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Where did the term birth doula come from?

In my last post I discussed the idea of community and this idea of stories and wisdom being passed down between family and community members. In this post I want to talk about how this, to me, ties back to birth and postpartum doula work.

In my personal journey, my arrival at this line of work, as a birth and poastpartum doula as well as social worker, was a direct response to deep soul questions I had for myself, stories I was missing that I didn’t know to ask for, wisdom that I didn’t know how to quantify, but that was guiding me in a certain direction. It is still guiding me, and I am still seeking. My Doula work is my connection back to the original source of community, and back to that knowledge. It is so much more than pregnancy, and birth, and babies (although this is certainly a big part of it!)

pregnant woman on beach with sunset in background

So, where did birth doulas historically begin anyway? Well, if we look at it from the lens of western culture, the term Doula was first identified by anthropologist Dr. Dana Raphael in an anthropological study written in 1969. She used the term “Doula” to describe a female caregiver  during labour and childbirth, she described this person as “mothering the mother” And she believed that the role of the “doula” was associated with more successful breastfeeding.

What I find most beautiful about the movement that ensued is that this community of doulas grew from the inner depth of women’s circles, to the large communities that have grown now all over the world.

To go back in time a bit, although this may have been the first time this term was used to represent what traditionally a doula means today, the role itself is nothing new. For generations and centuries people were supported in childbirth and postpartum by the women in their families and communities. The techniques and tools may have (at times) looked different, as obviously the needs of our communities are always changing ,however the general role they were meant to fulfill was similar (although now of course being a birth doula is a profession).

But, let’s move back to the time of Dr. Dana Raphael, what was happening that catalyzed this need for people to rise up in the community as “birth doulas”. The care of childbirth had been transitioning away from birthing in home settings, with midwives, to having doctors attending births, and eventually primarily moving to hospitals. There’s more though, the way society looked was also changing, with industrialization the sense of “community” was getting bigger, people started to spend more time commuting to and being at work, to buy homes away from family, therefore spending less time with family etc. This development brought with it some improvements to care, but it also stripped away the community and support that existed around birthing people and new families. Birth doulas as far as I see it were and are a form of activism, a fight back to those original ideals.

Now, no one is suggesting for us to go back in time because there have been many lessons learned and improvements in medical care that is revolutionizing the experience people have, and in some cases keeping people alive. What I always say is, we should be seeking the perfect marriage between medical intervention and knowledge and knowledge of how to support healthy bodies and healthy families that travels back to our ancestors.

So, to me, birth (and postpartum) doulas are a remnant of a past that goes much further back than 1969, but to truly ancestral times and communities.

Leave a comment below to tell me what your thoughts are on this transition!

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