Being a back-up doula

I cannot do this work without the help of other birth workers, and why would I want to? Fostering strong relationships with other doulas gives rise to peers I turn to with questions and a gang of names to pull from if ever I need someone to back me up… which is always! Each contract I sign has a back-up doula’s information attached to it.

Here are a few things to consider before agreeing to be the understudy for an upcoming birth.

  1. Compare contracts.

Chances are, you move differently than the doula you are backing up. Your pre-birth visits likely cover some of the same things, but it’s not probable that they are identical. You want to get on the same page with the primary doula for this particular birth, so that you feel like you can serve the birth family, and yourself well.

  1. Talk about rates.

As we know, births can last anywhere from an hour to a number of days. Attending at either end of the spectrum can take a toll on you. Take into account the energy and attention spent in the hours leading up to your arrival (as you might be checking your phone throughout the night and losing sleep), travel time to the birth, gas, parking fees, meals and any missed or moved work appointments that may impact your life. Did you have one or more lengthy phone conversations with the client?

Some options to consider are setting a base rate to cover your costs of attending the birth, and then adding an hourly fee on top of that. You’ll have to cap the hourly rate at some point, so discuss the details with your fellow birth worker. I’ve also had the full fee transferred to me (minus consultations) for attending a birth, so that is an option as well.

The timing of payment is also something to be discussed. I receive payment in full from my clients at week 30, but I also work a salaried job, so I can be flexible. Before saying yes to taking on the client, get clear on when you will be paid for your time.

  1. When to arrive.

Preferred arrival times vary from family to family. I primarily support births in hospitals, so I’ll be using that language here. 

During inductions, if my client plans to birth without pain medication, I like to be there at the start in case they respond to the medication quickly. Some folks who go into labor spontaneously may want support at home before heading to the hospital. Others want to coordinate to arrive to the hospital at the same time. 

Make sure the primary doula is clear on when they are to arrive at the birth space, and mirror that. I hesitate to write this, but I hope that you’ll understand what I am saying. There are certain patterns that we talk about amongst birthing people: first-timers go 40+ weeks and have long births. Second and third babies come faster, because your body has been here before and knows what to do. Inductions may take 24 hours to really start working. The truth is, there is no way to know. Keeping in contact with your birth family and the doula you are backing up will help you gauge how quickly labor is progressing, so that you can time your arrival accordingly.

  1. Updating the primary doula.

In my training with the Birthworkers of Color Collective, we were taught to take copious notes while in the birth space. This is helpful while in the labor and delivery room, and afterwards when you are updating the primary doula. If there were any complications, or potentially traumatic moments, you will want to replay these scenarios for them so they can implement any harm reduction practices. I usually send a long text message, or voice note.

  1. Postpartum visits.

To date, I have not done any postpartum visits with families for which I was the back-up doula. I do check in via text from time-to-time, if a relationship naturally develops. I feel secure leaving the client in the care of the primary doula after leaving the hospital.

As a final note, I’ll take some time to say this: when backing up another doula, trust yourself and be yourself. You were selected to step in and support the birthing person because you are a trusted member of the birth community. Outside of any differences discussed when comparing contracts, move the way you normally would in the space, taking care not to perform, but to compassionately sit ceremony with the folks you are working with.

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