Sophie Messager is a birth and postnatal doula based in Cambridge. Sophie also offers one-to-one birth preparation, antenatal breastfeeding preparation, sling consultations, optimal fetal positioning/spinning babies techniques, as well as workshops for doulas and parents, Closing the Bones massage and workshops, Rebozo workshops, Babywearing workshops, Reiki treatments and workshops.
When I started my journey as a doula, I took a Doula UK Approved Course (with Developing Doulas), and joined Doula UK. It didn’t really occur to me at the time that there was another option, i.e. that of not being a member of the association.
I have been a doula for six years now and I’d like to reflect on what being a member of the association has meant for me, and what I have found the advantages to be.
First of all, when I became a new doula, there were lots of questions I needed to ask the doula community. Practical questions around managing childcare and the on-call period, or more emotional ones like managing my own feelings after supporting a difficult birth.
I wasn’t alone managing all this. All new Doula UK doulas are mentored by an experienced doula who has applied to become a Mentor. To become a Mentor a doula has to demonstrate sufficient experience, a deep understanding of the doula role, and have the right human qualities to be able to support new doulas.
My relationship with my mentor, Suzanne Howlett, was wonderful. She was incredibly supportive, wise, kind, and provided guidance in a way that was empowering and helped me develop my own way of doing things. There was never an aura of guru about her, and she never told me to do things like she did. I loved every minute of being mentored. Doula UK Approved Courses’ training providers cannot mentor their own trainees – something I was dismayed about when I found out I couldn’t be mentored by my beloved Maddie McMahon who had been my doula and my doula trainer. But I soon found out that I had the best of both worlds – still being able to reach out to Maddie for informal support, but having Suzanne as my official mentor. I got the wisdom of two experienced doulas and would have not developed the wonderful relationship I had with Suzanne had this not been in place. I also now completely understand that it isn’t a good idea for Course Providers to mentor their own doulas, as they would likely be biased towards their own trainees.
As well as my mentor, I had access to two amazing doula communities : my local one, with both virtual groups and face to face meetings, and the wider, Doula UK community of c.700 members. This meant that I could ask questions to a very wide range of doulas, and the online community also meant being able to find an immediate answer, even in the middle of the night whilst supporting a birth. There were very experienced doulas in both communities and newer ones too. Doulas freely give support and time to one another this way, something I find incredibly heartening.
Since I left science to become a doula and antenatal teacher, I have never found a community less judgmental and more supportive as the doula community.
As I have gained my own experience, I have also come to recognise that whilst I am no longer officially mentored, I often reach out to the doula community for informal mentoring and debriefing when I need it during or after supporting a family through birth or the postnatal period. Others do it for me, and I also do it for others. We all provide this service for free.
I remember going to teach a workshop to a new community of doulas a couple of years ago. They had been trained by a brand new doula course, one that wasn’t recognised by Doula UK (there are nine Doula UK approved courses at this time – a brilliant range of choices). As we chatted, as I discovered that not only they were a tiny group but they would also be mentored by their trainers. I felt a bit sad for them that they would be missing out on a much bigger community to learn from and lean on.
As I became more experienced I began to provide support and help answer questions from other doulas too – somehow giving back to the community. It felt really good to be able to do that.
As well as the live and virtual community, Doula UK provides amazing events such as the conference, and an annual retreat. I have attended both for the last six years and I can trace back many of the techniques I now teach and utilise with clients to some of these events.
We also have regional meetings and an Annual General Meeting, which are good opportunities to catch up on the association’s activities, and with other doulas too.
I remember a particular AGM when I was quite new, and after the meeting we had a skills sharing session and, thanks to Bridget Baker I first learnt to use a rebozo on a pregnant woman that day and loved it (I now teach these techniques myself).
We have monthly e-News and a gorgeous magazine, in which I now find myself being a regular contributor – again it feels wonderful to be able to pay it forward like this.
We have a Code of Conduct we all abide by, and as a big organisation we carry weight, which can be incredibly useful in difficult situations, for example when a hospital decided to apply a one partner only rule during a flu outbreak, a letter from the organisation got the hospital to reinstate doula support on top of having one partner – something I doubt individuals would be able to achieve.
We have a complaints procedure in place, and this means that if for example, clients are unhappy about their doula’s services, they can at least discuss this with a third party. Outside of the association, should this happen, parents have no recourse other than going down the legal route.
For more than ten years the Access Fund project provided free doulas to women in need, and is in the process of being transformed into a charity
After five years as a doula, I wanted to give back even more to the community and became a Doula Mentor. As I started mentoring new doulas, I found myself encountering the same kind of newbie questions I had when I started doulaing : how do you do this, what do you do in such and such situations etc. So I reached out to the 60 odd group of Doula UK Mentors. Once again I found an incredibly supportive community of experienced and newer Mentors, and I found the same kind of freely-given support. I found this kind of support absolutely priceless.
It’s a wonderful model of community that works in collaborative instead of competitive ways.
We are all independent, individual doulas. We each have our own ways of doulaing. We are all passionate, vocal women with diverse backgrounds and views. But as a group we support one another, we stand shoulder to shoulder, and we generally provide a supportive experience that I have found absolutely incredible and wouldn’t have missed for the world.
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