The Childless Doula

Three days after I graduated college I found myself sitting in a circle of women, sharing why I wanted to become a doula. It was a more than reasonable way to begin our training and yet it was this very prompt that terrified me most, for I was afraid that in responding to it I would reveal myself to be a hopeless amateur, devoid of any experience that may have hinted toward a future in birthwork, as if there were some secret feature that all future doulas unanimously shared. I remember mentioning that nothing in my past indicated I would take this path; I am, after all, a 22 year-old recent college graduate with no children of my own, and as I shared these details with the group I felt an overwhelming sense of inadequacy well up inside me.


I said all of this almost as a disclaimer, an apology, although I quickly realized that there was no need to be apologetic or self-prefacing. Both my mentors, Aimee Brill and Tara Brooke, reassured me that they too had been in their twenties and not yet mothers when they began their careers as doulas (it is true that all three DTI co-owners worked for over a decade as professional doulas before having children themselves–now they have 6 children between the three of them), that there is no right way to be a doula. I appreciated their words but still struggled to believe them.


Many doulas I have met turned to birth work because they themselves had transformative birthing experiences. These narratives, to me, exist as some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking testaments to the hard-willed nature of the feminine spirit. In the past, when I have compared these stories to my own doula journey, I have felt nothing but emptiness. What have I to offer? I have neither nurtured life within me nor experienced the hardships and triumphs that will present themselves to me as I mature and evolve. Mostly, I feel that I am prohibited from drawing on one of the most powerful tools that the doula possesses: empathy. I have not experienced the intensity of a contraction or the sweeping fear of transitional stage; I have not been pushed to what I perceive as the limits of my own bodily pain nor transcended above that pain. The fact that I cannot look into the eyes of a woman in labor and identify with her, makes me feel alone and lost. Being a mother, it seems to me, is the perfect doula resume—it says all that it needs to say: I have gone through this, I know how you feel.


Then, several weeks ago, I read an essay by Joan Didion entitled, “On Self-Respect,” and my attitude began to shift. In the final line of the essay, Didion writes, “Without [self-respect] one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.” The words leapt off the page at me for I recognized myself in them immediately. In apologizing for my age and childlessness, I was exhibiting not signs of self-awareness but a profound lack of self-respect. The trouble is not that I am 22, it is that while other women had assured me countless times of my self-worth, I myself had not yet begun to believe them.


To respect other women means to also respect yourself; in the quiet hours when there is no noise or distraction, you must be able to sit in the silence of your own company and find beauty. As doulas, our bodies are our homes: we are frequently displaced from our familiar environments for hours, sometimes days at a time, and in doing so, we must find peace within ourselves. Without any self-worth, we will come home, as Didion writes, to find there is no one there at all.


Since beginning my certification journey, I have had many young women ask me whether one must be a mother in order to be a doula. I imagine the qualities that make up a mother: generosity of spirit, kindness of heart, a sense of depth and nurturing. All of these qualities I recognize in myself and I have recognized in many women who have never given birth. To strive for compassion, to be a patient and loving being—these are the requirements for being a doula.


While I may not have experienced childbirth myself, I have the wide-open heart that has made me throughout my life reach out to women in need, and at the end of the day, that is enough. Not only is that enough but I am enough. I will say it again because it is worth repeating. I am enough. It is a lesson that transcends the context of birth. It’s a lesson I wish I had learned earlier and that I wish to drive home for all women whether they are laboring through a contraction, staring in the mirror, or going for a job interview. It is a tiny revelation yet it is magnificent for it contains a truth that will set all women free.  There are many avenues which one can access in order to reach empathy. Motherhood is one of them, but it is not the only one. All I can do is show up for my client. But first, I must show up for myself.

IMG_9516Sophie Browner is a recent Bard College graduate and DTI trained doula based in New York City.


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