“I always remind my Muslim clients that Maryam gave birth alone, under a tree,” says Jameella doula in North London, “with no pain relief. She put her faith in Allah (SWT), which is ultimately what we’re doing.”
Maryam (AS) is an inspiring example of faith and fortitude, one we should all try to emulate, but for most of us, birthing a child is a prospect too daunting to face alone. A doula can help us experience the same trust and peace that soothed and guided Maryam (AS) as she gave birth to Prophet Isa (AS).
A doula is a trained female labour attendant (sometimes called a birth partner), who assists a pregnant woman during the latter stages of pregnancy, during the birthing process and in the postnatal period. Doulas cater to the very broad spectrum of a woman’s needs during this very crucial time in her life and the life of her baby, complementing midwives and medical personnel by making mothers feel supported, informed, and nurtured.
Women who use them often insist that doulas are not only complementary but also practically indispensable. Clinical trials report that steady help from a doula before, during, and after childbirth is correlated with significant reductions in pain, length and severity of labour, the use of forceps, Caesarean sections, fetal distress and incidents of neonatal intensive care. Women also report a happier birth experience if a doula is in attendance, and studies show better long-term outcomes—more successful breastfeeding, for one. Results are particularly significant for young women of humble circumstances.
“From the 38th week of pregnancy, I’m on call 24/7 until the labour begins,” says Jameella, “ or until the mother feels labour is beginning. We discuss her needs as well as any concerns or fears she may have and how she can best address them. I usually visit her two or three times, either in her home or somewhere else—we might, for example, make a tour of a birth centre or labour ward.”
“I remain with the mother throughout labour, as a reassuring presence. After the birth, I stay with her, helping her get comfortable and breastfeed if she wishes. I also work with families in the postnatal period, doing whatever the family needs, kind of like a fairy—I swoop in and empty the dishwasher, run a warm bath, or watch the baby while mum takes an uninterrupted nap. Of course every family is different, and I adapt to their care needs.”
Becoming a doula
What does it take to become a doula? The role demands a certain type of character and attitude. “Being a doula is very rewarding, but it’s not for everyone,” Jameella points out. “Being calm when people around are afraid or stressed is vital. You must also be caring and loving, without bias or prejudice.”
Jameella, an Irish-Moroccan who reverted to Islam ten years ago, was prepared for the doula’s life by a special kind of background. Having four children of her own, a family numerous by modern standards, she is at the diminutive end of a line of fertile women; one of her grandmothers had ten children and the other fourteen. Jameella herself was the oldest of five children.
“I remember Mum preparing for the births of my youngest siblings. She was a great believer in natural childbirth. I read all her pregnancy booklets and went with her to her midwife appointments as a child. I also learned to care for my siblings and was always comfortable with newborns.”
When Jamella was still a teenager, a BBC documentary called Birth Reborn, about the work of French natural childbirth pioneer Michael Odent, set her on the doula road. This was the beginning of what was to become not just an occupation but also an impassioned and meaningful life mission.
The training and mentoring of a doula
It wasn’t long before she was training under Odent himself. “Back in 2006, I was fortunate enough to attend a course he ran in London for women wanting to learn about the needs of a mother in labour.”
“I’m now a member of Doula UK, a non profit organisation of doulas. I’m following their mentoring program. I have many wonderful wise women I can turn to if a client has an issue I haven’t come across before.”
Doula training is always a work in progress, dependent on the wisdom of countless other women, past and present. “I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but if I don’t know I will do my best to find out! Doulas are never finished training—it’s something we constantly do to improve birth experiences for women. We must have open minds and be ready to learn new ways of doing things.”
“Being present at a birth is always a huge honour,” says Jameella, “and I cry every time at the sheer wonder of Allah’s (SWT) creation. Seeing a woman who doubted her ability to birth her child become a wonderfully empowered mother is also the greatest part of my job. My beliefs have a massive affect on my work; knowing that Allah (SWT) is in control is always a comfort.”
“My most beneficial experience was having my own children. I’ve had four natural,
unassisted births with no stitches. My youngest was born in the birth pool, and I brought him to the surface myself; he was born with his membranes intact. It was absolutely amazing. I want every woman to have that feeling.”
As you can imagine, events so momentous as assisting the birth of a child can also be draining, and leisure activities must be carefully chosen. “It’s intense work,” says Jameella; “I feel like I give a bit of my soul during every birth I attend, and it generally takes me a few days to get back to normal. On my time off I love to read, and gardening is very relaxing for me though I’m not very good at it! I’m a massive film buff and watch a film at the cinema once a week. I also walk everywhere—it clears my head.”
When trouble looms
The presence of a doula is known to reduce the number of birthing crises but not eliminate them entirely. “Sometimes,” says Jameella, “no matter how hard we work, plan, and prepare, a birth can become an emergency.”
In precarious situations, some hospital staff report conflicts with some doulas who try to overrule them on safety issues. But Jameella has an accommodating approach and strives to work with all the professionals involved to ensure the best possible outcomes for mother and baby. In return she receives the staff’s cooperation.
“I’m not medically trained, and I’m always in awe of how efficiently a medical team can come together to rescue a distressed baby. And even though they can’t offer the emotional care a doula gives, midwives are amazing. Every midwife I’ve worked with has been positive regarding my role as a doula, though our jobs are completely different.”
The client’s family members never trouble her either. “I never get in the way of family members; I’m there for the mother and having me around takes the pressure off dad or the client’s own mother. It can be very difficult to watch a loved one going through the pain of labour, but I’m comfortable around labouring women.”
“Knowing when to step away is also important; I’m working to empower women, not to make them reliant upon me. Every birth belongs to the mother and the child, and it’s not my place to tell them how to do things. When I sign off a postnatal client and walk away leaving a happy, confident mother, I know I’ve done my job.”