are you experienced?

I’ve been a fan of Dan Savage for decades, from back when he was just a fledgling sex advice columnist in the alternative papers (Kansas City’s Pitch!) truly opening the eyes of this midwestern girl. I still have the book he signed for me in 1999. I love that he’s taken on the podcast medium where I can still enjoy him on a weekly basis.

Recently* he had a call from a guy who was very interested in a woman but concerned that she was inexperienced sexually. Would she be clumsy and awful in bed? Would he have to spend his time teaching her? Basically, was it going to be an annoying waste of his time?

Dan’s answer was that experience doesn’t matter. Someone could be a bedroom newbie, or have a Guinness Book record number of partners, and it says nothing about your chemistry with that person. Experience and fit are not related. You either click and it’s amazing or you don’t! There is only one way to find out if you’re a match. If it feels right, take the plunge.

The same is true when choosing your doula. Experience doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if she’s worked with your doctor or midwife. It doesn’t matter if she’s ever set foot in your hospital or birth center.

As we were watching the World Series a few weeks back, I asked my husband what he thought—does number of births make a better doula? He didn’t hesitate and responded, “It doesn’t matter! I could step in and hit a home run as a rookie, or as a 38 year old about to retire. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been out there, it’s your approach to things.”

Other recent examples:

  • A friend who desperately wanted a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) dumped a newer doula she loved for one with extensive VBAC experience at her provider’s urging. She got the VBAC, but her doula was annoying and pushy and took away from the experience more than she helped.
  • At the very first birth I attended as a doula, the nurse told me that I was one of the best doulas she’d ever seen.
  • A doula who has attended hundreds of births over the years recently told me, “I am no better a doula than I was at my very first birth.”

So why do so many of the “how to choose a doula” articles tell you to ask how many births the doula has attended?

Well, it is something to ask. It’s something that can be measured. Culturally, we’re more comfortable with numbers than amorphous things like emotions and chemistry. But why? What information does number of births tell you? It tells you how many births a doula has attended. That’s it. No more, no less.

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

In fact, one of the first lessons I learned as a doula was to not bring the previous births I’d attended into the room. It serves no one. I usually forget which hospital I’m in or if I’ve met this doctor before. Why? Because this client in this moment for this birth—that is my focus. That is what counts.

However, there may be another reason these articles suggest these questions. In an outdated approach, doulas were taught and believed they were protecting women from doctors and hospitals, trying to help them “achieve” a certain type of birth seen as better. In this case, maybe number of births and experience with certain hospitals or providers would matter, since the doula would be trying to game the system or whatever. As you can guess, that is not my take.

So what does an amazing doula do instead?

  • works with you and for you, the client
  • facilitates positive relations with the medical staff
  • tunes in to and supports you (and your partner, if applicable) in having your best birth experience
  • checks her biases at the door to support you fully without judgement
  • makes sure you are getting the information you need, are physically comfortable, and coping well emotionally

Attunement—compassion, respect, emotional intelligence—this cannot be taught. (We can be taught how to better apply our ability to attune to the birth environment.)

Then how do you choose a doula? Meet her virtually or in person to see how you connect. Ask about her approach to this work and her training. Most importantly, do a gut check after your conversation. Did you click? Your connection is the single most important factor in choosing your doula. This will tell you if it makes sense to take the plunge in working together or not, whether she’s fresh out of training or has attended a hundred births. Good luck!

Further Reading:

5 Better Questions to Ask a Potential Doula

Attunement vs. Experience

*The question comes up about 6:35 into this episode of the Savage Lovecast.

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