My oldest son wants to be a doula.
“Can boys be doulas?” he asks me shyly as we’re driving down Main Street in the car one day. We have some of our best talks in the car–I think it has something to do with not having to make eye contact. He is, after all, a small man.
“Sure,” I say, sneaking a peek in the rearview mirror. “It’s pretty unusual, most doulas are women, but there are some boy doulas.”
He smiles to himself. “I’m going to be a doula.”
When I first started out in this work, I had great dreams for this boy. He was five. I talked with him very openly about birth and how important it was, how the way that a mommy was treated when she was having her babies could help her be the best mommy she could be, or it could contribute to her getting sick and having a harder time taking care of her babies. He started telling people what I do–his most spectacular “outreach” of this kind was when an economist from the Federal Reserve visited his classroom and asked what the kids’ parents did. Completely ignoring my husband’s “real job,” this sweet, bright, sincere child stood up and said, “My mom is a doula.”
To which the Federal Reserve economist replied, “What’s a doula?” And my son told her.
As he got older, I explained to him about interventions in general terms, and the common belief that birth is inherently dangerous and scary, and how that is not usually the case. He understood and started schooling people on the use of routine interventions. And (since he also loves science) I started imagining him as a renegade OB, the kind we doulas love–the kind who, faced with a mom pregnant with twins or with a breech baby, says in her first appointment, “Of course you can try it vaginally.”
Instead, after one doulas’ association meeting which he spent stamping paper gift bags for a giveaway event, this conversation in the car on Main Street.
So I told him about dude-las. He said, “I don’t like the word ‘dude-la.’ I want to be a DOULA.” Fair enough.
A year later, when we were planning for our third son to be born at home, he lobbied long and hard to be allowed to witness it. And, after much discussion with our midwife and the other couples in the homebirth support group, we agreed.
I talked with him about staying calm and quiet, about rubbing the mommy’s back, about the probability of blood (with a pale face: “Blood? I don’t like blood.” And there went my renegade OB dreams!). And on the night I went into labor, he positively VIBRATED with excitement–sitting at the table with us, helping his dad fill the birth tub, playing cards with his doula (because any child present at a birth needs to have a dedicated support person). One of the myriad memories I have of that night is of my thrilled little guy’s voice exclaiming, “I can see the head!” just before he decided that was enough graphic birth for him and retreated to sit on the camel saddle in the corner.
A lot of people (mostly older, conservative relatives) have given us grief for talking openly with our son about birth and women’s bodies and for allowing him to be present when his brother was born. Some are appalled when he talks about being a doula or asks if they’ve heard any good birth stories recently. We live in a culture that devalues these things on a regular basis, and that is why we are raising our boys to respect women’s choices and abilities, to see the sacredness of life, and to understand the importance of holism: of treating people not as machines that “malfunction” when things don’t go according to plan, but as real, complex beings with inner lives that affect how they act in the world.
After the baby was out that night, when we were settled down nursing in bed, my big boy brought the baby a picture he’d drawn. Leaning over us, he put one hand on the baby’s head and one hand, shyly, on my shoulder.
“I want to be a doula,” he whispered.
“You are,” I whispered back.