canada to have a professional website, logo, etc. I learned right from the beginning that if you wanted to be taken seriously and treated like a professional, you needed to present yourself as such. And as anyone who is self-employed knows, you have to work your butt off. I offered this advice among so many other things for FREE……….18 years ago. Encouraging doulas to be professional, dress accordingly, take this work seriously and create a career out of it is not new. I was happy to share my experience and tips with new doulas venturing out because I wanted them to succeed and I wanted them to represent this service in a professional manner. By doing so, it benefits all of us. Many of us have been mentoring doulas for years, we just didn’t slap on a fancy name and screw our fellow doulas out of thousands of dollars.
  • “Another doula, on the West Coast, estimated that she spent more than $20,000 building her agency based on ProDoula’s advice. She said at least $12,000 went straight to ProDoula and Patterson’s husband’s web design company. ‘Every penny was a waste,’ said the doula, who didn’t want to be named because she’s still trying to regrow her business. ‘I feel like I wasted two years of my life.’ Shameful. That is all.
  • ‘A lot of these women have felt very marginalized in the past, so when they hear someone saying what they want to hear, they go a little crazy,’ said Devon Clement, a former ProDoula trainer. ‘I’ve seen so many women whose lives were positively changed by ProDoula that I can’t speak negatively of it as an organization. But Randy wants it to be everyone’s religion.’ Kansas doula Sunny Schaffer described ProDoula as ‘literally like a church.’ When she recently broke ties with the organization, it was like leaving an abusive relationship, she said.  ‘You have to be all in, or they get rid of you because they don’t want any dissent,’ Schaffer said.  Wow. That’s powerful stuff. And scary, too.
  • Patterson said critics like Schaffer chose to leave ProDoula and that she doesn’t see herself as occupying a position of power. But she doesn’t seem to mind playing the messiah. During one recorded business consult with a doula, she admitted she didn’t think all of her clients paid $250 an hour just for business advice. “They want to fucking be inspired,” she said on the recording, obtained by BuzzFeed News. “They’re depressed. They’re dark. They’re quiet in their lives and they want someone to breathe life into them. And I come and do that.” Must be very difficult navigating the world with such a gargantuan ego. But, I have to say, ProDoula did reap over a million dollars last year preying on naive, “depressed” doulas. How pathetic and despicable.

Perhaps, though, amidst the consistent f-bombs Ms. Patterson dropped throughout the interview and the portrayal of an edgy, messiah of sorts, it was this comment that flew out of her mouth that really sealed my impression of her:

“The message previously was: Work yourself out of a job,” Patterson said. “My message is: “Well, that’s fucking retarded.”

I wonder if Ms. Patterson felt powerful saying that statement. Was the use of this vile word an act of rebellion? I mean, everybody knows that this word only demonstrates one’s ignorance, lack of empathy and class. You see Ms. Patterson’s use of this word and her need to drop an f-bomb here and there to illustrate the persona she has created is a blatant reflection of her character and who she really is at her core. She represents everything that disgusts me and I am grateful that I left the doula world long before it was tarnished by ProDoula tactics.

Cut throat business practices cannot exist harmoniously with doula work. This article saddens me because of the loss of what the doula profession used to be and what it stood for. However, I will not give ProDoula that much credit. I know that DONA International and other organizations will continue to strive towards upholding the original focus of doula care. I trust that the integrity of doula care will prevail long after the ProDoula empire collapses under the weight of their collective egos and narcissism.

Author’s Note: For any brand new doula reading this who would like some free advice on how to get her business started without going into debt doing so, feel free to send me an email to julie@juliekeon.com

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