Creating a Sustainable Doula Practice
It was 2013 and I was working as a solo doula full time, taking anywhere from 3-6 clients a month. I loved the work, but it was slowly dawning on me that it didn't feel sustainable and if I kept at that pace, I would get burnt out and soon. I wondered how I could find a way to still take a full client load, but also build in self-care and off-call time. It was around that same time that I started to see some of the more seasoned doulas in the area (I was in San Francisco at the time) begin to pair up.
I was intrigued and started to talk about it with my dear friend and fellow doula, Heather. We decided to give it a try and start taking a few clients together.
But how should we set up our business? It seemed that each of the partnerships in our area had a different approach and so we needed to spend some time thinking about what would work for us.
THE DIFFERENT STRUCTURES OF DOULA PARTNERSHIPS
Some partnerships set up their on-call time as two weeks on/two weeks off. In other words, if a client goes into labor during your on-call time, you were solely responsible for that client. And whoever was off-call, remained so. The benefit of this model is that when you were off-call, it was a true break; you could relax and enjoy the time to breathe and stay up late (because you wanted to), have that second glass of wine, or go on a hike where you have no reception and not worry about it one bit. But there were a couple of reasons that this model didn't speak to me or my partner. What if there was an especially long birth or multiple clients in labor at the same time? A backup doula would need to be secured in such a circumstance, and it wouldn't be someone the client already knows. We also heard stories of partnerships where for several months in a row, all of the clients were going into labor during the on-call time of the same doula and so she was the only one attending births. Does she then receive the bulk of the compensation? How sustainable was that for either doula?
Other partnerships use the model where whoever is the most fresh goes to attend the birth and then remains with that client throughout. This means you don't have off-call time, but that you can take more clients per month and then use one another as backup for long births. Another benefit is that you can split the prenatal meetings so that each doula does one prenatal with the client. The client gets to know each doula equally and the doulas have a little more free time.
As Heather and I considered the various structures out there, we knew we wanted to try to find a model that was a blend of allowing for off-call time, while also building in support for each other. We decided to try shift work and quickly realized that the benefits weren't just for us, but for our clients as well.
THE SHIFT MODEL
When taking a full load of clients each month, you have lots of consults and prenatal meetings to attend each week. We decided to split up the prenatal meetings so that we each had one meeting with each client. Then, regarding on-call time, we worked in daytime/nighttime shifts during the week, and 24 hour shifts over the weekend. This allowed us to be rested and continue to take care of the things in our lives that get left behind when headed to a birth. It also meant that we could actually go out and enjoy a date night on occasion or plan to be home for one of our kids' birthday parties. We also quickly realized that it meant that our client always had a RESTED doula by her side.
Not all births are long, but it is well within the range of normal for a first-time mother to have a labor that lasts over 24 hours. As a doula, if you are with a client for a long stretch, it can be challenging to be at your best when you are utterly exhausted. It is such a gift to be able to provide fresh support to families, and sometimes, a fresh perspective, too.
THE MANY BENEFITS
There is more to partnership than just being able to get rest and have off-call time. For example, as doulas, we each have different strengths and experiences which allows for a collaborative approach to supporting our clients' various needs and circumstances. Also, as newer doulas quickly realize, having someone with whom you can debrief after a birth is hugely important and a big part of self-care. And of course, because we are both familiar with the client, we can text one another and get ideas or input on things to try or suggest during the birth itself. This built-in collaboration allows us as doulas to feel supported and encouraged, which lends itself to our ultimate goal, which is to provide the BEST POSSIBLE support for our clients.
A NEW PARTNERSHIP
I moved to San Diego after my second daughter was born. It was hard to leave my amazing doula partner behind but I wanted to raise my girls near my husband's family and so off to sunny San Diego we went. It meant though, that I needed to find another partner as I simply couldn't imagine going back to solo doula work after experiencing (and witnessing) all the many benefits to partner work.
It was around that same time that I received an inquiry from Dara The Doula. She was reaching out to see if we could have coffee together as she makes it a point to meet other like-minded birth workers. She values feeling connected with others in her field, and understands the importance of quality back-up for coexisting births. As we sipped on homemade turmeric tea and shared bits of dark chocolate, we shared our birth stories and played with my little girls. The connection we shared was clear and immediate, and soon we began chatting about the possibility of working in a partnership in the future.
As we enter each other's worlds as birth workers, and weave our strengths into a collaborative practice, I increasingly appreciate the partnership model, and the ability to navigate this precious work SUSTAINABLY and SUPPORTED.